Thursday, January 31, 2008

Do Orthodox "Know the Gospel"?

The following is a comment I left on Jim's blog HERE. It's a fine post he's written, and I'd recommend reading it for context as to what I'm about to place (slightly modified) here.

I confess to being an AFR junkie; it’s almost all I listen to on my iPod. I am particularly fond of Dr. Bradley Nassif. I may not respond with such vehemency as he has to the state of Orthodox clergy, but I do see -- and I'm not alone in this -- a need for increased awareness not only of the content of Scripture among the faithful, but of the central, saving message of the gospel.

I think the awareness of the need for this within the Church is (at least) several decades old; Father Alexander Schmemann wrote of his own awareness of it in the seventies. Father Tom Hopko states repeatedly that “it’s all about God,” and not anything else. So folks in the “upper eschelons” of the Church here in America are aware that, when folks don’t know the basic Bible Story characters in the OT, or don’t know any of the parables of Christ, then something is wrong.

Granted, in my time as a Southern Baptist growing up, I met my fair share of similarly disinterested youth (and adults!) who came on Sunday morning and little else (or, if the youth came more often, it was for social purposes only; they seemed bored to tears during the worship and “sermonette” time). So I don’t want to come across as too one-sided.

Ultimately, though, I think what folks in the West are dealing with is (surprise, surprise!) two different extremes. On the one hand, the Evangelical world that dominates our American (and, in particular, southern) culture is severely truncated in its gospel message. Redemption, according to this particular stripe of Christianity, is seen almost always as a forensic “statement of intention” on God’s part, and nothing more. The Son has changed the Father’s mind about us through a contract written in Blood, so we have an ironclad guarantee that moves the Father’s hand away from the gate to paradise so that we can be allowed — snow-covered dung though we still are — to enter heaven. The Father looks on us with favor instead of vindictive wrath now, and all sin (whether it actually is still present in our hearts post-profession of faith) is forgotten by God, and we are granted passage to heaven. This gospel message is preached, long, loud and strong by Evangelicals, though without my post-convert ramifications added, I’m sure.

On the other hand, we have the Orthodox, whose idea of salvation is a body/soul/spirit infusion of the very life of God into the believer, and is rooted not only in Calvary, but in the Manger, the Mount Tabor, the Empty Tomb, the Mount of Olives (Ascension). The entire advent of Christ thus brings man from ontological death to actual life through a life-long cooperation with divine grace. This idea is intertwined in every hymn, every fast, every Scripture reading, every sacrament, to such a degree that we have at our disposal the most thorough Bible commentary and study resource available to mankind. The simple message at the core of all of our often “over-byzantined” worship, however — that “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first” — though it be prayed in every divine liturgy, is quite often missed, the forest of this glorious statement being looked over for love of all the trees (icons, vestment and chant styles, rubrics, ethnic social activities, language issues, and more).

What this leads to, then, is Evangelicals looking at us and saying, “I like the way I do it better than the way you don’t.” Hmm. Harsh, but perhaps something we need to keep in mind. As Father Tom states in his talk on the book of St. John’s Apocalypse, everything in our worship service is meant to point us to the revelation of Jesus Christ. That’s why the Gospel and the Eucharist are the two ways in which Christ is brought out to us in the Divine Liturgy; He is revealed in the Apocalypse as the Word of God (the Gospel) and as the Lamb of God (the Eucharist). St. Ignatius, I believe, stated that our teaching is in agreement with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching (I may be misquoting this; if so, forgive me and, please, correct the quote in the comments, as I can't seem to google it at the moment). Both the didactic proclamation of the good news given through hearing the written Word of God through reading and worship, as well as the intimate, physical, sacramental acts that unify us — body, soul and spirit — to our Incarnate Lord are needed to bring us into a holistic union with Him. It’s not that the Orthodox Way has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it’s been found difficult and left untried.

