Monday, July 11, 2005

Apologia for Orthodoxy

“Apologetics” is a technical term that describes the means by which we share our faith with those who do not have faith or have a misunderstanding of our faith. Apologetics as a theological category is not new, but has been taken to new heights and extremes, particularly by Protestants—who, with good intentions, have made an effort to have cut-and-dry methods to approach just about every objection to the Christian faith as they understand it. This leads, for example, to an actual website which lists sects, cults and other religious groups to show what they believe and thereby how to counteract their false doctrines. (Parenthetically, this site lists the Orthodox Church as unorthodox! ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.’)

Indeed, we do need to know what people do and don’t believe to know how to address their questions and concerns. We also need to know our own faith well enough to articulate it to them, as well as (often) at least a bit about their faith to draw parallels, make comparisons, and to correct when necessary. This is a lively part of our faith as Christians, and is certainly approaching officially with the opening of our bookstore.

Among the first considerations, we must keep in mind that everyone who is sent to us, is sent to us by God for our mutual salvation. Each interaction is for the working out of salvation. We must remember that we each have been shown great mercy and patience by God, and in turn, we are to be humble, patient, and full of the love of God. Even if someone shouts at us, our response, like our Lord’s is one of self-offering, not a return blow.

Along with this critical piece is this one: any question someone asks us is an opportunity for us to facilitate a drawing closer to Jesus Christ or a repelling from Him. Our response will be the catalyst one way or the other. We must be in a constant state of prayer, asking God to give us the grace to speak in love and concern. Ultimately, God will defend His Gospel and His Church. Our task is faithfulness in the moment to treat the one in front of us as our neighbor, and by biblical extension, both as ourself and our Lord.

…To be continued…

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Freely given, freely give

Monday’s daily Gospel lesson concludes with the following words, “And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay” (Mt. 9:36ff). The last verse can be translated a few different ways: “Freely you have been given, freely give.” And “You have received as a gift, give as a gift”. The word comes from the same one we use in church “antidoron”—the bread in the basket at the side, the bread “instead of the gifts”.

This verse always strikes me, as it is a constant reminder that everything we have is a gift from God. Every penny, every car, every house, every child, parent, and relative. Every possession, every breath that we breathe. It is all given to us. Given.

I remember once as a teenager threatening to run away from home: “I’ll just take what is mine and go!” “And what is yours?” asked my dad. “My surfboard and my clothing!” I don’t think my father was theologizing at the time, but his response is to the point, “Those are gifts from us!”

Even if I had earned my own money to buy the surfboard, who took me to work before I could drive? Who helped me with my education so that I could do the work I did? My parents! If this is so for teenagers and their parents, how much more so is it true with reference to our relationship to our Lord and Creator? I may have worked 80 hour weeks to buy the beach house, but who gave me the skills to work? The means to get there? Who gives me the breath to breathe in order to go enjoy the beach house? Freely you have been given, freely give.
When we begin to see life through these eyes, then giving is not so difficult! I can then even make a sort of game out of it: I am like the trustee of a great treasure, and God is allowing me to distribute these gifts wisely! What do we have that was not given to us by God? Nothing!
How, then, does this affect the way we give to the church? To the building fund? To the hungry man on the street? To our needy neighbor? To our children? To our parents? “Freely you have received, freely give.” God grant us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only (James 1:22)!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Dealing with the cards we are dealt

One great phrase (of the many) which Fr. Alexander Schmemann has left us in his legacy is that our Christian lives are our opportunity to "deal with the cards we are dealt". Will we offer them in doxology for conversion to our Lord for His blessing and sanctification or will we instead take our lives' circumstances and situations as opportunity to wish we had some other lot in life?

It is noteworthy that when one is preparing for monastic tonsure, one is asked whether or not he or she is entering the monastery because he or she despises marriage. If this is the case, tonsure is denied. One enters the monastery solely to spend a life of repentance in community with other sinners.

It is this life of "peace and repentance" to which we are all called, monastic or married. Is this not what we all pray for in our litanies? "That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord...." "Lord, have mercy."

For the monk, this is worked out in the monastery.
For the married, it is worked out in the household.
(An excellent resourse is "Marriage as a path to Holiness" by Drs. David and Mary Ford at St. Tikhon's Press--presently being reprinted)

In the monastery, I assume (not being a monk!), ones brother or sister monastics pray for each other and see their sins in the mirror of the faces of the other monks.

The same is true in marriage: Are not our sins laid bare by our interactions with spouse and children? This is not, to be sure, the opportunity to say, "you lead me to sin!" but rather the time to say, "Lord, have mercy upon me a sinner for my ____________ (impatience, arrogance, ignorance, anger, malice, jealousy..."

