Category Archives: Eastern Orthodoxy

Coming To Grips With Calling

ObscureSince joining the Orthodox Church, I have wrestled with my sense of calling. For most of my adult life, I believed I was called to professional ministry. It was something that motivated me daily. I studied for it, trained for it, and poured everything I had into it. And even when I left professional ministry and co-founded a small home church, I continued to pursue the calling at a non-professional level. This calling formed the core of my identity.

However, joining the Orthodox Church threw everything into a state of internal turmoil. For several reasons, I immediately knew that I was not called to be a priest. My “talents” were in pastoral care and studying & teaching Scripture, not liturgics. I knew my life as a pastor prior to entering the Orthodox Church was led and ordained by God as I attempted to follow Jesus to the best of my ability. However, I could not synchronize from where I had come with what now lay before me.

For a couple of years I struggled deeply with my perceived calling. Was it real or was it fake? Did I waste my and my family’s life on pursuing something that was basically self-delusion or a need to provide my life with unique meaning? If it was real, I could not make sense of it as an Orthodox Christian.

For my own emotional health, I needed to end the inner wrestling I was experiencing. So I convinced myself that I had been mistaken and was never called into ministry. I convinced myself that all the good I did was basically God’s abundant grace at work in an immature and broken person who had deluded himself.

Through ongoing conversations with Debbie and friends, this stance eventually shifted to something a bit more balanced. I believed I was temporarily called for a period of my life and the calling was now revoked. And I was content to simply let it lie there. I chose not to seek avenues of ministry in my new parish because my theology and practices remain “too Protestant,” of which I’m not ashamed nor apologetic. But I respect my priest and Church traditions too much to cause any conflict. So, while I’m virtually useless in my parish, I’ve subtly directed my “pastoral” endeavors into my family.

However, life circumstances during the past month have shined a light back upon my life and calling. In addition, I’ve been reading The Crown and the Fire by N.T. Wright through Lent and Pascha, which serendipitously contains a chapter on “calling.” A couple of quotes are very germane:

“God’s call is not designed to make us supermen and superwomen, because that’s not what the world needs; it needs men and women who are humble enough, and often that means humbled enough, to work from within, from below, not to impose a solution on the world from a great height but to live within the world as it is, allowing the ambiguities and the perplexities of their own sense or absence of vocation to be nevertheless the place where they listen for the voice of God, and struggle to obey as best they can.”

“The call of God is not to become the heroine or hero in God’s new Superman story. It is to share and bear the pain of the world, that the world may be healed.”

The entire chapter has helped me to make better sense of my perceived calling. My calling has always been to help and to pastor people. For most of my adult life, this occurred through my career in professional ministry. But the calling still continues and I can no longer ignore it. As N.T. Wright states, the world needs men and women who are humble enough to work from within and from below, living in the world as it is and to share and bear the pain of the world that that world may be healed.

So what does this mean for me? A couple of things come to mind. First, I’ll continue to pastor my family. I still believe the Orthodox Church is the best place for my family to grow spiritually. My role is to help them understand and apply Scripture, Tradition and practices as Jesus’ apprentices within the world. Second, I will become more active in seeking ways of sharing and bearing the pain of the world from within and from below. I’ve already begun looking at opportunities to serve others and hope God will open the appropriate doors.

This may not seem like much, but it’s a step forward.


Sunday Of The Prodigal Son

Stitching Together Heaven and EarthYesterday was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. I love Jesus’ stories, and the Prodigal Son is his absolute best in my opinion. It weaves together beautiful themes of mercy, repentance, resurrection, and New Creation, while expertly exposing the condition of the reader’s heart.

While the story arc of the younger son is beautiful and moving, I always find affinity to the older son. So much is said about the younger son’s attitude to his father. His request for his half of the inheritance was a “middle finger” in his father’s face. Yet, yesterday, I realized that the older son’s attitude was exactly the same. In fact, it was worse because he hid it behind a thin veneer of obedience and moral superiority.

And it’s only exposed by his younger brother’s transformation.

The older son is just as selfish and disrespectful as his younger brother. Despite the remarkable repentance of his brother and miraculous mercy of his father, the older son can only think, “I’ve been slaving for you and you never gave me a party.” Slaving!? The property upon which he worked was solely his inheritance! The other half had been cashed out and given to his younger brother. This was his land, his flocks, his servants — everything his father owned was his!

