“This Lent I am going to attempt to walk through life like I walk through church in hard soled shoes, or in the kind of shoes that squeak on the polished wood floor. I am going to try to walk softly, deliberately, prayerfully aware of the noise I am making, prayerfully aware of how my actions resonate with and disturb others; I will be quietly ashamed and a little embarrassed.”
Category Archives: Eastern Orthodoxy
This weekend has been such an exciting one. As I mentioned in my last post, I was gifted with a new Nikon D40x this past week. So I’ve spent the last couple of days shooting with this camera. And the experience has infused me with a renewed enthusiasm to develop my skills in digital photography. So much so that I started a simple photoblog to post my personal images.
Posting my images is more than just showcasing my limited abilities. No, I’ve learned that images speak in ways that words cannot. For the last six years, I have reflected personally and theologically on this blog through words. I enjoy writing. I love taking an idea and crafting words to express that idea. And I hope to continue with this endeavor, especially as I become more immersed and formed by the life of Christ in the Orthodox Church.
But I’ve discovered that theological thought is very different in Orthodoxy than my training and experience in western Protestantism. Theological reflection has been more of a conceptual exercise. Sure, personal reflection and practice have always been intimately connected with theology proper. But the order has been primarily idea first, then practice. This was constantly reinforced with the priority of study as the ever-present backdrop to all theological reflection. I think it also explains why much of my theological study has been accompanied with a constant battle with pride. These were my ideas and conclusions that I worked hard to discern, unravel and formulate.
Yet, in Orthodoxy, only those with deep lives of prayer are considered capable of being theologians. That’s because a life of prayer is a humble life in communion with God. I think it’s safe to say that I have a looong ways to grow. That’s not to say that I’ll stop studying, writing or thinking theologically. But it does mean I need to re-prioritize my spiritual life so that I’m reformed inwardly. It’s much easier to study, write and think than it is to pray. Just like it’s easier to “proclaim” the Gospel than it is to live it, or to go even further, to embody it.
Prayer is difficult not because it takes time, but because if practiced properly, it places us in constant vulnerability before God. We are exposed. We’re not asking for things as much as presenting our sin-filled, broken selves to a merciful God. As grateful as we are for the availability of God’s salvation, we are brutally aware of our constant need to actually be saved. As we pray in Divine Liturgy:
“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”
The more I pray with the Orthodox Church, the more these words shift from a nice spiritual sentiment to the actual cry of my sin-filled heart.
That’s why photography is a wonderful medium of expression, reflection, and even prayer. My eye is being trained to “look for shots.” But it’s more than just capturing light, color and texture. There are shots that stir something deep within me. I don’t know why. I can look at a series of shots of the same subject and one will leap out, grab my attention and sometimes take my breath away.
Even though my eye is focused on a subject outside of myself, it’s actually reflecting something from within me. Something within me is responding to the beauty or truth expressed in that moment, in that image. And it’s something that escapes words.
For example, yesterday, I walked around the perimeter of my apartment complex and took a series of shots of things I see everyday. There were a number of shots that I looked at and immediately hit the delete button. There were several that I’m keeping to look at, reflect upon and develop further. And there are a couple that immediately struck at the depth of who I am.
One was the shot of the bricks that I posted on my photoblog. Another is an image of a trash dumpster that I want to develop and post soon. And another was this photo of a fence formed from distressed wood.
The knotted and scarred planks remind me of the saints, the men and women throughout history that experienced untold hurt, discipline and pain. And yet, the scars became intimate communion with God. The discipline was transformed into holy dispassion. These wooden planks remind me of the icons I venerate. Faithful lives that weathered the storms of adversity, eventually to be revealed as lives perfected in Christ for all of us to emulate.
And it stirs the longing to be found faithful in my life, to live a life worthy of my Lord. As Fr Patrick preached about on Sunday, I am stained with gluttony and lust and a variety of other sins. I am still shaped by my pleasure-seeking culture and scarred by my past participation. So I pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” And as I pray, I am aware of the convergence of contradictions — the holy mercy of God and the absolute despair of my condition. As the two meet and kiss, there is not immediate relief. Nor should there be. For the injury goes too deep. It requires continual therapy, healing beneath the scarred surface. For the remedy is nothing less than the transformation of who I am. And that is Christ in me, the hope of glory of which St Paul wrote.
Perhaps that is why in Orthodoxy theology flows from prayer. One must become right in order to live and think right. Glory to God!
I am so amazed at how Orthodoxy is such a treasure house of resources for spiritual growth. One of these resources that I’m enjoying is written prayers. Throughout my entire Christian life, spontaneity was valued as being truly spiritual. This was especially true with prayer.
However, in his book, Beginning to Pray, Met Anthony Bloom states that while spontaneous prayer is a valid form of prayer, it’s only really possible in two situations. That’s because spontaneous prayer is a kind of prayer that “gushes out of our own souls.” Therefore, spontaneous prayer is only possible either in situations when we are vividly aware of God and that awareness calls forth a response of worship and joy or we are suddenly aware of our desperation and despair and cry out to God to save us. In this light, Met Bloom states:
“It [spontaneous prayer] comes from the depths of our soul, from either wonder or distress, but it does not come from the middle situation in which we are neither overwhelmed by the divine presence nor overwhelmed by a sense of who we are and the position in which we are. So that, at those moments, to try to use a spontaneous prayer is a completely illusory exercise.”
But Met Bloom also says it’s not enough to learn and use existing prayers, but also to live them. “A prayer makes sense only if it is lived.” He advises that when we discover a phrase in a prayer that makes sense, “you must try to apply it in the course of the day ruthlessly, for as long as you can.”
All of these thoughts on prayer came to a point when I read Shawn Ragan’s newest post, called “A Hymn of St Ephraim.” (Click on the link and take a moment to read the whole prayer.)
There is no way in my most creative and spiritual moments of spontaneity that I could have ever said anything like this. This is a prayer with which I resonate. It communicates the repentance I desire to experience, yet do not have the words to express. Orthodoxy is filled with such beautiful and powerful prayers as these.
Another prayer that we pray and with which Shawn ends his blog post is, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us. Amen.” In this prayer, I’m not only asking for the intercessions of the Saints, who are in the presence of Christ, for my salvation, but I’m also asking that my own use of their prayers — both through my voice and my life — will be unto my salvation as well.
Fr Stephen has posted a wonderful excerpt from Dr. Kalomiros’ book, Nostalgia for Paradise. These thoughts on the Orthodox life are so balanced and come to me at such an appropriate time. Just a couple of nights ago, Debbie and I were talking about my self-imposed spiritual disciplines as a Protestant. And just the other day, Fr Patrick was reminding me of our family’s need to spend time learning a new rhythm of being Orthodox.
Now I read Dr. Kalomiro’s words and quite frankly, I just want to cry. I want to cry out of repentance for the pride and hardness created by imposing practices upon myself that were beyond the measure of grace given to me. I want to cry out of joy for the beautiful vision of what a true human life in Christ looks like. And I want to cry out of thankfulness for now being a member of a Church that can actually nurture me with wisdom into the life in Christ for which I have longed.
There is so much in this short excerpt that grips me. If I were to cut and paste good quotes, I would need to simply paste the entire excerpt. But this one paragraph is the clincher for me. I dream of living this kind of life:
“It is a modest soul that is out of its waters in the limelight of men but blooms in solitude and quiet. It is a heart free to its very roots, impervious to every kind of pressure, far from every kind of stench, untouched by any kind of chains. It distinguishes truth from falsehood with a certain mystic sense. Its every breath offers gratitude for all of God’s works that surround it and for every joy and every affliction, for every possession, and for every privation as well. Crouching humbly on the Cornerstone which is Christ, it drinks unceasingly of the eternal water of Paradise and utters the Name of Him who was and is ever merciful. Such a soul is like a shady tree by the running waters of the Church, with deep roots and a high crown where kindred souls find comfort and refuge in its dense branches.”
“At the center of the Icon New Media Network, we believe that Orthodox Christianity is the future of American Spirituality. Our desire is to introduce Orthodox Christianity to emergent, post-evangelical and non-Christian audiences. Through the use of new media (blogs, podcasts, video, etc.) we aim to create environments where Orthodox Christians and those interested in this radical ancient faith can converse about and collaborate on resources that lead to a fuller understanding of Christianity. This is done by providing places for people to gather and communicate both online and offline about the relevance and necessity of our 2000-year-old Church.”
The quote is from the Icon New Media Network website, a site in which I’m very interested. Although I haven’t explored the site in any depth, I’m excited about an Orthodox ministry dedicated to speaking to “emergent, post-evangelical and non-Christian audiences.” I love environments that are conducive to conversations. Call it rebellion, but I hate being told what I have to believe or do without a chance to talk, think and process.
For me, my association with the Emerging Church was a wonderful transition to explore the richness and fullness of Orthodox Christianity. I believe the same might be true for others in the Emerging Church. In addition, our culture is in a weird place. Whether we call it “postmodernity” or “liquid modernity” or some other label, our culture is not where it was thirty years ago. So any engagement that the Orthodox Church has with western culture will need to involve relationship and conversation.
Personally, I believe Jesus is still our best example. He is the Truth. His very being defines what Truth is. And one of the primary things we observe in Jesus is the relational nature of Truth. Truth is not cold, impersonal or abstract as western culture has tended to define it. Truth, as defined by Jesus, is personal and gives birth to true Life, Love and Reality. And the Orthodox Church has preserved the fullness of the Truth within its life and Tradition for centuries. One of the most amazing things I discovered about Orthodoxy this past year was how vibrant, Spirit-filled and life-giving its Tradition can be.
So, I’m excited about Icon New Media Network and any other Orthodox ministry that is willing to share the beauty, life and fullness of the Faith with those hungering for Christ and His Church.
This morning, ten of us, including my family, were received into the Holy Orthodox Church. It was such an amazing moment. Here are several reasons:
- Knowing our family and friends were there to support us. Thank you Mom and Dad H, Mom & Dad Z, Linda, Steve, Maribeth, Caleb, Jennifer, Fr Michael & Kh Kyra, Mic & Ginny, and David. And thank you David H. for filming the entire service.
- Seeing the excitement on our friends’ faces from St Peters. Thank you to each person at St Peters who has prayed for us, encouraged us and supported us this past year. And a special thanks to our family’s sponsors — Dn Rico, Kh Christina, Aaron, Elly, Lisa & Robert.
- Watching my best friend, Mark, be baptized.
- Hearing the beautiful and spiritually rich prayers.
- Holding my candle as a symbol of my heart becoming illuminated.
- Being signed with the chrism (Holy Oil) as Fr Patrick made a sign of the cross on my forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, chest, hands and feet, while each time saying, “The Seal and Gift of the Holy Spirit” to which the entire congregation responded by saying “Sealed!”
- Receiving the real Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist for the very first time. Absolutely awesome!!
- Receiving the cross on a chain around my neck as a constant sign of my life in Christ.
- Being encouraged to invoke the prayers of our patron saints.
- Knowing that from this day forward my family and friends will live and grow in the fullness of Christ’s life through the nurturing care of the Church.
A lot more can and must to be said about today. It was momentous in ways that I’m still trying to fathom. All day, I have been sensing something deep, and to this point beyond words, simmering inside of me. It’s similar to what I remember experiencing after other life-changing events, like my wedding day or my children’s birth. Each of those events marked the end of a specific journey and the beginning of a new journey that would prove far greater and life-impacting than I could have anticipated. I have been sensing the same thing since this morning’s service. We’re Orthodox and I suspect it will change everything. And I love it.
You can view photos from the event on the St Peter’s website by clicking HERE.
Back in April, I posted my reflections about my friends’ reception into the Holy Orthodox Church. One of the most moving moments was when Fr Patrick whispered into the ear of one of my friends and said “Welcome home.” Even as I write this eight months later, I still remember the ache in my heart at hearing those words. It seems my entire Christian journey, which began back about 25 years ago, has been one of searching for “home.” As much as I have encountered the Living Christ throughout the various stages of my journey, I’ve always known that he has been leading me somewhere.
