Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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Into the Sanctuary: Psalm 73

Psalm 73 is one of my favorites. I will briefly comment on the different parts of this Psalm in order to explain why I like it so much. (I’m quoting the standard RSV translation.)Slipping Falling

73:1 Truly God is good to the upright,
    to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
    my steps had well nigh slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant,
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

This is a common complaint in the Psalms. The godly person is scandalized by the prosperity of those who are wicked and far from God. But before he gets into his complaint he repeats the shibboleth that every religious person is supposed to believe: God blesses and does good to those who are good. This is an early form of what we today call the “Prosperity Gospel.” Perhaps he repeats this common belief at the beginning in order to avoid offending God or the common religious beliefs. He confesses that by looking at the prosperity of the wicked he almost stumbled – which means he almost lost his faith in God.

He then goes on and on to describe the comforts of the wicked:images

For they have no pangs;
    their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as other men are;
    they are not stricken like other men.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness,monopoly-man_6
    their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
    loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
    and their tongue struts through the earth.

These are pretty wicked people he describes. Yet, their bodies are sleek, they have no illnesses or problems, they are well fed – everything the poor are not!

10 Therefore the people turn and praise them; 
    and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know?
    Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
    always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
    and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken,
    and chastened every morning.

But the people praise the wicked! They are fooled by their wealth and comfort into thinking that perhaps God blesses them or, worse, that God doesn’t even know or care! The writer of Psalm 73 even starts to question whether his own faithfulness has been in vain. He is suffering, while the wicked prosper. How can this be? Now comes the turning point:

15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
    I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I perceived their end.
18 Truly thou dost set them in slippery places;
    thou dost make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
    swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes,
    on awaking you despise their phantoms.

He goes into the sanctuary – that is, into the Temple of God – and there it all becomes clear to him. He sees that their earthly prosperity and comforts are only illusions. God is not ignorant, God will punish them! He realizes his own stupidity in envying the rich and wicked, and reassures himself that God is with him after all, and everything will be okay:

21 When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant,
    I was like a beast toward thee.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with thee;
    thou dost hold my right hand.
24 Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,
    and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but thee?
    And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

27 For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish;
    thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
    I have made the Lord God my refuge,
    that I may tell of all thy works.

At the end, after honestly expressing his struggles to understand the easy life of the rich and the wicked, he takes comfort that they’re going to be punished after all. God is not going to overlook their wickedness. If that satisfies you, this Psalm is for you. If you believe in the “prosperity gospel,” this Psalm could be for you, except that nowhere does it say that riches are a sign of God’s blessing and approval. Quite the opposite.

The Prosperity Gospel is false teaching. Psalm 73 says nothing about riches being a sign of God's blessing.

The Prosperity Gospel is false teaching. Psalm 73 says nothing about riches being a sign of God’s blessing.

The complexities of life are beyond our comprehension. We ask why we suffer, why our loved ones suffer, why there are tragedies, why there are terrorists and Ebola afflicting people far from us, why people near us commit heinous acts and sometimes get away with it. We ask the same questions this Psalm asks: Why are there so many selfish, mean-spirited people who are wealthy and comfortable, while many sincere believers and practitioners of the good go hungry?

There are no satisfactory answers to the questions of suffering and injustice. Our conclusions might be different from those of Psalm 73. If you take comfort in knowing that even the mighty will fall someday, whether in life or in death, this Psalm  works for you.

Psalm 73 works for me for other reasons. It tells me that it’s okay to have doubts. It’s natural to be angry about injustice and suffering. And I should be angry! But the Psalm tells me to come into the sanctuary, to church, with my doubts and lay them before the presence of God. That’s the crucial turning point: Verse 17, where he goes into the sanctuary and there he understands how the world works. To be honest, my own understanding of how the world works is different from what Psalm 73 reveals, but like the author I come into the sanctuary – I come into the Liturgy – with all my confusion and doubts and pray that God will help me understand. Miraculously, it usually happens, and I leave Liturgy in a better place than when I arrive.

That’s what I carry from this Psalm: My need to come into the sanctuary of God’s wisdom. There is no better place to confront God and all your anger, doubts and confusion. Come into the sanctuary. Allow the Liturgy and the Sacrament of Communion to show you how the world works. Be illumined!


