Archive for May, 2007

A Few Quiet Thoughts

May 31, 2007

katocean.JPG

I spent the day with one of my daughters, taking care of business needs, and visiting my aging parents. Tonight I’m back in my hotel room and ready for the drive home tomorrow. Looking back over the blog for the past several days – and maybe because I’m tired and my emotions are a little brittle tonight (seeing people I love and don’t see enough always leaves me a little brittle) – but I find again that I return to my own self-reminder, and reminder to readers of what I am not.

I write, and reflect, and hope those reflections are of help and are true. I answer questions when I know the answer (which is only sometimes). But I am not a wise man or a priest whose task it is to solve the mysteries of the canons or all the ins kand outs of Orthodox life. I have written (twice now) that I am an ignorant man. And I keep coming back to that – both for my sake and for yours. I come back to it for my sake, especially if I’ve written something that worked well for me and for others. That’s just the generosity of God to us all. But I remind myself that I must still be an ignorant man or I would not sin as I still do, or fumble around in the darkness within myself as much as I do.

I had an opportunity to reflect on a young priest friend recently – what I reflected on was how much I liked him and how much I admired the kind of priest he will be (from the start). Most of this was based on conversations in which he was so terribly aware of what he didn’t know – it took me years before I began to know even a portion of how little I knew. We do not, I do not, have a deep enough appreciation for human ignorance. We are largely ignorant of the things that matter, and we will be that way most of our lives – most likely. To know that is a gift from God – and maybe the beginning of wisdom – but it doesn’t feel like wisdom. It feels like ignorance (not the blissful sort).

My prayers for all of you tonight, and I ask yours for me, even if you only cross yourself when you finish reading. Many blessings!

On Loving Your Enemy

May 31, 2007

england-trip-066.jpg

From Fr. Sophrony: However wise, learned, noble a man may be, if he does not love his enemies – that is, love his every fellow-being – he has not attained to God. Contrariwise, however simple, poor and ignorant a man may be, if he carries this love in his heart, then ‘he dwelleth in God and God in him.’

A question was recently raised in our conversations about what exactly constitutes an enemy. I think the simplest answer is: “anyone we do not love as God loves.” That is the broadest way of stating the issue. Were it weakened to mean only those people whom I actively hate, we would find apathy and an unfeeling heart falsely supplying us with a sense that we have fewer enemies than is the case, or that we are further along the road to Christ than we are.

I once had a woman in a class I was teaching to ask, “What if you do not have any enemies?” This was a class I was teaching for the general public. Most of those participating were not Orthodox Christians – not that this mattered with regard to the question.

My answer was straightforward: “Do you ever go to Church?” She looked puzzled. I explained that if she would become actively involved in a Church she would soon have plenty of enemies. 🙂 Though I said this somewhat light-heartedly, I meant it in all seriousness. It is easy to love humanity (a generalization that means almost nothing). What is hard is to actually love another person. Life in the Church, at the very least, is a kind requirement of our loving God, to rescue us from the delusion we would create for ourselves had we not the daily trials and temptations of life in a real Church.

Church nurtures and feeds me – but it also gives me all of the struggles required to gain my soul – to “work out my salvation.” As far as I can tell from listening to the members of my parish, and occasionally those from others, we have plenty of things to work on – all of us.

These simple facts should cause us to daily give thanks for all whom we know (and many whom we know not). We should give thanks with the sure and certain knowledge that they are not accidents in our lives – but deliberate acts of a loving God.

We should not blame others for the struggles we must endure – for they often have little knowledge of the struggles they have created for us – and to blame them would be to deny God credit for what He Himself has done. God does not tempt any man, the Scriptures tell us. Thus we should not look at those around us as though they were placed there for our temptation. They are a gift from God, and we should be confident of that. We should give thanks, pray for all, and be aware of just how lacking we are in grace such that we find others irritating or problematic. God is not only aware of all this – He meant it to be so. You cannot go from where we began (in bondage to sin) to where we are destined (utter union with Christ) without encountering many people who will require of us much prayer, and all the grace we can obtain.

Who is my enemy? Almost everyone I know – myself most of all.

Back Home (sort of)

May 30, 2007

christoursaviormoscow.jpg

I have spent the day traveling down to South Carolina for a short family visit, and to connect with one of my daughters to help her in buying a car (just the joys of being a parent). My last couple of posts have been dealing with our relationship to place – in settings such as Church or home (or city). There are larger spaces, such as being in your home state, or being in another country.