My family’s experiences during the Paschal season at St Peters convinced me that Holy Orthodoxy was the “home” I’ve been searching for, even though I never would have envisioned it as such through most of my journey.
And now this coming weekend, a new phase of my journey begins as our family and our best friends, Mark and Barbara, are received into the Holy Orthodox Church. My entire family is very excited and a bit nervous. In some ways, I feel like the prodigal son finally coming home. And the warmth and love from our friends at St Peters and St Lukes, as they anticipate our reception this weekend, has embodied the Father running to meet me and my family and to usher us into his home.
But coming home isn’t the end of the story. It never is. Life, even New Life, goes on. The story will continue as we learn to live in the Father’s home with our brothers and sisters, fully communing with the Living Christ. Knowing the depths of my own heart, I know I will make mistakes and offend. And I know I will be offended. I learned long ago that when two or more Christians gather… someone’s going to get hurt. But everything we will experience — the joys, the sorrows, the forgiveness, the thrills, the pains — is for our salvation if experienced and processed properly. Fortunately, our family is part of a larger family with the same desire to commune with Christ and to grow into his likeness. Now in our new larger family we will worship together, commune together, fast together, pray together, serve together, and love together, as we are guided by a wise and caring priest who embodies Christ, aids in our confession, gives us spiritual direction, teaches us, and extends God’s grace through His holy Mysteries and as we are joined by the entire Body of Christ as they are made known through the icons, hymns and stories.
And the ones of whom I am the proudest and most moved are my family. Debbie’s courage at the unknown and her embracing of the various disciplines of prayer and fasting have continually inspired me. My children’s quick receptivity of Orthodox theology and practice, such as venerating the icons, led me into a fuller practice and experience of Christ’s life. And although I was the one that initiated our one-year commitment to attend St Peters, it has been my family that has quietly encouraged me to stay connected when all of my wounds and fears from the past screamed for me to remain disconnected at best or to pull me away at worst. I really believe I have been the “weakest link” in my family’s journey to Orthodoxy. And I am very thankful for their living example of strength and courage, especially in my weakness.
I cannot express how thrilled I am as I anticipate standing with my wife and children and friends in our “Chrismation whites” with our sponsors to be received into the Father’s home and to fully eat at his table. And while I am painfully aware of my unworthiness, I am even more grateful for the overabundance of my Savior’s and God’s grace.
I’m finally home. Glory to God!
I’ve started reading Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh and I’m really enjoying what he has to say. Most Protestant books on prayer that I’ve read seem too mechanistic as if what we do or say will somehow invoke God’s presence or response. Not so with this book. So far, this book is about plowing the soil of our own hearts, learning to become true pray-ers. Two quotes stand out, one about weakness and the other about humility.
Here’s the one on weakness:
“Weakness is not the kind of weakness which we show by sinning and forgetting God, but the kind of weakness which means being completely supple, completely transparent, completely abandoned in the hands of God… You could think of that [weakness] also in terms of a sail. A sail can catch the wind and be used to maneuver a boat only because it is so frail. If instead of a sail you put a solid board, it would not work; it is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.”
And here’s the one on humility:
“The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means fertile ground… Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.”
There used to be a saying about prayer, “Prayer changes things.” Nowadays, I’m hoping prayer changes me as well. I hope I learn to embrace the proper weakness in which God’s power is manifested by making me humble.
Lord, may my life become like the dirt and soil of the earth; an ordinary, unobtrusive place where the pain and poison of this broken world silently fall, are absorbed, and miraculously transformed into new life.
Fr Stephen posts a great reminder of how the small thoughts, attitudes and actions in our daily lives are so important. When I was a younger man, my goal was to do great things for God. I dreamt of leaving a magnificent legacy that would far outlive my earthly life. My sight was always straining toward the horizon, waiting for that moment when I would do something big for God.
Now I’m a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. And with some age, my goals have changed. I strive to be a good husband, a good father, a good friend and hopefully a good man. And this is lived out not by great momentous deeds, but by the many small, insignificant moments in my life. An encouraging smile. An attentive ear. A compassionate hand. And as my gaze shifts from the horizon to the present moment, I can better see what Fr Stephen describes in his closing thought:
“This is the day of salvation. It may come in a thousand discreet moments, every one of which is alive with the fire of God.”
May I learn more and more to be warmed and ignited by the fire within these moments.
Fr Stephen posts a meditation offered by Met. Kallistos Ware. You can read the entire post HERE. The quote below contains the final thoughts of that meditation:
“Do we reflect sufficiently, I wonder, upon the environmental implications of our Lord’s Incarnation, upon the way in which Jesus is ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us, containing within His humanity what has been termed ‘the whole evolving earth story’?
“Do we allow properly for the fact that our Savior came to redeem, not only the human race, but the fullness of creation? Do we keep constantly in mind that we are not saved from but with the world?
“Such, then, is our Orthodox vision of creation; such is our vocation as priests of the created order; such is our Christian reponse to the ecological crisis. Such is the deeper meaning implicit in the words that we say daily at the beginning of Vespers: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’.”
I love the thought of Jesus being “ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us.” I am so thrilled that Orthodoxy has such a vibrant understanding of Creation. The Church’s understanding of Christ’s Incarnation provides the ultimate framework for a sound theology of and ministry toward Creation.
In fact, since 1989, much of the Orthodox Church observes September 1, the first day of the Church’s liturgical year, as the Feast of Creation. In a paper called, “Orthodox Liturgy and the Care for Creation,” Bishop Irineu offers the following thought:
“The vocation of humanity, as shown in liturgical theology, is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to transfigure and hallow it. In a variety of ways – through the cultivation of the earth, through craftsmanship, through the writing of books and the painting of icons – humanity gives material things a voice and renders the creation articulate in praise of God.”
Christ’s Incarnation fulfills humanity’s divine mandate in Genesis to be the stewards and caretakers of Creation. He is the ultimate steward of Creation, rescuing both his eternal family of co-stewards and Creation itself from the clutches of brokenness, sin and death. Jesus tramples down death and offers his life, which enables us to embrace our true vocation as Creation’s cultivators and craftsmen that gives it a voice of praise to God.
I came across this line from an Orthodox funeral service and I think I found my new life statement:
“I am the image of Your inexpressible glory, even though I bear the wounds of sin.”
This weekend, Debbie and I had a good conversation about our journey to Orthodoxy. And as I reflected on our dialogue, I’ve become more aware of a few things.
God is truly leading our family in our journey to Orthodoxy. I have longed for a Christianity that is historically, spiritually and theologically rich and vibrant. And as I have mentioned in previous posts, we truly believe we have found it. Fr Thomas Hopko communicated the fullness of life and faith that we’re experiencing in Orthodoxy in his lecture, “When is Armageddon?” when he said:
“The Orthodox Church has nothing except everything we need… What we need is God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures, the sacramental life of the Church, the liturgical services of the Church and the teachings, the witness and the blood of the saints.”
As a father, it is moving when I listen to my children recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed or pray the Lord’s Prayer, or when I watch them cross themselves or venerate an icon. We have found a place where our children will be raised in the fullness of the Faith.
I wish I could explain how utterly awe-inspiring and humbling it is to participate in a virtually unchanging Divine Liturgy that Christians globally and historically have used for centuries, a Divine Liturgy that faithfully has escorted millions of Christians to a moment that transcends time and space into God’s kingdom and communion with our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
And it’s a wonderful thing to know that unlike my evangelical experience, there will never be a need for “trends” or “movements” (i.e. charismatic movement, Purpose-driven life movement, spiritual warfare movement, church growth movement) because we have and will always have everything we need to journey into Christ’s life and likeness. Everything we need is here. In Orthodoxy, to borrow again from Fr Hopko, we have “The Holy Spirit, who lives in the life of the Church through the Scriptures, the Sacraments, the Services and the Saints.” While there surely is room for further reflection, study, and adaptation, there is absolutely no need for additions or supplements to our faith and practices.
Now having said this, I’m also aware that everything I have experienced beforehand has been God-ordained. I am eternally grateful for the churches and movements I’ve participated in during my journey with Christ.
In Calvary Chapel, I came to know Christ as my Lord and Savior and to cultivate a love for the Scriptures.
In Youth With a Mission, I explored and confirmed my calling into ministry, participated in overseas missions, and learned how to live in Christian community.
At the First Baptist Church in Azusa, I was entrusted with my first youth ministry and opportunities to preach and teach.
At the San Gabriel Valley Japanese Christian Church, I experienced a vibrant Christian community and was given further room to grow in various ministries, including worship, youth, and preaching.
In the Vineyard, I experienced God’s intimacy and learned to live with risk-taking faith. It was there that I learned all of the aspects of local church ministry and honed my personal and ministerial values.
In the Emerging Church, I enjoyed the freedom of theological and missional exploration, the creativity of making theology accessible and relevant to everyone, and the camaraderie of theological conversation where everyone learned from one another without agenda and power struggles.
So as my family and I stand on the threshold of entering the Orthodox Church, I recognize that my being here is the natural and logical destination of my journey in and through all that I have mentioned. I can see God’s hand in each place in the journey as he used different people and movements to “tutor” me into a more vibrant and well-rounded faith that ultimately has led me here. I hold many fond memories and valuable lessons dear to me and know that I would not be here if not for God leading me in and through Calvary Chapel, YWAM, the Baptist Church, the Japanese Church, the Vineyard, the Emerging Church, as well as Azusa Pacific University, Fuller Theological Seminary and many other people and influences along the way. I admit that all of my experiences have been a mingling of joy and pain. But I truly love where I have been.
As I affirm the fullness of the Orthodox Church, it is not to discredit or disparage those in my past, but to thank and appreciate all who have contributed to my journey. Because of them I am here. Aware of this, my zeal for the Orthodox faith is not a renunciation of all I have learned and experienced as it is the affirmation of all the good I have learned and experienced. With deep thankfulness and gratefulness, I pray I am able to bring all of that good with me into my Orthodox faith.
This is very important to me because I’m also very aware that one brings his or her baggage into the Orthodox faith. An angry Protestant Christian simply becomes an angry Orthodox Christian. An insensitive Roman Catholic Christian simply becomes an insensitive Orthodox Christian. I bitter Emerging Church Christian simply becomes a bitter Orthodox Christian. Recently, I’ve heard Orthodox Christians on a few occasions speak with anger or mockery about the Protestant faith from which they have converted. And this saddens me. It contributes to the perceived superiority and exclusivity of Orthodoxy held by many. There is absolutely no grace in that kind of behavior. And being fully aware of the wounds and anger still residing in my own heart, I know I can easily become like this as well.
So I hope and pray for grace, for generosity, for the ability to listen to another’s perspective, for understanding, and ultimately for love. My goal in converting to Orthodoxy is that I would become a better man, to become like Jesus so that I would learn to love God, people and creation better as time goes on.
Shawn Ragan points to a wonderful two-hour video by Fr Thomas Hopko called “When is Armageddon?” I converted it into an audio file and listened to it yesterday during my commute to work. I’ve always enjoyed Fr Hopko’s teaching and this gem of a lecture encapsulates a lot of why I enjoy him. In many ways, a lot of what Fr Hopko teaches in regard to the Gospel, the Incarnation and eschatology aligns with what I enjoyed in N.T. Wright’s teaching, but from a distinctly Orthodox perspective. Here is a nugget from the first half of the lecture:
“This world, as we know it, is not destroyed and the New Creation is not made out of nothing. The renewed creation is this world saved, redeemed, sanctified, deified, glorified by the risen Christ, who in the Apocalypse is the Son of God, the Son of Man, and 38 times, the Lamb of God who is slain, who is dead and is alive again and is fighting against the Beast, which is the symbol of Babylon, this world that is not only against God, but in place of God.”