This faith is, let me say again, much harder than what Evangelicalism teaches. This may seem overtly hostile to many devout Evangelicals, and I am aware of many Evangelical groups that stress holiness of life and struggle against what we Orthodox call "the passions," but I believe this to be in spite of their soteriology, not because of it. God will not “guarantee” or “make” good works come out of someone. No false comfort is given to someone in the Orthodox Church to make him think that “he’s already believed, so good works will, ultimately, come”; God will never override free will and, as such, we must never be haughty, but fear, as our God, the Consuming Fire, will appear, and those of us who’ve loved His appearing will be purified in glory, while those of us who did not conform ourselves to Christ in spite of the grace given to us — perhaps even through laziness or a false sense of security brought on by all this “I know that I’m saved!” talk — will wish the rocks to fall on us.

This is another facet of the Gospel that the Orthodox Church preaches, yet I thank God that Her saints bear witness that our God loves mankind more than anything else and, though He will not ever trespass our free will in order to monergistically “establish good works,” always wills that we (continually!) repent and (continually!) come to the knowledge of the Truth.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Carlton's Open Letter

For those who haven't read it yet, Dr. Clark Carlton has written an Open Letter to Orthodox Christians on Behalf of Ron Paul's candidacy for President.

I offer my "Amen," and an invitation for you to read it, as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Eucharist: The Embodiment of Truth

Father Stephen Freeman has a post that got me thinking about the Eucharist, which is, more than anything else, what drew me out of where I was as an Evangelical and made me hungry for something more -- the reality of God in this physical plane. I constantly tell folks that the main reason I joined the Orthodox Church was that, when I looked at the bishops of the first and second centuries AD, then re-read the Scriptures in light of their consensus, I came away with a drastically different view of what the reality of being "in Christ" actually means.

The Eucharist (no pun intended) embodies that reality. This is not something that can be "reformed," "rediscovered," or "recreated." It's either a reality that exists within a given community as the ultimate gift of God, the ultimate testament to a "one-storey universe" -- or it doesn't. And it doesn't--it can't!--exist just because such-and-such a group says they've "got it." There were (and are) certain qualifications for being a truly eucharistic fellowship and gathering -- all of which qualifications (the apostolic laying on of hands, the physical transmission of the faith from bishop to bishop, from babushka to baby, and others) are themselves also beautifully organic. These seeming limitations, supposedly confining God's saving presence in physical boundaries, nevertheless bring us to the realization that Christ's Church is, that it is to be joined, and that it cannot be manufactured. It is not a matter of parsing apart theological positions to ensure the "validity" of some self-made community's communion service. This reality of the presence of the God Who Is and Who Is with us -- is not something we make, but (to paraphrase Rich Mullins here) is something which is making us, which was given to mankind from the Outside, to be taken into our inside (not merely the stomach but also our heart of hearts), and which cannot be separated from the eternal life of our Creator, the One Who Gives.

I remember my moment of realization, when I realized that my assent to this Church of God made no difference. When I looked at an icon of the Theotokos and Child, the border of which was surrounded by saints that were (at that time) completely unknown to me, I realized that this Church has been what it's been for 2,000 years and has gotten along just fine without my approval -- or even my knowledge of its existence, for that matter. It was I who needed Her, not the other way around. I needed Her to give me the Bridegroom's Flesh and Blood, for it was to Her that such saving antidotes to the death that reigns in my members had been given.

I know the common cliché is that Evangelicals tend to stress "knowledge about God" whereas Orthodox actually "know God" through sacrament and living the Holy Spirit's life in the Church -- and, granted, the cliché can get far too simplistic if we make it the soundbyte I've seen it become in certain places -- but the flesh-to-flesh encounter with our Lord is too intimate to be excluded from our walk with Him. Christ, found in the Eucharist and received in faith by those united with Him in His death, is the seed of immortality that will blossom forth on the Last Day and give us Life (John 6:54) -- it is through this that the mortal puts on immortality (1 Cor. 15:54).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Masters of Harmony, Indeed

Those of you who know me will not be at all surprised that I absolutely loved this. "Time After Time" chokes me up every time I play this. Musical theater was a part of my life all growing up; I miss it terribly. To watch these strong-voiced men, from the twentysomethings to the (looks like) septuagenarians, uniting as one voice and one body and having a BLAST doing it...sigh.

