Archive for November, 2006

My Right Brain

November 30, 2006

Many people may be familiar with the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It’s sort of popular around my house, almost as a shorthand for a complete understanding of how we see the world around us. The author, Betty Edwards, demonstrates through art exercises what science has known for quite some time – that the brain is differentiated for various tasks. The verbal part of our life, including reasoning, is largely a left brain activity, while art and a number of other things are processed by the right brain.

Of course, my writing here is generally about theology and not neurobiology, but this left brain/right brain distinction has become for me a way of thinking about my own journey as a Christian. I have sought in the past number of years to become more open to a “right brain” approach to God, not ignoring the rest of me – such as refusing the use of reason and the like – but realizing that there is another way of seeing and understanding that I’ve too long neglected.

The 7th Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.) made an amazing statement as part of its official Tomos, or Proclamation: “Icons do with color, what Scripture does with words.” It is not simply an interesting insight into how icons signify, but an even greater insight into the unity of our knowledge of God.

Someone asked me yesterday, “How do people come to believe in God?” They had in mind someone in particular who had grown up in a loving Christian home and yet had no faith in God.

My answer was to acknowledge the mystery of our relationship with God. C.S. Lewis, a great champion of logic all his life, recalls that as a young Oxford don, he got on a bus one day in Oxford as an atheist, and got off the bus as a believer in God (at least some sort of God). Where and how it happened along the way remained a mystery to him. Why that bus? Why that day?

My own earliest encounters with God were through pictures (indeed I’m not sure I could as yet read). In a pre-school Sunday School room (I can still smell it), in a country Baptist Church, we had pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls. One was Jesus the Good Shepherd; another was Jesus and the Little Children.  Those pictures of Jesus were the revelation of God to me rather than the violent, fiery anger that we heard weekly in sermons.

In a similar manner, a small bible given to me at birth by the Women’s Sunday School Class in that same Church, had a frontispiece that was one of Raphael’s Madonnas. The beauty and radiant love of her face are among my earliest religious memories. I think I have always loved the Mother of God. (It is quite interesting to me that a copy of the same Madonna hung above Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing desk.)

For too long Christianity in our culture has allowed half its brain to be ignored with a resulting imbalance in its perception of God. One of the great joys of Orthodoxy is getting half my brain back.

Icons do with color what Scripture does with words. Perhaps God means to save the whole of us.

How Hard Is It?

November 29, 2006

During the 1970’s through the 1990’s many of America’s mainline denominations experienced a frightening loss of membership. Every preacher worth his salt blamed the loss of members on whatever his favorite hobbyhorse was. It was the lack of this, or the presence of that. In Orthodoxy, particularly in parts of the Northeast and in some other parts, a similar decline occurred. The Eli Lily Foundation actually did some studies on this phenomenon back in the 1990’s and reached solid conclusions that the losses in memberships were primarily losses in young people. Various Churches lost their youth for a variety of reasons – but it is not a mistake to say that this loss was widespread in America and cut across a wide swathe of ideological persuasions. Liberals lost – conservatives lost. But the constant is that all groups produced people more than willing to interpret the loss as proof of the need of their own agenda.

Liberal Churches thus found liberal agendas being fostered in the name of regaining the lost members, etc. If we were more sensitive to women, if we changed the liturgy, etc., all would be well. And of course that wasn’t right.

Some Churches in the Evangelical Spectrum saw their own radical changes in “liturgy” as an answer, and though it produced “mega churches” it did not likely solve the problem.

Now, of course, I’m a priest and I have my own favorite conclusions to draw on the problem, but that’s why I have a blog. I can write these things, and you can judge them.

There are many demographic and sociological forces at work in the statistics the Churches have experienced. The Baby Boom and their offspring have been a large part of the phenomenon. For heaven’s sake, my generation actually created a market for coonskin hats in the 1950’s.

But one of the great forces at work in our culture has been the simple failures in many areas to evangelize our children. You can discuss many ways to evangelize them – Sunday School, Camps, Retreats, etc., but still the law holds true, “God has no grandchildren.” This is certainly the case in our modern, quickly changing world.

I look at my own children, who have done fairly well in the Christianity department. Two daughters in their twenties are married to priests. Both of my teenage children continue active in Church. I pray for more and better in their lives. But I know that it is not inevitable that children grow up and fall away. It does not have to happen.