That one quote alone is absolutely awesome. One of the major popular evangelical doctrines I abandoned years ago (with N.T. Wright’s influence) was the distorted eschatology that God will one day destroy this world. This doctrine is intimately linked with the popular doctrine of the rapture, which I also abandoned years ago, and contributes to the false idea that God is only interested in saving souls, which he would someday extract from this creation that was destined for destruction. But that’s not the biblical image. God created this world and placed humans as the caretakers of this world to govern and nurture this world as his image-bearers. As humanity goes, so creation goes. When we plunged ourselves into disobedience and distortion, we dragged creation with us. And as St Paul says in Romans 8: 19-21:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Creation isn’t yearning for its own destruction. It’s yearning for its freedom and renewal that will be realized through the life of Christ in and through God’s children. That’s because creation isn’t an afterthought nor simply the backdrop to the human drama. Look at the relationship between Christ and creation that St Paul describes in Colossians 1:15-16:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him.”
Christ is the firstborn of all creation. This world is his and is not destined for destruction. This world was created in him, through him and for him. And it will be re-created in him, through him and for him.
As Christ renews humanity, creation’s caretakers, he renews creation. That’s why I love the words Fr Hopko uses to describe the renewed creation — saved, redeemed, sanctified, deified and glorified by the risen Christ. Those words are normally associated with humanity, but he uses them to describe the renewed creation. And ultimately, when we jump to the end of Revelation, it is this renewed earth that finally becomes the place where God’s throne dwells. Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is finally fulfilled in the renewed creation.
Eschatology is extremely important to me. Christians are to be eschatological people. We are to learn how to live in the present in anticipation of God’s future. So how we understand God’s future determines how we live right now. If we believe that God is going to destroy this world once he’s extracted all of his redeemed people from it, ala the Left Behind series, then we don’t need to live with any kind of impulse toward issues such as environmental responsibility and social responsibility since “it’s going to burn anyways.” But if we believe that we are truly God’s ordained stewards of his creation and that he is saving, redeeming, sanctifying, deifying and glorifying this world by Christ and through us as Christ’s people and followers, then we will live very differently right now.
I’ve been thrilled to discover that the Orthodox Church is very eschatologically-aware. The Divine Liturgy is eschatological. Here’s a quote from a recent blog post by Fr Stephen Freeman:
“Christianity is inherently eschatological - it is precisely about the end of things and about a very specific end. The meaning of Orthodox worship is found in the fact that we believe ourselves to be standing in the very end of all things as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Even the Second Coming is referred to in the past tense. The End has come and Christ is victorious and as His people, Baptized into His death and resurrection, that End is our hope and our own victory.”
In Orthodoxy, eschatology shapes everything — our worship, our daily living and our mission. We follow Christ, obey his commands, wait in vigil, participate in the Divine services, ask for intercession from the saints, and pray in anticipation of the eschaton — the age to come when the world is fully renewed in Christ and flooded with God’s glory as God’s throne is finally established on earth as it is in heaven.
This morning, our family was enrolled as catechumens at St Peter’s. While it was a fairly short moment, it was filled with much significance and meaning. Several years ago as an Evangelical, I read the following quote from St Cyprian of Carthage, who lived in the early 3rd century:
“He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church as his Mother.”
At the time, I was learning the incredible value of spiritual formation and spiritual community and this quote rang true. However, I had a problem. I didn’t know what to do with it practically. Theologically I had been formed to understand the Church as consisting of everyone who called Jesus “Lord and Savior.” Did that mean this large ambiguous and amorphous group of people with vastly different beliefs, values and practices was to spiritually nurture and form me as my “Mother?” If so, did that mean I would have to “pick and choose” which elements would form me and my family?
As my family and left professional ministry, I began constructing a somewhat eclectic Christian spirituality drawing from sources I thought were important. N.T. Wright formed my theological foundation. Dallas Willard and others constructed an individual rule of life for my spiritual formation. The Vineyard shaped my practice of worship and spiritual gifts. The Emerging Church formed a vision for relevant mission. Our house church filled the need for deep spiritual community.
But as I journeyed further with my family and friends, I sensed significant gaps in my eclectic spirituality. Would my own ability to gather and meld these various elements together really develop the fullness of Christ’s life in me, my family and my community? As much as I wanted to believe it would, deep down I knew that I was not smart enough, creative enough, knowledgeable enough or spiritual enough to lead myself and others into the genuine life of Christ. I’m talking about the deep authentic life of Christ in which the core of who we are is radically transformed so that we consistently think and act naturally like Jesus. Everything I did seemed so… shallow.
So while I was much further along than I had been my entire Christian life, I knew myself well enough to admit that my abilities created a very low ceiling. I did not have what I or my family needed to lead and train us ultimately into the deep wellspring of Christ’s life and likeness.
Over the last nine months, our family has been exploring Orthodox Christianity. And while there are elements that are still very strange and foreign and even difficult to accept, I am convinced that we have finally found what our hearts have been longing for. I truly believe that in the Orthodox Church, we have found the very fullness of Christ’s life. There is absolutely nothing lacking in Orthodox worship and life. No assembly or batteries required.
I want to say this again. We have found FULLNESS. Nothing needs to be added or changed or supplemented or created or re-envisioned or recaptured.
During my 20+ years as an Evangelical, I have never experienced this before. Instead, I have witnessed wave upon wave of spiritual fads and enthusiasms washing over us — worship, Church growth, spiritual warfare, spiritual gifts, renewals, spiritual formation, leadership models, books, and conferences.
But not anymore; not for me and my family. We have found Christ’s Church — the fullness of his life embodied throughout the ages and generations from Christ himself to the present. And today, our family is one step closer to living in the reality of St Cyprian’s quote. The Church will be our Mother, truly nurturing and forming us to embody the life and likeness of Christ as she has unchangingly through the ages.
On Monday night, Debbie and I met with Fr Patrick and Kh Christina to let them know that our family is ready to become catechumens. For those unfamiliar with the process, catechumens are those whom the Orthodox Church receives as now preparing to join the Orthodox Church through baptism or chrismation. Up to this point, we have been recognized as inquirers, those interested in and learning about the Orthodox Church. But this coming Sunday morning, we turn a major corner in our journey into Orthodoxy as we officially enter the catechumenate.
Fr Patrick told us that the major distinction between inquirers and catechumens is a shift from information to formation. As inquirers we have been gathering information about the Orthodox Church. Now that we have decided to bring our family and lives into Orthodoxy, the process changes to preparing us to enter and engage in the full life of the Church. Our preparation during this time will focus primarily on preparing for confession and receiving our first Eucharist.
Why these two area? First, confession prepares us to fear the Lord and to enter into a life of humility. The foundation to spiritual growth is authentic repentance and humility before God. Confession is the sacrament and spiritual discipline that will help us learn by grace this valuable trait.
Second, the Eucharist is THE center of worship and life. It is THE moment when we truly have communion with the living God, taking his actual presence into our bodies and thus becoming his Body in the world.
So after spending nine months at St Peter the Apostle Antiochian Orthodox Church, we are ready to take the plunge into Holy Orthodoxy. In many ways, what our family has been doing can be likened to the journey a couple takes toward marriage. Our time as inquirers was like dating, spending lots of time getting to know both Orthodoxy and the people at St Peter’s. This Sunday, we will be “engaged.” Having gotten to know Orthodoxy and St Peter’s these several months, we are convinced that this is where Christ has been leading our family. And like any newly engaged couple, we’re excited, but also a bit nervous. As Fr Patrick told us Monday night, Orthodox Christianity is invasive (as authentic Christianity should be). It fills and transforms every part of our lives. As we anticipate our new life as Orthodox Christians, we still have many questions that will be answered further along in our journey. But we know we have made the right decision and look forward to our full reception into the Orthodox Church in the next several months through baptism or chrismation.
There are a lot of little details that I thoroughly enjoy about Orthodoxy in general and our local parish, St. Peter’s, specifically.
One of the things I enjoy at St. Peter’s is our church bulletin. Each week, the bulletin is about seven pages long and contains that Sunday’s Gospel and Epistle readings, congregational responses, information about upcoming events, fasts and feasts, information about the lives of specific saints and thought-provoking and challenging articles and quotes.
Debbie read me one of the quotes from this week’s bulletin that was tucked away on the back cover:
“The reason [that we don't all become saints] is within us. Firstly, due to our bad intent. Secondly, due to our neglect and laziness. Thirdly, due to the lack or complete absence of love for God and the things of heaven. Fourthly, due to our complete love of money, our devotion to material things, and our low-mindedness.”
Elder Philotheos of Paros
This quote struck me like something a coach would say to an aspiring athlete who, though full of potential, had grown complacent. In fact, it reminded me of something St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
And in 1 Timothy 4:7, he tells St. Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly.”
Yes, we are called to be saints in the Bible. But the Bible also calls to train into actually becoming saints. It’s great to be part of a church community that takes this call very, very seriously.
Our family is gradually learning that living a Christ-following life in the Orthodox Church requires a significant change in lifestyle. There are daily rhythms, weekly rhythms as well as extended spiritual seasons that we observe.
For example, our family’s daily rhythm is being restructured around times of prayer, especially morning and evening prayers. When school was in session, Debbie was leading the kids in the morning prayers and usually every night I try to lead the kids in the evening prayers. These include crossing ourselves as well as performing the metania, a bow with the right hand grazing the floor followed by crossing oneself.
Also each week our family is learning to observe fasting with the Church every Wednesday and Friday. During these days, we refrain from any meat (including eggs), any dairy products, wine and olive oil. I didn’t realize how especially tough fasting on Fridays would be. Also, Orthodox Christians observe a total fast from all food and drink and practice silence and contemplation from Saturday night to Sunday morning in preparation to receive the Holy Eucharist. (Since we’re not Orthodox Christians yet and cannot receive the Eucharist, we’re not observing this total fast.)
The entire weekly rhythm in Orthodoxy centers around the Eucharist. At that moment in the Divine Liturgy, the bread and wine actually transfigure into the Body and Blood of Jesus. It’s a moment when heaven and earth absolutely and truly intersect. I like how Frederica Mathewes-Green describes it in her book, “On the Corner of East and Now”:
“In a few hours, heaven will strike earth like lightning on this spot. The worshippers in this little building will be swept into a divine worship that proceeds eternally, grand with seraphim and incense and God enthroned, ‘high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple’ (Isaiah 6:1). The foundations of that temple shake with the voice of angels calling ‘Holy’ to each other, and we will be there, lifting fallible voices in the refrain, an outpost of eternity. If this is true, it is the most astonishing thing that will happen in our city today.”
By receiving the very Body and Blood of Jesus, the Church, Christ’s Body, communes with Christ and takes his presence into itself and then into the world. So this moment is the climax of the Orthodox Christian’s week and therefore, the weekly rhythm of individual and corporate fasting, prayers and other spiritual disciplines sweep the Church up like a wave catches a surfer to the shore.
And there are seasonal rhythms in the Orthodox Church. We were amazed at the journey through Lent and Pascha. And beginning August 1, we enter another season of fasting in anticipation of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This fast lasts two weeks and will be our family’s first extended fast together. We’ve been gradually including our kids in the various fasts so far. We think they’re ready. So beginning on Friday, we will fast together — no meat and eggs, no dairy, no olive oil and no wine.
In many ways, these rhythms are like athletic training. They tone us and strengthen us by teaching us to die to ourselves through small things like food and by teaching us to commune with God through small things like morning and evening prayers. I love this about Orthodoxy. It’s in the small things that we actually grow into Christ. Spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness or theosis is accomplished not by staggering spiritual moments, but by faithfulness and obedience to Christ in daily life. And having daily, weekly and seasonal rhythms provide the framework for this work.
Ahhh… prayer. Who doesn’t struggle at prayer? And underneath that struggle are all sorts of motivations and compulsions, most of them probably unhealthy and distorted.
