Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Life-Altering Decision

For the past two years, Audra and I have been thinking and praying about our "next step" in life. We've felt (for longer than two years, to be sure), that something was going to happen -- at times it would seem I'd be going for a Masters of some kind, or we'd be moving to Kentucky to be nearer to her family, or...something.

I've always been a churchmouse, a theology buff -- now a "Geek Orthodox," as we're sometimes called -- someone who's always tried to serve the Church in some capacity since childhood. As a Baptist, I had been on youth mission trips, participated in ministry teams, and had led Bible studies and music at school and at church. I had gone to college -- as had Audra -- in order eventually to become a missionary. Orthodoxy disrupted those plans, to put it lightly; my new bride and I were still brand-new converts (I was just over a year in the faith, she not even six months in) and had to learn to live with this new faith. Plans to go abroad were put on hold as we taught school and she picked up an MLS. Add two daughters to the mix and the plate was full. Add to all this the fact that I had read the Treatise on the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom (which scared the hell out of me), and I was ready to hang up plans for full-time service to the Church indefinitely.

About a year and a half ago, however, something...shifted in me, I suppose you could say. Before, when people would ask if I ever had plans to go to seminary, I would become physically uncomfortable and quickly change the subject. Yet now I was slowly beginning to feel what I can only describe as a light turning from red to yellow (a strange metaphor, but it's the only one I've ever been able to use that seems to do the trick) with regard to religious studies and possible ordination. I brought this up to my dear wife; the prospect of taking our two small daughters up to seminary and pursuing the life of a clergyman was not an easy one. But this is why I stand in awe of this woman; she -- the daughter of two charismatic ministers who've lived much of their life "without a net," sending her father on mission trip after mission trip with money from God-knows-where and doing what it took to get by otherwise -- simply shrugged and said, "All I need to know is that you're sure this is what God wants us to do. If so, I'll follow you wherever you think we should go." That said, I brought up the subject with my parish priest -- who had been hinting at this road for me himself, mostly just to give me a hard time because he knew I hated talking about it -- and he suggested I apply to St. Vladimir's as a second step.

Several letters of recommendation and a few essays later, I received a letter in the mail announcing my acceptance into the MDiv program for the Fall of 2009. We began in earnest to try and sell the house, as I dreaded the thought of renting out. God, apparently, wanted to start the "trust factor" a bit earlier than I'd anticipated, for we have wound up renting within the family (a much easier situation for me to swallow, given the inability to sell the house thus far) while the house will continue to show to potential buyers.

So...this blogger and his family will, by God's grace, be packing up as much of our things as we can fit into a small, New York apartment and, in the very near future, be moving to Crestwood, New York to begin studies at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary -- classes will begin on August 31, 2009. This is a tremendous leap of faith for us, as money will be tight, relationships tested, and faith stretched for the next three years and, most likely, far beyond. Prayers are extremely coveted right now, more than anything else. If you would like to support the seminary in general or me in particular, please let me know.

So it begins. May it be blessed. Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Consciences, Pledges, Wombs

My friend Alan of the blog Rhoblogy briefly took issue with my description of Evangelical salvation in comparison to the Orthodox model. He then, however, moves into another, related topic that is worth comment:

He writes:
My community group just finished studying Galatians in detail, and I join in the Apostle Paul's amazement at the Galatians' "bewitching", as he wonders aloud in many different ways how it was that the Galatians would exchange this Gospel of grace for a system of God's grace + human effort, no matter how innocuous and otherwise-endorsed-by-God it might be. No matter whether this human effort is adding the very God-ordained sign of the God-ordained covenant in the OT - circumcision. But it's permissible if we add the God-ordained sign of the God-ordained NT covenant - baptism - to it?
I've often sat back and marveled at the similarities of form that exist between the Pharisees of Christ's day and those of the Orthodox Church. Hierarchy and a sad history of replacing the Ignatian model of the bishop as locus of unity with that of him as the source thereof; ancient, venerated, often-complex roles of tradition and the subsequent tendency at times to strain at gnats and swallow camels; the deference of a desire to encounter the living God to a willingness to surrender oneself over to the rubrics books...sons of hell we all can so easily be and become.