Last summer, though I had never been to England before, I found my time there to have some strange sense of “Home,” even if it’s just that my ancestors there and their descendents, have some of the same ideas as my ancestors here and their descendents. I still think England has done it better (as far as space goes). We seem to have had so much space at our disposal that we haven’t had to think as much or as well about its use.

There is probably something to be said about the mystery of place – although St. Gregory of Nyssa thought that it was just as possible to stay put and encounter Christ as it was to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and encounter Him. Indeed, perhaps an even greater possibility. Except for making the journey.

I thought last summer of how my own view of England was distorted by traveling there in 8 hours instead of months (with sea-sickness). By the same token, crossing the Smokies and traveling into the mid-state of South Carolina takes so little trouble today that I did not even think to bring a musket.

And where are we when we are “on” the internet? Space has been radically re-defined.

Except that human beings are creatures of time and space, and even when we meet electronically we still find the need to describe ourselves in space and time. Thus at the moment, we are on my blog. It’s amazing how many of us fit here at one time!

There is a very slow work of evangelism that Orthodoxy is engaging in across America. The number of new temples erected in the past decade is rather staggering, when one considers previous decades. And the buildings are frequently buildings that define space in a particularly Orthodox fashion. One uncle of mine, a Presbyterian, when attending the wedding of one of my daughter’s (it was in a Greek Orthodox Church), said to me, “When you have time, explain the architecture and the icons here. I have a strange sense that this is something that belongs to all of us.”

His insight was quite accurate. It was indeed a common heritage, though one that had been lost to his ancestry many years before. But his openness to the reality that this is somehow the common inheritance of Christians is remarkable – and one that we do well to remember. The divisions that separate most Christians today from Orthodoxy are real – and yet they are most often not consciously chosen (as over and against Orthodoxy). My uncle is a Presbyterian largely because that is what he was born to. This does not make him not a protestant – but neither does he deserve my opprobrium. He is a Christian who is well disposed to be a friend and wants to know more about what he sees. That deserves a kind, and well-disposed answer.

The space we all share, finally, is a biosphere given us by the One God. We inevitably have more in common than we know, and more possibility for conversation than we often allow. But I hope as more Orthodox “shaped” Churches dot our landscape that the conversations will be plentiful and fruitful. It is an architecture that has much to say, and I will, in time, have more to say about that architecture.

Reading the Readers

May 29, 2007

england-trip-289.jpg

I like to buy books at a bargain – when I can and if I can. These days, books often come at a bargain with Amazon’s listing of used books. Occasionally the prices are almost irresistable (especially for a book lover). What has become of occasional interest to me can only happen with a used book. The ad reads, “some writing in the margins.” I can hardly resist. There is the book to read and the reflections of someone else who read the book.

It’s an incomplete experience – you are reading snatches of a conversation between the reader and the writer. If you’re fortunate an insight might be hidden among the notes. And often as not the reader is just emoting along the margin and the book gains an echoe.

One of my earliest such experiences was in seminary. One half of my seminary (in modern times it was the offspring of a marriage between two older seminaries) was founded in the mid 1800’s. One of the early founders had made a trip to England to raise money for the American Midwestern adventure – and to raise something far more valuable – a library. He prevailed upon various English dons to share the abundance of their private libraries with their less well-equipped American cousins. The result was a delight. My own adventure into that delight was to study St. Gregory Nazianzus in a text that had once belonged to John Henry Newman.

Those were notes worth deciphering (indeed, they were occasionally in Latin).

My largest volume of Father Sophrony’s work, Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, is heavily notated. But in this case it is not the notes of a scholar – simply the notes of someone who likes to disagree occasionally with the text. It can be rather jarring to turn the page of someone’s work whom you pretty much revere as a saint and to see a large “NO!” scribbled in the margin. It makes me read more carefully. It also makes me wonder what the reader actually thought. That mystery will remain unsolved.

But the contrast between note and text have reminded me of Tradition. Tradition is not a 2,000 year old argument among Christian scholars. There are long-running arguments among Christian scholars – but they have little to do with Tradition. Tradition is a stream of life – a continuity running through the life of the Church and the lives of her saints. It is the Life of Christ, finally, that we encounter in place after place. Winding its way through languages and media, it bears witness not to many truths, but to a single Truth.