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Theology, our last hope

A few weeks ago I wrote an article here titled, “Ecology is an Orthodox word.” Today I came across an amazing little quote:

The proposed solution to our environmental problems are no longer a matter of saving a few watts, using less plastic or stopping an oil pipeline… It is our entire industrialized lifestyle that is obsolete…

The alternative is theology, not ecology – the birth of a new Golden Age which cultivates what Russian novelist Chyngyz Aitmatov calls the “divine spark.”

The issue is not man’s tools, but man’s spirit. (Rudolf Bahro)

What this quote is saying is that the issue is fundamentally theological, not technological. We can spin the word “ecology” any way we want, but in the final analysis it is a word that comes with so much baggage that it is easily dismissed by those who are stuck in a particular way of thinking. No matter how one spiritualizes the word “ecology” it is difficult for people to see it as anything other than a political or scientific slogan.

But “theology” is different. To be sure, most people reject theology as something antiquated, something irrelevant to our life today. Many people even see theology as something dangerous, something that divides people and even leads to violence and hatred. All these accusations are 100% accurate. Theology through the ages has done more harm than good. But not because theology itself is bad, but because people and churches and religions have used theological concepts as weapons of mass destruction rather than means of mass sanctification.

The light of deification touches everyone who recognizes the divine spark in us.

The light of deification touches everyone who recognizes the divine spark in us. (Click to enlarge)

And yet, despite the bad legacy of theology through the centuries, it is our only hope. At the heart of Orthodox theology is the concept of theosis, deification. This too has been reduced to triviality, especially by those who turned theosis into something that you work to attain through fasting and endless repetitions of the “Jesus Prayer.” Ascetic practices are helpful in other ways, and I don’t want to diminish their usefulness and importance. But deification is something different: it is the recognition and cultivation of the divine spark in us. Deification is only possible because God made us in God’s image and likeness.

The root of all our problems is the failure to recognize the divine spark in each other and the refusal to see every so-called political, economic, moral or technological problem as fundamentally a theological issue! This is the great secret that the powerful of this world want to keep from us, but which God wants us to know! Isn’t it time that religions started telling the truth, instead of aiding and abetting the wars and self-aggrandizing strategies of the rich and powerful? Isn’t it time we started seeing each other as what we truly are: deeply and beautifully gifted by God with the divine spark?

Deification is not limited to those who are officially recognized as saints by the Church.

Some of the deified men and women of the 20th century at New Skete Orthodox Monastery. Deification is not limited to those who are officially recognized as saints by the Church. (Click to enlarge)

We deify each other! It's always the neighbor who is most important for followers of Jesus.

We deify each other! It’s always the neighbor who is most important for followers of Jesus. (Click to enlarge)

Deification does not come from what we do, but from what we recognize. We deify each other by recognizing the divine spark in each other! I know this is not the way deification is usually presented in the Orthodox Church, but perhaps it might be more meaningful for some of us. Plus, I believe it is consistent with the teachings and practices of Jesus Christ when he walked the earth 2,000 years ago and lifted every person he met from the dirt to be his brother or sister. He taught that our relationship with God depends on how we view the neighbor, the other person, whoever that other person is. That’s the Jesus I believe in: the Jesus of the neighbor, the Jesus of freedom, exaltation and deification. Be exalted, O mortal, be lifted up. Find the divine spark, the divine life already in you. And recognize it in everyone else. That’s where theology begins, and it is our last hope.

Jesus lifts up everyone who comes to him.

Jesus finds the divine spark in us. Be lifted, rise up, he says.


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Stop Ignoring the Extermination of Middle East Christians!

A recent column by Ross Douthat, a usually conservative columnist for the New York Times, brought to the fore a topic that is generally ignored by American media and politicians: the evolving extermination of Christians in the Middle East. Ross Douthat’s column refers to the Middle East’s “friendless Christians.” And that’s exactly what they are. One would have expected the country that presents itself to the world as the great Christian super-power (“in God we trust,” remember?) would have been in the forefront of defending Christians in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, and other areas of the Middle East. But that has not been the case. Indeed, the eradication of Christians in Iraq happened after the 2003 invasion. Why?