I could speak of the scriptural parallel between circumcision and baptism (Col. 2:11-12). I could speak of how it itself is the pledge of a clean conscience, a pledge which is salvific through an appropriation of Christ's resurrection (1 Pet. 3:21). I could speak of how we are, in our view, mandated to do this and are saved because of this.

But I would rather speak of how absurd it is, really, to think that our meager prayers, our weak actions, our vulnerable, mortal bodies, dripping and cold (and, later, oily), could ever fathom standing on their own merits as somehow deserving of salvation per se. We have been given a gift in baptism, a gift of nothing other than grace undeserved. We ask that the Holy Spirit descend into waters we're meant to drown in and, hopefully in humble obedience, we follow, submitting both ourselves and our children to our God in a manner He has given us. We do this in faith that God will bring the increase, and that increase is solely by grace. His is the seed of life sown within us, for He is the Sower.

As was the case with circumcision, so the case with baptism: any ritual without Christ is a mockery and a sick, diseased, tragedy. My wife and I offered up our girls to the Creator of all things when we gave them to the font; for us to then ignore the Holy Scriptures, neglect lives of fasting, discipline and self-denial, pile up other priorities for ourselves instead of Sunday liturgy and evening Vespers (or, if not feasible, evening prayers at home in the family icon corner -- which, of course, being "magic Christians" who believed in baptism per se, we would do infrequently, if at all), fail to speak of our saintly Patriarchs, prophets, saints and martyrs as our holy guides and fellow-confessors -- such a life would be a mockery, a denial of our pledge to Him, completely unworthy of the calling to which we were called when we were buried with our Adam in a death like His.

We have, as Orthodox Christians, renounced the devil; not only have we done this, but we have breathed and spit upon him, turning immediately afterwards to the East to unite ourselves to the Christ of the living God. Christ, in His mercy, has given us a very accessible and obtainable means of union -- one that only He could effect. His Sun of Righteousness shines down on us once we pass, simply and obediently, through this womb of baptism which our Virgin Mother, the Church, has been given to bear Her children who've been orphaned by this world; for us to glory in getting wet is the height of arrogance and blindness.

This, I know, sets the stage for when the body is dry and one is no longer "oily 'round the ears"; how is it that one can justify a life lived in strict obedience to and self-denial for God -- a taking up of crosses, as it is termed in Scripture -- as a prerequisite for eternal life in Christ and yet adamantly deny that one is saved by his works? I would begin HERE. As for my own response...perhaps for another night; it is late, and I must go early tomorrow to welcome kids to Summer School. May it be blessed, and may I bear it honorably and for Christ. Prayers are appreciated.


A New Feature

I will attempt to put up every Saturday evening the major saint (or saints, or feast) commemorated in the Church for that liturgical day. Clicking on the title will send you to the troparion and kontakion; clicking on the image will send you to an explanation of that particular icon.

All hymns and lives of saints are taken from the website of the Orthodox Church in America.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Trip to Kendalia

I've recently returned from a spontaneous, informal weekend retreat at Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery in Kendalia, TX. It's been about four years since I've been able to spend the night there with the fathers, and I went this time with three other men from my parish. Two of them had never been to an Orthodox monastery before; the other two of us were already familiar with how things went.

We went down around lunchtime on Friday and spent the night. On Saturday we woke up at six in the morning for the divine liturgy. Following this, we ate breakfast, then broke up for what, interestingly enough, the fathers called "quiet time" -- when they did some of their private, morning devotionals, cleaned up the kitchen. During this time I went to the grave of little Jamie, (not pictured to the right, as I neglected to bring my camera), where I prayed some prayers for the departed, and sang "With the saints" and "Memory Eternal." Sat afterwards and read the end of Fr. John Behr's The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death.