Though I have my own likely differences with Newman, I recognize that he is likelier car closer to Saint than I, and I realized when I was handling his book, that he and I were in deep agreement on at least one thing: the text in front of us was the text of a saint. There were no “No!”‘s scribbled in his steady hand just the gentle assent of the human spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the work of Tradition – deep speaking unto deep.

There are those books you own that you know belong to such a Tradition. They are not the stuff with which we argue but the stuff which we ponder. To me they are made only more valuable by having been held in hands before mine.

One of my sons-in-law has been assigned to a Russian-speaking parish. I had a valuable treasure that was given me several years ago. I have made it his treasure now. It is a Sluzhebnik, a service book, in Slavonic, for the Divine Liturgy. Only this one is written in pencil in a small notebook. It was written in the Displaced Persons camps after World War II by a Russian-priest acquaintance whom I helped bury several years ago. His family gave me a number of his priestly tools for my own. It is a Tradition that continues flowing. It is a joy to think of one, written in pencil, flowing in the tongue of my daughter’s husband. For this is so much the life of the Church. Not just the Tradition you know, but the life from which you received it. I often think that when someone asks me to explain Apostolic Succession that there are no words to completely explain it. It is hands laid on the head of a man, but it is also the stories and the lives of those who laid their hands. It is Chrismation, an oil mixed and blessed only once every three years – but containing a portion of the oil that went before it – and for how many years now? When I smell the Chrism at Baptism, I know that I share an experience, a smell, with thousands of saints before me. The Holy Spirit is the Life given us – the Living Tradition that leads us into all truth. But sometimes He does so on the margins of a page, or in an odor in the air. How rich and wonderful are Thy ways, O Lord!

The Shape of Heaven

May 28, 2007

stmarysatlanta1.jpg

I am feeling my way forward with this post – that is to say – I have some thoughts that are probably still in formation – so bear with me. That human beings have a particular relationship with icons is, to me, part of the dogma of the Church. It is not an expressed dogma – the Seventh Ecumenical Council made its defense of icons dependent on the right understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. But we can move forward from there and acknowledge that the Incarnation of Christ is itself, in part, a revelation of what it is to be truly human. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “God became man so that man could become god, but He also became man so that man could become Man. And icons, as we understand from the Seventh Council, are possible because God truly became a man.

To extend all of this a bit further – I would want to say that like the holy icons, space itself– the place we occupy at any given time – is deeply important to us as human beings. We are not disincarnate beings who have no relation to what is around us. We are quite the opposite – we are incarnate beings who are deeply defined and enmeshed in the space we inhabit.

This space can mean any of the tangible elements of our existence: light, heat, color, space itself – and so many such things – all deeply important to us. I hope that what I’ve been writing seems completely obvious.

Of course our environment and space are important. So what’s your point?

The point is that we frequently act as though these things do not matter to us. I can speak only of the places I have been – thus, mostly America – but here, we frequently treat space as though it were not important – or as though it was only important for some use and not for its relation to us as human beings. Thus we build ugly cities or build mindlessly, with consideration only for profit or some other less human purpose.

To this day, it is relatively easy to spot a building built in the 1960’s or early 70’s. Go to anytown in your state and find the most silly looking building and you’ll probably be standing before some bright idea of those decades. It was a time where tradition played as little role as possible in the creation of space. I am not a student of architecture – but I know what makes me feel uncomfortable or out of place. Tradition has often created beautiful spaces for the simple reason that people prefer beauty to ugliness. Beauty is frequently destroyed either by ignorance, greed or just wrong ideology.

But I do not mean to rant here about American architecture. My point is to write about the importance of space. There are reasons that Tradition properly guides the construction of Orthodox Churches – the building itself is an icon. Done well, the space in which we worship is an aid to prayer. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying every Church building has to be in competition with Hagia Sophia. But serious thought and care for such spaces remains important.

You can pray anywhere. I have worshipped in a converted warehouse as an Orthodox Christian – and I would rather have been there than in a heterodox cathedral. Nevertheless, space remains important. The small spaces in our homes, the “icon corner,” (in Russian it is the “beautiful” corner), are critically important and thus worth paying attention to.

There is also the space we occupy in another sense – the place of our heart. It is deeply important for the heart to be “beautiful,” adorned with forgiveness and love. Without such beauty prayer becomes nearly impossible.