Someone I know in another communion once said to me that he desired to be a priest, but that somehow (because of ecclesiological 'preferences' there) he 'couldn't' [ignoring, for a moment, the ecclesiological arguments for the sake of the point]. I said, well, if the Lord is calling you to be a priest, then first act like one. By this I did not mean, 'buy yourself some vestments and play church'. What I did mean was this: wake up, tend to your family, go to church, stand in the sanctuary with the parish phone directory, and pray for everyone by name. What is a priest if not an intercessor?

The same is true for all of us! Do we wish to be priests? We are so-called in the New Testament...Pray! Do we wish to be monks? Pray! Whether or not we live in a monastery cell or a 4 bedroom townhouse, the call is the same!

Are we good students of the Gospel? Let us devote ourselves to the Scriptures! Are we good teachers of the Gospel? Do we stand with our children, teaching them to pray? What is holier than this vocation?

They say 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence'. In reality, the grass on the other side of the fence is just grass on the other side of the fence. Peter Jon Gillquist, well-known Orthodox musician, sings, "Anyone who says the grass is always greener on the other side hasn't been there yet!" God grant us the grace to know this not simply in our minds, but in our hearts, and to give thanks for the cards we are dealt, and to play them as the best stewards we can be!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Abba Sisoes the Great, July 6

Today, we commemorate Abba Sisoes the Great, monk of the 4th century desert. Here is a wise word from Abba Sisoes:

Abba Sisoes expressed himself freely one day, saying, 'Have confidence: for thirty years I have not prayed to God about my faults, but I have made this prayer to him: "Lord Jesus, save me from my tongue," and until now every day, I fall because of it, and commit sin.'

#5, p. 213, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward, Cistercian, 1984.


What is the most difficult aspect of the Orthodox Christian Life?

To what are we devoted?

Many, many people desire to re-create the “life of the early church”, as if one could archeologically dig up the past and recreate it in the present. As Orthodox, we have actually received the gift and life of the Church, and so for us, some artificial recreation, as if a museum, is not necessary—we simply need to grab hold of the gift and offer ourselves to partake of it fully. Consider this famous passage from Acts 2:42ff:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

To what does the Church devote herself? That is, in what ways does the Christian live his life in community? In studying, knowing, living the “Apostles’ teaching and fellowship”; in eating together—liturgically (Eucharist) and socially (like our potlucks?); in praying together. These were their devotions—not compartments, but their whole lives! They held “all things in common”; they sold their possessions to be able to give to all who had need. Daily, they prayed together, broke bread together, were friendly with all.

The Faith we have received both teaches us these things and offers us the venue to put them all into full action. One result of living in the fullness of the Christian life, is contagion. Notice that the Lord “added to their number day by day…” In the verses preceding, 3000 souls were baptized in response to life like this. What a marvelous treasury we have at our disposal! How truly transformational is the pure life in Christ! This is evangelism—the living of the Gospel.

As we continue to plan and prepare for the building of a literal Church, let us urge one another on to the life of the Body of Christ as we can read in these wonderful passages. O Lord, teach me to love You and my neighbor: fully, really, totally, indiscriminately, constantly!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What do you need in a blog?

My friends,

We have too much information in our lives...I don't want to create anything here that is just 'one more thing' to read or ponder.

What is needed in terms of an(other) Orthodox blog, if anything? Can this be of service to any of us?

Please advise your servant in Christ,

Priest John+

Trust in the Lord and Remember

One of the most difficult tasks for us short-minded human beings is trusting in God for what we cannot yet see. The funny thing is that God constantly provides—and if we looked back to just yesterday we would see such miracles; nevertheless, we often fail to trust him for today or tomorrow. Sadly, this is not new!

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. They had been enslaved in Egypt, apparently, they were fed well, but life was miserable. Pharaoh treated them brutally. Having recognized the power of God, Pharaoh released God’s people from slavery, but while they were heading towards the Red Sea, Pharaoh changed his mind—realizing that all his labor force was now gone. The chase began. The Egyptians chased the Israelites and made them nervous (understatement). Moses’ consistent reply to God’s people was, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today.” (Ex 14:13). Hands up, waters part, Israel crosses, Egyptians die. DELIVERANCE! This was no small accomplishment. Think for a moment: when was the last time that the Charleston Harbor dried up so that one could walk straight over to the Aquarium? And not just one person but thousands? And chased by an Army? This was a miracle!

Now what was the first major event following this deliverance? “In the desert, the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron…”If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assemble to death.” (Ex. 16:2ff.)