Following this time we (the four of us from St. Barbara's) accompanied some of the fathers and brothers (monks are called "fathers" regardless of whether they've been ordained priests or not, while novices who've yet to be fully tonsured are called "brothers") into the main church (pictured right) to help them dust, sweep, mop, and scrape beeswax from the floor. This is part of their daily devotional. Brother Jason then gave us a tour around the four-story complex that's being built alongside the church that will house more monastics (may God grant such) in the future. Lunch was served and, following this, a baptism of the newly born (and now newly-illumined) child of God, Eli. This service was the first I'd witnessed at Holy Archangels that was not entirely in Greek; well over 75% of it was in English, probably due to its not being a daily service and due to non-Greek speakers' attending on a special occasion. Following the baptism, we had a bit of time for reflection and prayer, and then had Vespers and Litya (which, like the baptism, was in the main church, as well). Supper was served after this. Suppers at Holy Archangels are eaten with women in one room, and male pilgrims and monastics in the other. A priestmonk will offer a blessing, and all will sit. A bell will ring, signalling the beginning of the meal. A monk will begin to read either a passage of Scripture or something from the Church Fathers (in this case, in Greek, of course), while all the "listeners" (such as we were) ate in silence). A minute or two later, a second bell rings, and drinks are poured. This discipline teaches us to wait, though we be hungry, before diving into food or drink in an uncontrolled fashion. Idle talk is not to be found at the table.

Following supper, the bell at the nearby, smaller chapel pictured to the right (which is also where we had had divine liturgy that morning) rang for Compline. We walked in the dark back to our rooms, a day full of prayer, work, and temperance in food and drink finished. The next day we would go back up to the main church for divine liturgy. Again, separate gender was the rule, with males on the right, and women on the left, heads covered. Following this, we all ate together in the refectory, and afterwards, with the blessing of the Γεροντα, or "elder," came back home.

Things I came away with:

The long monastic services in Greek, regardless of whether one knows enough of the language to follow along (I can get by in the more familiar services), are an excellent opportunity to practice the Jesus Prayer. Indeed, I find the literal hours spent focusing on the words -- and, then, the One behind the words -- of the prayer help me "rediscover" the beauty of the simplicity of that prayer. True, the monotony that can set in also allows for thoughts to wander, but controlling one's thoughts, taking every one of them captive and making it obedient to Christ and, thus, slowly and painfully correcting our minds' and hearts' misuse of our bodies, is what the Prayer is all about.

I really, really appreciate head coverings, modest dress (including long sleeves on men), and separated genders in Orthodox worship. Regarding the latter issue, I was surprised, honestly, at how much easier it is for me to focus on worship when only with members of my own gender. There is, of course, "the issue" that plagues young men, but this goes deeper than mere wandering eyes. Here is a faith (I saw it in action multiple times during the trip) where men teach boys, where women teach girls how to live and worship. The community at this monastery -- which is comprised of Orthodox from several large cities around central Texas -- made sure that boys coming only with mothers received ample instruction from older men as to when to bow, how to stand, where to read along in the service books...the village was alive here.

All in all, a wonderfully refreshing weekend spent with dear friends. Glory to God.

A Hard Gospel to Preach

In a recent "retread" over threads in the forum I mentioned a few posts below this one, I ran across a thread regarding Evangelicals doing missionary work in Greece. Some Orthodox were lamenting Evangelicals' proselytizing people who, culturally and historically (and, very often -- though much, much less often these days -- by conviction) were already Christian. Others were scratching their heads wondering what the appeal would be regarding some of these groups. Y'all know where I come from theologically (or, if you're new here, you can click on my conversion story in the sidebar), and those of you who've read the blog long enough or thoroughly enough will know that I know when to take my lumps; though I truly believe that the Orthodox FAITH and the corporate Church that confesses it is the fullness of Him that fills all in all, all is not always rosy in practical, concrete matters. Cf. St. Paul's letters to Corinth. The following then, is my response to the question of why people (not throngs, but noticeable numbers of people) were joining Evangelical groups (edited in brackets for context):

"I think the intellectual input and stimulation [of regular, faithful Bible Study], as well as the realization that they're actually DOING something with their faith outside of church services provides a thrill that they weren't getting with just 'spectator sport' Orthodoxy/Catholicism, where the priest/choir/chanters sang the Divine Liturgy/said Mass and they went through the motions without any purposeful explanation and education of what was going on.