Ross Douthat’s article does not explore all the reasons for the failure to defend Christians in that part of the world, but gives enough summary statements of fact to begin to give us some idea. Neither the Left nor the Right come out well in his well-reasoned comments. Read it, it’s short enough. The US and NATO were far more eager to help Bosnian Moslems in the 1990’s than they are to help Middle Eastern Christians. Our own Elizabeth Prodromou has written extensively on the plight of Christians in the Middle East and you can read some of her comments here.

The French philosopher Régis Debray put it well: the victims are too religious to excite the left and too foreign to excite the right. The American Left has shown little interest in defending Christians, given the Left’s generally negative attitude toward Christianity. But what about the Left’s legendary defense of “human rights”? Shouldn’t that motivate them to speak out against the extermination of whole Christian communities? And is there any excuse for the American Right, who claim to stand for Christian values? What is their problem? The main concern of the Right is, of course, Israel. And then there are the Evangelicals, who are committed to Israel because of their belief in what they call “the Rapture.” Israel is their ticket out of the world, when they are taken (“raptured”) up to the clouds where they can enjoy watching the rest of “unsaved” humanity suffer! Sick, right?

Make no mistake about it. This is not a marginal cult with a few hundred members. These are the beliefs of perhaps 50 million American Evangelicals, probably more. And these are people who vote, and they are people who control the airwaves in many parts of the country, and they pour huge amounts of money into political and media campaigns in support of Israel. They love Israel; not really because they love Jews, but because Jews and Israel play the main role in their apocalyptic scenario. According to this scenario, Israel is going to be savagely attacked; and then Jesus will come down – not to save Jews, but the Evangelical Christians! And after the Evangelicals are taken (‘raptured’) away to safety in the clouds, the Jews will be left on earth to be tormented, together with everyone else, during what Evangelicals call “the tribulation”! It is the most self-serving, most obnoxious form of Christianity the world has ever known. And it’s homegrown right here in our midst. And, of course, it’s all fantasy.

So Christians in that part of the world are being offered as sheep to the slaughter so that we can continue our unquestioning support of Israel and so that Evangelicals can prepare for their “rapture.” Indeed, many Evangelical organizations and churches actively work against peace in the Middle East. They want war, because only war will bring the return of Jesus, and thus their ‘rapture’. So because of their mythology, these people care nothing about Palestinian Christians. And you won’t hear them speak out in defense of Christians in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Egypt, or anywhere else in that part of the world; only Israel matters to them. I also care about Israel and the Jews, but not to the exclusion of everyone else – and certainly not in the sick way of the “Rapture” people.

This is tragic. Christians have no strategic importance for the Western powers, and so they are being sacrificed in pursuit of bigger game. The game that the US and NATO are about to pursue in Syria is extremely dangerous. Support “moderate” rebels in Syria? Who are we kidding? The objective is one and one only: depose Assad. Regime change is the goal. And what will be the result? Wholesale slaughter of Syrian Christians, just as it was in Iraq. Why does no one talk about these things? Why do we not learn from past mistakes?

Why do we not learn? Because we don’t want to. No one cares about Christians in the Middle East. They are “collateral damage.” Graphic images are available all over the Internet. Here are two that are not as graphic as others.

Convert or die. ISIS militants are crucifying victims because to them crucifixion is especially humiliating due to its Christian implications.

Convert or die. ISIS militants are crucifying victims because to them crucifixion is especially humiliating due to its Christian implications.

Children lie where they were killed by militants.

Children lie where they were killed by militants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And Jesus has wept throughout the ages as people were led to the slaughter by imperial and ecclesiastical powers. And Jesus is weeping today. Does Mohammed weep, seeing the horrors of terror carried out in his name? I don’t know, and I really don’t care, because I don’t believe in Mohammed or any Muslim mythology, just as I don’t believe in the sadistic Jesus of Evangelical “rapture” believers. I believe in the Jesus who wept. Jesus “is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus doesn’t change from being the compassionate Savior of the world.

Jesus wept 2,000 years ago. Don’t tell me Jesus cared for Lazarus, but doesn’t care for the slaughter of millions today. Don’t you dare tell me that Jesus is different today. Don’t you, Mr or Ms Evangelical, dare tell me that Jesus only cares about you and is just waiting to lift you out of the horrors of this world. On his last night with the disciples, Jesus prayed to the Father: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Anyone who prays differently and asks to be “raptured” out of the world is a blasphemer and is making Jesus a liar.