Memories...enjoy, y'all.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lee's and King's Birthdays

We were on the road for the long weekend, so I missed my usual yearly post for this. HERE is a nice, short memorial (and link) from someone not so otherwise occupied. It contains my favorite quote from this general:
“Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”
And another, circa 1856, four years before siding with the South after being offered command of the Northern armies:
"There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil."
Though some might wonder at this, I do believe the good general and the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have had held much in agreement regarding the nature of healing of race relations, particularly in the South, and particularly in terms of how violent intervention on the part of the government, regardless of its constitutionality, does nothing to win the hearts and minds of those it seeks to influence. In neither man's era was morality successfully legislated, but prayer (and both were men of prayer) has melted many a heart towards those of other colors.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Kerygma of the Wrist

Church school was last Saturday; seeing as how Theophany was the previous Sunday, I thought a lesson on baptism was apt, so...I came up with what you see to your right. You may have seen something like this before, perhaps slightly different. We not only made these, but "scavenger hunted" around the church grounds for the envelopes with certain colored beads (and the clue to finding the next color of bead) in them. The black and red are where I remember them being in Southern Baptist VBS -- the black being sin and death which, due to the Fall, casts us out of the Kingdom (Jn. 3:5); and the red being the bloody death of Christ in which we participate in baptism (Rom. 6:3-4a) -- but instead of the white bead following, the blue (baptism -- Acts 22:16) and yellow (the oil of chrismation -- Acts 2:38) followed, after which the resurrected life of Christ follows (Rom 6:4b). The purple (an Orthodox addition, to be sure) is the color of Great Lent in our parishes, representing a lifetime of repentance and laying hold of that for which Christ laid a hold of us (Phil. 3:12).

The serendipitous side effect of this has been multiple opportunities to interact with Hope, who likes to ask, "What black say? What red say?" and so on. If any readers ever get involved in a church school program, this might be a good, visual, and kinesthetic activity to do that illustrates how we are brought from death to life, from darkness to light--the kerygma, or basic gospel message of our faith.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Beginning with Wonder

Father Stephen's done it again with an excellent post on wonder as the necessary component of a sound, sane, Christian life (read it HERE). Reminded me of a post from a couple years back (HERE).

Monday, January 07, 2008

Christmas Gifts I Shall Enjoy

UPDATE: I received in the mail today the four volumes of the Blessed Theophylact's Explanation (seen left). They're softbound, but with care I think they'll hold up. I am quite excited about being able to read such a revered Orthodox commentary alongside the morning Gospel readings. Now if St. Tikhon's would just get those lectionary calendars sent out to our parish so I'd have the readings close at hand (cough, cough)...btw, for an excellent review of these volumes, click HERE for the Ochlophobist's always-eloquent thoughts.

From my sister-in-law...well, no, she didn't buy me the book to your right, but she got me the Barnes and Noble gift card with which I purchased said prize. I had borrowed this book about a year and a half ago and only now was getting around to reading it. I heartily recommend this book to anyone wanting to seek after the presence of God continually. Father Tom Hopko said that his mother told him the three things he was to do in order to encounter God in his life: Go to church; say your prayers, and never forget God. This "never forgetting God," traditionally, is done through the Jesus Prayer. The book The Art of Prayer goes into how the Jesus Prayer is meant as a tool for achieving a constant awareness of the presence of God who is everywhere and fills all things. What's wonderful about this anthology of quotes is that it is mindful of the "one thing needful"; it places a desire for the conscious awareness of God's presence at the center of one's life, and explicitly warns against those of us who would get caught up in "stylizations" such as types or length of prayer rules (or of prayer ropes, for that matter), the words of the prayer instead of the One invoked by said prayer, imaginations or physiological responses. The only thing a Christian should strive for is a constant understanding that God is present, and calling on the name of Jesus has done this for countless saints through the ages. I thoroughly enjoy this book and look forward to finishing it.