Fr Stephen has a great post about prayer. But those who read this blog know that I love virtually everything Fr Stephen posts. I was going to post an excerpt from the post below, but all of it was so good and I couldn’t decide what part to post here. So… go read it HERE. Enjoy.
I absolutely love singing this song during Divine Liturgy. I always look forward to it and my heart soars every time we sing it. There is so much beauty, history and faith in this confession.
Fr Stephen has a wonderful post on a sacramental worldview. Here’s a quick excerpt:
“Without a truly “sacramental” world-view, the presence of God and of all things holy remain alien to our life and are reached only occasionally and with great difficulty (if at all)…
“There is a vast difference and distinction between a world-view which allows for such things as sacraments and a world-view which understands that all of creation is a sacrament. With the first, one can be religious from time-to-time. With the latter, communion with God is a way of life and the whole of life.
Everything is changed in such an understanding. It is in just such a context (and quoting from Scripture) that we can understand that the Church not only reads the Scriptures, but is itself the Scriptures (see my earlier series on an Orthodox hermeneutic). In the same way we not only eat the Body of Christ, we also are the Body of Christ.”
You can read the entire post HERE.
Last night at St Peter’s, Debbie and I attended the last class in a series on the Eastern Orthodox perspective of salvation. Over the last six weeks, Fr Patrick has been answering three basic questions: 1) What is salvation?, 2) How are we saved?, and 3) Why are we saved? He concluded his series last night by examining the last question. I’m hoping to blog more about it in a future post, but let me give you a teaser — our participation in mission must flow from our salvation. In other words, we are being saved (i.e. transfigured by God’s energies into God’s likeness) in order to be co-laborers and co-creators with God. But again, that topic is for a future post.
Last night, Fr Patrick handed out an address delivered by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who was awarded the Oslo Sophie Prize in 2002. (A quick sidenote: Patriarch Bartholomew is the Patriarch of Constantinople, and is the “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Communion.) In the address, Patriarch Bartholomew speaks to the global environmental issues with profound clarity, demonstrating that Eastern Orthodoxy provides both a proper theological framework and relevant experiential foundation to address the issues of our natural environment (and by extrapolation, other issues of reconciliation and justice within our world).
You can read Patriarch Bartholomew’s full address HERE.
Tomorrow is Holy Pentecost for the Orthodox Church. Not surprisingly, Orthodoxy understands Pentecost much differently than Pentecostals and Charismatics. In my past life as a Charismatic Christian, I associated Pentecost and the subsequent Spirit-filled life with zeal and exuberance that often bordered on emotionalism. Not so with Orthodoxy. If I understand it correctly, the Spirit-filled life is one of powerful and profound silence.
Tonight at Liturgy, Fr Patrick explained the Spirit-filled life with the analogy of the Sacramento River. At its headwaters, the Sacramento River is small, shallow and noisy as it bubbles from the ground. As it moves, it gathers water and grows wider and deeper. And as it does so, it grows quieter. When it’s finally at its most powerful and deepest point in its journey, it is silent. So it is with the Spirit-filled life. Pentecost was an explosion of energy and exuberance as the promised Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ followers. But as the Church matured, that initial experienced transformed into an ever-deepening and ever-quieting life as God’s power rooted out sins and passions that divide us and forged divine unity.
Here’s part of a hymn that we sung tonight at Vespers and will sing again tomorrow morning:
“When He came down and confused the tongues,
The Most High divided the nations;
but when He distributed the tongues of fire,
He called all people to unity.
Therefore, with one voice we glorify the most-Holy Spirit.”
Kontakion of Pentecost
I am thoroughly enjoying Shawn’s blog. He is a professional Protestant pastor who is willing to walk away from his job and ministry in order to follow Jesus into the Orthodox Church. His posts are very authentic, well-written, and inspiring.
One of his latest posts, called “Prelest,” discusses an issue I’ve faced personally as well. Spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are core practices in Orthodoxy. Because of this, it is easy for us who are naturally self-disciplined to take on the mantle of spiritual disciplines with a bit more ease. Add to that my distorted perfectionism, and I can fall prey to the idea that “more is better.” So if praying for 10 minutes every morning is good, then I’m going to shoot for 20 or 30 or 60 minutes. And if I succeed at this, I fall into a second and more devious trap of judgmentalism toward those who can’t or won’t practice spiritual disciplines with any kind of consistency.
Well, all of that is a spiritual deception called Prelest or spiritual pride. And it is demonic. As Shawn explains in his post, if my spiritual discipline is leading toward spiritual pride, demons will actually empower my spiritual discipline. The idea of demons actually empowering my spiritual disciplines so that they further blind and deceive me is absolutely terrifying to me. Simply engaging in spiritual disciplines is not enough for formation. They can actually hurt me if done incorrectly.
Bottom-line, I must remain humble before the Lord in both my knowledge and practice. Jesus alone is my salvation. And I’m reminded over and over that I need the wisdom and nurture of his Church to help me in my journey towards him.
Things have been pretty busy as we draw to the end of another school year. So I haven’t had much time or energy to blog. But I’m still here.
Since I don’t have much to say, I wanted to point to someone who does. This week, I listened to a podcast that really spoke volumes to me. It’s by Fr Stephen Freeman and is entitled “Is Relationship with God What We Want?” It’s about fifteen minutes long and you can listen to it HERE or subscribe to his podcast at the iTunes store.
Fr Stephen does a fine job examining the word “koinonia” as it’s used in the New Testament. The word doesn’t really mean “fellowship.” Rather, it means “participation” and “communion.” The Church is not a fellowship — an association of like-minded people. Rather, it’s to be participation in one another’s lives, communion with each other.
Anyway, I’m not doing his podcast justice. Listen to it and allow God to speak.
As we began attending St Peter’s, a local Antiochian Orthodox parish, we were immediately confronted with how foreign Eastern Orthodoxy is to western Evangelicalism. In many ways, we discovered profound beauty and holiness that are absolutely missing in most Evangelical churches. Eastern Orthodoxy is incredibly multi-sensory. In Orthodox worship, one smells the incense, sees the icons, candles and vestments, tastes the bread, and chants the prayers and hymns. In addition, one also venerates the cross, icons, and Gospel Book, crosses oneself, makes prostrations, and greets others with a holy kiss, all the time standing through most of the service. When you complete an Orthodox worship service, you not only feel like you’ve prayed and worshipped deeply, but you also feel like you’ve visited an art museum, seminary and a gym. Every part of your being is impacted by awe-inspiring beauty, divine holiness, theological profundity and historical depth. (Debbie and I joked after our journey through Lent and Holy Week that we need to start working out so we’re in shape for next year’s Pascha season.)
But along with the beauty and holiness, we also came face-to-face with concepts and stories that continue to evoke one question, “Where is that in the Bible?” Expressed in that question is a significant clash between a Protestant worldview and an Orthodox worldview.One of the values deeply ingrained in me as a Protestant was sola scriptura, literally “by scripture alone.” This doctrine teaches that the Scriptures are the singular authority in all matters of faith and practice. In this view, the Bible is self-interpreting and the final authority of Christian doctrine. At a practical level for most Protestants, sola scriptura equates to a deep personal belief in Scripture’s final authority. And conversely, a rejection of sola scriptura equates to a similar rejection of Scripture’s authority.
Viewing Eastern Orthodoxy through the lens of sola scriptura can cause many Protestants to conclude that Orthodoxy does not value the Bible. This is an unfortunate and a completely incorrect conclusion.
Orthodoxy values Scripture deeply. For example, when practiced fully, during the course of Matins (morning services) and Vespers (evening services) the entire Psalter is recited each week and twice a week during Lent. The Old Testament is read at Vespers. The Gospel climaxes Matins on Sunday mornings. At the Liturgy, a special Epistle and Gospel reading are assigned for each day of the year, so that the entire New Testament (except Revelation) is read at the Eucharist. It has also been calculated that the Liturgy contains 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New. Scripture saturates every Orthodox service because Orthodoxy view Scripture as the verbal icon of Christ. All of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, are first and foremost about Christ. So the Gospel Book has a place of honor on the altar and it is carried in procession at the Liturgy. All of this is to say that Orthodoxy practices a deep respect for Scripture.
While Protestantism attempts to view Scripture by itself, Orthodoxy values, reads, interprets and practices Scripture as part of its larger Holy Tradition. For the Orthodox Church, Holy Tradition is simply the ongoing life of God’s people. It’s the living continuity with Christ, the Apostles and the Church of ancient times. It’s the life of Christ within his Body passed on through the ages.
Unfortunately, the idea of tradition often carries a negative connotation for many western Evangelicals. I used to view tradition as blind allegiance to an old custom or practice that now carried little relevance, meaning or life. But I’m now learning and experiencing the vibrant life of Christ that is Holy Tradition. And within this Holy Tradition, at the most prominent place, are the Scriptures. For Orthodoxy, Scripture and Holy Tradition are not two separate sources of authority. Scripture was written and passed down as part of its Holy Tradition.
So what forms Holy Tradition? Holy Tradition is composed of Holy Scripture, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the lives of the Saints, the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Icons, the Church Hierarchy, and the Church architecture. But Orthodoxy also recognizes that not everything received from the past is of equal value. Holy Scripture, the Creed and the doctrinal declarations of the Ecumenical Councils hold a prominent place in Holy Tradition. These are considered absolute and unchanging. The other elements of Tradition do not carry the same authority.
In addition, Orthodoxy recognizes that not everything from the past is necessarily true. At this point, Orthodoxy distinguishes between Tradition and tradition. Many traditions are simply wise and pious opinions, not universal statements of truth. As Timothy Ware declares in his book, The Orthodox Church (much of which this post draws), “It is absolutely essential to question the past.” The Church, as Christ’s Body, must exercise discernment.
In my opinion, the perceived conflict that most Protestants have with sola scriptura versus Holy Tradition is actually a conflict between the private individual’s right versus accountability to the Church.
As with all values, sola scriptura did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it was one of the ways the Reformers attempted to correct some of the abusive practices and authority within the Roman Catholic Church (abuses not found in the Eastern Orthodox Church). The doctrine of sola scriptura removes the absolute right of interpreting Scripture from the Church and places it in the hands of the private individual. Consequently, the attempt to correct one abuse eventually led to another — the priority of the private individual exercised in every aspect of the spiritual life. In this light, a person’s interpretation of Scripture is correct simply because he or she believes it’s correct. So at a practical level, sola scriptura implies that the private interpreter is the actual authority in all matters of faith and practice. While Scripture is the source from which the individual constructs his or her private interpretation, it is the individual who makes the final determination of what he or she believes. The individual is his or her own final authority.
So the real issue that many Protestants have with Orthdoxy’s Holy Tradition is not whether Scripture and Holy Tradition are contradicting authorities. Rather, the issue is whether the individual or the Church is the final authority in regards to matters of faith and practice.
As I have journeyed toward Orthodoxy, I have had to come to terms with this issue. Over and over I have to answer penetrating questions. Will I cling to my own privately constructed theology or consent to the collective wisdom of the Church’s Holy Tradition? Was my interpretation of Scripture that I had forged together from miscellaneous influences and my own limited intelligence superior to the interpretation of the truly Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church? Who could I trust to lead me in the way of salvation and toward the likeness of Christ — myself or the Church that has faithfully preserved the Gospel and life of Christ for 2000 years far better than any other Christian expression?
Over the last several months, I have felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord. I now realize that my attempts to wrestle on behalf of my private theology, private piety, and private spirituality was more an act of defiant pride than anything else. And as I have learned to humbly recognize the Church’s authority, I have found her to be like a loving Mother, nurturing me with her fullness, wisdom and holiness in ways I never would have experienced on my own.