Is God protecting the Christians of the Middle East? Or is he only protecting us comfortable Christians of the West? If God has protected us, let’s be grateful for the freedom and relative security that we enjoy. Let’s be grateful for living in a country where we are free to worship God and Jesus without fear of torture or decapitation. Let’s be grateful, but let’s not stop at our own safety. We must speak out for those who can only be defended by us and our voices. Jesus will hold us accountable for failing to defend the least of his brothers and sisters. I love the NRSV translation: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Anyone who wants to debate who is a member of the family and who is not clearly does not know Jesus.

Many of the Christians being slaughtered in the Middle East are Orthodox Christians. But I do not limit my concern to Orthodox Christians. All persecuted Christians are members of the family of Jesus; and hence my family. I feel powerless and I’m sure you do too. But I can educate for a start and share my own education with anyone who reads this. Action may follow from some of us. Perhaps you, the reader.


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Elevation of the Cross

The feast of the Universal Elevation of the Holy Cross was originally an immensely political feast-day in Byzantium. It is clearly seen in the Apolytikion of the day: Σῶσον Κύριε τὸν λαόν σου καὶ εὐλόγησον τὴν κληρονομίαν σου, νίκας τοῖς Βασιλεῦσι κατὰ βαρβάρων δωρούμενος καὶ τὸ σὸν φυλάττων διὰ τοῦ Σταυροῦ σου πολίτευμα. This is a victory song and a prayer for the Byzantine emperors to conquer the “barbarians” by the power of the Cross – the same Cross which was also to guard and preserve their political apparatus (politevma).

Russian icon of the Elevation of the Cross (click to enlarge)

Russian icon of the Elevation of the Cross

This was the original purpose of this great feast day. But for us today it takes on its proper biblical and spiritual meaning. The lowering and elevation of the basil-decorated Cross at the four corners of creation signifies for us the sanctifying power of Christ’s Cross on all creation – everything and everyone! Christ did not die “for me” or for you or even for us, but for all, for the entire world. The Cross has power to heal every division, every hatred, every sin. Let us elevate the Cross in our hearts and let us march by the power of the Cross – not to vanquish our enemies, but to win them over with our love, compassion and efforts at dialogue. This meaning of the feast is clearly announced in the three Old Testament readings that are part of the Vespers service. Exodus 15:22-27 is a message of  healing, of turning bitter water into sweet. How the Byzantines could turn the sweetness and healing of the Cross into a weapon of war is difficult to understand, though the hymns of the day do refer to the Cross as Christ’s weapon of peace – but only Christ’s weapon of peace, not the people’s who are called by his name? There’s a good question to reflect on.

The Cross as Tree of Life

The Cross as Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

The second reading of Vespers from Proverbs speaks of the “tree of life,” and this too is an image of the Cross. The third reading from Isaiah mixes images of co-existence with language of subjugation – the usual mixed signal that we get from the prophets of the Old Testament, less a message of healing than the previous two readings. In the first two of these readings from Vespers we see images of healing trees. In the Orthodox church the Cross is most often referred to as the Tree of the Cross. The reasons for this are many. On a practical level, of course the Cross was made of wood, and wood comes from a tree. But on the spiritual level, the Tree of the Cross is a reference to the Tree of Paradise that was the cause of the exile of Adam and Eve. Then we have the healing references to trees in the readings from Exodus and Proverbs mentioned above. The Tree of the Cross is the reversal, the forgiveness of what the Tree in Paradise caused. And the Tree of the Cross is a healing tree, like the tree of life in Proverbs, and a tree that turns bitterness into sweetness. Powerful symbolism all around.

Christ, the True Vine and Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

Christ, the True Vine and Tree of Life (click to enlarge)

The hymnography of Sept. 14th is extremely rich with messages of peace, healing, salvation, sanctification – the entire panoply of Orthodox theology and spirituality. So let’s ignore how the Byzantine emperors saw the Cross. The Cross is called Christ’s weapon of peace in the hymns of the day. Let it also be our own weapon of peace: peace in our bodies and souls, as we seek to be whole; peace in our relationships with others; peace in how we view the world and what kind of politics and social agendas we prefer to follow or vote for; peace in our relationship with nature and non-human life… And peace with God! There is nothing to fear in our relationship with God, nothing to waste our energy on. Just relax and allow grace and sanctification to work in your life and carry that sanctifying power to those around you. It’s wonderful and traditional for people to bring basil on Sept. 14th to those who are not able to attend Liturgy. Let’s not just bring basil; let’s bring the fullness of Christ’s powerful love, the love that heals and raises our lives to a divine level.