God had hardly brought them there to starve! He was leading them to the Promised Land. We know the rest of the story and would like to shout out to them in retrospect, “Remember what God has already done for you! He won’t leave you! To the contrary, stay focused on being obedient to Him and God will provide for all of your needs!” Sadly, we, like the Israelites are blessed today, and curse God for apparently abandoning us tomorrow. Then tomorrow we are blessed by God and curse Him the next day again!

Remember, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Remember, Jesus has promised, “Lo, I am with you always…”. Remember, your heavenly Father knows your needs (cf. Mt. 6:25ff). Remember, God calls us to faithfulness, to obedience, not to success—especially by the world’s definition. SO, whether we are talking about simply facing one more day at the office or building a parish church, let us look back on our own lives—individually and corporately—to see the miracles of God: God in ACTION, and remember Him today in faith, trusting fully in Him into tomorrow!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Know Whose You Are

St. Paul was unashamed of the Gospel. He knew the cost of conversion. He knew the pressures of society. All of this was the case when he wrote to the following to the Church in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Our society is no different today than it was in the first century. Surely technology has changed and made the world a different place, but people are people—each of us is still tempted by the same temptations as were the Christians 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, and 2000 years ago. This is especially true regarding sexual sin. The acceptance (not!) of extramarital affairs, premarital relationships, idolatry, etc. was certainly different then, but the temptations to be a part of these sinful, illicit actions was no different.

St. Paul makes clear (elsewhere) that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We would surely be outraged if someone defaced our beautiful Orthodox Church or smashed or burned a sacred Icon, or somehow desecrated some holy space or object. My friends, are we equally outraged if we ourselves desecrate the very holy temple of God, our own bodies?

Society is a very poor teacher. We are no longer part of (if we ever were!) a Christian society. No show on prime time will teach us godliness. No movie in the theater will teach us holiness. No mainstream DJ will teach us chastity. To the contrary, each of these will teach you that your body is your own, that pleasure is your due, that you “deserve” whatever you want. This is not Christianity, this is hedonism, and it is dangerous—spiritually, emotionally, physically—as much in small doses as it is in large quantities. The challenges of life in the United States have been described by Christians on the other side of the planet as “almost insurmountable”.

So, know who you are. Know whose you are. Your baptism sets you apart as holy. The reception of the Holy Gifts at the Eucharist make you a living part of the Body of Christ. Therefore, as St. Paul said to Timothy, “aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” And “Fight the good fight of the faith.”

Friday, July 01, 2005

Learning to love confession

Even the thought of confession strikes fear into the hearts of many. “I have to say what to whom???!!!” Such a response is completely normal and frankly totally human. No one wants to tell his darkest deeds to anyone. It is difficult; it may open old wounds; it is embarrassing. Again such perceptions are perfectly valid and often accurate.

Allow me though, to help shed some much needed, and often misunderstood light on this important sacrament. First off, in the Orthodox tradition, one does not confess to the priest. The priest is a witness. Consider some of the words used at confession (from the simplified Pocket Prayerbook for Orthodox Christians): “My brother, inasmuch as thou hast come to God, and to me, be not ashamed; for thou speakest not unto me, but unto God, before whom thou standest.” To emphasize this, the priest and penitent stand side by side, facing the Icon of Christ and the Cross or Gospel together. In short, one confesses to Jesus in the presence of the priest.

Second, as crass as it may sound, there really is no new sin under the sun. One way or another, the priest has heard even the worst sins before. Frankly, just about anything anyone could confess is found within the pages of the Holy Scriptures anyway. So, don’t expect to hear: “You did what?!” The priest may ask you to clarify something you have said; he may clarify for you that such-and-such is actually not a sin; and he will likely give you spiritual direction to help you with particular sins, but an attitude of shock or shame on the priest’s behalf is not part of confession!

Third, the priest is listening to the penitent with Jesus’ ears, not to condemn, but to facilitate healing. In our pre-communion prayers, we recite, “O Lover of Men, Thou hast said through thy prophets, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’” Here we quote Ezekiel 18:32. The whole chapter (18) is well worth reading (read it!). But the point is, God desires LIFE, not DEATH, wholeness, not brokenness. This is the heart of confession.

Finally confession is sacred—confidential. The priest is under strict discipline to guard your confession. His wife doesn’t hear about it. He doesn’t publish it in the newsletter. He doesn’t use it as a sermon illustration. Once confessed, the sin is washed away. The only way it might “come back” is if one commits it again, or if the priest asks “how are you doing with such-and-such?” having recognized it with you as a sinful pattern in your life.

So, fear not! Seek reconciliation, wholeness and health. How often? During each of the four fasts (June, August, November, March) is an excellent rule, and more often if needed. Try that for a start…and never be afraid to ask me about these things! God bless you!