Every year my wife's family does a "white elephant" style gift exchange due to the sheer size of the family gathering. The men each bring a gift for a man, and the women bring one for a woman. As I spent the majority of my time at the gathering soothing and rocking a five-month old to sleep, I was unable to participate myself, but my wife, always one to look out for me, spied the BBQ utensils to your left and snatched them up for me. My old spatula and tongs were about to split from overuse, so these will be very useful (and will apparently last a good long while!) when I fire up the grill and send the aroma of seared cow flesh into the air in one of the most anticipated of all spring rituals. The budding of the branches in Spring, the warming of the air--all this is accompanied by the rebirth of the fire and the...urm...burnt...offerings? Well, not burnt...medium, medium well tops...

And what would all this pagan talk be without a libation offering? A colleague of mine and I recently sat down for a lengthy talk which included, among other things, various beverages of the alcoholic persuasion. He knew I have a fondness for Shiner beers and asked if I had ever tasted any of the commemorative brews (Shiner brews one every year and will brew their hundredth one next year!). I was not aware of this, sad to say, so neither did I know that, for the 1997 commemoration, a bohemian black lager was chosen as the brew o' the year. I was graced with a six-pack of these lovely longnecks and, while the flavor is definitely hoppy and dark, the bitterness and strong aftertaste usually associated with said black beers is notably absent. This is a smooth, enjoyable beer that will go well with any and all animals sacrificed to the aforementioned BBQ gods.

Quite grateful for all of these.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Icons, Icons, Everyone

A happy new year to all.

Firstly, please pray for the citizens of Kenya who, following a neck-and-neck election, suffered rioting and, most tragically of all, the death of dozens who were seeking sanctuary in a church (Story HERE). We Orthodox have been blessed with much growth in the Church in Africa in general, and Kenya in particular. Lord, have mercy.

Secondly, Fr. Stephen has just posted an excellent article on Iconoclasm and its persistence in history HERE. Worth a read, given what I'm about to post, as Fr. Stephen's posts are always much more eloquent and thorough than my ramblings...

The theme that caught my eye in Fr. Stephen's post is the same one that's been floating around for several weeks now: the theme of man as an icon of God, as the incarnate image of God. I remember when, a year or so ago, I read yesterday's gospel passage and had an epiphany of sorts that, truth be told, was embarrassing, since it took my becoming Orthodox to "get it," while there are many, many other Christians out there (I'm sure) who got it right away. The passage reads thus:

Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him
in His words. When they had come, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know that
You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men,
but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or
not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?"

But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test Me? Bring
Me a denarius that I may see it." So they brought it. And He said to them,
"Whose image and inscription is this?"

They said to Him, "Caesar's."

And Jesus answered and said to them,
"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are
God's." And they marveled at Him. (St. Mark 12:13-17).

Christ's rebuke places the emphasis on what it needs to be: man has lost the ability to lift himself, and all others, and all our lives up unto Christ our God, all the while thanking Him for a life in which he can know and be known by those who are outside of him, other than him, yet mystically be one with him. To take it that necessary step further, man no longer acknowledges that this life begins, abides, and finds its supreme end in mystical union with the One who is wholly Other, the One who is ever-apart yet breathtakingly imminent, the One who, in His artistry and craftmanship, bent over clay and breathed His icon into us. To borrow Chekov's phrase , the "blighted image" that we are now is an affront to that divine creativity and ends, of course, with everything from an impaling of the Firstfruit to a Tree to a burning of the brethren in Kenya.

We are commanded to "give honor to whom honor is due" by St. Paul, yet this in no way diminishes from the honor we are to give from God. "God is glorified in His saints," the Psalmist says--and here I cannot help but note the difference between the Greek text of the Old Testament and the Hebrew used by other communions: the Orthodox read God being glorified "in His holy ones" while other translations based on Hebrew declare God to be glorified "in His holy sanctuary" or "holy places"--certainly not with any other being, much less a created one! Yet it is this same psalmist who, as king, was honored along with God by the people of Israel -- truly, he was given glory for giving glory, and this was seen as good.

Fr. Stephen notes that iconoclasm usually is coupled with a stated "protection of God's honor." The gnostic heretics of the first few centuries of Christianity "protected" it from the appalling notion of God's taking onto himself matter, a body, which was considered beneath the Ideal One.