Have a blessed feast day of the Cross. Give glory to Christ the Lord of life.

Some profound resources and thoughts at this website: http://www.antiochian.org/elevationofthecross


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A courageous little girl

A belated happy birthday to Ruby Bridges, 60 years old this week (Sept. 8th). As today, Sept. 11th, has become a day dedicated to hatred, it’s good to remember how a little girl overcame hatred 54 years ago. It should be our own mission as Orthodox Christians to oppose hatred and prejudice wherever we find it, whether in our own families and circle of friends or in the broader society. May the beauty of our iconography so often represented in these posts inspire us to work for beauty in our world. And if we become complacent and feel powerless because we are so few in this country, let’s not forget that Ruby Bridges was alone, a solitary, courageous 6-year-old. We have no excuse for complacency and silence in the face of continuing evil and hatred all around us.

I received the following through Facebook. There are resources listed at the end that might be worth investigating with children.

As a six-year-old, Ruby Bridges famously became the first African American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the South. When the 1st grader walked to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960 surrounded by a team of U.S. Marshals, she was met by a vicious mob shouting and throwing objects at her.

Ruby Bridges on her first day in school, accompanied by US marshals (click to enlarge)

Ruby Bridges on her first day in school, accompanied by US marshals (click to enlarge)

One of the federal marshals, Charles Burks, who served on her escort team, recalls Bridges’ courage in the face of such hatred: “For a little girl six years old going into a strange school with four strange deputy marshals, a place she had never been before, she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. We were all very proud of her.” Once Ruby entered the school, she discovered that it was devoid of children because they had all been removed by their parents due to her presence. The only teacher willing to have Ruby as a student was Barbara Henry, who had recently moved from Boston. Ruby was taught by herself for her first year at the school due to the white parents’ refusal to have their children share a classroom with a black child. Despite daily harassment, which required the federal marshals to continue escorting her to school for months; threats towards her family; and her father’s job loss due to his family’s role in school integration, Ruby persisted in attending school. The following year, when she returned for second grade, the mobs were gone and more African American students joined her at the school. The pioneering school integration effort was a success due to Ruby Bridges’ inspiring courage, perseverance, and resilience.

If you’d like to share Ruby Bridge’s inspiring story with the children in your life, there are several excellent books about her story including the wonderful picture book “The Story Of Ruby Bridges” for ages 4 to 8 (http://www.amightygirl.com/the-story-of-ruby-bridges), the early chapter book “Ruby Bridges Goes to Story” for ages 5 to 8 (http://www.amightygirl.com/ruby-bridges-goes-to-school), and the highly recommended memoir that Ruby Bridges wrote for young readers 6 to 12 entitled “Through My Eyes” (http://www.amightygirl.com/through-my-eyes).

There is also an inspiring film about her story called “Ruby Bridges” for viewers 7 and up (http://www.amightygirl.com/ruby-bridges).

To give young readers more insight into the school integration struggle, Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison, has written an outstanding book, that’s filled with photos capturing the major desegregation events of the period, entitled “Remember: The Journey to School Integration” — for ages 9 and up — at http://www.amightygirl.com/remember

For more stories about the courageous girls and women of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, visit our special feature on “Top Mighty Girl Books on Civil Rights History” at http://www.amightygirl.com/mighty-girl-picks/civil-rights-history For Mighty Girl stories for children and teens that explore racial discrimination and prejudice, visit http://www.amightygirl.com/books/social-issues/prejudice-discrimination?cat=71


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Family Values

Today, September 8th, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. A beautiful feast, celebrating the birth of the future birth-giver of God. There’s nothing in the Bible about the birth of Mary, so the church has relied on sources outside the Bible. Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary, were a pious Jewish couple, among the faithful remnant who were waiting for the Messiah. They were barren and earnestly prayed for a child. Their faith was rewarded and miraculously conceived and gave birth to Mary. Uniquely in the Orthodox tradition, the conception of Mary is represented by showing Joachim and Anna embracing! It is very rare in Orthodox iconography to show such intimacy between a man and a woman.

