Monday, September 26, 2005

Put out into the deep

“Put out into the deep…” (Luke 5:4b)

In Sunday’s Gospel, we heard of those who “pressed upon” Jesus to “hear the word of God.” We learned of the fisherman, who despite having done things their way, put down their nets “At [Jesus’] word,” and finally how, “having brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”

In the midst of this passage (Luke 5:1-11), Jesus tells Peter, “put out into the deep…” Jesus had taught the multitudes in the shallows; now he was going to demonstrate his power and authority to the few in ‘the deep’.

Now, as a rule, the saints counsel against the measuring of progress in the spiritual life—as such can lead to pride which, in turn, leads to deeper sin. Nevertheless, it is important for us to take spiritual inventory of our lives from time to time in order to grow. One might consider this ‘pruning’ as is necessary for trees to produce fruit. This sort of inventory is often a part of the preparation for confession, wherein we look back over the last days or weeks to take special note of our sin—in order to confess it and be made whole and clean. At a more basic level—the level of spiritual growth—we might simply look at our spiritual disciplines to ask questions and to set goals, just like in other areas of our life. Am I in the shallows? Was I in the deep and have drifted into the shallows by neglect, apathy, or sin? How can I, as St. Peter was instructed, put out into the deep?

How can I deepen my prayer life? How can I help my spouse to grow in Christ? How can I teach my children to love God more? Growth is the question. Someone once said, if we are not growing, we are dying…and there is a certain truth to that even with regard to our faith. Better though, is to see the Love and Blessings of God as a bottomless treasure chest. The deeper we dig, the more spectacular the jewels. Every time we think we have experienced the fullest amount of love from God, there is always another layer of depth. And always another after that. To return to the Gospel passage, there may be no fish, or few, in the shallows, but when the disciples put out into the deep, their catch strained their nets and nearly sank their boats. The pure marvel of it all is that despite our sinfulness, God continually invites us to that place. Which of us has tried life our own way and succeeded? Like these fisherman-disciples we have toiled ‘all night’ and caught nothing. Hearing Jesus’ call, let us, at His word, put out into the deep.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


In the Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, Sunday Sept. 18, 2005

Orthodox style of worship steeped in tradition

EDITOR'S NOTE: While Michael Gartland is away on an international reporting fellowship, Faith & Values will feature occasional columns from Lowcountry writers.

From the outside, one hardly would know it is a church: an unassuming storefront in a local neighborhood. Once inside, however, things are different. Incense hangs in the air. To one side, there is a tall stand filled with lighted beeswax candles that flicker in front of holy images of Jesus, biblical figures and saints.

From aged to infant, most folks stand, attentively facing deep inside the room. After some period of silence, a man in golden vestments lifts his hands and prays an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit. He raises a large book and sings, "Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages!" The choir chants robustly, "Amen!"

Shortly, after a sung litany of prayers (to which the gathered fervently chant, "Lord, have mercy!"), all begin to sing Psalm 104 a cappella.

Throughout the service, this sort of interaction continues. It is solemn, yet not stuffy. It is majestic ... ancient ... awe-inspiring. It calms; it does not excite the emotions. This is the worship of the ancient, undivided church, which St. Paul likely would recognize. It is a service that a fourth-, 12th- or 18th-century Christian would know, served in every Orthodox Church on Earth on Sundays and holy days.

The difference between the liturgy here in Mount Pleasant and in Greece, Serbia or Russia is basically the language in which one prays and the type of chant by which the faithful sing the hymns. It's universal across time and geography.

Coffee and the comfort of chairs are saved for afterward. The posture of prayer, especially on Sundays, always has been to stand. In fact, from ancient times, it has been forbidden to kneel on Sundays because we celebrate every Sunday as a little "Pascha" (Easter) and stand in eager anticipation of the second coming of Christ. (Although those who must sit, ought to. As one saint says, it is better to pray sitting down than to stand and think about your feet.)

The ancient prayers don't change from week to week, but rather stand as timeless requests to God. Rather than binding us by some rote series of words, we are actually freed up to pray truly, fully ... because we know what is coming every week. The prayers change us.
But it isn't just about having the same service. It is about believing the same exact things about Jesus Christ and our lives related to him. The universality of our prayers, hymns and services, as well as our beliefs concerning "faith and values," morals and the like testify to this common faith, universal across time and geography.