"When you take the stated doctrine of having all your sins completely and permanently wiped out, forever, of never having to deal with any kind of ascetic effort in order to arrive at purification and sanctification, and are 'free' to rejoice in a perceived spiritual perfection that God has granted you apart from any obedience you may or may not have actually walked in -- well, as virtual and artificial as it may sound when I put it that way, it does make for a VERY grateful reaction on the part of the believer. 'He who has been forgiven much, loves much,' and all that. The Evangelical perceives that his sins have been declared null and void through the legal transaction of the blood of Christ before the Father, and so they are free simply to rejoice in an already finished righteousness, an already guaranteed place in heaven. Couple this grateful state with AGRESSIVE memorization of proof-texts that seem to bolster this teaching, and you have the added rush of thinking that God's biblical stamp of approval supports the idea, adding confidence to enthusiastic gratitude.

"It is difficult, then, to put Orthodoxy next to that and say, 'Christ has died and risen again; through baptism we are brought into His Kingdom so that we would have the POTENTIAL of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, making every effort to enter into the rest He prepared for us through His Passion and Resurrection. The enemy, however, still prowls around as the wolf of souls, seeking to make us his prey, so we must be ever mindful of sinful habits that remain in our lives, as they could be occasion for the enemy to gain a foothold. Our life in Christ consists of constant vigilance, constant repentance, constant participation in the sacramental life of the Church, and constant sorrow and (should God grant) true tears of repentance over our state as 'chief of sinners' so that we might gain times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord which is the comfort for those who have mourned.'

"Evangelicals will say that this gospel has been tried and found wanting, pointing to the Orthodox hierarchs' and clergy's moral failure, as well as the laity's laxity and lack of fervor in studying about and participating in their faith outside of services. I would say that the faith is not so much tried and found wanting as it has been found difficult and left untried. This is not so much an excuse as it is an explanation. What is needed? A culture shift, I think. Increased emphasis on personal sin and the need for repentance, forgiveness and grace. Priorities on parish education regarding biblical, patristic support for Orthodox positions. Clear opportunities to LIVE the gospel (service projects like [soup kitchens, clothing pantries, prison visitation], for example). Fellowship and increased accountability among the faithful, pushing each other on to greater piety and holiness of life, seeking out ways to rid ourselves of sin and live to Christ. I say that, if these things are considered solely Evangelical territory, we as Orthodox have sold our birthright, so to speak, and Evangelicals' coming in and gaining the souls the Church has neglected should come as no surprise."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Wonderworking Icon of Our Lady of Sitka

About a week ago St. Tikhon's Seminary octet visited our parish on a musical tour. They chanted Great Vespers on Tuesday evening and followed the next day with Divine Liturgy. Audra and I were blessed to be able to extend hospitality to the director of the octet and put him up for the night in our home. Along with them came the miracle-working icon of the Theotokos of Sitka, Alaska (pictured right). A story was told of a woman who had been suffering from very severe lung cancer and, following a lengthy prayer session before the icon, received total healing. The director was quick to point out, of course, that the real miracle is that of a changed life and obedience to Christ, regardless of physical healing. Still, it was good to pray in front of the peaceful image of our Lord's mother.

Pictured here are our altar servers and priest (in green) with the octet (which was really just a "septet" for this tour) and the icon of our lady of Sitka. Father later took some oil from the vigil lamp that perpetually hangs before the icon -- oil with which we were all anointed after Vespers -- and gave it to some of the elderly ladies, one of whom was suffering with vision failure. To watch these sisters express such gratitude to anoint themselves so reverently is something I won't profane here by trying to describe.

A family portrait with our Lady and her divine Son. You can read details of the icon's history HERE.

Troparion and Kontakion HERE.

Akathist hymn HERE.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pardon Our Dust... I create a label for "Best of Blog," only to find out that, under the older, html-driven "Classic Templates" in blogger, only 20 posts under a label will display at one time. So I had to update my template and lost several personalizations, which I hope to add back in soon. Meanwhile, you can read all I labeled to your right.

Enjoy, and pardon the different looks that no doubt will be cycling through the next couple of days.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Best of BLOG

Following the lead of Steve of the Pithless Thoughts blog (and the podcasts Our Life in Christ and Steve the Builder), I've created a grouping of posts over the past four and a half years that I feel give a good, overall "Oh Taste and See" reader.

Best of Blog -- it'll also be in the sidebar. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Blessed Feast!

Troparion - Tone 8

Blessed art Thou, O Christ Our God
Thou hast revealed the fishermen as most wise
By sending down upon them the Holy Spirit
Through them Thou didst draw the world into Thy net
O Lover of Man, Glory to Thee!

Kontakion - Tone 8

When the most High came down and confused the tongues,
He divided the nations;
But when he distributed the tongues of fire
He called all to unity.
Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-holy Spirit!

(Russian Orthodox Christians also -- in fact, they preeminently -- call this Sunday "Troitsa," or "Trinity." Read this excellent post by Fr. Stephen Freemen to find out why.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hierarchy of Conversion

The following was posted on a forum I mention often here, and is just something I wanted to place here, as well. Nothing groundbreaking or anything; just thought it was worth a mention:


I think there's a hierarchy to building faith, and faith rightly believed. If you've got an iPod (or about an hour to spend in front of PC speakers), you can see this hierarchy played out HERE and HERE in the life of a former Muslim who left Islam after reading the Passion passages in the Gospel, belonged to several different Protestant groups, and finally landed in Orthodoxy (iirc, he's been Orthodox for a while now).

This "hierarchy" I speak of can be accomplished within Orthodoxy itself -- and often is -- though sometimes it is not, and other times folks begin the "hierarchy" outside the Church (as you and I did), only to find its goal within Her.

The hierarchy I speak of isn't a "silver bullet" for spiritual growth, nor is it a hard and fast rule, but it goes roughly like this:
  • A person comes to a conscious, deliberate, chosen belief in Jesus Christ as his/her Savior, realizing the severity of his/her fallenness and the need to be redeemed from death. This can be a "watershed moment" and very dramatic, or it can be something that someone realizes they've always believed, but has now matured enough to where they could confess and live it. Regardless, I think that if someone does not have some sort of sense that s/he is grateful for the "great mercy" we sing so often about in church on Sundays, it will not matter what confession one belongs to, as one will not be "in church" for the right reason: giving thanks to the One Who saves.
  • A person needs to grow in knowledge of this Savior through familiarity with and regular reading of the Bible. I'm not saying they need to earn a theology degree, just...basic Bible vocab / characters / lingo / events. A "Who's Who and What's What," in other words. I did this as a Protestant kid in AWANA (a Scripture memory program); Orthodox kids can read children's Bibles with their parents, or (even better), the parents/priests/church school leaders can go over the short, lectionary readings with them when they're older. Parents are vital here, though, and need to lead by example.
  • A person needs to determine -- out of a desire to know Christ in the fullest way possible -- which of the many different confessions is the one Church Christ established and in which one can encounter and dwell in His divine Life. For Orthodox, they're already there. For those of us outside, we have to weigh the issues and enter later.
I've seen people come to Orthodoxy for wrong reasons (they love Russian music/art, they want to be right about everything, they're looking to be [insert former confession], just more "conservative"), so perhaps this contributes to some Orthodox people's not taking some converts very seriously. I've seen people who've grown up Orthodox who have (right in front of me) told me that what they're there for is fellowship among [a certain language]-speaking people, since that's what they are, and people who come because Mama makes them, and are therefore completely bored and hostile towards a faith they know nothing about, much less care about anything spiritual. Again, these are my experiences, and those vary, but it seems to me that if a certain "path of conversion" is followed -- roughly, that is -- it makes for a more natural, stable church life.