And I have discovered that humbly yielding to the Church does not mean blindly and unthinkingly accepting everything. The Church trains us into the mind and life of Christ, so there is plenty of room for critical discernment and personal responsibility for what I believe and practice. But now I do this within an ecclesiology that naturally supports proper belief and practice. And as I do this, I experience Christ’s life.
To be continued…
Fr Patrick has a wonderful post on the Divine Liturgy. There are a couple of good lines that stand out for me.
The first one is the quote by Elder Zacharias of Essex:
“The Divine Liturgy is the highest form of prayer in which a sacred exchange takes place. Mankind offers to God ‘his temporal and limited life (in exchange) for the eternal and infinite life of God.’”
Couple this quote by one of Fr Patrick’s:
“Not all prayer is of the same depth—or height.”
This is so true. I’ve been a praying Christian for over 20 years. And no matter how much I pray, my prayers are always a reflection of my own spiritual maturity or lack thereof. In other words, my personal prayers cannot be any larger than who I am. In my earlier years of immaturity, I used to think that written prayers were a sign of spiritual deadness and only spontaneous prayers carried the essential “passion” to be effective.
Now that I’ve grown up a bit, I’ve incorporated Daily Hours and written prayers into my prayer life over the last several years. I cannot explain the added depth and height of praying prayers that have been written and prayed by men and women of greater spiritual maturity and wisdom.
And now participating in the Divine Liturgy every week at St Peter’s adds an even greater dimension. I’m truly entering into the highest prayer of the Church. By praying their prayers, I’m not only being trained in how to pray, but I’m praying in unity with the rest of the Church. I’m participating in actually being part of Christ’s Body, crying out in one voice prayers inspired by the Spirit.
The final line that leaps from Fr Patrick’s post is:
“The Liturgy is better experienced than understood.”
There are events in human life in which experience far surpasses any kind of rational understanding. And one of those moments is the Divine Liturgy. While some knowledge of the Divine Liturgy is helpful in order to participate in it more fully, I have found it much more beneficial to allow the movements of prayer, worship, theology, and beauty to wash over me like waves at the beach.
For those who are interested, Fr Patrick will be posting more on the basics of Divine Liturgy in the near future. These posts will be under the category “Orthodox Christian liturgics.”
You can read Fr Patrick’s entire post HERE.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Fr Patrick, our priest, has begun blogging. Cathy found this Bizarro cartoon in this morning’s paper that reminded us of him. This one’s for you Fr Patrick. Keep up the blogging!
Last night during our inquirers’ class, Fr Patrick spoke about faith’s role in salvation. (Once again, it was a great teaching, especially as he talked about Orthodoxy’s ability to synchronize properly the essential subjective and objective dimensions of faith.) At one point Fr Patrick began speaking about the Protestant emphasis on “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior.”
In our modern world, “personal” translates into “private.” Scripturally, a private existence is no existence at all. It is self-delusion and self-destruction. There is no such thing as a private salvation or a private savior. Both are oxymorons. True life as God intended, and therefore true salvation into that life, is relational. It is communal. That’s what the Greek word koinonia means — communion, participation.
So Fr Patrick offered a better question that has been echoing in my mind since last night, “Have you accepted Jesus as our common Savior?” As the Body of Christ, we hold Jesus in common as our Savior. Together we are his Body. Together, we commune with him. Together, we participate in him. Together we unite ourselves to him and to each other. Thus, together, we are being saved in him.
So with this resonating in me, I was thrilled to read Fr Stephen’s latest post entitled, “The Orthodox Church and Personal Salvation.” In the post he shares some thoughts regarding a Franklin Graham article and then includes a short article that he wrote on personal salvation. The entire article is definitely worth reading. But his included earlier article is awesome and supports what we discussed during last night’s class. Here’s the majority of the article:
“Thus there is always something of a hesitancy when someone asks (in newspeak), “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” If only we would, it would be truly significant. But in our modern street-wise theology, Christ as personal savior becomes synonymous with Christ as private savior, and as such is no savior at all. For no one and nothing can save the false existence we have created in the privacy of our modern existence. We were not created for such an existence.
“In the story of Genesis – the first appearance of the phrase, “It is not good,” is applied to man – in an existence that is private. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We do not exist in the goodness which God has created for us when we exist alone. The most remote hermit of the Christian desert does not live alone, but lives radically for others and to God. Of all men he is the least alone. No one would take on the radical ascesis of the desert for themselves alone: it is an act of radical love.
“And thus the personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, determined that salvation for humanity could only take place as we lived fully and truly into the existence for which we were and are created: the Church. In the Church we do not exist as mere individuals but as members of the Body of Christ. My life is the life of Christ. What happens to me is essential to what happens to all the members of the Body and what happens to the members of the Body is essential for what happens to me. Their life is my life.
“Thus when we approach the cup of Christ’s Body and Blood, we never approach it for our private good but as members of the Body. We are thus enjoined to be in love and charity with our neighbor and to forgive the sins of all – otherwise the cup is not for our salvation but our destruction.”
And then comes the climactic moment of the article:
“The salvation into which we are Baptized is a new life – no longer defined by the mere existence of myself as an individual – but rather by the radical freedom of love within the Body of Christ. To accept Christ as our “personal” savior, thus can be translated into its traditional Orthodox form: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” And this question is more fully expounded when we understand that the Christ to whom we unite ourself is a many-membered body.”
For me, Fr Stephen’s article drives home two facts: First, Jesus is our common Savior with and through whom we commune together. And second, the Orthodox Church has faithfully preserved and practiced this truth through the ages by its Holy Tradition.
Our priest, Father Patrick, has started a blog. He posted his first post today. I’m very excited about what he will write. Every homily he has delivered has been “out of the park.” I am amazed at his ability to make simple some very deep spiritual and theological concepts. The other day, I listened to him explain the Trinity in five minutes in a simple, yet non-simplistic way, that maintained the essential theological nuances. I thought it was absolutely brilliant.
So stop by his blog and encourage him to write.
(The picture is of Fr Patrick preparing to baptize our friend, Christina.)
As the last five years have passed, Debbie and I concluded that our family needed something more than our home church. While we love our home group and have no desire to end the friendships, fellowship and discussions, we needed some sort of time-tested faith-community that would train us to into the incarnational life we observe in the Bible. However, I simply don’t have the time, energy or intelligence to create something new only to discover in several years, especially at the cost of our children’s spirituality, that it didn’t work.
So while we currently remain committed to our home church, we knew we also needed to seek another Christian tradition for our family’s life and growth in Christ. The spectrum of choices seemed simple — Protestantism, Emerging Church, Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. However, the only viable option for us was Eastern Orthodoxy. Why?
In a nutshell, the primary attraction I had to Eastern Orthodoxy was its soteriology. For most of my Christian life as a western Evangelical, I lived and operated under the judicial view of salvation that is common to western Christianity. In addition, I had fully embraced the reduced popular version that one hears in many witnessing opportunities. It goes something like this:
“God loves you and has created you for a wonderful purpose. However, humanity rebelled against God and therefore all people are born and live under the guilt of sin, compounded by their own disobedience. We are all guilty of breaking God’s Law and because the wages of sin is death, every human being is condemned to die. But because God loves you so much, he sent his son to die on your behalf. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the wrath and judgment reserved for you. So if you accept Jesus’ gift simply by believing it in faith, you are forgiven of your of guilt and God now views you with Jesus’ righteousness.”
Or to reduce it further into how most western evangelicals think, salvation means we’re forgiven of all of our sins and as a result, we will go to heaven when we die. This viewpoint focuses primarily on the individual and treats salvation as an event and a commodity regardless of the actual state of one’s life.
After my episode of severe burnout several years ago and during my subsequent theological reconstruction, I abandoned the judicial metaphor as the primary understanding of sin and salvation. I realized that while God was lavish with his love and forgiveness, I really hadn’t been saved from much of anything. As a successful pastor who loved Jesus, I was virtually as broken and screwed up as a human being as I was when I first began following Christ. It was this very fact that forced me to realize that the biblical view of salvation was more organic, relational, and synergistic than legal.
Salvation is the process of restoration to what humans were created to be. Rather than sin being the breaking of God’s Law, the root of sin is the movement from being to non-being. Sin is the distortion of our humanity, of who we are supposed to be as God’s image on earth. This is the glory of which we all fall short. Rather than being truly human, sin makes us subhuman. So the problem of sin is much deadlier and sinister than mere guilt or disobedience. It is the warping, distortion and brokenness of who we are as human beings. It is the full corruption of my mind, heart, body, soul and relationships. In this light, I don’t just need to be forgiven. I need to be healed. I don’t just need assurance of admittance into heaven in the future. I need assurance that who I am in the present is being transformed out of my desperate and destructive subhuman existence and into the image and likeness of God as I was divinely intended to live.
So salvation isn’t primarily about guilt and forgiveness. It’s about brokenness and healing. It’s about delusion and illumination. It’s about distortion and transformation. It’s about death and life in the here-and-now. As a follower of Jesus, I truly cannot say, “I am saved.” I can only say, “I am being saved.”
Christ’s crucifixion has conquered evil, destroyed death, reconciled creation, redeemed the human nature, and released God’s forgiveness. In other words, Jesus has made God’s salvation completely available to all people. But as St Paul exhorts the Philippians, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Salvation is something that is worked out progressively with God.
So if salvation is a lifelong journey of healing transformation in God, then how am I actually being saved? I am being saved by participating in the life of God by communing with Jesus Christ within the life of his people. So not only is salvation an ongoing relationship with God by communing with and following Christ, but salvation is also an ongoing relationship with God’s people. There is no such thing as a private salvation. One can only experience “being saved” within a community of Christ’s followers.
It is very easy to read this and wonder, “Isn’t this works-righteousness?” or “Aren’t you now trying to earn salvation?” And the simple answer is “Not at all.” None of this is possible without God’s grace completely penetrating and affecting all of this. But while salvation is opposed to earning, it requires strenuous effort in synergy with God’s grace. Salvation must be worked out in cooperation with God. It is like going to physical therapy to recover from an accident or surgery. Healing requires effort on my part, not as an attempt to earn anything, but as the cooperative process with my doctors that moves me from my brokenness to my healing.
Or to switch metaphors, the process of salvation is like marriage. I am legally married. But that thought rarely enters my mind. Rather, the last 19 years of marriage have been learning to live in a cooperative relationship with Debbie so that she and I progressively become one. Again, it’s not about earning anything. It’s a relationship of becoming something other than what I was when I began, knowing that what I am becoming is far better than what I was.
What are we becoming? Our salvation is that we’re becoming God’s humanity as he intended. We’re not only being restored into the image of God but growing into the likeness of God. We are growing into the fullness and likeness of Jesus, who was true humanity as we were all intended to become. So we are becoming by grace what Christ is by nature — the very fullness of God in our humanity. And as we become this, the entire Creation is being sanctified. In other words, we are becoming the agents of God’s sanctification and renewal of creation. And this then moves the discussion to mission (but that will have to wait for another post).
So all of this discourse on salvation is simply to say that Eastern Orthodoxy is the only Christian tradition that has this beautiful soteriology built into its tradition, theology, ecclesiology and daily practice and life. We encounter it and live it in every formal service as a church and informal gathering as friends. It is woven into the very fabric of the Orthodox way of life.
While Mark and I have taught this soteriology and our families have tried to live in it all the way back to our time at the Vineyard, through our association with the Emerging Church, and within our experience as a home church, it has only been during the last five months in an Orthodox parish that we have found the natural environment in which this salvation can be fully lived and experienced.
As Mark mentioned in his post, we finally feel at home.
So we left the evangelical church. Several of us began meeting at Mark and Barbara’s home. Mark and I, disillusioned by the consumerist model of church, desired to create a new kind of community. We wanted this community to be organic, not requiring a building or staff. We wanted this community to avoid becoming meeting-centric. Our hope was that our times together would supplement each member’s personal apprenticeship to Jesus. We didn’t want our members to rely on any structure, program, system or staff in their relationship with Christ. We wanted to purge ourselves from the contemporary Christian ethos of viewing the church as the organization that provides for my spiritual needs. It was out of this vision that I wrote the article “Detoxing from church.” In hindsight, I wished I had entitled it “Detoxing from Consumer church,” since I was actually critiquing the consumerist model of the evangelical church.
We also began acquainting ourselves with the fledgling Emerging Church. Through blogs and relational networks, we discovered others who were leaving the consumerist evangelical church with the hope of developing alternative forms of Christian community. We were encouraged by people with similar stories, who were paving the ecclesiological path into the future.
Our group developed three simple values — the inward journey, the outward journey and the corporate journey. We hoped to become a community that focused on being formational, missional, and communal. We wanted to be apprentices, becoming like Jesus from the inside-out. We wanted to become ambassadors, living like Jesus in the world. And we wanted to become apprentices and ambassadors by how we lived and worshipped together. One of the statements we adopted was “To embody, demonstrate and announce the fullness of Christ.” Simply put, we wanted to be incarnational. We hoped to learn how to be Jesus’ actual body, the continuing incarnation on earth. Just as Jesus embodied Yahweh, we desired to be sent as Jesus was sent (John 20:21). In fact, we embraced an Orthodox saying, “Becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.”
So our group met, lived, and loved together. We read books together, studied Scripture together, and ate together. At this time, our home church is five years old. I am forever grateful for the experience. After fourteen years of professional ministry, I relearned how to have substantial friendships completely free from any pastoral role. I was also free to engage in theological exploration and discovery that I could not have done on staff at my previous church. And most importantly, our group has shown my family love in very rich and meaningful ways.
Yet, during these past five years, I have learned several lessons that ultimately turned my gaze toward Eastern Orthodoxy.
I quickly learned that while spiritual formation requires personal responsibility and effort, it is a communal endeavor. During our home church’s first couple of years, even though I knew spiritual formation requires community, I think I overemphasized the individual aspect. To our members, I continued to liken spiritual formation to individual athletic training — one needs to train as an individual in order to be like Jesus and live his kind of life just as one needs to train in order to be a great basketball player.
However, I learned that just as very few people are capable of mastering a sport simply by training on their own, very few people are capable of mastering God’s life by training on their own. Spiritual formation is a team sport. The “one another” exhortations in the New Testament alone make that clear. Spiritual formation must be learned, practiced and lived at the corporate level. The community’s experience of formation is not supplemental, but foundational to each member’s formation.
This became especially evident as Debbie and I discussed our children’s formation. We obviously wouldn’t expect our kids to train into spiritual formation on their own. They needed guidance from us as parents, which we gladly accepted. But we also realized that they needed some sort of structure to help them experience formation within a community. They needed to worship, pray, study and fellowship in a community. We also felt that they needed formational moments like youth camp and service projects. So after a couple of years as a home church, Debbie and I decided that our family would also attend an evangelical church in order to provide community and structure for our kids. Unfortunately, it got to the point that once a week, we were driving our two younger kids to one church for their children’s program and our two older kids to a church in a different city for their youth program. That got old quick.
In our home church, we knew we needed some sort of structure during our community gatherings to help us be formational, missional and communal. Gathering only to eat, study and talk was meaningful, but also lacked something essential. Specifically, we needed worship and prayer. But I didn’t want us to fall back into singing contemporary worship songs that contained shallow, mishmash theology. Nor did I want us to digress into prayer meetings that were filled with extemporaneous and usually forced and shallow prayers. Communal worship and prayer needed to be deeper in order to be formational.
At first, this was difficult to admit. Because the consumerist structure that we had left was so destructive, I clung vehemently to the concept of a community with very limited structure. And we floundered. We needed structure to steer us as a community into formational worship and prayer. But I dreaded the idea of creating a system upon which we would develop an unhealthy dependence as we had done in the consumer model. Yet, we couldn’t continue without structure. We decided we needed some form of liturgy to guide us.
Since none of us came from any liturgical tradition, we began exploring liturgical components from a variety of Christian traditions. We used the Divine Hours. We used Lectio Divina. We used the Common Book of Prayers. We incorporated Eastern Orthodox prayers. We lit candles. We read from the Revised Common Lectionary. We even created our own prayers.
And we discovered two things. First, creating liturgy requires a lot of energy and time, something we didn’t have. Also, this kind of endeavor creates a liturgy that is discontinuous and jumbled. While sometimes meaningful at a personal level, our efforts failed to create a regular structure that supported a formational life. And, quite frankly, I’m simply not smart enough to create a cohesive liturgy every single week. Others in the Emerging Church were developing liturgy, but the results either seemed relevant only to the life of that local community or were pieced together from various sources like we had experienced. We needed something cohesive that was larger than our local context and had a time-proven record of supporting spiritual formation.
Our liturgical exploration also made us aware to the need for sacraments. We knew Jesus’ Incarnation redeems all of creation and the entire world is filled with his presence. We realized that formation occurs by living one’s whole life with Jesus’ presence in the world. But learning to experience his presence in the world requires special moments of his presence as a community. One cannot experience the entire world as a sacrament without actual sacraments. One cannot view the entire world as holy and filled with Christ’s presence without having special moments that are holy and filled with Christ’s presence. The logical conclusion of Christ’s Incarnation is a sacramental life. But as Protestants, our only regular sacrament was communion. But was it only symbolic or something more? Unable to agree, we left it at “to each his or her own.”
Bottom-line, over the last five years, I have learned that an incarnational life — being formational, missional, and communal — must be supported within a community that has effectively practiced time-proven and life-giving liturgy and sacraments. My family and I need this kind of community, but where would we find it? Our simple non-Protestant choices were Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. While certain aspects of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism were attractive, their historical roots as well as contemporary issues dissuaded me from leading my family in either of those directions. Also, I had become very attracted to Eastern Orthodox theology over the last several years and had become convinced that they had preserved the biblical Gospel better than other traditions. I was surprised upon reflection that I agreed more with Orthodox theology than I did with Protestant theology.
To be continued…
Debbie took three of our kids to Matins this morning at St. Peter’s. When they returned home, my oldest son gifted me with a small icon of St. Nectarios that he bought for me. St. Nectarios was a very humble and pious man who, among other things, loved God’s Word, prayer, and graciously endured false slander. He is such a beautiful example of a Christ-filled life, one that I hope I may emulate.
I’m hoping to address the issue of saints and icons in a future post, but I want to say now that one of the ways I feel the Orthodox Church offers the fullness of the Gospel is through the commemoration of the saints. God is alive and truly wonderful through his saints.
Below is a synopsis of his life from AbbaMoses.com:
“Saint Nectarius was born in Selyvria of Thrace on October 11, 1846. After putting himself through school in Constantinople with much hard labour, he became a monk on Chios in 1876, receiving the monastic name of Lazarus; because of his virtue, a year later he was ordained deacon, receiving the new name of Nectarius. Under the patronage of Patriarch Sophronius of Alexandria, Nectarius went to Athens to study in 1882; completing his theological studies in 1885, he went to Alexandria, where Patriarch Sophronius ordained him priest on March 23, 1886 in the Cathedral of Saint Sabbas, and in August of the same year, in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Cairo, made him Archimandrite. Archimandrite Nectarius showed much zeal both for preaching the word of God, and for the beauty of God’s house. He greatly beautified the Church of Saint Nicholas in Cairo, and years later, when Nectarius was in Athens, Saint Nicholas appeared to him in a dream, embracing him and telling him he was going to exalt him very high.
“On January 15, 1889, in the same Church of Saint Nicholas, Nectarius was consecrated Metropolitan of Pentapolis in eastern Libya, which was under the jurisdiction of Alexandria. Although Nectarius’ swift ascent through the degrees of ecclesiastical office did not affect his modesty and childlike innocence, it aroused the envy of lesser men, who convinced the elderly Sophronius that Nectarius had it in his heart to become Patriarch. Since the people loved Nectarius, the Patriarch was troubled by the slanders. On May 3, 1890, Sophronius relieved Metropolitan Nectarius of his duties; in July of the same year, he commanded Nectarius to leave Egypt.
“Without seeking to avenge or even to defend himself, the innocent Metropolitan left for Athens, where he found that accusations of immorality had arrived before him. Because his good name had been soiled, he was unable to find a position worthy of a bishop, and in February of 1891 accepted the position of provincial preacher in Euboia; then, in 1894, he was appointed dean of the Rizarios Ecclesiastical School in Athens. Through his eloquent sermons, his unwearying labours to educate fitting men for the priesthood, his generous almsdeeds despite his own poverty, and the holiness, meekness, and fatherly love that were manifest in him, he became a shining light and a spiritual guide to many. At the request of certain pious women, in 1904 he began the building of his convent of the Holy Trinity on the island of Aegina while yet dean of the Rizarios School; finding later that his presence there was needed, he took up his residence on Aegina in 1908, where he spent the last years of his life, devoting himself to the direction of his convent and to very intense prayer; he was sometimes seen lifted above the ground while rapt in prayer. He became the protector of all Aegina, through his prayers delivering the island from drought, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Here also he endured wicked slanders with singular patience, forgiving his false accusers and not seeking to avenge himself. Although he had already worked wonders in life, an innumerable multitude of miracles have been wrought after his repose in 1920 through his holy relics, which for many years remained incorrupt. There is hardly a malady that has not been cured through his prayers; but Saint Nectarius is especially renowned for his healings of cancer for sufferers in all parts of the world.”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve always been searching, even when I didn’t have words to express what I was looking for. Meeting Jesus and becoming his apprentice answered the deepest parts of my questing heart. And following God’s calling into professional ministry for over fourteen years provided wonderful opportunities to fulfill that search.
Yet through it all, I have always felt God calling me to journey deeper and to explore his kingdom. So here I am, standing on the threshold of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Ironically, all of my adult education and professional experience have brought me to this place — a place where all of my adult education and professional experience are virtually obsolete and irrelevant. And while that prospect has its own issues to deal with, I have a substantial peace about the next steps. Simply put, I believe God has journeyed with me and shaped me so that I could be right here.
When I first committed to following Jesus, I told him I would go wherever he led me. And if that means following him into a place where everything I’ve learned and worked for must be laid aside, then it is a very simple price to pay in order to journey with him further into his life and likeness.
So how did I get here?
As an associate pastor in a small Vineyard church, I had fully embraced the business model of running a church. Inspired by men like John Maxwell, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, I strained to create an efficient and effective Christian organization. I spent most of my waking hours trying to design and implement systems for assimilating, training, mobilizing, and reaching people, especially leaders. And on a personal level, I was doing everything I counseled others to do in order to grow as Christians — Sunday worship attendance, small group attendance, tithing, evangelism, daily quiet time, teaching Sunday school, reading the Bible in a year, serving in ministries, praying for people, practicing spiritual gifts and more.
And yet, something was terribly wrong. I was always stressed, frustrated, and angry. I was consuming caffeine non-stop and taking Tylenol like candy for my constant headaches. The worst thing was how I had learned to create a happy “ministry” exterior to cover up this internal mess. I could be smiling and joking with someone that I was fuming over and he would never know it.
And then I crashed. I had a burnout crisis that is still very vivid in my memory after all of these years. The despair and self-loathing I felt at that moment still haunts me.
I crawled away from that moment completely broken. I could do only one thing — cling to Jesus. I spent most mornings in a local coffee shop just resting in Jesus’ presence. I listened to worship music, prayed, read Scripture and journaled. But these were no longer activities I did to grow as a Christian. They became communion with Jesus. I quickly became aware that I had spent years amassing Bible knowledge, developing organizational skills, and engaging in Christian activities with very little, if any, inward transformation into Christ’s likeness.
I learned painfully that the system one uses is designed to produce the results one experiences. In other words, my broken inner life was the direct result of how I lived my life as a Christian and a pastor. It was because of how I lived my life, not despite it, that I was in such a mess. My theology and my practices were broken. And simply trying to “do better” or “try harder” would ultimately create the same results.