joachim___annna_flyer1

Conception-of-the-Theotokos-797145

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The birth itself is shown in great detail, with the midwife and other attending women shown. What is even more remarkable is the presence of Joachim in many icons of the Nativity. Here are two examples:

nativity-theotokos

6887712650_d9fac8be3a

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the icon above, Joachim is present in the room, sitting on the side. Of course he is not actively involved in the delivery. They didn’t have Lamaze classes in 1st-century Judea! In the icon on the right, there is a separate panel showing Joachim and Anna holding the newborn Mary in swaddling cloths – the ancient equivalent of parents getting to hold their baby for the first time in a modern hospital. I can’t help but notice the sharp contrast between these scenes of family closeness at the time of a birth with what we see in icons of Christ’s nativity:

nativity-icon-christ-jesus-lord-son-of-god1225nativity-xc001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the icon above, we see Joseph off to the side not looking very happy. In the icon on the right we see Joseph not only uninvolved in the delivery, but he is shown talking to a man dressed in sheep skins (a wolf in sheep clothing?). The man is clearly meant to be the devil, putting doubts in Joseph’s mind about Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus. The icons show the different circumstances of the two births. Jesus was born in the midst of empire, by a unique act of God that was incomprehensible to Joseph and the powers of the world. Mary was born into a quiet, loving home where God’s miracle was clearly welcome.

Mary's first steps. An example of family life as icon.

Mary’s first steps. An example of family life as icon.

In the Catholic Church, Joseph is a major saint. In the Orthodox Church he is much less. Also in the Catholic Church, there is the feast of the Holy Family, and the representation of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is common in western art and Catholic iconography and statuary. There is no feast of the Holy Family in the Orthodox Church. The closest that we have in the Orthodox Church would be precisely Joachim, Anna and Mary! Icons of the family are common. We have one in our church! I’ll add a picture of our own icon in a future update of this post, but here are some examples of family closeness:

01327008

Holy-Theotokos-and-Perents289_dionisiat

The proliferation of such icons in the Orthodox Church is quite remarkable, especially when we also take into consideration the icons of Joachim and Anna embracing and the icons of Mary’s nativity. What is missing in the life of Jesus, it seems, the Church has managed to find and express in the life of Mary! Thank God for that. For a church that firmly believes in cultivating strong family ties and values, we have remarkably few examples of family life in our tradition – a tradition dominated by monks, nuns, martyrs and bishops, all of whom are far from anything most of us can relate to. All the saints are important and worthy of veneration, but it is a question worth asking why there are so few married saints and so few images of family life in the Orthodox Church.

So here is the challenge to today’s families: Be holy families! Be examples of the family values that we claim to value. Teach your children the ways of Christ. Stay close to the church. Teach and practice prayer and fasting at home. Give priority to the Lord’s Day, if not every Sunday then as often as is possible. Sports are important for all children, but not when they become all-consuming and take priority over everything else, including home life and church participation. Engage in quality and joyous activities that unite the family. Limit mindless TV watching, video games and other activities that separate members of the family. Parents, practice what you teach! Joachim and Anna loved their daughter and brought her up to be nothing less than the one through whom Christ was born into the world. None of today’s children will be called to such extraordinary significance, but every one of us can manifest the presence and love of Christ. Jesus loved children. Don’t keep your children away from his warm embrace.


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Which church will survive?

I came across a provocative article, A Church for Exiles, by Carl Trueman in the August issue of First Things, a periodical of conservative Christian thought. The author of this article sees Christianity overwhelmed by secularism and entering a period of “exile” in the United States. He asks the question as to which church (or Christian tradition) is best equipped to survive in this age of exile. He briefly surveys the situation for Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism (he doesn’t even bother with mainstream Protestantism and he shows no awareness of the Orthodox Church), and then presents the case for his own Reformed tradition. This is the type of Protestantism that originated with Calvin and other Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. This is the type of Christianity practiced by the Pilgrims who established the first colonies in what is today the United States.