I was with a friend earlier today who has just moved into a new house (“new” in the sense that it is “new” to him). There were things to see and admire (hardwood floors, nice views out the windows, etc.). But what he commented on most, and thus what led to this posting, were some of the house’s unusual places: a space under a stair, an unexpected corner – things that gave the house character and somehow made it a space well-suited for a family and a delight to children.

At Theophany it is traditional for our homes to be blessed. But this same blessing continues as we pray and fill our spaces with the love of God. Perhaps in time our cities will become better spaces (some are already – I have my list – and, I suspect, you may have yours). With prayer, and attention to the fact that the spaces in which we dwell are places in which we incarnate the Christian faith, our spaces can be the garden of God, the space of Heaven. May God in His mercy grant us all such places to dwell.

Small Things, Great Hopes

May 28, 2007

ostrov.jpg

On the surface it was not a world-shaking event. A friend of the parish loaned me a DVD last week. The DVD was a Russian DVD – with English subtitles. Again, not a world-shaking event. Thus, let me take a few minutes to explain why I felt the earth move.

The movie in question is The Island, or Ostrov, to call it by its Russian name. It has won a number of awards, including special recognition by the Patriarch of Moscow (all of which makes me think I’m the last person in the world to have seen this film).

The movie’s plot is fairly straightforward – if you understand Orthodox spirituality. It has much to say (though with few words) about forgiveness and repentance. I need say no more than that for my purposes in this post.

What is earth-moving for me, is that this is a marvelous Orthodox film produced by a nation that is finding its way back to Orthodoxy (in fits and starts). And that, to me, is earth-moving

First, this perfectly Orthodox film could not have been made in America, because the American film industry would have never understood or let be such a straight-forward script. The movie has elements of miracles (all of which are understated in typical Orthodox fashion). It is permeated by the Jesus Prayer, constant repentance, and a healthy dose of the phenomenon of a yurodivoi (holy fool). I have read tales that are not unlike this film – but I had never seen a film that was remotely like such tales.

And with that, the earth moves for me.

When I was in college in the early 1970’s, my circle of Christian friends were fairly well-read. There was much discussion about theology, culture and related issues. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book, From Under the Rubble, appeared, Solzhenitsyn was revealed to be a devout Orthodox believer. He had already been revealed as an unmitigated hero (among Americans) during a time when America was ceasing to believe that there were such things as heroes (you’d have to have been there to remember). At the time, reading his work was one of the most hopeful experiences I had ever had in my life.

I recall a Roman Catholic friend bringing up the subject of the “conversion of Russia” during one evening’s bull session. It was all tied up with Our Lady of Fatima and the prophecies of that early 20th century Roman Catholic event. I was not particularly concerned then (or now) with special revelations of Roman Catholic mystics. But the idea, not of the “conversion of Russia,” but simply of an Orthodox Russia was staggering for me. I can recall thinking about the meaning of a return to center stage of one of the most profound (why be weak – the most profound) forms of Christianity ever known and what it might mean in my own lifetime. These were the musings of a 20 year old in college bull sessions.

When, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, I felt for the first time rumblings of the visions of those earlier years. As the years have passed and the Church has gained greater freedom – not only have I become Orthodox – but my musings that an Orthodox culture might be on the rebound are stronger than ever.

Then comes this movie. I do not have to discuss its plot. But I do have to say that it is an event of extreme importance that such a film has been made. Into the cultural conversation of the modern, or post-modern world, Orthodoxy has risen with beauty and an articulateness I could heretofore only dream about. If it is the beginning of more such movies, then the Orthodox faith is receiving very important images and references with which to carry on its conversation.

I encourage you to see the film. You’ll have to buy it, or rent it (should your local movie store ever have it). If you’re someone who lives near my parish, then you’ll hear about an evening not to far from now when we’ll have “movie night” just to watch it together.

If I am the last person to have heard about this film, then I can’t believe no one else has been writing about it.

I can only end this post with a quote from a Russian review of the film. I found the review and did the only thing I could to read it: I plugged it into Babel Fish (one of the most hilarious experiences of language known to the art of translation).

The admonition –

General sensation: film good, unambiguously stands it to look.