I also know that most of the agendas floated on the back of the fear engendered by the losses experienced over the past 30 years are false. They weren’t lost by the Church being too traditional or not modern enough (neither non-traditionalism nor modernity save – nor do traditionalism nor anti-modernity). Christ alone saves. The great issue is to successfully present Christ from one generation to the next.

This requires that the first generation actually know Christ. And it requires that this same generation cares enough about their children to tell them about Christ. There are many ways to do this, but it is no harder than that.

I am in my fifth decade of life. I still have children to teach, possibly grandchildren if God blesses. I have continuing generations of children in my Church to teach, to evangelize, with the help of their parents. But their is never a guarantee that somebody else will do it or that it happens without us making this the deepest part of our intentions.

I suppose this is part of my reflection from a series of conversations here in Boston. I have not told enough people about Christ, and there are many more to carefully do this with. I have not thought enough about children and their need for the gospel. I have a major agenda on my prayer plate coming home. We have a major agenda on our Christian plate in the generation that comes behind us. God give us grace to give them what they need. May they know Christ as He would have them know Him, and may I not be a stumbling block.

Crowded Prayer

November 28, 2006


For reasons I won’t go into here, I am in Boston for the better part of the week at a conference with a group of priests. Many good conversations, to say the least. In the course of one I was reminded of how “crowded” Orthodox prayer is. The service in the Chapel was part of the reminder. The place was packed, like most seminary chapels, with an extra thirty priests thrown in to boot. But the little children present (seminaries always seem to have lots of these in the Orthodox world), peeking, and poking, and laughing, and singing, and filling in the extra spaces between all of these big adults, was a wonderful image. Orthodox prayer, even when you’re not looking at the kids is crowded. There are the icons – usually lots of them – everywhere you look. And they are all praying, or blessing, or standing there as reminders of heaven. And even when you close your eyes, ignore the children and block out the icons, the words come crashing through in their own crowdedness:

Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed, Lady Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

This petition occurs in almost every litany of the service. The image is of a very crowded heaven. Scripture itself tells us that God is the “Lord of Sabbaoth,” that is, “the Lord of Hosts.” He is not the God of one, but of many – even very many. The Orthodox experience of prayer has this crowdedness about it. I pray to God who hears me – but so do all of these “eaves-dropping” saints. The other aspect of it is that I wouldn’t want it any other way. The loneliness of some American spiritualities is unbearable. We weren’t created for it. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God pronounced in the earliest chapters of Genesis. This isn’t just a good reason for marriage, but a general observation of human beings. Not even hermits, in the Tradition, are alone. They may live alone in a cave, but the caves become crowded – with angels, saints, distracting demons, what have you. We were not created for alone. When we pray, we should get used to the crowd that joins us. We should not ignore the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us. We should not pretend there are no angels constantly crying aloud and saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I want to cry aloud with them.

Why You Can’t Do Orthodoxy By the Book (or the Blog)

November 28, 2006


There is a grave problem with Orthodoxy – you can’t do it by the book. Even less so, can you do it by the internet (he says as he types away at his blog). The reason for all this is simple: we teach that God has revealed Himself as Person. As I’ve noted before, God cannot be known in general or in a non-personal way. Indeed, it is God Who reveals to us what it means to be personal. Prior to the revelation of the Trinity, mankind did not know of truly personal existence. It is the gift of God.

But, because we know God personally, everything we know about Him is personal as well. All that we know about each other is personal (at least the things we know that have true value).

This is why Orthodox canons work as they do. Orthodox canons state the Church’s discipline in a maximalist fashion – a fashion which then requires Bishops and priests to apply them, pastorally. Thus Orthodoxy cannot be done “by the book” because people are not books. They are each unique and must be treated in a unique manner.

I have four children (five, including my son who fell asleep in Christ). I love all of them – but as every parent knows you do not love them equally (equality simply has no place in relationships – it’s an abstract and children are not abstractions). I love each of them for themselves, and thus could only love wrongly if I loved them all the same.

There is so much information about the Orthodox faith to be found today. Some of it is in books, some is on the web. Some of it is more accurate than others, some is just plain inaccurate. But if it is a matter of the canons, discussions of them simply must be taken before priests or Bishops who alone bear the responsibility for their application. Indeed, I cannot give someone an opinion on a canon with regard to their life if I am not their priest – I would be usurping the authority of another priest if I did so – and in many cases would need to submit a matter to my Bishop, who alone may give certain rulings of economy.

God has so ordered His Church that it remains personal. I have heard my Archbishop say: “Never let anyone tell you that you are ‘people of the book!’ We are not Muslims!” Orthodoxy recognizes Scripture and its authority, but that authority cannot exist apart from the Church anymore than it can exist apart from God.

I have seen more damage done by the mishandling of Scripture than good done by its proper handling. The reason for this is that in our Protestant culture, everyone thinks their own opinion of Scripture is as good as everyone else’s and it is not. Sola Scriptura has not worked (it has created more schisms than can be numbered). The same approach, applied to the Canons, or books on Orthodoxy will only yield the same fruit.

Thus, the best advice you can give someone with regard to the Orthodox faith is: “Go to Church.” It is the Church that St. Paul calls the “Pillar and Ground of the Truth.” The internet is a wonderful tool. It can even function to give us the Scriptures electronically. Blogs can be nice. But none of them are the Church. Here you may read and by God’s grace good things will happen. But blogs will not give you the Body and Blood of Christ. Blogs cannot anoint you. Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.

And remember to pray for bloggers.

Bad Icons

November 27, 2006


And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

It is a teaching of the Fathers concerning the holy icons that we do not truly “see” them if we have no reverence for that which they depict. Icons are “windows into heaven,” but not in a manner that objectifies heaven. Thus even icons that some may consider badly painted reveal the very depths of heaven if they are viewed by a saint.

By the same token, even badly marred images of Christ in other human beings can reveal the depth of the love of God if seen by the eyes of a saint.

And so the mystery of the holy icons seems to work from both sides. For the viewer, the icon is a window to heaven (if the viewer is indeed looking for heaven). And for those who are not looking for heaven, icons, including their human forms, become opaque, and we see only the reflection of our sinful self.

I like good icons, and would gladly fill my Church with them. But I want to become the kind of viewer who could see heaven if it were shown me (else even good icons become a waste) – and I’d like to be the kind of icon in which someone could see heaven if they were looking (else I become a scandal to the name Christian).

What seems inescapable to me is that there be icons. If you outlaw them in the Church, they will still occupy the Church in the persons of the congregation. We cannot say, “Only read the Scripture, do not look at me as an icon.” Nobody gets that kind of free ride as a Christian. You’re an icon whether you like it or not. And there will be other images as well – either well done reflecting heaven itself – or poorly reflecting everything other than heaven. But there will be icons. God give us grace to rightly honor the windows to heaven He has opened for us, and to be a window to heaven for all who see us.

A Prayer for a Church Building

November 26, 2006


My weekend is spent in and around a Church building (as is most of the rest of the week). We do not care for these great gifts nearly as we ought, nor do they play the role in our culture that the Orthodox faith teaches. It is an area where we can pray for great growth. I have spent time worshipping in a warehouse (when St. Anne’s was just beginning) and in rented commercial space – both of which became the throne of heaven as we gathered for prayer. I am yet more grateful for the building we now own, and for the building we hope to build. But in them all the following prayer is of great use. I found it in Father Sophrony’s little book on prayer:

O Lord our God, whose might upholdeth all creation: Stablish the work of our helpless hands; And make this lowly church a place for the showing of Thy glory; and for all peoples a house of prayer pleasing in Thy sight. We pray Thee: Hear us and have mercy.

Giving Thanks

November 24, 2006

It’s the day after Thanksgiving – I was eating yesterday with family in S.C. and far away from computers. I’m still eating today but found a little time and computer connection in order to make a short post and catch up on mail.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught that one way of understanding the sin in the Garden of Eden, was that we ate the only food there that had not been given to us as food – and thus the only thing for which we could not give thanks. It was our failure to be “eucharistic” beings that became characteristic of our sin.

The more years I’ve meditated on this, the more convinced I am of its truth and on far more than a moral level. Our failure to give God thanks is not a mere “moral” failure. It is a failure within the very depths of our being.

My wife and I were both brought up on “bread and butter notes,” the polite notes of thanks Southerners send to one another for almost everything (they may do this elsewhere, but I only know the South). Thus, my children keep lists of what they receive for Christmas as well as what they want – so that they will be able to write the notes required by the act of receiving. It’s a good habit.

But on some level, this is a moral act, a doing of what we should do. You write bread and butter notes because you’re supposed to.

But giving thanks to God is more than a spiritual “bread and butter note,” thanking Him for what we have received. It is, finally, a healing of the oldest wound in humanity. We who came from nothing, and thus received all that we have, give thanks as an act of authentic existence. Anything other than thanks is to act as if we created ourselves, as if there were no God and we were not His creatures.

There are many events, many occurences in our lives that in and of themselves do not elicit thanks. The tragedies of our existence usually elicit something quite opposite of thanksgiving. And yet to let such tragedies define our existence, much less our relationship to God, is to refuse finally to accept the gift of our existence as a gift. There are Psalms of complaint, and we are certainly not forbidden to pray them. And yet at a core far deeper, we must give thanks. I bless the God Who gives me Life because I know that all things are indeed “working together for good” (Roman 8:28), not because I understand, but because He is God and wills only good for me.

Some years back, as my wife and I were praying for a job for me (so that I could feed my family as we converted to Orthodoxy), she announced one night, “I believe that God is going to answer our prayer very soon” (we had been praying for about two years at that point). “We should begin to offer prayers of thanksgiving tonight.” I didn’t argue with her, but I did ask her why she thought we should do that.

“When God answers our prayer, we will be grateful. Anybody can offer thanks when they’re grateful. We need to start now.”

Her wisdom was astounding to me then, and continues to astound me. Indeed I give thanks for her (and am grateful as well). Thanks be to God forever.

Hidden Wonders

November 22, 2006

Being a good boy from the South, I learned long ago that certain things remain hidden. A woman’s age, certain stories about the family, how much a man is worth (though we were too poor to care much about that one). Even religion could be a hidden thing – at least for some. Among the most hidden things of all were things and people that involved pain.

I was no stranger to pain in my family life. I had two aunts who died of Lupus, a cousin and an aunt who died of Rheumatoid Arthritis, all very slow, very public diseases. I had an aunt who was murdered in the early 60’s. Her story remained front page for nearly a year – mixed with racial issues, politics, all the stuff that made for front page news. I had another cousin who was murdered in the 1980’s. Same town, same tensions, deep pain.

I served for two years as a hospice chaplain in which I had a minimum of three patients a week to die.

Pain has not been a stranger to my life, nor to my ministry. Thus it has been absolutely essential in my life that the God who saves must be a God who knows my pain and your pain and all the pain that I’ve seen. I cannot bear the successful God of the prosperity gospel. He is too beside the point.

Last weekend I celebrated and preached at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was an honor and a good experience – just as I had expected.

What I did not expect came after the service in one of those surprises that stays with you. There is a second service on Sundays at St. Nicholas (a fairly rare Orthodox event). That service is a Slavonic (Russian) service – Russian choir, Russian priest, very beautiful.

I became curious, and wearing the proper garments of a priest (cassock and riassa) I knew that I could sneak around a bit and get by with it. Particularly I wanted to climb into the choir loft and get a good look at the Church. You see almost nothing of a Church when you are one of the celebrants in the altar.

I did my deed – climbed into the choir loft in the rear of the Church. They smiled and tolerated me – let me do my tourist thing. But then I turned to leave and was met with the surprise.

The Cathedral is covered from top to bottom in frescoes. Wonderful icons of saints with Christ looking down from the dome. But there in the back, just above the choir, is a very Russian icon.

On one side of it are the Russian Royal New Martyrs, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, victims of the Bolsheviks. On the other side, with barbed-wire swinging open are sainted victims of the gulag. In the middle is the Holy Patriarch Tikhon, another victim of the Bolsheviks and the treasure of the American Church, where he was once the Bishop.

There they stood and the tears leapt to my eyes. I had not expected to see them there – triumphant – with all the other saints that cover the walls of that beautiful Church.

But like so many Orthodox saints, they remind of a pain – this one a very fresh pain – all the more poignant for its newness.

The God who saves knows this pain and He knows these saints. He is the God they called on in the dark nights of the Gulag, in the frightening chaos of a revolution, in the midst of a world gone mad.

I want to be where such saints reign for I need their company. I need their victorious knowledge of a God who conquers all. I need to know that the senselessness we have hurled at each other in just my short life finds its sense in the redemption of Christ.

The icon came as a surprise to me, only because I hadn’t known it was there. But it came as no surprise to me – for such saints are always there. And I am grateful for their prayers.

If I find a copy of the icon that can be posted I’ll share it with all of you. If not, or for any other reason, take time when you’re in Washington to go by St. Nicholas. Admire everything there, but don’t forget to look to the top of the rear wall. New saints adorn that space – saints who remind us of the God who saves us even from such madness as they knew. Surely He has borne our griefs.

Things Are More Than They Appear

November 21, 2006


Today is the feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the the Temple. We celebrate the event in the life of the Virgin Mary when she is presented in the Temple by her parents, Joachim and Anna. The hymnography of the feast is rich and wonderful. Like much of the writings of the Fathers, the Church’s liturgical writings love irony. It loves the irony of the strong become weak, of the rich become poor, etc.

In today’s feast there is the marvelously rich irony that she who will become the true Temple of God, she in whose womb God-in-the-flesh will reign incarnate for nine months, she of whom the old Temple was only ever a type, is now walking into the Temple.

The even richer irony, of course, is that the Temple she is entering was never the glory-filled Temple of Solomon’s reign (when that Temple was consecrated the glory of God filled the it such that the priests could not “stand to minister”), much less the wonderfully glory-filled tabernacle erected by Moses in the wilderness. This Temple was a late-comer, a replacement of the the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians. A Temple that had no Ark.

Now, the true she who is the true Ark enters the Temple. Now the true bearer of the Glory of God, walks unrecognized in the midst of the earthly building that is “Ichabod” (the “glory is gone”).

Things are so much more than they appear. A little girl is the longed for bearer of the Word. She will be the Mother of God. This little girl is the one of whom the prophecies of old, given to Eve, were spoken. Her seed will indeed “bruise his (the serpent’s) head.”

Our own lives have their irony, an irony too often lost on us. “Man,” said St. Gregory of Nyssa (I do believe), “Is mud who was commanded to become god.” The irony that we are commanded to become god is lost on us – we usually just think that we’re mud, or worse.

The greatest irony of all, perhaps, is that we are loved so infinitely, so beyond measure, while we still feel so unloved. We are lonely in the midst of all the company of heaven. We are hungry in the middle of a banquet. We are naked while the glory of God waits there to clothe us.

Things are so much more than they appear. My neighbor, who seems so well described by the term, “mud,” is himself as much destined to glory as myself and all I can see is mud. Walking in the finite, created walls of an old temple, I would easily have mistaken a young girl of three for just another mud child. Would I have known the Mother of my God?

There are many who today waste their time trying to put the mud back on her whom God has glorified. They would like the irony to disappear. But with the disappearance of the irony of the Mother of God would disappear every irony God has given us. She alone, of all humanity, said, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done unto me according to Thy Word.” And at such words, though spoken by one of us mud-children,  Life was breathed into humanity, and one of us becomes what we were meant to be. A young woman becomes the Mother of God.

And in that young girl is fulfilled the words of today’s gospel, “Blessed is he who hears the word of God and keeps it.” What would God do with this mud man of myself? I can only read His promises in wonder. I know that whatever it is He intends, it is much more than it appears, for “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”

“But we know,” the wise Apostle tells us, “That when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Doubtless, changed finally into the image we were created to be, we will see the wonder that is the Mother of God, and see her as she is as well. For then, “We shall know even as we are known.”

It’s a feast day of irony. But be careful as you make your way down the street today. Things are far more than they appear. We have a God who loves irony.

The Slowness of Grace

November 21, 2006


From Prayer by the Elder Sophrony

At times prayer seems over-slow in bringing results, and life is so short. Instinctively we cry, “Make haste unto me.” But He does not always respond at once. Like fruit on a tree , our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, the scorching wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. but if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well.

 We live in a culture of fast food, and tend to want grace to operate on the same speed track. Some versions of Christianity make grace as “quick” as walking the aisle. This, of course, is misleading.

In my experience, grace works on a level that is proper to human beings with some notable exceptions (but even then one can wonder). Grace takes time because we are not built on a fast track. Human beings don’t wean until about 2 1/2 years, properly (women you may correct me). We take 9 months of gestation, and we do not reach puberty for 13 years, traditionally. We are not instant people.

Neither does grace work on such an instant level (or is not at least noticeable on such an instant level). We should know that to be a human requires years for some things, including things pertaining to God.

I am comforted, that, unlike physicists, theologians do not reach their best work until near retirement age. I’m waiting for my maturity!

But each of us would do well to slow down our expections and speed up our efforts of prayer. Pray more, but wait on God. This lesson of patience is not something God does to us to torture us, but is something He does to bring us back into line with our humanity. Let patience have her perfect work (James 1:4).