So my focus changed to following Jesus into his likeness and allowing his ministry to be the natural outflow of his character and life within me. I would still do my job as a pastor, but everything began changing. My theology began changing as I realized that virtually every aspect — christology, bibliology, soteriology, eschatology, missiology, cosmology — was distorted and therefore contributed to my ill health. This in turn changed my teaching and preaching. And it changed how I worked as a pastor. I could still do my job, but how I did it and why I did it had changed. Over time I began to sense health.
And over time I began to sense something else.
I was becoming a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I was no longer fitting in the church I helped build and pastor. The lasting changes I was experiencing on a personal level and trying to realize on a corporate level would require a hugely different church paradigm in order to see them reproduced within the congregation’s life. In the end, I probably created more disruption than was necessary.
Through a series of circumstances, God orchestrated my departure for the sake of my health as well as the church’s. Mark, who was also on staff with me at the Vineyard, left as well. We, and a few families close to us, received the leadership’s blessing to go and try to develop something new, a missional community.
To be continued…
My friend, David, who has been very instrumental in my family’s progress into Orthodoxy, has a post worth reading called, “Orthodoxy Is For Everyone.”
I was with him during the time he initially began exploring Orthodoxy and I had the privilege of attending his and Nicole’s Chrismation service. At the time, I believed I was following God’s calling as an evangelical pastor, so I wasn’t really offended by David’s conversion. I believed that he had his calling and I had mine. Sure he may have believed that he was entering into the fullest expression of the Church and Faith. But I had the surety of my calling. What I didn’t realize then, but do realize now, is that I needed to take a few more turns in my own journey with Jesus to prepare me to enter Orthodoxy. Somehow, Jesus used my obedience to my sense of calling to prepare for where I am today.
And while I haven’t been received into the Orthodox Church yet, I want to echo David’s words:
“My own experiences and beliefs about this living and ancient faith/tradition is that it IS for everybody. It is only foreign in the sense that it is radically Christian and holy, and I believe that it truly is the fullness of the gospel (i.e., the fullness of Jesus’ message and tradition).”
Oh, and Thank You, David, for embodying this radical Christianity and helping us to enter this wonderful Faith.
After my last post on Fr Stephen’s post, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic,” I had another thought regarding my pride and biblical interpretation. When I examine Orthodox interpretation of Scripture, not only must I hold my personal biblical interpretations in light of 2000 years of Living Tradition, but I must also hold it in light of Orthodoxy’s 2000-year ability to maintain the true Gospel.
As an evangelical Protestant and then in the last several years of association with the Emerging Church, we talked non-stop about recovering and redefining the Gospel. For various reasons offered by really smart people, it is clear that the Gospel in western Christianity has become overly-simplified, distorted or completely replaced with something else.
This isn’t true of Orthodoxy. I’ve noticed it in my reading of Orthodox theology and have now experienced it firsthand, especially during Lent and Holy Week. And these services, with their liturgy and prayers, are centuries old. They have been faithfully and unwaveringly helping Jesus’ followers enter and live in the Gospel for hundreds and hundreds of years. As much as I enjoy my theological musing and study, I cannot make that claim about my biblical interpretations. So when my doctrines rub up against Orthodox doctrines, I must learn to comply humbly.
Christ is risen!
Fr Stephen has written a post worth reading called, “An Orthodox Hermeneutic.” In my short and limited experience with Orthodoxy, I have to admit that a lot of what he says makes sense. Personally, I no longer adhere to Sola Scriptura since it strips Scriptures out of the very context that created them and gives them meaning — the Church and its Living Tradition. In addition both modern biblical scholarship and the teaching from the pulpit are examples of what happens when Sola Scriptura runs its course — every person has an interpretation of Scripture.
Yet, at a deep level, I also struggle with some of what Fr Stephen says. I have my own pet biblical interpretations and some of them are not embraced by the Orthodox Church. In those moments, I have to ask myself, “Can I honestly hold up the interpretative conclusions that I have reached from my limited study before 2000 years of the Church’s Living Tradition and believe that I’m right and they’re wrong?” You see, it boils down to pride rather that correct interpretation. Here’s a bit from Fr Stephen’s post:
“Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.
“It is, of course, the case that there are things to be found within the Church that are not “of” the Church, but are things to be purged, to be removed, to be met with repentance. Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is only rightly lived as a life of constant repentance. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50 (51):17.”
As a newbie to Eastern Orthodoxy, I’m trying to learn stuff as fast as I can. Well, this week is Bright Week. For Orthodox, Bright Week begins a time of celebration that lasts until Pentecost. And during this period, because of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, Orthodox do things a little different. Below is a list of things that are done during Bright Week. I first heard this list on the Orthodixie pocast. Mark was able to find these items through the This Side of Glory blog.
- During Bright Week, our prayers in church and at home are sung and not read as we sing all week the feast of the risen Christ: Christ is risen!
- During Bright Week, we do not read from the psalter at home or in church for the prophecies have been fulfilled: Christ is risen!
- During the entire Paschal season there is no prostrating or kneeling permitted in church or at home for we stand with the resurrected Christ: Christ is risen! [Ha! I did remember that one. Hooray!]
- During the Paschal season we begin all of our prayers at home and in church by singing the troparion of Pascha: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
- During the Paschal season and extending to Pentecost, we do not pray “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth…” for the Comforter comes on Pentecost. Christ is risen
Christ is Risen! Truly he is risen!
As I’ve mentioned before, our entire family is exploring Eastern Orthodoxy together through 2008. So you may be interested in how my children are processing their experiences.
First, St. Peters has several families with children. Our kids began making friends fairly quickly. As much as their spiritual development is a priority for Debbie and me, we knew it had to happen in the context of good friendships. I believe most, if not all, of the kids have grown up Orthodox in that church since it converted en masse from being a Four Square church to Orthodoxy about twelve years ago. So we’ve been thrilled that our kids have been embraced by the youth. It was a blast watching our kids playing and hanging out together with new friends at the Pascha Party at the park on Sunday.
Also, if you’re not familiar with Orthodoxy, all of the children join the adults for all of the services. That’s because Orthodox children, even young babies, are part of the parish and receive the Eucharist every Sunday. If there is a Sunday school program at an Orthodox Church, it is supplementary and usually held after Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. In fact, all of the children participate in the full life of the Church. (It was very moving to watch over 20 children bowing before and venerating the cross simultaneously during many of the Holy Week services.)
Debbie and I were concerned about how our kids would fit in as we joined St. Peters. While our kids have made friends fairly easily at past Protestant churches, they had attended their own “age-appropriate” programs during the adult worship service. So, how would our kids deal with the lengthy Orthodox services? How would they process things that were different from the Protestant experiences like venerating the icons, chanting, crossing themselves, kissing the priest’s hand and other differences? Would these differences hinder them from making friends with the Orthodox children?
Well, after four months at St. Peters, it seems like we had nothing to be concerned about. As I mentioned above, our kids began making friends very quickly. And each, in his or her own time, has taken to Orthodox practice and theology (at their level of understanding) like a duck to water. Practices and points of theology that have been serious issues of internal wrestling for Debbie and me were virtually nothing for the kids.
For example, our older kids immediately understood the logic and theology behind venerating the icons. They understand that Jesus conquered death and so those who have passed on are still alive and desire to intercede for the salvation of God’s people on earth. My kids love the story of the saints. And it thrills me that they find the lives of those who have lived for Christ hundreds of years ago as interesting and relevant to their own salvation and relationship with Christ.
Also, all four of my kids loved Holy Week and Pascha. We took them out of school on Friday so that they could experience everything during their first Pascha. It seemed like we virtually lived at the Church for three days, a lot of that time spent standing in services. And all four of them kept telling us how great the experience was.
After we got some sleep following the Pascha service, I asked my kids to write down a few things that they like and dislike about Orthodoxy. Here’s what they said:
Christopher (8 yrs old) said he likes the Orthodox Church because, “They share stuff. They are very nice. They tell the truth. They are very holy. We give respect (he’s speaking of the various acts of veneration to the icons, cross, Gospel and priest). And it’s fun to hang out with them.” The only thing he didn’t like was the fact that it’s hard to understand the chanting.
Danielle (10 yrs old) said she likes the Orthodox Church “Because the people are nice and the priest is sometimes funny in his sermon. I also like the chanting and incense.” Her only dislike, “The only bad thing is sometimes the service goes too late.”
Catherine (13 yrs old) said she like the Orthodox Church for these reasons, “I love how they study the saints and not just read them out of the Bible. I also love how they reenact Palm Sunday and the hanging and taking down of Christ [from the cross]. And I like how they all fast the same thing.” Her only dislike was “I don’t like how long we have to stand. But if we keep going there [to St Peters], it will become easier.”
Michael (16 yrs old) said “I like the Orthodox Church because the people are all nice. I enjoy Fr. Patrick and how he is able to be funny while preaching. I also enjoy the fact that there is more respect. Today, most Christian churches have loud ‘rock bands’ playing worship songs while at the Orthodox Church, they do chanting that is calmer and more respectful.”
Michael is very much like me. He observes and processes things quietly and internally. On Sunday after all the Pascha events, he said, “Dad, this weekend was amazing.” That simple statement spoke volumes.
All four of my kids are eager to become Orthodox. However, Debbie and I want to wait at least another couple of months before we seriously consider the idea of our family becoming catechumens. This probably will be one of the most important decisions of our family’s life, so we don’t want to make an emotional decision. It will be the first time that our family will choose a church home together and not joining one because it was dad’s next pastoral job.
We arrived home last night after the Agape Service and Pascha Party to discover a nice surprise. Catherine had captured a few caterpillars a couple of weeks ago. Two of them had emerged from the cocoons over the Pascha weekend, so we released them back into the wild. It was a nice symbolic way to end our Pascha experience.
I awoke this morning and sat on the couch for a few moments, attempting to recollect my thoughts and feelings of the past week. Do you know that exhausted, almost numb feeling you have the day after a momentous event like a wedding, or birth, or funeral? You know, those events when your life is virtually consumed for days, if not weeks; where every waking moment and your entire schedule is completely altered in preparation for that event. And then you wake up the morning after the event and realize in the midst of your quiet fatigue that your life, as you knew it, has been changed forever.
That’s how I feel right now.
In over twenty years as a Christian, I have never been so completely immersed in Jesus’ journey to the cross and empty tomb. And I have tried. In the past, I’ve fasted for Lent. I’ve attended Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Services. I’ve used resources to help me understand the culture and theology around these historical events as well as reflect upon and pray through this pivotal moment in creation’s history. And many times I’ve had some wonderful and personally meaningful Easters.
But nothing I have done over two decades can even compare to what our family experienced this week. In fact, until this week, I would never have known that such an experience was possible. Sitting here on this side of my first Pascha, I feel like we actually journeyed with Jesus from Bethany where he raised Lazarus from the dead. I feel like we walked through the gates of Jerusalem with him to the cries of “Hosanna.” I feel like we stumbled back out of the city walls to the horror of the cross and then to the despair of the sealed tomb. I feel like we were with the first women as they discovered the terrifying and miraculous truth that he had risen. Even as I write this, tears are welling up again. What has previously been words on a page or scenes in a movie has become very real.
I’m not sure if I can fully express it in words, but my entire being feels like the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection actually happened this week and I was a part of it. I was there at the cross hearing the nails being pounded. I was there at his sealed tomb grieving the loss of my friend. I was there in Hades witnessing the ultimate vanquishing of death. I was there at the empty tomb awestruck at the impossible reality that he was alive. And all of this resonating with the truth that Jesus has conquered death by death.