Putting Things Back Together

May 27, 2007

babel.jpg

One of the most striking features of the day of Pentecost, in the Scriptural account, is the emphasis on diversity. The mission to the Gentiles is a major theme in Luke’s writings (which includes Acts) and thus Pentecost has great importance for him. The disciples gathered in an upper room as they had so many times before in the preceding weeks. But now the promise they had been given was fulfilled – the Comforter came. But in His coming, the Holy Spirit made Himself manifest in a very diverse manner – in particular – through the diversity of languages. On that first day of Pentecost the gospel was proclaimed in all the languages of the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem. And 3,000 souls were added to the Church.

But there is a larger point than the mere spread of the gospel. There is within the story of Pentecost, the reversal of an older story – the original story of the splintering of human language at the Tower of Babel. It is a parallel that is mentioned by the Fathers and in the hymnography of the feast. So, although the gospel begins to be shared in many languages – the purpose is to unite the many languages into one gospel. There is nothing in Scripture that makes us think that the unity God would have for us would be a unity brought about by a single language. If so, the miracle would have been backwards – everyone would have understood Aramaic. This is the unity of man – a unity that would force itself on us all – an extrinsic unity.

Instead – there is the gift of a new unity – not one that pretends that Babel never happened – any more than any act of our salvation pretends we were never sinners. The risen Christ bears the marks of His crucifixion. The coming of the End does not abolish the beginning.

And so, although God’s revealed purpose is that He might gather together into one all things in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10), it is nevertheless a purpose which is accomplished without abolishing what has come before. Indeed, even though the confusion of tongues at Babel is treated as something of a tragedy, it is, nonetheless an action of God for the salvation of humanity. That diversity of language saves us from a false unity that would have destroyed us.

Orthodoxy has traditionally preserved this diversity, despite times in its history when a language or culture (such as Hellenism) were in the ascendency. St. John Chrysostom, while Archbishop of Constantinople, was careful to see that there was a Church in Constantinople where the liturgy was celebrated in the language of the Goths (an important component in the Byzantine Empire). And so it was that Sts. Cyril and Methodius sought to preach the gospel to the Slavs in the language of the Slavs. And St. Innocent and others brought the gospel to America in the language of the Aleuts and others.

The unity that the Holy Spirit gives us in Christ is a unity of doctrine, a unity of mind, a oneness in the knowledge of God. That unity is never diminished by the diversity in which it is expressed – but rather magnified. There are aspects of the gospel that are better understood in Greek than in English, better said in Slavonic than in Aleut, and so forth. Just as finally, the fullness of Christ will only be made known in the fullness of His body.

This has nothing to do, per se, with modern fashions of diversity or with various humanistic visions of multiculturalism. Such programs can be as oppressive as any we have known. In the Holy Spirit, there is no oppression, no external compulsion, but liberty.

God, in the salvation of the human race, is putting things back together. But in doing so he cherishes all that we are and does not seek to destroy anything that is good. In Him we are transfigured, but never do we begin as one thing and become another. We do not start as men only to become angels.

This also has implications for those who come to the Orthodox faith from other places (cultures or religions). God does not destroy that which is good – He completes and fulfills it. I have heard the admonition of my Archbishop (DMITRI) any number of times to converts – reminding them not to speak evil or in an ungrateful manner of the places from which they have come. Who we are is, to some extent, formed and shaped wherever we are. I am an Othodox Christian, but there is much I know and see that I would not know or see had I not made the journey from the directions where I had wandered.

It is also true (and I frequently say this to those who have come to the Church) that in Orthodoxy is our true home. In that I mean no triumphalism – but a simple recognition that this is the faith from which all of us stem. My ancestry, as British (Celt, English, Irish, etc.) as is possible, is, when considered in its depths – Orthodox. Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury – who was sent as a missionary to England, by an Orthodox pope.

God is putting things back together – our lives – His whole creation. Strangely, that healing will also reveal us in our uniqueness as well. But, of course, we speaking of something only God can do. And it is wonderful in our eyes.

On the Feast of Pentecost

May 26, 2007

pentecosticon.jpg

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere 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.

On this day (Sunday) the Orthodox Church marks 50 days after the feast of Pascha and commemorates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church as recorded in the Book of Acts. In Russian tradition, the feast is known as Troitsa, the Trinity, and is the first of three feast days (including Monday and Tuesday). It is customary to bring boughs and branches into the Church – with the priest vested in Green. Thus, the Temple becomes a very green place on this feast – emphasizing not only the gift of the Spirit to the Church, but the Spirit as the Lord and Giver of Life.