According to Trueman, the Reformed Church “cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise.” I like the idea of “simplicity”; but I find his summary of what is most important to be severely limited. And what exactly does “administration of the sacraments” mean for a church where baptism has been intellectualized and watered down from its original rich cosmic mysticism, and where communion is just the sharing of ordinary bread and grape juice? That’s the answer this author has for the challenge facing Christianity in the 21st century? I find it pretty bland.

The author’s thought becomes even more alienating as he goes on to describe Reformed faith and worship. He offers the following thoughts in response to the question, What about Liturgy?

The Gospel according to the Reformed faith is straightforward: We are dead in sin and need to be united to Christ, the God-man, who lived and died and rose again for us and for our salvation. United with him, we look beyond the ephemera of this world to the eternity beyond.

Reformed worship places the Word at the center because the declaration of the truth of the Gospel is central. Ideally, this truth shapes the liturgical actions of the Reformed community. For example, in the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final ­resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.

The congregation, reminded of who they are—sinners who stand before God condemned for their ­unrighteousness and uncleanness—receive the promise in Christ that, grasped by faith, seals forgiveness upon their hearts and moves them to praise and thanksgiving.

This singular focus—the drama of sin and redemption inwardly known—is a great boon in times of exile. To retain an identity in the face of a hostile culture, one must belong to a vibrant community of people who know who they are. This is the New Testament pattern of Christianity. When we hear, in clear and unequivocal words, who we are declared to us in the sermon each week and when we participate in liturgical action embodying that identity, we are well prepared for the hostile liturgies and gospels of the world we encounter from Monday to Saturday.

This is the Reformed formula for surviving in this age of exile, to remind people at every service that they are sinners, condemned for all eternity? Isn’t this precisely the reason why so many people reject Christianity? Because of this constant emphasis on sin and sinners? Even the Orthodox Church is not immune to this obsession with sin. The most common way we refer to ourselves in Orthodox services is “us sinners,” “me a sinner,” “I a sinner,” etc. We sing the same Memorial service, with the same prayers for forgiveness of sins, even after the departed has been dead for 50 or 100, or 1,000 years! Don’t you think that at some point we should stop reminding the dead and the living that they are sinners?

Despite this weakness, however, the Orthodox Church does not present the same bleak view of humanity as the Reformed tradition, but instead unfolds a broader vision of Christian essence. Our Liturgy is much richer than what Trueman describes here. The Sermon is not the center of the Liturgy; it’s important, but it’s not the reason for the gathering on a Sunday or feast-day. The Eucharist is the center, the remembrance of Christ’s global significance, his offering of his body and blood not just for my salvation, which is the Reformed preoccupation, but for the salvation of the world! Trueman quotes the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the main summaries of Reformed faith:

What is your only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour ­Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

It’s me, me, me all the way. Christ died for me. Nothing about the world, nothing about sanctification and transfiguration of the world. What about my neighbor? The Reformed person would answer, he can be saved too, if he accepts the same faith that I have. I find this to be extremely limited and narrow thinking. The Orthodox tradition has a healthier, fuller vision of the world – a world that is not just fallen, but also capable of transfiguration by the sanctifying and deifying presence of Christ and his people. Of course, this Orthodox understanding is often a well-kept secret in our churches, as we become more and more conformed to our own brand of American commercial Christianity. And this brings me to one troubling aspect of Orthodox history.

The Orthodox Church has had a very troubling tendency to accommodate itself to state power. We saw this in the Byzantine Empire, in Czarist Russia, and in all the national churches. In recent decades we’ve seen this in Greece and Serbia, and today we see the Russian Orthodox Church allying itself with the militaristic policies of the Putin government. The Moscow Patriarchate itself is practicing a dirty game of political maneuvering to become Number One in the Orthodox world. Does no one in Moscow ever read the words of Jesus in Luke 22:24-26?

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.

Quite frankly, does anyone in the Orthodox world think of these words when they jostle for rank and order and for proper titles? One would have expected that the Orthodox in America would resist the temptation of acquiescence to state power. After all, America has no tradition of a state church and there is a separation of church and state here – at least in theory and formal law. But here, too, Orthodox hanker for recognition from politicians and for a prominent place at all state functions. This has the effect of making Orthodoxy just another American religion instead of being the transformative message of God’s liberating power over all creation.