The iconoclastic heretics of the eighth and ninth centuries "protected" it from the idea that the Transcendent One could be physically depicted using physical means; such a "limitation," in their minds, circumscribed the uncircumscribable (though the Scriptures themselves bear witness to the fact that Christ Himself is the eikon tou theou -- the express image of the invisible God.

The puritans, as noted by Fr. Stephen, sought to purge England of statues, images, holy days, etc. This type of iconoclasm, begun by these reformers of reformers and contiunued on today, is a more developed iconoclasm which sought to destroy any sign of a "culture of faith" which carried the gospel. The faith, they said, could be (and must be) deconstructed and separated from any human cultural construct, since any contact with things not specifically mentioned in the pages of Holy Writ must needs be a corruption of the formerly pure expression of the faith (the fact that the faith honored and kept by Christ and passed onto the Apostles had undergone massive cultural influence from Persian and Babylonian sources somehow escaped them).

In this case, the "earthy," physical contribution of man through his art, through his music, through his architecture, was seen to be a suitable vehicle for communicating the faith through the world. Not the least of these things was seen to be the holy icons, whose "artistic language," developed over time, expressed the gospel in its fullness in spite of its not being explicitly delineated in Scripture and its being a development in which men played a part.
Icons are, truly, an incarnational expression of the faith, in which man has played a part in expressing the truth that Christ is, by nature, the glory of God made flesh, and the saints are, by grace, that same enfleshed glory. (Holy St. Seraphim, who in the flesh saw the light of Tabor, pray to God for us).

We are, in every aspect of our lives, to reflect this glory. Some things are already on their way -- for example, my friend and I were discussing the idea of the curandera in latin american cultures which has been largely ignored by the Roman Catholic Church. While we need to be careful of things which detract from the communication of the gospel (such as the syncretism that uses Christian forms to worship pagan gods which is prevalent in Latin America), we also need to be aware of things -- like, say, a trinitarian prayer for the healing of a sick person which is already in use by curanderas -- that could be "baptized" and used to communicate the faith to those who already have the cultural form available. Orthodox, not being so strictly tied to clerical necessity as the Roman Church tends to be (we can, for example, have laymen or lay monastics as spiritual advisors), would at least be more open to including something like this in communicating the gospel through this "lay ministry," affirming a revered figure in the already-existing culture (Granted, this may be an example of it being "easier to ask forgiveness than permission," as a priest or individual bishop may have to allow it at the local level before the Church at large would accept it later, but this, too, has precedent).

Other cultural aspects -- like the "joyful sorrow" in many bluegrass penitential songs -- are quite compatible already with Orthodox sensibilities.

How is all this to be accomplished? I see CD after CD of "Jesus Quotient" music cranked out by a music industry in the image and likeness of our culture's mass music industry; the idea, here, is to take a genre of music as presented by the major labels of this country, imitate it as closely as possible in all its commercial uniformity, and market it to Christian youth as "their" Christianity. All this is, however, is another step towards having no authentic paradosis, or tradition -- literally, the Greek means "that which is handed down from person to person" -- all is given to them by some faceless, pastless corporation with no capacity for embodying anything. To embody something, we must needs have a body. This is not a call to individualism; rather it is a call to radical community, to a radical determination to recover a family memory, to make true, kin-to-kin, ancestor-to-descendant paradosis possible.

My family hails from Texas, my wife's from Kentucky. She, more than I, was blessed with a closer memory of rural Kentucky life (one set of her grandparents still live in a very small town; the other surviving grandmother lives in a mostly blue-collar/old-money-aristocracy southern town. From both sides she's gleaned some of the songs and some of the sayings unique to this part of the States, and she's going to pass those onto our girls. (Side note: for those of you interested who've not yet read it, THIS POST from the Ochlophobist is worth a read to extrapolate on this idea). This uniqueness of expression, from local customs to dishes to crafts to instruments, is what makes us creative; the same creativity that molded Adam and animated his being is what still churns in us, still calls us to creativity, still calls us to pick up slide guitar or mandolin and play the old songs, using them to make new songs, to live in communion with ones who share our flesh and to communicate as an icon of culture the whole of our lives -- including and first and foremost the One Who Is our Life -- to those companions in the flesh.