Our secular world (and our culture – even our religious culture in America is decidedly secular) tends to see God and the world in very distinct compartments. This is the essence of secularism – not that there is no God – but that the world can be seen as somehow distinct from Him. From a proper Christian point-of-view the only name for the world existing apart from God is Hell. We do not have a feast which celebrates Hell.

Instead we have this glorious feast of Pentecost in which we once again begin to sing “O Heavenly King.” In this we proclaim that God is everywhere present and fillest all things. There is nothing that exists of its own. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” the Scriptures say.

God and creation are distinct in the sense that God Himself is not created; He is not contingent. But we do not see the world rightly if we see it apart from God. It is difficult for us, given our modern habit of thought, to think of things existing only relationally – but this is the teaching of the faith. When we are united to Christ, we do not become something other than we were created to be – we finally become in fact what we were created to be.

We do not exist alone – we are contingent beings. The truth of our existence is found only as we are known in relation to God and to one another. Thus love becomes the most fundamental existential reality. I love, therefore I am.

May God bless us all on this great Feast.

Come and abide in us, cleanse us from all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!

That the Gospel Should be Shared in Love – St. Silouan

May 25, 2007

england-trip-186.jpg

The following is another excerpt from Father Sophrony’s Saint Silouan of the Athonite.

Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,

‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’

The Staretz heard him out, then asked,

‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’

‘Yes, that they do believe.’

‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’

‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’

‘And what about the Saints?’

‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’

‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’

‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’

‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’

Back to Metaphors

May 24, 2007

pentecosticon.jpg

Suppose you have the occasion to sit with someone, an interested party, and explain to them the Christian faith. How do you tell the story? When I was in college we had groups who shared the 4 Spiritual Laws – a version of a Christian story, but not the one I would tell.

We do not think long and hard enough about the imagery and language that we use. Frequently, our religious faith becomes ingrained in jargon that we no longer notice when we use it. What are the fundamental images that your sharing of the Christian faith uses?

My earlier arguments about essential elements of the Christian story is to argue that we should have digested the whole of the New Testament, as well as a couple of centuries’ worth of Patristic writings (the 1st two centuries are not really that much), before we begin to give an account of what Christ came to earth to do. If your version of the story requires the lens of the Reformation – then you’re probably telling a 16th century story and not the New Testament, despite whatever verses you may cite.

But back to the fundamental question at hand. How do you tell the story and what images do you use?

It is these fundamental images – Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Death, Descent into Hades, Resurrection, Ascension into Heaven, Coming of the Holy Spirit – that make up the Christian faith. Interestingly, all of these images can be rendered in picture – form. Indeed, in the Orthodox Church we do render them in picture form and place the icons of these events in the middle of the Church on their feast days.

I can recall an old Evangelical tract called “the Roman Road” that gave an account of salvation solely from verses drawn from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s a nice turn, but was quite truncated in its account of the Gospel and our salvation.

If we read St. Irenaeus or even St. John of Damascus (5 or more centuries later), we will encounter the same Gospel that will carry us through the same images. But I suggest to my readers – take some time. How would you share the saving story of Christ? What are its images? Are those images faithful to the whole gospel?

I can recall an incident that occurred early in my ministry. I was serving as a Deacon in an Episcopal Church – a woman came to me who wanted to be baptized. As I recall, she had grown up in Hawaii. She had never been “churched.” She said that she mostly knew the name of Jesus as a curse word but did know that He was some sort of religious figure.

I remember feeling more pressure than I ever had on an exam in seminary. This was a true test for a Christian. Could I share the good news of Christ with someone who was well-favored towards conversion – and give her enough information to lead her to the path of salvation? I know that I worked harder for that Baptism than almost any of which I have ever had occasion to be a part.

I am convinced that we need to live closer and closer to the very root images of the story of our salvation – that the more we abstract the more likely we are to go astray. I am not arguing for any sort of anti-theology (I care deeply about theology) but for a theology that is, in fact, a mediation on the good news of Christ, and not an intellection five to ten steps removed from that good news.

Strangely, although Orthodoxy is 2000 years old, it continues to maintain this dogged affection for the most primitive layers of the Christian story. I believe that this is a correct instinct – a prompting of the Holy Spirit – Who seeks to lead us into all truth.

Go back to the story. How do you tell it?