Trueman does have wonderful things to say about the Psalms. I can relate to this:

The Psalms’ many notes of lament, of longing for future rest, and of present discomfort and disillusion with the status quo… provides realistic horizons of expectation for this world—and for the next. It gives us a vocabulary with which to praise God in the midst of the contradictions of life… the very songs of David we sing speak of exile—and of hope for the better country we seek.

This recognition of exile and the hope we find in the Psalms… is not so obvious in other Christian traditions. For example, the worship of the American Evangelical Church of the last few decades has been marked by what one might call an aesthetic of power and triumph. Praise bands perform in churches often built to look more like concert venues than traditional places of worship. Rock riffs and power chords set the musical tone. Songs speak of tearing down enemy ­strongholds. Christianity does, of course, point to triumph, but it is the triumph of resurrection, and resurrection presupposes prior suffering and death. An emphasis on triumph, often to the exclusion of lament, will not prepare people for life this side of resurrection glory. It will not prepare us for a life of exile. I fear we are laying the foundations for disillusionment and despair.

These are good thoughts and they are not alien to me as an Orthodox Christian. The Psalms with their contrasting reactions to life in all its joys, sorrows and dangers, are a powerful means of living in this age of exile. One friend who is going through a major calamity in her life recently asked me to help her find expression for her feelings in the Psalms, especially number 119. And this is what the Psalms do: they heal by allowing us to voice even thoughts of hatred and revenge. They heal because they allow us to voice those negative thoughts in the presence of God. God does not consider any thought taboo, as long as it’s presented to God by an honest heart that is open to insight and transformation.

So what church will survive in this age of exile? Trueman thinks it’s his church, the Reformed Church. I don’t agree. Do I think it’s the Orthodox Church? I don’t worry about such things. The Orthodox Church will “survive” as long as God has use for it. In this country, we are small and still connected to the umbilical cords of our ethnic origins. But God can still use us for good, and it’s happening at many levels, if not always where it should be happening the most.

The problem with Trueman’s article is that it represents a remnant theology. Instead of casting his nets far and wide like Jesus did, Trueman wants to limit survival to one brand of currently existing Christianity. He sees no need for change in his Reformed Church; it will survive because it is what it is and it tells people who they are, namely sinners. Good luck with that. There are people like that in the Orthodox Church as well, who see the church as being perfect as it is, with no need to change anything. These people cannot separate the church from its Byzantine or Czarist past.

What the Orthodox Church has to offer – once we cut the ethnic umbilical cord – is a broader vision than the one Trueman presents, but which nevertheless is not complete for today’s world, and we can learn from our brothers and sisters. We can learn from the Catholic commitment to social justice. We can learn from the Reformed and Evangelical encounter with Scripture – though serious encounter for us does not mean fundamentalist. The Orthodox Church has a rich tradition of creativity. The creative way Scripture has been interpreted in our iconography and hymnography is a shining example of how the words of Scripture can be made understandable in a post-Christian society. And this is the key, with all due respect to Mr. Trueman.

In Christ’s vision of life, no one can survive or be saved on their own. Why should it be any different for a church? No matter how beautiful, how all-encompassing our Liturgy, our theology, our iconography, we must be willing to practice what we preach: a willingness to be transformed, to be transfigured – and transfiguration requires change and movement, not standing still – especially when that standing still is in a past that no longer exists. And change does not mean going with the flow of what is popular in society. Change should come from within our rich experience of faith; but above all change can only come from taking Jesus Christ seriously. And sometimes that means that we have to change or abandon something that contradicts the plain words of Jesus.

I know I’ve written some challenging things here that will upset some, and perhaps this article has been too long for some people to read, but if you want to talk about survival, don’t think small and exclusive. Think big and inclusive. Quite frankly, I don’t care to answer Trueman’s question. I don’t think survival is what Christ preached. Thriving is what Christ is all about. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The only reason why some of us even have to worry about survival is that we have ventured far outside the vision of Christ. To talk about survival is to make Jesus a liar.

So let’s forget about exile and survival in a post-Christian world. Let’s stop seeing the world as the enemy. There is enough enemy talk all around us, we don’t need to contribute to it. Present to the world the message of life; live that message of life. That’s all that God asks of us.

But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people the whole message of this life” (Acts 5:19-20)