How? Why candles and incense? Why chanting? Why not a big-screen TV and a band? Skits and movie clips? Why not varying opinions and practices on the use of vestments or the singing of services? Why no coffee during the service?

We would answer with a single word -- a word that many now eschew, one that ruffles feathers. A word that many today reject outright -- but a word that describes something that everyone has. Everyone. Not a Christian on the planet operates outside of its definition. Not one. The word: tradition.

Everyone has a tradition and worships, prays and studies from within it. There is no such thing as nontraditional -- only the question: What is the font of your tradition?

What I have described above is the most ancient and unchanged Christian tradition on Earth: Orthodoxy. Many others come from later traditions (16th century and after), all of which arose in contrast to what they didn't believe here or there.

Tradition, in the biblical sense, is "from zee Greek": paradosis, to hand down, to hand over.
According to the Scriptures, tradition can be good (that which we should believe and teach) and bad ("traditions of men" that distort the Gospel). Since the beginning, the difference has been determined by a universal comparison to the rule of faith: Does it match the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), what Christians have always believed? Or, rather, is this a tradition of men, a reaction against something they couldn't or wouldn't believe? In fact, this is the main difference between the Orthodox tradition and all other traditions: The Orthodox tradition has handed down -- by the grace of God -- the fullness of the Christian Gospel, unchanged by the tide of popular opinion. Others have handed this down in larger or smaller parts but tainted by all sorts of additions and deletions.

When Jesus was alive, he charged his disciples to "go into all the world" and baptize and teach others what he commanded. Each Christian's task, especially the bishops (the ones in charge), was to teach only what they were taught. I compare the process to a FedEx delivery. A certain message (the Christian Gospel) was placed in an envelope (the tradition) and given to the FedEx workers (the disciples). Their task was to deliver it (the tradition) to the next generation. There was even a way to trace the package: the bishop. From the earliest days, he has been the guardian of the faith. If anything changed, the traced teaching was compared to the original, and if found false, it then was rebuked. And the heretic was cast out. Thus, the Orthodox Christian tradition was both handed down and guarded -- what St. Paul urges in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."

How does architecture demonstrate this point?

Picture two buildings: the first a massive structure, several stories high, situated on the plot of land in the most convenient way. Inside, one passes through a set of doors into the main room that contains hundreds of chairs, even in the balconies. If a service weren't going on, it might be confused for the auditorium at the local high school or the IMAX Theatre. It is designed to fit scores of people and to offer a message using modern media. The architecture tells such a story.
The second is cruciform and faces East. One enters the West end, from "the world." In the central dome, an imposing image of Jesus gazes down, blessing with one hand and holding that which tells the life of Christ in prophecy, parable and event.

Moving eastward, one ascends a few steps as toward heaven. The priest faces the people only to speak to them. Otherwise, he prays with them, facing East, the direction from which we expect our Savior to return. The architecture tells such a story.

Both are traditional. One is ancient, as old as the oldest Christian Church. Its task is to teach by its shape and adornment -- "the very stones cry out!' The other is a convenient container for services, inspired by the entertainment industry. The question remains: whose tradition?
But just like with worship, the Christian's purpose is not about having the same buildings across time and geography, it is about making people, places, even time, holy, bringing everything that we say, do and even build into the presence of God for his purposes.

Tradition! The Christian Church has never been about innovation. Its very task is tradition -- to hand on what it has received.

But we must be careful to pass on the original tradition! The next generation's task is to receive it, as is, and then to pass it on in the same way. No, it is not the teachings, the prayers, the services or even the architecture that we are to modify. Rather, it is we who are to change, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Father John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, in the I'On community in Mount Pleasant. He can be reached at 810-9350 or by e-mail at

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Universal Exaltation of the Holy and Life Giving Cross

When Adam and Eve had fallen prey to the serpent and broken communion with God by choosing their way over God’s (Genesis 3:1ff), in the end, God expelled the Two from the Garden, in part to take from them the Tree of Life, “lest [Adam] put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (Gen. 3:22). This was excommunication by Adam and Eve’s own choosing, but was also a mercy by God’s grace. Imagine being full of sin and immortal. Endless suffering. (See the difficult but poignant film “The Green Mile” for an example of this.)

In the Garden, Adam and Eve were free to eat from every tree—presumably including the Tree of Life—with the exception only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having crossed the only barrier, which was there for their own protection, they now “see”, and as a result, die. We follow daily in their path.

But through the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord, the true Tree of Life is once again offered to us—the Cross. The Divine irony is that by partaking of it, we too, must die, but by partaking in it, we find the only true Life. In fact, if we choose not to partake of it, death is all the more final. This Tree—the Cross—is offered to us both to cleanse of our sins, to cure our ‘sight’, and to offer us life everlasting with God, again.

Jesus Christ offered himself fully and completely for our sins, dying on the Cross. In so doing, he did not do away with our own suffering and death, but rather, partook of and sanctified the same. By His descent to the dead, He began to free the righteous captives (see the Icon of Pascha); by His Resurrection, Christ has trampled down death by death. Only by sharing in this: “Deny thyself, take up thy cross daily, and follow me” will we truly live.

Come, O people! Let us fall down in worship before the blessed tree!
For by the cross, eternal justice has come to pass.
The Devil deceived Adam by the tree. Now he has been deceived by the cross!
He held the royal creation in bondage.
Now he has been cast down with an amazing fall!
The serpent’s venom is washed by the blood of God!
The curse is destroyed by the righteous sentence
Of the just One, who was condemned unjustly!
The tree has been healed by the Tree!
The passion of the passionless God has destroyed
the passions of the condemned!
Glory to Thy dispensation, O Christ,
Our gracious King and the Lover of man! (Verses on Lord I call)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina and Orthodox Teaching

As the situation in New Orleans and surrounding areas continues to grow in magnitude, we have each surely read a dozen emails (as was the case with the Tsunami) asking “Where is/was God?” Some actually claim that God did this as a punishment to New Orleans, a city of sin. Please understand our teaching:

First of all, whether one or a city of 100,000 dies, God is ‘there’. Not a sparrow falls from the sky falls without his knowledge. In truth, when one or 100,000 perish, it is the same to God: a disaster. Mankind was created to live—in communion with God, not to die. Our Lord is the Great Shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 to save the one; it is surely the case that in a disaster like this, God is in the midst of it. And who knows more about suffering than sinless Jesus Christ who bore all of humanities suffering and shame on the Cross?

Second, God does not ‘send’ hurricanes, plagues, tsunamis, AIDS, or any other natural or unnatural disasters to “punish” people. New Orleans is no more or less ‘sinful’ than Charleston. Why? Because cities aren’t sinful, people are. And if we are to be true to our faith and to the Scriptures, I am more sinful than anyone in any town. This is what we profess at every 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” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15). There is a long line of sinners, and I am at the front of it. But, remember the Gospel, even forespoken by the Prophet Ezekiel thousands of years ago: “For God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live” (precommunion prayers, cf. Ezekiel 18:32).

God was there when the storm was coming. God is there in the grim mess which remains. God did not ‘send’ this storm to punish anyone. What this storm does do is the following: It shows that the whole cosmos, the whole of creation is ‘out of whack’, in need of salvation. Christ’s second coming, according to the Scriptures, is a renewal of the whole creation. But as for now, the whole universe is as St. Paul writes: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22ff). The whole earth, the whole universe needs Jesus Christ. The sins of Adam and Eve on down to your sins and mine contribute to the ‘groaning’ of the universe, where the winds and the waves now destroy. But remember, our Lord created them “good” (see Genesis 1 and 2) and is still Lord over them as He was when He himself walked on water and calmed the storms. This storm also allows us to be the presence of the Living, Saving Jesus Christ whom we proclaim fully in the Orthodox Church. An opportunity to be His compassion for the destitute, His hands and feet for the weary, His home for the homeless, His cloak for the naked, etc. If God is to be seen in this tragedy, it is through us who remain personally unharmed by the storm, but who know the One, True God.