Now his younger brother had been resurrected from the dead! He had been delivered from the long exile of selfishness and self-destructive behavior and returned home a transformed person. The father is now embodying mercy and joy, offering his best for a coming-home party, and thus demonstrating how one truly blesses others. And all the older son can think is “I’ve been slaving for you and now you’re using my inheritance for this jerk and you’ve never thrown me a party.”

Think about to what the father is inviting his older son. The younger brother is being reconciled back into the father’s home and family on the older brother’s inheritance. The younger brother wasted his half of the inheritance.

Yet, the inheritance given to the older son was as freely given as to his younger brother. And while his younger brother wasted it in self-destructive behavior, the older brother was cooperating with his father to further develop his inheritance. But notice the different perspectives of the father and his eldest son. The father viewed his possessions as the means to bless and reconcile his younger son. The eldest son viewed it as his own personal reward for his diligent work.

This is how Israel was to be the blessing to the nations. It’s how Jesus’ followers become “mobile temples” of God’s presence and stitch heaven and earth back together. The mercy and joy of reconciling others is paid for by the grace freely given to us. The problem occurs when we start viewing God’s grace to us as our possession. Grace flows. It’s not owned or possessed. Grace is for others, not for ourselves.

We are called to grow in grace, but not for our own benefit. It’s for the sake of others and for the life of the world.


Let Him Be Measured By This Measure

Fr Stephen Freeman has provided a beautiful excerpt from Dr Alexander Kalomiros’ Nostalgia for Paradise. I would like to start with the final paragraph from that excerpt:

Such is the true theologian. If anyone wishes to be so named, let him be measured by this measure. Even he who simply wishes to be a disciple of such theologians must walk in their exact footsteps if he desires their words to be echoed in himself, and his eyes to see light.

Blessing Of The WatersLet him be measured by this measure…

When I was a professional pastor, I would have the occasional conversation with a lay-person who possessed either theological training or perceived a divine calling on their lives to be a pastor or teacher in the Church. The person’s self-perception was always the same — their education, calling or leading of the Spirit should entitle them to some form of recognition or position in the local church.

As a pastor in the local church, part of my responsibility was to discern not only knowledge or calling, but also the character of Christ’s likeness. And one of the hallmarks of a person who wasn’t ready for a leadership position was the sense of entitlement for a leadership position.

Let him be measured by this measure…

Here’s the catch: I knew then that I didn’t possess the Christlikeness to be a theologian, teacher or pastor despite my own theological training and perceived calling to ministry. While I never possessed any kind of entitlement for a leadership position, I was well aware of my own undeveloped virtue. In fact, this was one of the unspoken motivations of not returning to professional ministry. This decision took a few painful years to reconcile. Yet, I believe it was one of the best and healthiest decisions I ever made.

Let him be measured by this measure…

I am also well aware that removing myself from professional ministry doesn’t discharge me from the responsibility of following Christ, to yearn to be transformed into his likeness. In fact, it is for the very life of the world around me that I strain toward that which Christ has called me — the fullness and maturity of his likeness. To become by grace what he is by nature.

For this reason, I am always grateful for people like Dr Kalomiros, who can create fresh expression to what Christ’s likeness can be in ordinary human life. May the description below ultimately be formed within me.

Let him be measured by this measure…

Do not seek to understand God for it is impossible. Simply open the door of your soul so His presence may fill you and illumine your mind and heart, warm your body, and enter your veins. Theology is not a cerebral knowledge but a living knowlege that is directly relevant to man and sustains and possesses the whole man. A cold, cerebral man cannot know and discourse on divine things, even if his head contains an entire patristic library. He who is not moved by a sunset, a tree, or a bird cannot be stirred even by the Creator of these things. In order to grasp God and be able to talk about Him to others you must be a poetic soul. It means that you must have a heart that is noble, sensitive, and pure. You must be as an ear that is turned to the whisperings of the Infinite, and as an eye that sees through the bottomless depths while all other eyes see only pitch blackness. It is impossible for timorous souls and stingy hearts to discourse on divine things.

The heart that grasps the mysteries is one that is naive enough to think all souls worthy of Paradise, even souls who may have drenched their heart’s life with bitterness. It is a heart that feels and sings like a bird, without caring if there is no one there to hear it. It rejoices over everything that is beautiful, everything that is true, because truth and beauty are two aspects of the same thing and can never be separated. It has compassion for every living thing that is animate or has roots, and even for every seemingly lifeless stone.