And I was there not by some Hollywood-like realistic re-creation of historical events or by somehow reading and thinking my way into what those events may have been like. I was there through the power of the Holy Spirit as God’s Church, invoking its two thousand years of Living Tradition, created a fully immersive environment of worship, prayer, Scripture, liturgy, symbol, theology, wisdom and community that made all of this Real to me and made me Real for it. I experienced powerfully how the Church’s Living Tradition is truly the life of Christ.
And now I sit. My heart is full. My mind is reeling. My body is exhausted. My eyes burn from both fatigue and tears. And my spirit is joyful at the prospect of living in and with a community whose very identity and life resounds with the cry, “Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!”
It’s about 4 am. We got home from our first Pascha service about 3:30 am. It was absolutely stunning! The candles, the songs, the priest banging on the church door with the cross, the choir, the flowers. Amazing!
We sang this great song over and over throughout the service as we held our candles above our heads:
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tomb, bestowing life!”
Now we’re exhausted and will try to sleep for several hours and re-energize before the Agape Service at 2 pm and the Pascha party at 4 pm.
Below are a few pictures I snapped with my cell phone during the Pascha service.
And now I’m off to bed.
This morning’s service was the Vesperal Liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell. During this service, we watched one of our new friends receive Baptism and several more of our new friends receive Chrismation. I’ve posted a few pictures I took on my cell phone. I apologize for the poor quality.
It was at this service that everything we’ve been experiencing through Lent, and especially Holy Week, finally caught up with me. The services on Thursday night and through Friday were absolutely intense. I have nothing in my personal history as a Protestant to compare with the depth, richness and beauty of these past few days. We have read so much Scripture, sang so many hymns, said so many prayers, and bowed and crossed ourselves so many times that we have virtually lived in a continual atmosphere of worship, prayer and Scripture the past few days. In addition, there are the layers upon layers of symbols, details and meaning that everything holds in the Orthodox Church. Everything is done for a reason, often many reasons, that ties every gesture, word and act back into the Gospel and the life of God.
So this morning, as service began, I happened to be standing near the large cross that had been placed in the center of sanctuary. I stood looking at the cross, simply bathing in all that has come before and in preparation for what was to come. As I gazed at the cross, my eyes lowered to the small image at the foot of the cross. It is a small image of a skull and bones, symbolizing death. And like a massive wave, the magnitude of Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection washed over me. He has defeated death through death! Death is vanquished. He didn’t just forgive my sins. He completely and absolutely destroyed death and its power!
During one of the previous services, the entire congregation participated in a procession with candles outside the Church. As we re-entered the sanctuary, everyone walked through the sanctuary doors under the icon of Christ’s burial. This symbolized both our participating in Christ’s death and the fact that as we go through that death with him, we then enter his life, which is in his Church.
So my friends’ Baptism, Chrismations and first Communion as new members of Christ’s Holy Church pulsed with such meaning this morning.
As the service was drawing to an end, our priest was gifting each new member with a cross that is to be worn at all times. As he put the chain around the neck of one of my friends and hugged him, I heard him whisper, “Welcome home.”
At those words, tears welled in my eyes and I felt such an ache in my heart. I have been searching, for what I now know as “home,” for as long as I can remember. I was searching for it as a young teenager before I had ever heard of Jesus. I was searching for it after accepting Jesus into my life over twenty years ago. I have searched for it as God has lead me on my journey into Calvary Chapel, the Baptist Church, Youth with a Mission, the OMS Holiness Church, the Vineyard and the Emerging Church. And each step has brought me a little bit closer.
I yearn to hear those words, “Welcome home,” whispered into my ear one day. I long to find the place where the yearnings of my heart to be like Jesus are truly and fully met. Debbie and I hope to find a non-consumerist church community, where all of us — men, women, and children — train to follow Jesus together into his world. Will that be the Orthodox Church? A huge part of me hopes so. And if the last four months are any indication, it looks like it will be so. I feel everything has been preparing me to embrace such a spiritually and theologically deep, rich and full-life form of Christianity. Perhaps I have found home.
This morning we participated in the Service of Royal Hours. The following is a hymn we sang as we knelt before Jesus on the cross:
“Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the tree.
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the tree.
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the tree.
“The King of the Angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens with clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the cross with nails.
The son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
“We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
“Show us also Thy glorious resurrection!”
On the first three evenings of Holy Week, we participate in the Bridegroom Matins. These services echo the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. The celebrations of this past weekend — Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday — were foretastes of the joy that awaits us at Pascha. They were bright and joyful celebrations. But through Holy Week, we once again enter a somber time. The constant theme through this week flows right from Jesus’ mouth in Matthew 25:13, “Keep watch.” The Christ the Bridegroom is coming, so keep vigil.
Keeping a vigil can often be viewed as a passive activity. Yet, it is anything but passive. It is attentive repentance and watchfulness. It is actively preparing a place for Christ the Bridegroom in the internal bridal chamber of our hearts.
One of the things that has drawn me to Eastern Orthodoxy is their balanced understanding of “missional,” although they probably would never use that word. In my opinion, many of the discussions I’ve read regarding “missional” lean too far on what I would call “missional activity” rather than on what I would call “missional being.” As valid as most of this missional activity is, Jesus calls his followers to something much deeper than that. He calls them to keep vigil.
In John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Jesus fulfilled his part in the Father’s mission on earth. But the mission continues until Christ’s return. So Jesus passes the missional baton very carefully. We participate in our part of God’s mission just like Jesus participated in his — by being the embodied fullness, life and presence of God on earth. That means we must be formed into Christ’s likeness so that, like Christ, we too can be God’s fullness, life and presence on earth. In other words, missional activity must flow from missional being. We must be Christ’s likeness so that we may cooperate with Christ in God’s mission.
So mission is first and foremost formation into Christ’s likeness. While journeying into the formation into Christ’s likeness, the Orthodox Church emphasizes something even deeper than formation — repentance. Repentance is the very core of living in God’s kingdom. We see this in Jesus’ proclamation in Mark 1:14-15:
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’”
These words are more than instruction about how to enter God’s kingdom. They reveal how one breathes and lives moment-by-moment in God’s kingdom. Repent and believe. Repent and believe. Repent and believe.
So to pull all the loose strings of this post together, keeping vigil — actively preparing our internal bridal chamber for Christ the Bridegroom through training into repentance and therefore being formed into Christ’s likeness — is mission. Keeping vigil is our mission. A life of continual “repent and believe” forms us into Christ’s likeness so we may truly be sent as he was sent. This is how we are saved and in turn become saving.
Wow! What a great weekend. Holy Week has finally arrived for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Friday night was the Little Compline with the Canon of St Lazarus. Then on Saturday morning, we gathered for Lazarus Saturday. When Fr Patrick began this special Divine Liturgy with “Blessed is the Kingdom of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit both now and ever and unto ages of ages,” I felt this powerful rush of excitement and anticipation. Lent has been escalating to this moment. And with Lazarus Saturday, Lent ends and Holy Week begins. A hymn that we sang during the service and throughout the weekend services brings it altogether so well:
“By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion,
You did confirm the universal Resurrection, O Christ God!
Like the children with the palms of victory,
We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death;
Hosanna in the Highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!”
On Saturday night we returned to church for the Great Vespers for Palm Sunday. At the end of the service, we venerated a striking icon of Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb. Then Fr Patrick anointed our foreheads, palms and the back of our hands with oil.
This morning was Palm Sunday. A special feature of today’s service was a procession with palm branches out of the church and down the sidewalk. What a sight! And such incredible joy! Also the Lenten fast was lifted slightly, allowing fish, wine and oil. (During Lent, Eastern Orthodox fast from meat, dairy, wine and oil.) Coffee hour was crowded and bustling. In addition to some normal Lenten food, those who prepared coffee hour also brought some delicious salmon and several bottles of wine. It tasted so good! The anticipation of the coming week was palpable. We sat around talking and laughing and our family was one of the last ones to leave. Our family is making great friends at St Peters.
Our plan was to go home afterwards and get chores done, but my parents called. Yesterday I told my mom about our family’s decision to explore Orthodoxy during 2008. I wasn’t sure how she and my dad were going to react. My mom called wanting to get together today to talk. Debbie and I shared with my parents about the fullness of Christ’s life that we’ve been experiencing in the church. Both were positive and my mom admitted to a deep yearning for something more in her relationship with Jesus. After our talk, we went shopping for the girls’ Pascha dresses.
Then we bolted down the 210 Freeway to meet Mark, Barb and Maribeth for an enjoyable dinner of good food, talking and laughing. God has blessed our family with such great friends. And right now, my life feels so deep and rich. I feel like I’m drinking deeply from a well of crisp water.
The rest of this week will be very, very busy. There are two services (morning & evening) every day until Holy and Great Friday. Debbie and the kids are hoping to make it to some of the morning services before the kids start school.
By next weekend, we’ll be going full steam ahead. Three services on Holy and Great Friday followed by an all-night vigil of reading Psalms at Jesus’ tomb, all accompanied by a strict fast. On Holy and Great Saturday morning, we’ll experience the Paschal Vesperal Liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell. (What a great name for a worship service!) During this service, we’ll witness some of our new friends receiving the sacraments of baptism and chrismation as they join the Orthodox Church. Then we go home, sleep, cook and return at 10:30 that night for a candlelight Rush Service followed by Paschal Matins and Divine Liturgy. Then around 2 am, we break our Lenten fast together with a grand feast! Then we go home and sleep some more and finally gather for an afternoon Agape Service where one of the Gospel accounts is read in as many languages as possible, followed by a party in the park.
I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years. But this year will prove to be one of the fullest, most meaningful, most joyous Easters we will have ever experienced. Glory to God!
Oh… and by the way, this is my 500th post since I started blogging in 2003. Yeaa!
Today, I experienced an interesting moment of convergence. Last night we spent time in our home group discussing the nature of sin. We had talked about how the Western Christian concept of sin as breaking a Law and thereby punishable by death was an incorrect perspective. Rather, the biblical idea of sin is that it is our failure to be truly human as God intended — to live in communion with God and then to be his image to the rest of creation. Sin is our failure to do this and the resulting death we experience is within the very fabric of our being, thus breaking and corrupting everything we touch.
Last night’s conversation was fresh in my mind this afternoon as I listened to a recent podcast by Frederica Mathewes-Green while driving home from work on the 605 Freeway. The title of the podcast was “Sin As Pollution.” In the podcast, Frederica was describing the effects of sin by reading part of a monologue by Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame.
The monologue was in the form of a letter written by Jim, a man who was waiting on his front yard to be picked up by a woman from work with whom he was going to attend a conference and with whom he was tempted to begin an affair.
As Jim is waiting to be picked up by this woman, he waxes reflective about the repercussion of his potential affair. As he looks down the street at his neighbors’ homes, Jim realizes that his infidelity will pollute many lives. He states, “Although I thought my sins would be secret, they would be no more secret than an earthquake.” His reflections climax with this powerful and moving image, “When my wife and I scream in senseless anger, blocks away, a little girl we do not know, spills a bowl of gravy all over a white tablecloth.”
And as I listened to Frederica read this line, on the other side of the freeway, a white Ford Expedition streaked by being pursued by a train of police cars with lights flashing and sirens screaming. I saw sin’s pollution firsthand. There were hundreds of drivers this afternoon on the southbound 605. And the driver, trying to escape the police and probably the consequences of his sin, was polluting everyone around him in potentially harmful and dangerous ways. I hoped and prayed that this high-speed pursuit would end safely and peacefully; hoping and praying that the driver’s sins would not intersect and destroy someone else’s life on that freeway.
Next week, we observe Holy Week for the Eastern Orthodox Church. The last several weeks have been a communal journey to the cross that has been filled with stories, Scriptures, songs, fasting and prayers with a common theme — “Lord, have mercy.”
May the Lord have mercy on my sins, on our sins, on the world’s sins. May he trample death through death. May he bring the life of God that we so desperately need. And may he fully fashion us into the image of God, as embodied in his own life, so that we will be ultimately free from sin.