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October 23, 2010

Of all the characters in the Hobbit, my favorite side-character is Beorn. Does it get any better than being a giant man that has a ranch full of animal servants, and getting to turn into a giant bear? He does make me a little nervous though. You’re never quite sure whether he’s your friend or not. Gandalf and the dwarves seem to have gotten lucky (very lucky) to have received the help they did. But I have to say that the chapter of the Hobbit that introduces us to Beorn, his compound and the animals that live there, is one of my favorite parts of the story. It’s like an oasis of peace and security in a land of danger and chaos.

During my reading of The Hobbit to my girls, I started thinking about some of the not-so subtle nuances of Beron’s personality. Gandalf starts off by warning the dwarves that Beorn does not like guests, and they need to be on their best manners. Even if they are, they may not get more than chased off his doorstep. In fact, Gandalf has to tell the story of their journey in such a way as to trick him into showing their company hospitality. Once Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves are in his house, Beorn himself warns them not to go outside at night, because they are in danger if they do. After they leave with provisions and lent ponies, Bilbo notices that Beorn is following them, in the shape of a bear. When he asks Gandalf about it, he is told not to take notice. When Gandalf finally explains it, he tells the company that if they thought about crossing Beorn and keeping the ponies, he’d probably turn on them as a deadly enemy.

Sometimes I think this is the way we see God. He doesn’t really like people to bug Him for stuff. If we are lucky or clever, we might talk Him into helping us, against His better judgement. Even if we do get on the inside, we are in peril if we step outside. Not only all that, but He is watching us all the time; if we keep our end of a bargain we are safe, but try to pull one over on God, and He is now our enemy; woe to us!

Now, I don’t think there are many that really think God hates them, but with an understanding of God and His Wrath against sin, we tend to think His wrath extends to us ourselves. Even though I know God sent His Son into the world out of love, I have tended to feel that God really despised me when I fell into sin. I have to admit that I have had trouble reconciling God’s wrath against sin, and His love for me through Christ. Was Christ like Gandalf, who “tricks” God into forgiving me? Would God pounce on me if I dared to not keep my word? Over the years I have come to learn the difference between God’s chastening and God’s wrath, but there are times when I still wonder. Maybe I just play head-games with myself…

Like many things I have learned from the Orthodox Church, I have learned about the kindness of God. Not that God is perceived as unkind to Protestants. What I am saying is that the things I have learned from the Church have really helped to solidify my understanding of the love of God for mankind.

The prayers of the Church contain all her doctrine and dogma. In the prayers we call God  the Lover of mankind, man befriending God, merciful, gracious, good and kind. We contrast our great sinfulness by praising God for His great mercy. We acknowledge our utter unworthiness, but glorify Him for counting us and making us worthy. In the prayers of preparation for receiving the Eucharist we declare that we are overcome by our sin, but God in His kindness makes us worthy to partake of the most holy mystery, and purifies us from within.

While I have never been made more aware of the depths to which sin and hypocrisy dragged me down in the prayers of the Church, I have never been to the heights of glory in the grace and love of God for me and all mankind, as found in the prayers, hymns and canons of the Church. In the movie Ostrov, Father Anatoly goes to his solitary island to beg and weep for God’s mercy, because he believes he killed his skipper back in 1942. He is plagued by this for more than 30 years. For all this agony he tells a young boy who is brought in by his mother to have his hip healed,  “Pray to God and ask him to heal your leg. He will hear you, He is Kind.”

What a paradox this is. Great grief at our own sin, but great relief at he boundless grace and mercy of God.

Of Course the Holy Scriptures are full of this kind of paradox. In the Old Testament we seem to have God telling Israel that He will destroy them if they sin, that even their righteous is called filthy rags. Yet the Prophet Jeremiah, who also predicts great suffering and destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, speaks of God having a plan for the good of Israel, and not for their destruction (Jeremiah 29:11). In the New Testament, Christ Himself judges no one, and shows kindness to all, yet calls the leaders of Israel whitewashed tombs that are full of death. He tells Peter that the Heavenly Father revealed His identity to him, but in a moment is called Satan. Paul tells us of the super-abounding grace of God towards us, but tells that we need to be holy, because of the “terror of the Lord.”

One thing that I learned when I first began to learn about the theology of the Orthodox Church is that all the paradoxes in Scripture are interpreted in the light of God’s grace and kindness, never in the light of judgement. And so I come to God in prayer, knowing that He forgives all my sins, that He shares His very life with me, and transforms me into the very image of His Son. So even in the deepest grief over sin, we can come to the Throne of Grace, knowing that He is good, and the lover of mankind.

Lord Have Mercy…

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