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 false hood 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.


Pascha & Pain

From The Cross

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And upon those in the tomb, bestowing LIFE!

Today is Pascha or Easter for us Orthodox Christians. At midnight, we greeted this momentous event with the hymn above, along with others, extolling the wondrous work of Christ’s resurrection.

The Gospel reading at every Paschal service is John 1. John begins his Gospel as a Creation story, echoing the themes of Genesis 1. For in Christ and His Pascha, God’s New Creation has begun. The resurrection of God’s people, which is to inaugurate God’s New Creation in the future, has suddenly and surprisingly broken into the here and now through one Man. In the quiet morning hours at a tomb outside of Jerusalem almost two millennia ago, creation’s trajectory was forever altered. The River of Life, as depicted in Ezekiel 47 and proclaimed later by Jesus in John 7, began to trickle from the empty tomb.

I did something a little different this Pascha morning. As my family slept, I watched Blood Diamond. And I prayed and cried. For me, this movie is not entertainment. Rather, it is a stark reminder that two “creations” overlap. God’s New Creation has been injected into a creation festering with greed, violence, lust, hatred, and pain. The very nooks and crannies of God’s good creation and the people he created to care for that creation writhe with evil and death.

The pain of evil is not abstract. It grinds against all of us. It throbs through our news, our communities and our lives. No one is immune.

But neither is the triumph and jubilation of Christ’s resurrection abstract. Nor is it a pie-in-the-sky dream we hold for some distant future. It is here. Where? In those who choose to embrace Christ’s life, to become people increasingly like him. For he is God’s Temple where heaven and earth intersect. And as we become more like him, we too are the Temple. We are God’s Temple from which streams of Living Water begin to trickle and swell, bringing health to a septic and feverish creation.

At the Paschal service, we sing anthems of Christ’s victory over evil and death and we hear about God’s New Creation in John 1. But more importantly, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. We consume his very LIFE. As he offered his LIFE to his Father for the life of the world, it now empowers us to do the same.

And so Christ’s Pascha transfigures the world’s pain.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!


Trisagion

IconThis rendition of the Trisagion is absolutely beautiful and moves me to tears. If you have a few quiet moments, just let it wash over you.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal.

Have mercy on us.

Glory be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit now and ever and through eternity.


When The Paint Dries

St Isaac the SyrianMy best friend, Mark, posted on Facebook these sayings from St Isaac the Syrian:

“Rebuke no one, criticize no one, not even those who live very wickedly.”

“Spread your robe over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.”

“And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept their punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.”

I’ve recently had several conversations about a saying that John Wimber made popular in the Vineyard movement. He used to say, “I want to grow up before I grow old.” This pithy statement would always evoke a laugh from the audience. But now in my 40’s, I’m realizing how important a life-goal this should be.

Most of the posts on my blog basically say the same thing. The core desire of my life is to be reformed into a person that naturally and easily embodies Jesus’ character into the world.

Through his resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated his Father’s restoration of the world he created and loves. That project is being further implemented by those who answer Jesus’ radical call to follow him and become his apprentices.

From a human standpoint, Jesus’ call seems absolutely crazy. Love God with everything you are. Forgive everyone for everything. Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every circumstance. And the list could go on.

But this list is not a checklist of things to do. Rather, it’s a description, even a promise, of the kind of person we can be under Jesus’ tutelage.

Based on the average life expectancy of a man in the United States, I’m past the halfway point. This has caused a lot of internal reflection over the past couple of years. Much of my youth, even with my best intentions, was spent pursuing the wrong values; painting my life with colors I thought were attractive. But as the paint has begun to dry, I’ve realized I don’t like how it looks.

Sayings such as St Isaac’s, one of Jesus’ successful apprentices, remind me that there is a better way to live, a better way to be. And they compel me to repaint my life, hoping that when the paint finally dries in the latter part of my life, I will have chosen the proper colors that reflect Christ into the world and that help a bit in the renewal of this world that he loves.


Why Church?

The ChurchSometimes we can lose our focus on why we need the Church. Maybe we’ve been hurt or disappointed or disillusioned. Quotes like the one below remind us why God created his restorative family and community called the Church.

“The Church has been established in the world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation — to be love, truth, faith and mission — all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community — love for Christ, love in Christ — as a mission to turn each all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol. The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’ — already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity. Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full.”  The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p. 25


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers