Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Who's your daddy?"

Published on Sunday, 12/16/07 in Charleston, SC's Post and Courier, Faith and Values Section with the title "Christians share common genealogy". Not published in their online version.

In my first days in the Lowcountry, I discovered the importance of genealogies in Charleston. “Are you related to the Parkers on such-and-such Street?” Naively (albeit truthfully), I quickly responded, “No.” As you may be aware, a “no” in this category immediately highlighted that I am from “off”. A better answer, I later learned, is “probably way back”. This reply is equally true, and yet somehow still connects someone from North Carolina to the Holy City. It is nice to have roots, but as far as our eternal life is concerned, our earthly heritage is of zero importance.

In the case of Jesus Christ, however, the question “are you related to ___” is very important. So important that both Matthew and Luke record his lineage in their Gospels. The promised messiah, Jesus, was to have a certain, clear lineage. More specifically, as the prophet Isaiah foretold 700+ years BC, he was to “come forth [as] a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). More directly, he would be the eternal successor to King David, the great King of Israel. “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore” (Isaiah 9:7ff).

So when the infant Jesus was born, causing no small controversy in the Roman Empire (King Herod jealously ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two years old in order to protect his throne from the infant Messiah.), those who knew the Scriptures began to draw near to witness their fulfillment and to worship the newborn King. Even those who did not know and who were not looking for the Messiah (the Gentile Magi, for example) found him and worshipped him. As we sing in the Orthodox tradition, “for those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee…”

Two miracles in one: a child was born from a virgin, and this child, Jesus, is God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us!

In the early centuries of the Church, even the heretics didn’t doubt Jesus’ divinity. Practically the reverse of today, it was his true humanity that was questioned. Already though, Christians who believed and taught what had always been known about Jesus Christ had kept genealogies which demonstrate his true humanity.

The answer to the Charlestonian question, “Who’s your daddy?” is answered in two ways for Jesus—since he is both God and Man. His Father is God the Father, from whom he is eternally begotten. As a human being and a man, he also has earthly parents—a foster father, Joseph, and his ever-virgin mother, Mary—both of whom are descendents of Abraham, the ancient Patriarch. It is this bloodline which is established in the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3:23ff. St. Matthew’s account, presented from Abraham to the birth of Jesus, demonstrates Jesus’ royal lineage—showing him to be the fulfillment of all the Kings of Israel. St. Luke’s account, on the other hand, begins with Jesus and works backwards in time, through the line of Levi, showing Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Priests of Israel. Additionally, by going all the way back to Adam, Jesus Christ is shown to be the new Adam, the true Son of God, who, like Adam, was born without human seed.

The genealogies make another—if not more subtle—comment as well: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—both Jews and Gentiles, men and women. Among them are listed the following (to name only a few): King Ahaz “who did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord God”, who burned his own son and worshipped other gods. King Solomon, who despite his great wisdom, took foreign wives whose false religions turned him from the one true God. He also had hundreds of concubines. King David was an adulterer (with Bathsheba) and a murderer (by ordering the sure death of her husband, Uriah). Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth, the Moabite, was a gentile.

Thankfully, as Christians, our genealogy is always one of adoption and not one of bloodline. By our baptism in Christ, there is “neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Gentile”. Neither is there Charlestonian nor Yankee, etc. But the genealogies of Jesus Christ are central to our faith, demonstrating the actual, earthly heritage of the Pre-eternal God, made man. Come let us adore him!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant. To read more visit www.holyascension.blogspot.com or write frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Who has a need for Christmas?

Originally published in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier, Faith and Values section, 12/9/07. Not available on their website.

By Fr. John Parker

He had been extremely wealthy, but something went terribly wrong. After the collapse of his business, there remained not even enough to feed his family of three daughters. In his desperation—who can imagine such desperation?—he figured that his only recourse for grocery money was to sell the girls into prostitution. No where to turn. Nothing to eat. No option.

Most of us could hardly imagine such desperation. Most reading this article have never involuntarily gone without a meal, much less a week’s worth. Many of us have never ‘needed’ anything.

It is equally true that most of us have never met someone in these circumstances, or even know someone who knows someone who was. Indeed, most of us have never helped someone in dire distress. We tend to go about our business and keep to ourselves. We know what we know and whom we know, and that is our life.

As the son of wealthy parents, Nicholas had never known such need himself. But he knew the needy, and he helped them. He knew that it was immoral to ignore their plight. He had the means to help, and did. In this case, under the cover of darkness, having assembled small bags of money (in large amounts), he made his way into their neighborhood and tossed the bundles through an open window in their house, praying that the gift would be sufficient to prevent such a sin. Thank God, it was. Overjoyed by such grace, Nicholas repeated his secret efforts twice more for the same family and saved them from destruction. Later, in his generosity, he even rescued a city plagued by famine. Saint Nicholas (Feast day December 6) was Archbishop of Myra (Asia Minor) in the 4th century.

For most of us in the Lowcountry, needs were long ago replaced with wants. During the ‘Christmas Season’ (which is actually Advent…) more and more emphasis has been placed on “what do you want for Christmas?” Have you ever been asked, “What do you need for Christmas?”

Many of us spend a frantic month searching for the ‘perfect gift’ for that ‘special someone’ who ‘has everything’. Why on earth do we need to buy ‘something’ (which usually winds up begin just ‘some’ thing) for someone who has everything? Someone who has NO need?

It isn’t that we shouldn’t give one another gifts. In fact, this is one way we show love for one another. But couldn’t the gift for that ‘someone who has everything’ be an offering to someone who has nothing?

Think on this for a moment: it is now common to rent a storage unit to hold all the stuff we can’t fit in our houses. Many spend hundreds of dollars monthly for a roof over stacked furniture piled in a climate-controlled warehouse. What about the poor who have no roof and are stacked on top of themselves? Who needs the roof?

Does little Johnny really need Nintendo Wii? Does Susie really need an 18th webkinz? Does Grandma really need another collector’s plate from the Franklin Mint? Do I really need another tie?

For many, charity has become a year-end tax deduction or the check we write on occasion during the year to assuage the guilt we have for accumulating too much stuff and continuing to buy more anyway. Such charity does help the needy, and the Church is grateful to be able to distribute it. But more so, we are called to change our whole worldview—our selves and souls—to reflect the life of Christ like St. Nicholas did.

We all have so much to give—but we forget that it is not actually ours. Everything we have is given to us by God to be used by us to show the love of God to those who truly need it. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it [clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the sick and imprisoned, etc.] to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40ff). Jesus didn’t give new chariots to people or even grant them new clothing. Rather, he gave them health, healing, hope, and salvation—and in the end, he gave his life for them, for us. This is our calling.

St. Nicholas was an ardent follower of Jesus Christ. He quietly and humbly lived the Gospel, and did so without desire for or requirement of public thanks or recognition. He gave because, in his abundance he knew his responsibility as a human being to help the helpless and to give hope to the hopeless. Our call is no different. So, let’s ask a new question this year. Instead of “what do you want for Christmas?” let’s ask, “Who has needs this Christmas whom we can help?” And having asked the question, let our giving be, like St. Nicholas’, quiet, anonymous, given to the glory of God, than all may see these good works, and give glory to God in heaven.

Fr. John Parker is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. Read more at www.holyascension.blogspot.com or write frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent a time of Spiritual House Cleaning

published on Sunday, 12/2/07 in Charleston's Faith and Values section of the Post and Courier (not published there online).

I have never been a particularly patient person. In grocery stores, I do mental math trying to determine which checkout line is the fastest. I’d like to be done *now*.

When approaching a red light, I aim for the lane with fewer cars. I want to be at my destination *now*.

I’ve never done particularly well with anticipation either. I confess that as a child, I often sought and found Christmas presents which my parents had attempted to hide in dark guestroom closets. I wanted to know what I was getting *now*.

It wasn’t until my wife’s pregnancy with our firstborn son that I was able to long for anything. By God’s grace, I waited nine months plus two weeks to know that my son was a son, despite the medical capacity to know sooner. And what great joy I found in that longing: a new (and successful) experiment in patience. A wonder like I had never experienced. An indescribable joy to meet my son. And miracle of miracles, I found equal joy and wonder in longing during my wife’s second pregnancy—greeting our second son after another round of nine months and two week’s anticipation.

Advent—or the 40-day Nativity Fast as it is traditionally known in the Orthodox Churches—is one of God’s annual gifts to us though the Church: a gift of patience, anticipation, and longing leading to indescribable joy and wonder at our celebration of the nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Traditionally and historically, Christians prepare for feasts by fasting and repentance. After all, we can never truly know a feast until we know what it is to fast. To go from party to party with no rest in between is to live life ultimately numb to true celebration.

This sort of preparatory season is best known, of course, as the Great 40 days of Lent prior to Pascha (Easter). But Advent is no different—though in many places fasting and penitence have slipped away, now only visible in the liturgical use of the color purple in churches and on Advent wreaths.

Advent, however, is devoted to preparation, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and spiritual longing. After all, it means “coming towards”. The Nativity of Christ is coming. What do you do when the king is coming and he is not here yet? Clean the house. Mend the torn garments. Polish the silver. Wash the dishes. Treat our neighbors the way we are supposed to. Make everything shiny and bright. Advent is not a feast. It is the preparation for the coming One.

So, how to prepare? Clean the house. Not just my residence, but the house of my soul. What sins do I keep unconfessed? What fire of anger do I stoke? What resentment do I harbor? With whom am I not reconciled?

Mend the torn garments. Not just patches on the knees of my torn jeans. How about the holes in the jeans of the needy? How about providing clothing for those who don’t have clothing to mend? Shoes for the shoeless? Meals for the hungry?

Polish the silver. Am I offering my best to the church? Am I giving the love and attention to my family and friends (and enemies) as I am called to do? What do I have to offer that I am holding back?

Wash the dishes. What or whom am I neglecting? Whom have I cast aside?

All this, of course, is not an end in and of itself. It is not a series of works and spiritual housecleaning in order to pat oneself on the back and say, “‘Atta boy!” or, “You go, girl!” Rather it is the response, in love, to the King of Kings who is coming into this world to save us.

Prepare the way of the Lord—he is coming to be born, and to be reborn in our hearts. So, let’s save the carols for Christmas. Let’s save the partying for the feast which begins with Communion on Christmas Day. For the coming weeks, let’s prepare ourselves, our souls and bodies, in peace and repentance, for the Nativity of Christ.

“Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants” (Luke 12:35ff)!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. To read more visit www.holyascension.blogspot.com or write frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Monday, November 26, 2007

When Dogma conflicts with Modernity

For Sunday, November 18, I was asked to contribute to Adam Parker's column asking pastors, "How do you resolve conflict between religious doctrine and contemporary life." Below is the column, including my answer. The online link is this: http://www.charleston.net/news/2007/nov/18/how_resolve_conflict_between_doctrine_co22449/?print

How to resolve conflict between doctrine and contemporary life
By Adam Parker
The Post and Courier
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Over the last several months, Faith & Values has explored how scriptural authority and religious practice can conflict with aspects of everyday life.

Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists are struggling to reconcile homosexuality with what their faith traditions teach. Jews are confronting challenges posed by cultural assimilation, trying to reconcile Jewish and American identities.

Recent court cases and legal settlements have forced Catholics to question the ways in which church officials deal with priests who have sexually assaulted children.

And every day, someone somewhere must address the dilemmas that arise when the realities of the world — poverty, natural disaster, consumerism, unwanted pregnancies, racism, xenophobia — prompt reactions and feelings that clash with the way we believe we are to believe.

Some of the lessons of religious faith seem clear. We are supposed to share our wealth. We are supposed to eat a certain way, dress a certain way. We are meant to abide by what Scripture teaches.

Yet we consume, often buying products we don't need. The trends of fashion and public taste guide our decisions. Forgiveness and fraternity give way to condemnation, overconfidence and blindness. Scripture tells us of sin. But what are we to do? Stone the sinner? Forgive him? Take it upon ourselves to save him? Pretend not to notice? Adjust our definition of sin?

What is clear is that people hold a range of views on how to address these questions and conflicts. Some are sure of their faith and what it dictates; others are full of doubt. Some put their trust in a higher authority; others prefer to trust themselves.

The Post and Courier decided to seek input. We asked religious leaders in the community this question: How do you resolve conflict between religious doctrine and contemporary life?

Asking Around
Ultimately, it comes down to one's underlying premise and perspective. Judaism posits that God did not create the world and then seek to impose his system of values and ethics upon it, but in fact, began with the Torah as his "blueprint" for civilization, and fashioned the world accordingly.

When one perceives the Bible's principles and ideals as the natural order — indeed, the very foundation — of things, one tends to be far less daunted by the challenges of secular society. The question becomes not "How do I reconcile religious doctrine with contemporary life?" but the other way around: "Which aspects of contemporary society conform to my bedrock standards and thus have a place in my life, and which do not, and must remain alien to it?"

Even as our faith and values are constantly tested in myriad ways, a strong foundation enables us to weather the windstorms. Toward that end, education is paramount.

Finally, while from a distance, Torah doctrine may appear rigid, dogmatic or outdated, in its practical application it is none of those things. "Its ways are gentle and all its pathways are peace. It is a tree of life to those who grasp it" (Proverbs 3:17-18). Those who practice tradition not only appreciate its profound relevancy to contemporary times, but how it infuses their every day with a sense of joy, meaning and purpose; a quest for deeper knowledge and spirituality; and a desire to impact the world through acts of goodness, compassion and loving kindness. The Psalmist perhaps said it best: "Taste (i.e. experience for yourself) and see that the Lord is good."

Rabbi Yossi Refson
Chabad of Charleston & the Low Country


Christians from the beginning have understood that true life is life in Christ — a total metamorphosis of the human person from the inside out. So, when Christian doctrine seems to be in conflict with contemporary life, this is because "contemporary life" is not really life. If we wish to live truly, we will fight with every ounce of our being, as St. Paul taught, not to 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" (Romans 12:2).

"Contemporary life" is not our canon; rather Jesus Christ is the standard of what it means to be truly human: Jesus is "the way, and the truth and the life."

For example, the two popular phrases "just do it" and "you deserve it" sum up one mark of contemporary life: "indulge thyself." This is fundamentally at odds with Jesus' teaching and perfect example: "Deny thyself." Following Jesus Christ, perfect God and Man, we can bear witness to the truth of life which comes through him by self-denial and cross-bearing. It raises the dead.

On the other hand, the results of the reign of self-indulgence in "contemporary life" are memorialized in the headlines of People magazine, any weekly tabloid or the police blotter. It kills the living.

A first-century Christian text reads, "There are two ways to live." When there is a conflict between the two, knowing Life, we choose him!

The Rev. John Parker
Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, Mount Pleasant


I noticed that the question uses the words "religious doctrine," and I believe that the term is very revealing. The very nature of doctrine invites conflict. However, that kind of conflict is of no consequence to me. I don't mean to sound cavalier, but I don't believe that there is ever a conflict between faith and culture ... at least not for the individual who has genuine faith and real conviction.

In the course of human history, when men and women of faith have faced a society or culture that disregarded their values and convictions, the conflict was not within the individual, but between the trend of the culture and the standard of the faithful. Think about the following people: Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Richard Allen, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Need I say more? These people acted on conviction, regardless of the trend or expectation of their culture, and in spite of personal struggles.

That same spirit carries over to our more personal individual choices, as well. It seems that every day I encounter people in our society who use profanity casually and loosely. Or unmarried couples who live in the same house and share the same bed without shame or reluctance. And certainly the styles, practices and entertainment of our day that disregard a standard that affirms the notion that we will have to answer to God one day. However, I made a choice to live for Christ, without compromise. There are times when it is inconvenient, unpopular and even painful to be a faithful follower of Christ. However, the presence of those undesirable feelings does not constitute a legitimate reason to compromise or "give in." Actually, I have found that once we make up our minds to live for the Lord, many of our decisions are already made. We simply have to ask God to help us deal with the discomforts ... and I am a witness that He will help us do just that.

The Rev. Stephen Singleton
Emanuel AME Church


Such conflict is addressed by allowing the principles of the Scriptures to inform life in the culture of our day. Essentially, the specific commands (which sometimes seem not to relate to our culture) are based on principles that transcend culture. Let those principles speak in the context of our day to define our lives even if it means we are not in the mainstream of the culture. Our history has taught us that being in the mainstream of culture is often a recipe for disaster, while standing on principle is often costly but best in the long term.

The Rev. R. Marshall Blalock
First Baptist Church


Religious communities are caring communities, deeply concerned about the truths that help give our lives meaning and purpose. Having definite beliefs, we are able to live lives with integrity, and can find answers to life's enduring questions, such as: Is there a God? What happens after we die? Why do good people suffer? What actions are good and right?

For more than 2,000 years, it has been Jewish religious doctrine that God gave his revelation (Torah) to Moses at Mount Sinai. This long-standing belief provided a basis for our Jewish lives. In perplexity or doubt, we could reliably turn to our Jewish leader or rabbi who would find answers based on Torah.

But, contrary to what we might wish, over the past 200 years, the scientific study of the Bible (largely conducted by leading Protestant scholars) has made belief in this Jewish doctrine increasingly difficult. Objective studies of the text lead us to conclude that the Pentateuch (the "five books of Moses") was written and edited over many centuries by several diverse authors. As a result, most American Jews have come to accept our sacred texts as fallible.

Our Jewish communities remain caring communities that both link us to our religious past and help us find answers to enduring questions. But with Torah as a guide, rather than infallible dogma, we all become fellow seekers for truth, helping one another find beliefs and values that give our lives personal authenticity and direction in a Jewish context.

Rabbi Anthony D. Holz
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim


At its root, the question about conflicts between religious doctrine and contemporary life is about the existence and nature of truth. Does truth exist? Can truth change? If true religious doctrines conflict with contemporary life, the resolution is simple: conversion. By the grace of God, we conform ourselves to God's plan for creation.

The Gospel is always countercultural in some form or another. Ironically, as G.K. Chesterton noted, "... each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most." Witness the late 20th century's esteem for Mother Teresa, as she lived and proclaimed poverty and chastity.

It is easy to get caught up in the marketing of religion. In a sincere desire to evangelize, some religious bodies survey people to determine what they need. As often happens, true needs get confused with mere wants. When religion becomes a commodity, people become consumers. Like customers, they shop around to pick and choose their beliefs. We call it "the commodification of religion." Unfortunately, when religion adapts to contemporary whims, people stay in their comfort zones and miss the challenge to growth, to conversion, to heroic love.

Instead of changing our behavior in accord with our beliefs, we are tempted to change our beliefs to suit our behavior. "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." (Romans 12:2). It's a constant and exciting challenge.

The Rev. Lawrence B. McInerny
Stella Maris Catholic Church, Sullivan's Island


I think it is important to understand that the Bible is first and foremost a book of Christian Faith and Practice. In other words, it tells us who we are, our sinful state and the need for God's grace and intervention to reinstall fellowship with our Creator. Scripture assures us that God is the Creator and that we humans were created with a purpose, but it does not explain how God created and it is not strictly speaking a book of science, math, history (even though we believe it has historical content) and, therefore, we are not called to try to explain God's way of doing things. Also, each biblical text or passage needs to be interpreted within its context and cannot be literally applied to every situation. There are certain issues that are essential to faith and practice, but others need to be seen within their historical context, and a principle is to be seen for application to modern-day life. Within the Scriptures themselves, there are shifts in application to certain circumstances according to the context (for example animal sacrifices and the ultimate sacrifice seen in Jesus Christ).

Certain hygiene rules are not mandatory today, yet moral principles such as adultery, murder, hate, etc., are consistently condemned throughout Scripture. As Christians, we believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit to help us understand God's written word for today for adequate application.

The Rev. Eriberto "Eddie" Soto
Latin American Ministries, Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery


Too often Christians fall into the fallacy that our doctrines were delivered First Class from heaven. The creeds we recite each Sunday, the stories that we hear from the pulpit, the beliefs handed down to us from our grandmother we often take as coming straight from the mouth of God.

That is where we begin to get into trouble. All theology is created. It is humans' attempt to make some sense of what is going on in life and how it relates to what God is seeking to do in and through creation. It is a continuing conversation with God, our world, ourselves.

The Nicene Creed was an attempt to find a consensus to the wide range of beliefs that were causing a rift in the church and the empire. It was a conversation that set forth what most people believed in the fourth century. Since then our knowledge of the world has expanded. We need to continually ask ourselves if our understanding of God has expanded as well.

William Countryman, in writing about Scripture, once said that "when Scripture breaks your world open and makes it bigger and more loving, it is achieving its true goal." The same thing could be said for doctrines. They are here to help us understand God and what God is seeking to do in our world. Doctrines that harden our hearts and close our minds to the wonder of God need to be discarded. Those which open us to greater wonder and greater understanding are to be reaffirmed and celebrated.

The Rev. Dr. Don Flowers Jr.
Providence Baptist Church, Daniel Island

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.
Copyright © 1997 - 2007 the Evening Post Publishing Co.

Monday, October 08, 2007

On Orthodoxy and orthodoxies

Originally published as Orthodoxy at heart of faith in Christ in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier on Sunday, October 7, 2007

In recent weeks, Adam Parker wrote two articles investigating the history of religious schism and asking the question, “should religion’s goal be a ‘universal church’ or is religious diversity a good thing?” Adam states that in times of trouble and theological debate “some believers…react by reasserting orthodoxy.” I would like to take the liberty to explain why I believe there is no ‘little ‘o’’ orthodoxy and to define and describe “Orthodoxy” as “Christianity from the beginning”. As a result we will see but one Jesus Christ, and the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Little ‘o’ orthodoxy is a concept which inherently has no meaning, precisely because it is an idea used to defend certain Reformation and Post-reformation ideas, not all of which are held in common by those who would label themselves orthodox. Consider a few examples. Some Protestant Christians would interpret certain passages in the Holy Scriptures to defend the ordination of women, while others will interpret certain verses (often the same ones!) to condemn it. Some would interpret the Bible, defending adult-only baptism. Others would claim that baptism is unnecessary, using the same Bible. Some would baptize “in the Name of Jesus” only, citing the Book of Acts. Others would baptize “in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” referencing Jesus’ command in Matthew 28. Each of these might call themselves ‘orthodox’. The main question which should arise from this discussion would be, “who decides who’s orthodox?” Phrased another way, “whose interpretation is correct?” Little ‘o’ orthodoxy is a term which is gaining popularity in an effort to defend one’s own beliefs and denominational affiliations without checking all of them against the received beliefs of the Universal Church.

Orthodox (capital ‘O’), is a term which does have meaning, precisely because Orthodoxy is the Ancient Way of Christianity, believing and teaching that which has always been believed and taught about Jesus Christ and everything related to him: the Church, the Sacraments, missions, etc. When theological debate arises, we can always look back and ask, “what have Christians always believed?” We will find, in this search, two records. First, a long line of teachers (Bishops) stretching from the first century to the present day, whose sole task it is to guard and transmit this ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). And second, we will find the content of their defense and teaching to be this long-held ‘body’ of belief. Both are critical to Orthodoxy. We can know the “mind of Christ” in every critical area by looking back from the beginning to see if what is being questioned is congruent or an innovation. We are looking for the golden thread of commonly held beliefs.

To hold all of these commonly held beliefs, and to profess them publicly in word and action, would make one “Orthodox”. To hold some of them, but not all of them would make one (again historically and theologically) “heterodox” (literally “a different glory or praise”)—and places one outside the Church. To teach against these teachings and beliefs, especially from within the Church makes one a “heretic” (literally “an opinion holder”, “sectarian”, or “dissenter”), perhaps the most dangerous spiritual label.

Though not always, the heterodox and heretical views of Christianity often start with questions about me or my rights. For Christians, to start with the individual is a dangerous endeavor. “What will make me happy?” “What is my right as a human being?” “If I am like this, what must God be like?” “Why don’t you believe what I believe?”

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, takes God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, holds tightly onto it, and seeks to live it in every possible scenario, public and private. It begins something like this: “If God is whom he has revealed himself to be, what will make me genuinely me?” “If God is whom he has shown himself to be when he took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, what is my responsibility as a human being?”

Heterodox Christianity and heretical views often take our present (read ‘fallen’) human existence as “the way we were created” and start there. Orthodox Christianity understands that God became man not only to conquer sin and death, but to show us what it truly means to be human. We understand that how we were born and how we are now are *not* necessarily what or who we were created to be.

Orthodox Christianity stands, as the Church, already united in fullness of faith and shared belief. Receiving communion within the Orthodox Church is, in addition to its essential meanings, the outward sign of commonly holding these ancient beliefs about Jesus Christ and sharing a fullness of the faith. Within Orthodox Christianity, community is truly our common unity, and communion is our common union.

Heterodox Christianity and heretical sects are inherently dis-united and may or may not share some beliefs but not others, not only amongst themselves, but across time and geography. The act of receiving communion in these places is often the only common ground amongst them. The sacrament itself may or may not have essential meaning (depending on who is teaching), so communion is often reduced to “the union we have by doing something together, whether it means something or not.”

The questions of unity and community, union and communion, as well as the big question concerning “the Church” have been being answered since Jesus himself instituted the Church with the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Again, don’t take my word for it! Read not only the Scriptures, but also the history, starting with the Apostolic Fathers (found online at http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html). Start also with the first bona fide, universally accepted “History of the Church” by Eusebius (found online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.vi.i.html and also published as a Penguin Classic).

No, it is the deeper questions which are the more difficult: Am I willing to seek, to be found by, and to find the one, true Jesus Christ, who always has been—the same yesterday, today, and forever? Am I willing to accept that I am “fallen and I can’t get up”? Am I willing to believe what has always been believed about Jesus Christ, trusting that in this faith is found the fullest and truest life? When we come to this point, finally, we can heed the invitation so beautifully made in one of my favorite movies—Oh Brother, Where Art Thou: “Come on in, boys, the water is fine!”

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community of Mt. Pleasant. Read more at www.holyascension.blogspot.com or contact him at frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Hotter than Hell?

Originally published as Turning from God leads to eternity without life in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier on Sunday, September 9, 2007.

By all reports, the recent heat wave was the most intense and prolonged in recent memory. Record highs prompted some churches in their roadside signage to post statements relating the temperature in Charleston to those of the infernal abyss. “You think it is hot here?” “Fire Insurance. Inquire within.” “Hell has no thermostat.” Clever—but even at the literal level, ‘thermostat’ means ‘keeps the temperature the same’. I guess the implied statement is, “in hell, one can’t change the temperature for the cooler.”

It is good that this heat prompts us to ask about hell. What is hell, though? And what is heaven?

Our Lord, Jesus Christ said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Heaven is begun. By our participation in the life of the Church—through baptism and receiving the Sacraments—by our co-laboring with God, we are welcomed more and more into the Kingdom as we are transformed from corrupt into incorrupt, from imperfect to perfect, from sinner to saint. Whenever we actually seek and accomplish the will of God (rooted in self-denial, taking up our cross, and following Jesus), we partake in the life of the Kingdom of God, life as it was intended, heaven—even here and now.

Hell is similar. To sin, to harm others, to deny God and his power, to turn from the will of God, to seek self over others, to worship anything or anyone above the One, True God, is to participate in hell. We even have a phrase in our every-day vocabulary which points to this: “living hell.” Precisely. Ask anyone who has or is going through divorce or abuse—no matter who is a fault, it is hell for everyone. Consider, honestly, the worst times in your own life: hell. In these and other areas, we can observe, or participate in, hell—living hell.

Hell, is not some geographical place—as heaven is not. These realities begin in time and space but have their conclusion outside of it, in God’s timelessness. Wherever they “are”, God is there. “If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there” (Psalm 139:8)! In fact, we would even dare to teach that hell is not a place where God sends anyone. The Prophet Ezekiel, for example, said that God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his ways and live (Ezekiel 18:32).

Today, as in the days of Moses, we have two choices always set before us: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him…” (Deuteronomy 30:19ff). The choice, life or death—heaven or hell, is ours to make, in every living moment, and to our dying breath.

God never says, “Love me or I’ll kill you.” “Love me or you’ll burn in hell.” Rather, he describes the consequence of not choosing life: “you will surely die”. This already true in our daily lives—just look around.

Sadly, many choose such hell, and for two apparent reasons. First, the way to paradise, to heaven, to communion with God, is narrow, and few are they who find it. True life is work. It means crucifixion, forgiveness, and endurance. It is definitely not the path of least resistance!

Second, since the devil is so clever, we are often quite well-convinced that hell is actually paradise.

Consider this story: A man dies and is permitted to take a preview of both heaven and hell to choose his eternal lifestyle. First, heaven: a peaceful, bright place. The antiphonal singing of the angels is impressive; the landscape, lush and serene. “Not bad,” the fellow notes.

Next, hell: well-manicured golf courses; an open tiki bar on the nearby beach—and endless snorkeling over pristine coral reefs teeming with marine life. “Wow! I can’t believe it,” he thinks. “This is really great.”

Surprised even at himself, the man chooses hell. “It isn’t what I expected!”

The gates of Hell are opened to the fellow who is warmly welcomed in. With the gates barely closed behind him, he sees nothing but death and destruction, torment, grief, sadness. He can only hear wailing and weeping. His face shows his utter horror and surprise. “But, what about yesterday?” he manages to ask.

“Yesterday,” says the devil, “we were recruiting…”

In the midst of all of this is Jesus Christ, who loved and laid down his life for us all, even for his worst enemies, including those who crucified him. Our Lord even descended to hell for us and with us, to rescue us from eternal death and hell. This was his action on Holy Saturday, the day on which he “rested in the tomb”, and “rested from his work”—the true Sabbath. He lived, died, and rose again to show us and give us life, true life in his Kindgom.

Choose life and live!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at fjohn@ocacharleston.org. Read more at www.holyascension.blogspot.com.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

Originally published in the Charleston, SC, POST AND COURIER, on 8/7/07, as "What is the Church that Jesus left us?"

The recent release of the Vatican’s seven questions and answers entitled, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church” has raised much concern across the spectrum of self-professed Christians. Where is the Church? Does it matter?

I write from a unique position as an Orthodox priest, since, according to the document, the Orthodox Churches (unlike the Protestants) can properly be called Churches, yet we “lack something”, namely a supreme pontiff subsisting in the person of the Pope of Rome. I suspect we should be grateful that the Vatican recognizes us Orthodox as a church. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t move us or flatter us. It neither enrages nor engages us, since we believe that the history of the Christian Church shows a different—though related—reality. The Orthodox Churches are as old as the Roman. After all, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians (to name a few), who are still Orthodox to this day.

The battle for “Church” is not a battle of “valid” versus “invalid”; “visible” versus “invisible”; “scriptural” versus “traditional”; “Protestant” versus “Roman Catholic”. These are the sixteenth century battles of western European Christianity, already 500 years removed from Orthodox Christianity. The real question is “what did Jesus actually leave with us?” More historically phrased, “what has always been believed?” Biblically stated, “what is the faith once for all delivered to the saints?” Theologically asked, “what does it mean to be ‘in communion’?”

As Father Kirby wrote in his irenic column a few weeks ago, our Lord Jesus Christ did found only one Church. Christ is not and cannot be divided; a head cannot have many bodies. Jesus is the head of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Church is holy in that she is divinely established and sustained. She is catholic in that she is whole and complete in every local church in every time and place, and faithfully teaches what all Christians have always believed. She is apostolic in that her bishops (episkopoi, over-seers), are ordained in the same line as the bishops first appointed by the apostles and teach the same doctrines as do the Twelve.

Reading the documents of the Church from the first century forward through the eleventh, laying aside our present day preconceptions about “church”, we will find this true Church. We will even find a great deal of honor paid to the Bishop of Rome, who from the beginning was considered to be primus-inter-pares (chief among equals) of all the Bishops. This cannot be denied historically.

However, through the history, we will not find the infallible, supreme pontiff the papal office has become. The pope was for a long time the honorable chairman of a group of bishops seated (figuratively) at a round table, around which the Orthodox Bishops are still sitting.

It is not until post-eleventh century western Christianity that the Pope sits (again, figuratively) at a rectangular table, he alone occupying the head. Don’t take my word for it; read the history! The Charleston County library holds a 38 volume collection entitled the Antenicene, Nicene, and Postnicene Fathers which contain, in English, the most significant writings of the first Christian millennium. It can also be read, in full, online at http://www.ccel.org/.

The history is critically important, but there is a deeper reality which must always remain intimately linked to the Church’s historical lineage: by our sins, every man, woman, and child is terminally ill and desperately needs spiritual medical attention. The Church is, theologically and historically, the hospital in which are found the doctors who can rightly identify the reality of the disease and who dispense the only tonics which can heal this infectious and vicious malady.

Jesus Christ instituted and entrusted his medicines (the Sacraments—baptism, Holy Communion, confession, unction, etc.) to his apostles and through them, to the Bishops. It is through this succession that the medicines can be both rightly administered and guaranteed. More directly put: the Church is the hospital which has board-certified physicians-of-the-soul and medicines which have been carefully preserved under the strictest supervision.

If you knew you were terminally ill, would you prefer to visit a true hospital or an individually and recently established clinic, run by a fellow who printed his MD on his laserjet? The gifted and well-studied clinician might save you. He might just be talented enough to pull it all together. But the hospital’s methods, medicines, and personnel are time-tested and sure. This is the case with the Church, only moreso, because it is also one, holy, catholic, and apostolic!

So, we dying men and women, if we hope to live, must seek and find Jesus Christ in his Church which has never been anything other than visible, living, and active. As the Vatican has rightly taught, the Church’s touchstones include bishops in apostolic order who, to quote St. Paul to Timothy, “rightly divide the word of truth”. These bishops, though, have never been subjected to the universal jurisdiction of an infallible Pope. As Jesus said of divorce, so too the Orthodox have always taught about this false teaching, “from the beginning it was not so.”

Rather, the bishops, as brothers in council, are the guardians of the medicines of the hospital for sinners, without which we die. (Our Lord did say, for example, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.”) We can be confident of the medications, meals, and remedies here in the Church. God is certainly free to move outside the boundaries of his own creation, but why put him to the test?

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or by email at frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Pet Luxuries

Originally published in the Charleston, SC, POST and COURIER on July 22, 2007, as "Humanity can get lost in consumerism"

I recently saw a catalog advertising beautiful sterling-silver necklaces with interchangeable and engravable pendants. Their themes were among those we wouldn’t see on older women, but they might certainly be worn by young girls or boys. “Colorful necklaces feature Swarovski crystals.” But these were different.

In an online catalog, I read of a lavish, $4400 bed, described like this: a “formal Louis XVI four-poster [bed] … inspired by the classic designed by the King himself. Shown here in this traditional French plaid taffeta with coordinating trim and linings, the curtains and skirt are removable for dry-cleaning. All [beds] are custom designed with the…owner’s needs in mind. Clients may select from a range of fabrics, trims and finishes.”[1]

I saw regal beds like this one on a recent vacation to Williamsburg. I imagined what it must have been like to be the Governor of colonial Virginia. But the bed as described was different.

During that same trip to Williamsburg, we befriended the period-dressed chef of the Governor’s Palace, who worked in his colonial kitchen, preparing meals as if for the 17th century Governor. I was particularly intrigued to watch him with sew bacon fat into a rabbit, apparently a savory favorite of the ruler. Later, I saw a similarly lavish meal described in a magazine ad. “Restaurant-inspired…Angus beef…for the real meat lover in the family.” But this, too, was different.

On another occasion, I was reading of some beautiful condos. They featured both one and two bedroom suites, complete with television, a security system, indoor and outdoor play areas, and a nature trail. The description of these condos sounded just like the ones where we stayed in Williamsburg, but they also were different.

What was the common difference between all of these luxuries: the sterling jewelry, the regal bed, the high-end steak meal, and the condo? All of these items are for pets. For dogs and cats. There is now a market for $72 sterling jewelry for cats. $4000, four-poster beds for dogs. Steak dinners in a can for Fido. Kitty condos for a feline’s much-deserved vacation. And all this hardly to mention “pet insurance” which surely has developed to “save” people money when they opt for everything from ACL replacement surgery for their pet to animal organ transplants.

I feel somewhat strange writing about luxury pet boutiques and related animal consumerism. Why such a column—in the Faith and Values section? Because this is truly animal consumerism. Consumerism gone wild.

I am almost struck dumb with all of the above when I compare it all to a recent deeply-personal experience. A few weeks back, I met a fellow—let’s call him Xenon (Greek for ‘stranger’). Xenon was standing in a parking lot asking for assistance. He had no jewelry at all—not even a watch. And his reading glasses were held together by scotch tape. He was approachable, though something was clearly wrong—a combination sick and homeless. He’s spent over thirty years too disabled to hold a job. As he told me (which I verified by visiting him there), he sleeps on the floor of an abandoned house where he has no running water or electricity. He hadn’t had a hot meal in days. Occasionally, he said, he found help from kind people, but for the most part, “no one has the time”. Xenon lives (barely) day to day, and for him, to sit at a table and share a meal is like the kingdom of Heaven.

Now we can surely debate the merits of social medicine, and we can list the various social agencies which exist to help needy folks like Xenon. Or whether or not (Lord, have mercy!) Xenon “deserves” or “really needs” help. And if we’d like to debate this, let the debate begin!

But two questions arise in my own heart, and I hope in yours, as we compare the sad story of Xenon to the luxuries of pet condos, $4000 animal beds, and Angus-flavored Alpo—or any time or way we spend more on our pets than on needy human beings. When was the last time I even looked at someone like Xenon in the eyes and smiled (much less actually said hello and offered to help)? And when was the last time I took even one bag of groceries to a place like ECCO, the East Cooper Community Outreach, one local clearinghouse of help for the extremely needy among us? These are simple human behaviors to which Christians are called in the most profound ways.

For the love of God—literally—let’s treat animals like animals and human beings like human beings. Pets are important, but not more important than our human neighbors, known or unknown. We ought to treat animals humanely, but not humans like animals.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 881-5010.

[1] http://www.theritzyrover.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWPROD&ProdID=3928

Scandal of the Cross

The Scandal of the Cross
By Fr. John Parker
Published in Touchstone Magazine, June 2007

The first time I visited the sacristy of the Wren Chapel at the College of William and Mary, where the chapel’s brass cross now resides out of sight of the visitor, I waited there, dressed in black, sweaty palmed, being reminded to breathe, sequestered till the arrival of my bride at the west end of the chapel. On cue, I departed the colonial room and followed the priest, along with my three groomsmen, to the small but unmistakably English altar, which still faces ad orientem, one reminder of the age of the chapel.

For the second visit, a few years later, I was also dressed in black, though this time under my festal white vestments. I was the celebrant of someone else’s wedding — my brother’s. On this occasion, I was the breathing coach. I remember moving the chalice and paten from this sacristy to the altar before the service. I remember celebrating the wedding and giving thanks where Anglican and Episcopal priests have served since the late 1700s.

The sacristy of any church is the guarded location of its sacred vessels. It is no surprise that we had to take the Eucharistic vessels out of the safe and put them on the altar, but it has come as an outrage to some and a surprise to a great many that the altar Cross, given in 1931 to the college by Bruton Parish — the oldest Episcopal parish in the United States — now has its home in the sacristy, except when the chapel is used for a specifically Christian event.

Late last year (yes, October 2006), the President of the College unilaterally ordered its removal from the altar, saying the cross “sends a message that the Chapel belongs more fully to some of us than to others. That there are, at the College, insiders and outsiders.”

Apparently, it is thought that the architecture of the building sends no such message, despite the fact the chapel is a precise model of an English church: with its fixed altar, the altar rail complete with closing gate and kneelers, the pulpit, the chancel choir (with the pews facing one another), the choir loft, and the organ. It is hardly a generic chapel, like one might find in an airport or secular hospital.

It is not necessary to re-address what so many others have already capably investigated and reported: the balance of having an historic Christian Chapel in a public University, the question as to whether or not a cross on an altar in a building is offensive to non-Christians, the self-appointed decision by the College president to remove the cross, etc.

To be honest, I am not all that disturbed by the removal of the cross. In fact, I’d put it in the same category as public monuments listing the Ten Commandments which have been under similar scrutiny in recent years. The reality of the matter is that we are not a Christian nation.

As I wondered to the founder of www.savethewrencross.org, what true difference does it make whether or not the Cross adorns an empty chapel, when the following is true? Every single night, hundreds of students from the college stumble in drunken stupors back to their evening lodging, which often is not their own dorm room. Fornication is rampant. Since my day (1989-1993) the college has prided itself on its support for homosexuality.

From a Christian perspective, the history of the college and the chapel is, for all intents and purposes, immaterial today. St. John the Forerunner made it known that there is no sense in trying to claim and indeed no possibility of claiming any relation to salvation by citing the names of our ancestors. He cried out, “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

And there is certainly no sense in guarding an historically Christian chapel when the fundamental activities just outside its frequently empty halls bear no resemblance to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

It should not surprise Christians that the Cross is a scandal, at William and Mary or any place. It will always be “a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” as St. Paul described Christ crucified.

By God’s grace, the only way fruit will be born at the College is by repentance. The Cross will be seen as the sign of Christ’s redemptive, self-sacrificial, and atoning embrace, the “weapon of peace” as it is called in the Orthodox tradition, only when self-professing Christians fully devote themselves to chastity, humility, patience, and love. When our chief foci are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

There is, in fact, a very easy way for the Cross to be returned to the chapel: schedule the traditional hours of the Church in Wren Chapel daily. The method will also return the Cross to the lives of those related to the College, offering a two-fold metanoia.

Let groups of local students, faculty, staff, and alumni organize themselves into congregations of prayer. Offer the ancient daily services along with the biblical hours of prayer—the evening service (vespers), the service after supper (compline), midnight, the morning service (matins), 6 and 9 AM (1st and 3rd hours), and 12 and 3 PM (6th and 9th hours). This holy action would bring the cross out of the sacristy for a few hours every day and would change both the hearts and the minds of all those who take part in such ministrations.

And it would show the president as well as the world the true purpose of a Christian Chapel. Apart from such an effort, we will waste our days trying to prove the legitimacy of the Chapel on historical terms — an interesting question in our country’s oldest academic building, but of little use to our salvation in the present.

As a public university, William and Mary cannot require daily chapel services as it did in its early years. Yet there is no public crime in the gathering of two or three to pray at regular intervals around the clock in Wren Chapel, making an historic verity into a present reality.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Holy Pentecost

Holy Spirit sanctifies Languages and Inspires Daily Life
Published in the Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, May 2007

By Fr. John Parker

“What does it fulfill?” This was the question I was asked by an Orthodox priest when I had called him to find out what the Church has always taught about Pentecost, the 50th day after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon those gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem, the ‘birthday’ of the church.

I was familiar with the western Christian tradition of wearing red on Pentecost, a liturgical reminder of the tongues of fire which lighted upon the heads of the disciples; though I learned that green is the liturgical color of the Christian East, a sign of Life. I was accustomed to birthday cakes for the Church and missions fairs—since it was from the day of Pentecost that the Apostles went out from Jerusalem proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, repentance and forgiveness of sins, with boldness and without fear.

But Fr. John Abdallah’s question stumped me. I knew ‘of course’ the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, since it is included in Luke’s account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” Fr. John charged me to think harder about it. “What does Pentecost reverse?” “Reverse?” I reflected, “What on earth are you talking about?”

Then He told me, and it was as if all the lights went on in my darkened stadium. If the Holy Scriptures are indeed one full story of creation, fall, and redemption, here is one beautiful demonstration of this truth!

Generations ago, “the whole earth had but one language and few words” (Genesis 11:1ff). And in those days, man decided to build for himself “a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for [himself]”. This prideful act was gazed upon by God himself, and judged to be only the beginning of the selfish pride of humanity. So, God confused their tongue and scattered the people across the face of the earth, so that they could not understand one another. The building they attempted to build is well known as the Tower of Babel. Pentecost is the divine reversal, the healing of this unholy effort. This is what Fr. John was trying to teach me.

If Babel was the scattering of languages, Pentecost is the gathering and sanctifying of them. If Babel was communal death by language, Pentecost is salvation through language. If Babel was the division of the world into language groups, and ultimately giving people what they wanted (a name for themselves—the development of nationalism), Pentecost is the crushing of nationalistic boundaries—the Gospel heard in all languages. If Babel was the sizeable expulsion of the world from near Eden, Pentecost is the gathering of the world at Jerusalem. Language, once a curse and separation, is now sanctified by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel in all the languages of the known world.

This sanctification of language is critically important, yet most of us take it for granted. Are we not accustomed to hearing the Gospel and praying in our native tongue? This is one significant gift with Pentecost. There is no longer any sacred language in-and-of itself. Not Hebrew, not Greek, not Latin, not Slavonic, not English. The Gospel is to be proclaimed and understood in the language of the people, whoever they may be. Any ‘theological’ defense of one particular language is nothing more than a continuation of the pride of Babel.

And what about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit? How does it happen? Having the Holy Spirit in my life is a daily event, yet many people mystify such an experience, and seek from the Holy Spirit lavish gifts: speaking in tongues, miracles, visions, dreams, etc, and even go away on retreat weekends to obtain them. Often missing in all of this is an understanding of what the saints teach about the routine existence of life: to know myself as I truly am is a greater miracle than raising the dead. Have I been granted this great miracle, realized by the Holy Spirit in worship, love, and forgiveness in light of the Resurrection? It is by the Holy Spirit that we are each convicted of sin and brought to holiness, a daily task even for the greatest living saint.

Ultimately, then, although we each have a personal Pentecost at our Baptism, when we receive the Holy Spirit as did our Lord at his, we are called to a daily Pentecost in the “routine drudgery of everyday existence in this fallen world.” For this reason, and beginning with today’s Holy Feast, Orthodox Christians bookend each day with an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit. God grant us the same, and save us!

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!”

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 843.881.5010.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Blessing of Fleet a return to Paradise

By Fr. John Parker
Originally published in the Post and Courier on Sunday, April 29, 2007 and online at

I had heard of supersized but never supercharged. The young man meant well, though he was making a serious request by means of some sort of slang. He had bought a beautiful sterling silver baptismal cross and wanted to have it blessed. So he came into my study that day and asked, "Father, would you supercharge my cross for me?" I knew what he wanted, but the request came out so strangely. Not wanting to shame him by a direct correction, I said, "I'll be glad to bless your cross, Matthew." (Name changed.)

The Orthodox Christian tradition has a blessing for nearly everything good. Among the contents of a wonderful book titled "The Abridged Book of Needs," one finds, for example, prayers for blessing all of the following: water, bees, boats, fire engines, homes, wells, airplanes, meat and cheese, fragrant herbs and fishnets. And the list goes on. Each blessing is typically a prayer, completed with the trinitarian sprinkling of holy water on the object being blessed.
But what is blessing? Why would we, to make the connection present and local, bless the shrimp boats and their captains and crews? Does blessing supercharge?

First, let me give the short answers to these important questions. Blessing is a liturgical and prayerful act by which we, as we say in the Orthodox Churches, "commend ourselves, each other, and all our life unto Christ our God." And rather than supercharging shrimp trawlers, we are actually asking God to return them, by our synergy (working together with him), to their actual use and purpose.

Allow me to explain. When God created the world and all that is in it, and crowned his creation with man and woman, calling this "very good," everything was in order and communion with God. But when we, by our disobedience and self-interest, took matters into our own hands (read sinned), the whole world fell. That is, every part of existence was tainted, touched, affected by the sins of Adam and Eve - and today, by ours. Eating, for example, which was created to be our form of nourishment and communion with God, becomes gluttony: eating for the sake of eating. Drinking, offered to us for hydration and sober merriment, becomes drunkenness, and drunkenness for its own purpose. A home in the fallen world, originally intended for shelter, comfort, hospitality and the making of family, becomes a place where secret sins are hidden: illicit sexual relationships, abuse, rage, etc.

Realizing that we are now a part of the fallen world, and not the world as it was created to be, we have the holy task of offering the fallen world back to God, asking him to make it right and/or to help us to make it so. As one of the greatest and most famous Orthodox priests of the 20th century described it, we have the task of transforming "the smallest, seemingly most insignificant detail of the routine drudgery of everyday existence in this fallen world into paradise." This we do routinely at meals, saying grace or asking the blessing. We certainly take part in this critical vocation each time we celebrate the marriage of a woman to a man. In the Orthodox Churches, this we also do annually (during the season of the feast of the Theophany, our Lord's baptism, Jan. 6) by the blessing of the homes of our parishioners. For house blessings, we say, in short, "Lord, make this house a holy home." For marriages, "Lord, make this couple king and queen of their Christian household, married forever." At meals, "Nourish us with the gifts of thy bounty on this table, O Lord."

And this is what we take part in at the Blessing of the Fleet in Mount Pleasant. We gather to ask God to grant safety and success to each shrimper, and to assist each one to accomplish his or her vocation as a good steward of God's creation. Ultimately, every boat, every net, every engine, every deck and flag, along with every breath we breathe, belong to God and are on loan to us, given to us as gifts as a trust is given into the hands of trustees.

Certainly, a part of such a blessing is our intention to cooperate with God in its fulfillment. I'd damn myself by blessing a bottle of wine (intended for sober fellowship and enjoyment) and then drinking it all by myself in one sitting. And it would be to our condemnation and judgment to ask God's blessing on a fleet of shrimping vessels whose captains intend only to wreak havoc on the local seas and the inhabitants thereof, and to scam the local community. We must remember that our aim is a return to paradise.

Today, we ask God's blessing on the fleet, on those who operate the boats and on all of us who shall partake of their bounteous catch, remembering that our Lord Jesus Christ called his first disciples from among fishermen, and asking the heavenly protection of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the patron of seafarers, in this new season.

This article was printed via the web on 4/30/2007 7:14:29 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at Charleston.net on Sunday, April 29, 2007.

Benediction Fiction

By Fr. John Parker
Published in Touchstone Magazine in May 2007 and online at

John Parker on the Dishonesty of Inclusive Prayers

Once I accepted an invitation to give the benediction at the graduation of the Medical University of South Carolina. I was delighted that a school like MUSC was still willing to invoke the Name of God and ask his blessings on those who are to be sent out into the world to practice the work that the school has trained them to do.

Having driven past the university’s beautiful St. Luke’s Chapel (named after St. Luke, the evangelist and physician) hundreds of times, I began to consider what words might be fitting for these medical students. I sat at my desk, reviewing ancient books of Christian prayers, to write the most appropriate one for those commencing the next step of their professional medical lives.

Parochial Names
Two days later, I received by mail a delightful letter, thanking me for agreeing to deliver the benediction and inviting me to a number of related festivities. Included with the letter, though, was a memorandum from the Office of the President of the Medical University: “Guidelines for Invocation and Benediction at Public Functions,” guidelines to which I would be required to conform in order to bless the graduates.

The first was a reasonable request for any public speaker: “Appeal to the larger spiritual virtues that all faiths have in common: love, faith, hope . . . peace, goodness.” The second was acceptable, although dripping with political correctness: “Use inclusive language: forbears rather than fathers, . . .” etc.

The third was a problem. Here is the text (the boldface appears in the original):

Steer clear of parochial, exclusively defining religious names, concepts, practices, and metaphors. A good rule of thumb to remember is that you come representing the entire faith community, not just your own group. The prayer should therefore not be offensive to anyone, whether Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, etc. For example, when opening or closing, an inclusive choice would be “Holy God, Holy One, Creator, Sustainer,” rather than “Allah, Jesus, Holy Trinity,” etc.

In four sentences, the Medical University of South Carolina, in its effort to “set a tone of reverence at our public assemblies” and “bear testimony to [our] richly diverse religious and cultural heritage” and somehow to make generic and inoffensive any public benediction or invocation, sanctioned officially one religion over all others: American pop-religion—a tray full of cafeteria-style faith, which takes nice-sounding “religious” words from this group and that, pleasing to the ear but without real content.

I sent my prepared benediction to the Office of the President, wanting to embarrass neither myself nor the staff of the Medical University at graduation. I soon received a polite call from the same office, during which I was un-invited to bless the graduates.

The truly Christian benediction (the only type of benediction I am authorized by my archbishop and my ordination to give) is not permitted. Thus, the university, hoping to display its “religious heritage” and seeking to demonstrate its “pride in . . . diversity,” actually shows itself to be selectively inclusive. Inclusion in the Medical University’s public religious expression is limited to those who will show no conviction at all.

No Good Word
The heritage of the Medical University is, to some degree, Christian. Its chapel is not “generic” by any stretch—it is named for a Christian saint, adorned with his stained-glass image, and topped with the Cross of Christ. These have been the marks of a certain faith. Not a generic faith.

Only a certain faith offers what people truly want and need, while a generic faith cannot—which we often see, ironically enough, in the world into which these graduates are being sent. Someone suffering from a third heart attack doesn’t want to hear about spirits that sustain us or a “god” who is with us in our suffering. He wants—even needs and expects—the blessing and grace of God in that moment.

His heart longs for some assurance that even if his body won’t be okay (sometimes it won’t), Someone is reminding him, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” This is the very same assurance and grace this Orthodox priest hoped—and was invited—to offer to the graduates who will care for such a soul.

To require a Christian priest to say little more at a benediction than “the Sustainer bids you to peacefully love your neighbor” or “May the Holy One be with you always” is effectively the same as asking a surgeon to say to a man dying on the operating table, “Don’t worry, everything is all right.” It is not a truthful word, and the dying man (and we are all dying men) needs the truthful word.

Doctors, nurses, indeed all hospital personnel and those for whom they care need, like all the rest of us who are struggling to live in this dying world, a true, good word—a real benediction in the fullest sense of the term. Why can we no longer give it to them?

Within the walls of a hospital, a sterile, antiseptic environment is critical for the care and recovery of patients. But the sterile, antiseptic “benediction” the guidelines require is a “good word” to no one, blesses no one, offers no promise of divine aid and comfort to men and women who will need it desperately. Such selective inclusivity removes every particular faith to a space well off to the side, where it can do no harm to the secular ideal of “inclusivity,” but can do no good either.

In the end, to ask a Christian pastor to bless a gathering in this way is little more than having some person in religious clothing stand in front of a crowd to say a few generically religious words, hoping to give some religious legitimacy to a public gathering. Not only is there no power or grace in it, it is devoid of any essential meaning.

A True Prayer
That May, I did offer my prayer for the graduates of the Medical University of South Carolina, though not in their presence. I prayed:

“O Lord Jesus Christ our God, Lover of Mankind, Physician of our souls and bodies, who in pain bore our infirmities, and by whose wounds we are healed:

“Who gave sight to the man born blind, who straightened the woman who was bent over for eighteen years, who gave speech and sight to the mute demoniac, who not only forgave the paralytic his sins, but healed him to walk, who restored the withered hand of a troubled man, who stopped the flow of blood of her who bled for twelve years, who raised Jairus’s daughter to life, who brought the four-days-dead Lazarus to life, and who heals every infirmity under the sun,

“Do now, O Lord, give your grace to all those here gathered who have labored and studied hour upon hour, to go into all the world, and also to heal by the talent you have given to each of them. Strengthen them, by your strength, to fear no evil or disease; enlighten them to do no evil by the works of their hands, and preserve them and those they serve in peace.

“For you are our God, and we know no other. And to you we send up glory together with your Father who is from everlasting, and your most Holy, Good, and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, a mission parish of the Orthodox Church in America, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He earned his MDiv (2001) at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and his MTh (2004) at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Copyright © 2007 the Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 09, 2007

O Hell, Where is thy Victory? O Death, where is thy sting?

By Fr. John Parker

Published as "Easter Seen as Victory over Death" in the Post and Courier, Pascha 2007

We stood for days by his bed, a small offering by comparison to that of his wife Sarah (names are changed), who barely left his side in the last four years. Timothy had struggled with Alzheimer’s for some time, but following his most recent bout with pneumonia, there was “nothing further the doctors could do”. Though ravaged by a deteriorating mind in the last several years, Timothy lived a full life. His children drove great distances to be with him—a son from Atlanta, a daughter who raced from York, Pennsylvania.

We encircled Timothy in his room at the beautiful new Hospice of Charleston, just up from the Port off Long Point Road. We prayed. We cried. We laughed. We commended Timothy to his Maker, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Orthodox ritual included long and beautiful hymns, as well as an anointing with holy oil—in this case, myrrh which had been wept miraculous by the eyes of St. Nicholas in an icon from Michigan. The heavenly fragrance filled the air.

To some, this is absolute madness. A vain effort to console ourselves and the one who is dying. What silly humans do when “the doctors can do no more”. Prayers uttered into the deaf ears of the air. The oil has no beauty, no power—just superstition. A ritual whose end it to make sense of a senseless existence and a more meaningless departure. Voodoo.

One could come to such a conclusion if facing death only through the lens of science. Chemistry in the brain affects the body. The heart stops working. Oxygen depletion then shuts down organs. Breathing ceases. Life ends. Words don’t change science; oil doesn’t add oxygen to the brain.

But Christians do not view life strictly this way. It is impossible! Life is so much more than biology. Of course, there is the science of it all. But what of beauty, love, tears, fear, and joy? And Timothy, like all of us, is a human being with a name. He is a unique, unrepeatable individual. He was married. Had Children. And Timothy’s life—and death (as slow and agonizing as it was)—make sense precisely for one reason, and one reason alone: Because God became man, died to conquer death, and He is Risen! Truly He is Risen! In time and space.

Jesus Christ lived and died as God-made-man. His life and work, his death and resurrection, are documented by Jew and Gentile alike—believer and unbeliever. After his brutal crucifixion and death at our hands, after his tomb was sealed and guarded by an extra regiment of soldiers—to be *sure* that no one would steal his body and then *claim* he was raised from the dead—He did this very thing. He conquered death and was raised from the dead, appearing to countless scores of people, beginning with his closest friends and disciples—who then went out to announce joyfully, if not with bewilderment, “Christ is Risen!”

We prayed at Timothy’s bedside precisely in light of this great gift to humankind by God Himself—the conquering of death by his death. The prayers prayed at Timothy’s funeral were prayed precisely because it is what we pray on Holy Friday as Jesus hung on the cross and died, fulfilling the law. “Tetelestai”—“it is finished”, “it is accomplished”, “it is fulfilled.” A portion of the hymns sung at Timothy’s funeral were sung precisely because they are sung for our Lord on Holy Saturday, when, fulfilling the story of the Three Holy Youths (Daniel 3) Jesus descended to the dead, and raised those bound by death, breaking their chains and releasing them from ‘fire eternal’. The whole context of Timothy’s funeral—and every Orthodox Christian funeral—is the Resurrection. No, there’s no superstition here—just the celebration of an eternal and timeless victory. A victory won within time and space by the Creator of all who condescended to become created; a victory the effects of which ripple both forwards and backward in time.

Words from the greatest homily ever preached on Pascha (proclaimed by St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century Patriarch of Constantinople) echo still in our ears reminding us of this great wonder, this great miracle, this great gift:

“Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below." Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is liberated! Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be Glory and Dominion unto ages of ages. Amen!”

For this we gathered to pray for Timothy in his death. For this reason, our sadness is joyful—for death has not had the final word. For this we have hope, not in vain, since God Himself was dead but is risen. Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Fr. John Parker is Priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 843.881-5010 or at frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Extreme Humility is the Path to Salvation

Published in the Post and Courier on 3.25.2007 as Extreme humility path to salvation
By Fr John Parker

His appearance: peaceful, serene. Jesus Christ stands in his tomb, in front of the cross, already having been crucified. His hands are crossed, as if bound, but there is no rope holding them together (His self-offering is voluntary). His eyes are closed. Other implements of the crucifixion are evident: the sponge by which he was offered wine-vinegar to drink when he cried out, “I thirst”; the spear which pierced his side, releasing both blood and water, showing him to be truly dead on the cross.

Crucified. Silent. Entombed. This is “extreme humility.”

In His last hours, our Lord Jesus Christ showed this extreme humility in many ways, mostly, though, by his silence. His wordlessness was a silent echo of the prophecy of Isaiah, “As a sheep led to the slaughter, or a spotless lamb before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth…” Our Lord accepted His brutal scourging, crucifixion and death, in almost total silence, with unwavering faith and confidence in the love and will of his Father.

His actions on the Cross, like the example of every moment of his life, were a living out of the very Gospel he incarnated, made flesh. If someone asks you to walk one mile, walk two. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer them the other. If someone takes your cloak, give him your robe as well. All of this recorded, of course in the Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ. The arduous journey to Golgotha; the offering not just of the other cheek, but of his whole body for beating—and not just for beating, but for death; the stripping of his garments and the lots cast for them. This is extreme humility.

This is the royal road to salvation. By the power of the precious and life-giving Cross—through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—we are invited onto this holy path, the way to healing, wholeness, salvation.

Extreme humility takes many forms which all have similar characteristics. One is drawing little attention to one’s own self and accomplishments while giving credit to God alone for whatever good we appear to have done. God alone is good, and to quote St. Basil the Great’s liturgy from the fourth century “we have done nothing good upon the earth.”

Another is constant self-denial, which even includes denying special ‘spiritual gifts’—visions, tongues, dreams, prophecies, etc—which seem to come from God himself. Why? Because the Christian leading the life of extreme humility, witnessed in the lives of countless saints through the ages, stands with—and perhaps, dare I say, in front of St. Paul—claiming to be the chief of sinners (“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost [literally ‘first’] of sinners” 1 Timothy 1:15.) True humility says, “I am worthy of neither visions nor tongues, nor dreams, nor prophecies. Surely the Lord would choose to give such gifts to others much more faithful than I.” The saints teach, in fact, that it is better to seek the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness) than the gifts of the Spirit, since the former contribute to humility and holiness, while the latter often leads to spiritual pride, the most dangerous of sins. In short, if someone sets up a sign that says, “I’m a healer!” or “I am a prophet!” beware; the true saint not only wouldn’t announce it, he or she would likely deny it if asked.

The royal road to salvation is this: deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me (says Jesus Christ). The self denial is not for its own purpose, but rather to take up solely the will of the God who is Love. The Cross is not my own, but joining my burdens, trials, and struggles to the Cross of Christ, which has trampled down death and sin, and has broken the chains which bind us. And to follow Christ in the fullest sense, is to stand, even in the face of the gravest persecutions and tortures, in silence, trusting in the might and mercy and righteousness of God, in extreme humility.

Fr. John Parker is the priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 843.881.5010.

On the Paralytic

Homily on Mark 2:1-12
By Fr. John Parker

Today I proclaim to you the joyous news of two Prosphora—two gifts, two offerings. The first is a paralytic, lifted up. A man so paralyzed that, according to St. Mark’s accounting, he does not or cannot even offer his own faith. According to the Scriptures, four men came to Jesus (pherontes pros avton paralutikon) bearing up, offering up, gifting Him a paralytic. Borne up by the four, unable to approach directly because of the crowd, the paralytic is lowered into the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in the presence of the Word, and by His word, and through the faith of the four friends that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven, that the broken man is made whole, raised up, and that the man goes out—goes home, to show by his walking and skipping and jumping that Jesus Christ is the One who is, and who was, and who is to come.

This is the first prosphora, the first offering, the first gift.

The second prosphora, the second offering, the second gift, is also a broken man. And yet, not only a man, but God-made-man. It is our Lord Jesus Christ, also lifted up, and because of the crowd. Not causally in the sense that there were too many people, but causally in that we, the crowe, shouted out for Him to be lifted up: Crucify Him, Crucify Him! Raised up not onto a rooftop, but onto the cross. Broken not by sin, but by us sinners, and so providentially, for us sinners.

And once raised up, broken, dead, also lowered. Not only lowered from the tree, dead, but also descending Himself, as God, into another crowd: the Dead. And there, not for the forgiveness of His sins (He was and is sinless), not for His healing (He is the Great physician of our souls and bodies, indeed the healer of the paralytic), but for the forgiveness of our sins, for the healing and salvation of us who crucified Him in the first place.

And this One, also not left in the midst of the crowd, unable to move or help Himself; this one also raised up, on the third day. Raised from the dead; Resurrected. Trampling down death by death. And this one also showing Himself to many—many of whom, like the first man’s friends, glorified God (amazed), saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Though some doubted.)

And it is this prosphora, this offering, this Man, Jesus Christ, whose Gospel is up borne likewise by four men, four pillars, whose names we know: the Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

It is by their testimony that we know these two prosphora, these to gifts, these two offerings. The first a shadow of the second, the paralytic fortelling and proclaiming the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us paralytics also, broken and helpless, call on the Lord who is quick to save. And though we cannot lift ourselves, we can lift up those around us, by faith, with the sure hope of the Gospel, knowing the Almighty and Merciful God. And let us, like the four Evangelists, recount the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, not with parchment and pen, but with the love of God written by our deeds every moment of our lives. Amen.

Repentance is the Royal Path to Life

Published in the Post and Courier on 2/25/07, there entitled: Repentance a renewal, not doom and gloom

By Fr. John Parker

The vast majority of Christians on our planet began, this past week, to celebrate Lent, also known as the Great Fast in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The Fast owes its existence, in part, to the 40 days in which Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by the devil following His baptism by St. John the Forerunner. The Great Fast is, for us in the world, our annual pilgrimage to the inner desert, wherein we seek to join ourselves most fully to God by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in anticipation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we struggle to learn and to live: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” And, “you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

This voluntary sojourn in the inner-desert is book-ended in Matthew’s Gospel by a command given on the one end by St. John the Baptist (3:2), and on the other, echoed by our Lord Jesus Christ (4:17), “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” By “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Jesus indicates that He himself is inaugurating the re-creation of the world. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension are as God incarnate who has come to save the world. And by ‘world’, He does not mean just “people”. The Holy Scriptures teach that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…”. He so loved the ‘cosmos’, as it says in Greek. God’s renewal of the fallen cosmos is now underway, and will be completed, we believe, with Jesus’ second coming to judge the world.

But what does it mean, “Repent?” The word itself strikes fear in the hearts of some, occasionally brow-beaten by self-appointed prophets of doom who announce, “Turn or burn!” by their placards and angry voices. For many others, “repent” is some old-fashioned concept rooted in a time from which we have now been liberated—a time when somebody besides myself had the authority to tell me what is right and wrong—mostly what is wrong. In this view, repentance is what fools do who don’t yet understand that what’s right in my eyes is right for me, and what is right for you is right for you.

Neither of these is Christian, so what does a Christian understand when he reads “Repent!”? Repent means this: change your mind. Change your heart. Change your direction. But this change presumes that there is a revealed standard. There is a ‘right mind’; there is a ‘right heart’; there is a ‘right direction’. We are not turning around for the sake of going in another, random direction. We do not change our hearts to match that of some Hollywood star. We do not change our mind in order simply to have a new perspective—in order to get out of a rut.

When a Christian observes what we call daily life, we don’t see life—we see remnants of life, and a lot of death. We know what life is because God has revealed what life is—or more precisely, because in Jesus Christ, God has revealed himself as life. Through the lens of Jesus, we see ourselves as seriously lacking, and only remotely human. We recognize our need to turn back to Him.

The beauty of it all, though, is that because of God’s love and mercy for the whole cosmos, death does not reign permanently. Jesus has conquered sin and death, and we can make this return to Him. In fact, it is He Himself who calls us home—to change our minds, hearts, and directions. To return to the narrow, straight path. To return to chastity, humility, patience, and love, not as defined by the world, but as revealed in Christ. To return to God.

Repentance is not a threat (or else!), it is a gift. It is the return flight of what we thought was a one-way ticket to destruction and death. Repentance is not out-moded and old-fashioned. Rather, it is a moment-by-moment renewal, and in fact, it is evidence of the truly open mind, especially when one recognizes that his own is not right.

Orthodox Christians exhort one another to “enter the Fast with joy”. Repent with joy? Yes! And we can do so precisely because we understand that repentance brings healing and union with God, and not a judicial acquittal from an angry judge on the last day. Repentance is God’s grace returning life to a dying world. Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church on the Square in I’On. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 843-881-5010.

Faith of our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Anglicans

By Fr. John Parker
Published in the Post and Courier, Sunday, February 4, 2007

Nineteen degrees and snowing. An ecumenical affair: Orthodox Christians addressing curious Anglicans and Episcopalians in a Roman Catholic retreat center which shares a parking lot with an Orthodox Monastery of Romanian and American monks. Inside the retreat, a bustle of 50 or so attendees who traveled to Detroit from warmer climes, Florida included. Others from South Carolina, Maryland, and Illinois. A few came to warm up in Detroit, having crossed their southern border from Toronto. The most amazing of the attendees, in my opinion, was a former Episcopal priest—a woman—who has come to understand the way of the Ancient Church and renounced her ordination in order to enter the Orthodox faith.

On Monday and Tuesday, January 29-30, I had the privilege of taking part in this fascinating conference. “Faith of our Fathers: a Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Anglicans” was organized with the blessing and encouragement of His Eminence, the Most Reverend Nathaniel, Archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America.

Archbishop Nathaniel had been approached by several local Episcopalians and neighboring Canadian Anglicans who asked, “How can you help us?” a question rooted in both the recent and centuries-old scandals and struggles which are plaguing the Anglican Communion worldwide.

His Eminence made it very clear in his keynote address on Monday that the conference was not intended or organized in any way to solicit Episcopalians to the Orthodox Church, but rather was an answer to a profound request for guidance and assistance. The Archbishop’s biblical foundation for the conference, he elaborated, was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He noted that the traveler did not cry out for help, but rather lay beaten on the roadside. It was the Samaritan who took note of the bloodied man, had compassion on him, and made arrangements for his recovery.

The conference was structured around four basic lectures: “Theology”, “Liturgy”, “Culture and Tradition”, and “Practical Considerations”. Each was preceded by a brief account of a personal journey to Orthodoxy. The speakers were predominantly former Episcopalians, most of them now Orthodox Priests. The lineup included Charleston native, Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green (who—along with the present Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, the Very Rev. William McKeachie—coauthored the Baltimore Declaration); his wife Frederica, also a native Charlestonian and well-known columnist, speaker, and author of books like Facing East and The Illumined Heart; Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon—one time professor at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and present lecturer at Nashotah House Seminary; and others.

His Grace, the Rt. Rev. Mark, Bishop of Toledo and the Midwest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, shared with the conference participants his engaging arrival to the Orthodox Church. Bishop Mark found his way from his native Roman Catholicism to charismatic Christianity, finally studying at and then teaching at Oral Roberts University. His ever-deepening studies of the Old Testament, along with engaging conversations with an Orthodox professor at ORU led him to embrace the Ancient Church, in which he now serves as a hierarch.

A third bishop, His Grace, the Rt. Rev. Tikhon, Bishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania of the Orthodox Church in America, shared briefly about how is life is “made very interesting” by the fact that his mother serves as an Episcopal priest.

I believe it is safe to say that very few of the conference attendees came to hear about the Orthodox Church and faith for the first time. Many appeared to know a significant amount already, and have developed friendships with Orthodox clergy and lay people in their respective hometowns. There were, however, a few difficult questions, which required a delicate response—though the answers remain unchanging.

One fellow from Canada asked, for example, why the Orthodox Church practices what many call “closed communion”, allowing only those members of the Orthodox Church to receive communion in their services. Several speakers explained this commonly misunderstood and challenging pastoral matter. In fact, in the Orthodox Church, not even all Orthodox can/ought to receive communion at any given service. Our discipline is to serve those who have prepared themselves by prayer, fasting, and recent confession, taking very seriously St. Paul’s exhortation to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:27ff).

The grounds for so-called “closed communion” are ancient and simple. First (also a practice abandoned by many non-Orthodox Christians today), one must be baptized to receive. Baptism is open to all repentant sinners, in the Christian view, and is the doorway into the life of the Church. Second, the Church has always believed that Communion is the sign of the shared fullness of faith, and not the maker of it. In other words, it makes no sense for a group of people to “have communion together” who don’t believe the same things about who Jesus is, why he lived and died, how we are called—voluntarily—to change for and be changed by God, and what the bread and wine become in the liturgy. In short, in this scenario, there is no “common union” (the meaning of “communion”) except the action of eating and drinking something together at the same time.

The inquirer was also somewhat surprised to hear that this was the universal practice and belief of all Christians for 1500+ years, and for Anglicans until the 1950s or 1960s. It has always been and remains the practice in the Orthodox Church (as well as the Roman Catholic Church, I believe) to this day.

“Faith of our Fathers” was a conference rooted, at least generally speaking, in Acts 2:42. We shared the teachings of the Apostles, we sat at table together, we enjoyed one another’s company in fellowship, and sang a beautiful Vespers (evening prayer) service on the occasion of the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century luminaries universally remembered for their essential contributions to Christian theology and preaching.

The talks from this conference will all be available for download at http://www.ancientfaithradio.org/, a 24-hour Orthodox internet Radio station.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church located on the Square in I’On. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 881-5010.