All the Fullness of Christ

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When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:4-21)

Please forgive such a lengthy quote of Scripture, though such a lengthy quote is precisely what we need to read. First, it underlines that St. Paul’s goal for his converts was indeed lofty: “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpassess knowledge….” It is also a way to underline that the goal we have for ourselves should be no less lofty. When someone says that it will take a lifetime – it’s an understatement.

One of the desert fathers as he lay on his deathbed began to weep. The brothers asked him why – he had lived the ascetic life with such completeness. His reply, “I have not made a beginning of repentance.”

Neither should any of this cause us to lose heart. It should have the opposite effect! I cannot turn aside because the goal is too wonderful!

It also underlines the nature of conversion to Orthodoxy and why it can never be merely an intellectual assent. Where God is taking us “surpasses knowledge.” Why would we want to limit ourselves to the intellect? You’ll need all the intellect you have, but it won’t be enough. You are more wonderfully made than that!

If someone asks me (and I do get asked) what do I have to believe in order to become Orthodox? My eventual answer (my children say my answers are very long indeed) is something like, “Everything.” It is this very character of Orthodoxy – that it is indeed the existential reality of the life in Christ – that makes conversion more of an invitation to a way of life than the acceptance of a set of propositions. And this is very difficult in our American culture.

One of my members who was received several years ago along with wife and children said to me, “Becoming Orthodox feels more like joining a tribe than joining a Church.” (Stanley Hauerwas would have loved the statement!) He meant not that the Orthodox Church is tribal – but that it was like accepting and becoming part of a family, a way of life. And this is true.

It also underlines a danger that exists for us all. The American model of the parish is simply less than what a parish should be. Our suburban lifestyle has much to do with it. I have members who drive more than an hour to reach our Church. I’m flattered and heartbroken (that there should be so few Orthodox Churches). But it also forces a sort of suburbanization of the parish. When we were in the process of finding a location for our parish, several of the land candidates were in “great locations.” What they lacked, however, was actually being located somewhere. Now that, of course, sounds silly, but it is quite possible to live somewhere in America that isn’t really anywhere.

Our current location is our own building, but we share parking with an insurance agency (which is another building) a dental office, and CPA. I like having that much traffic in and out of our parking lot daily. It feels like we are somewhere. I contrast where we are with broken heart when I think of the village churches I saw in England last summer. Driving across the countryside you will see a copse of trees every few miles and standing above the trees the steeple or tower (mostly towers) of a Church. Stopping in a village I could see where Churches (and people for that matter) belong.

I ask forgiveness again, but the American suburban neighborhood is probably the worst invention in human history for the dwelling of human beings. A vast number of people do not know their neighbors. Last week I met a woman and her young son when my wife and I and my son’s fiancee went for a walk. The mother and son joined us. They have lived in their house (40 feet from mine) for over four years and I did not know them. That is my sin (I do know my other neighbors much better).

Now admittedly, we go to different Churches and that does not help. She may go to a different grocery story, and that does not help. If she lives in Oak Ridge, she undoubtedly goes to Walmart, but everyone goes there and I don’t really have opportunity to meet her or her family there.

In such settings, the local parish becomes a commodity perveyor. Our homes are consumer units (they all have televisions – usually more than one or two). Each home, indeed, contains all that is necessary for the family to get by: Washers, dryers, etc. When I lived in an apartment building while in school at Duke, we met people while doing the laundry, walking about, swimming at the pool, etc. As awful as I thought that housing was, it was probably functionally superior to the average neighborhood.

Ideally, the Orthodox Church is the village temple. Indeed our prayers often call the Church building a “temple.” It is God’s house, a place of prayer. In many countries it will remain unlocked and there will be someone present who will offer candles for sale (so they may be lit for prayers). This also provides someone to direct you to the priest and the like. But its function is normatively a very integrated function. Church itself is part of the way of life.

When Europe was still civilized (America has long lost any Christian civilization), there were over 50 days a year set aside as feast days on which no work was done other than the festival of the Church. One of the reasons the Reformation resulted in such an increase of wealth, was it lengthened the work-year by 50 days (including, under the Puritans, Christmas and Easter).

There are places that have intentionally created communities in which the Church is in “walking distance,” and it is a very good idea and certainly a place to begin. But we are not likely to change the infrastructure of America any time soon. Thus the home has an increasing role to play in Orthodox prayer – indeed it always has – even when the Church was in the village.

Having a family “beautiful corner” (an icon corner) is important – and is equally an important place where prayer for feasts can be read in addition to other prayers. All of these “small things” are really about the one really “large thing,” the knowledge of Christ in His fullness. I am in the process of gathering materials for home usage – I’ve had some good suggestions from some responders already. And the calendar – something largely used in the West and East – originally for Church purposes alone – becomes indispensable. The flow of the days and the feasts carry us deeper into the faith and deeper into the knowledge of Christ Who is our Salvation.

We not only need to believe the Christian faith – our goal is to become the Christian faith.

26 Responses to “All the Fullness of Christ”

  1. GS Says:

    Ephesians 3:4-21, not chapter 4. 🙂

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Thanks

  3. Jonathan Says:

    “I ask forgiveness again, but the American suburban neighborhood is probably the worst invention in human history for the dwelling of human beings.”
    I think you’re spot on. Instead of bolstering a sense of community, it sterilizes the communal existence and, in some cases, entirely destroys it. Personally, I don’t even think in terms of community when it comes to my neighborhood. Inversely, there’s a family in our parish who lives in the middle of nowhere, and they know their neighbors (some live a mile or two away) better than I know people one house over from mine. It’s rather sad.

  4. Athanasia Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement Fr. Stephen. For the first 10 years of my life we lived in the city in semi-detached row homes (now called townhouses!). My brother and I had a grand time knocking on the wall and talking to our neighbors who were our age. Everyone on the block knew everyone else, in part because they were related. I knew if I did something wrong, I’d get chewed out just as fast by Uncle Eddie as I would from my Mother. And then when I got home, I got chewed out again. And we always saw our neighbors at church. I attended parochial school with the kids.

    Though I must say, when we moved to the suburbs, things were different because of the space, but the neighbors were all close with one another. I can’t help but wonder if it is because we all were “city” replants, if you know what I mean. We had block parties once a year. The kids, and even sometimes the parents, played half ball/stick ball/or kick ball every summer night in the cul-de-sac.

    Sadly, I don’t see this anymore in the suburban neighborhoods I’ve raised my own children in. And I don’t even see it at my church. We all live so very far from one another. Our priest is trying to establish a ‘family’ mind-set but it is challenging.

    When he had surgery and spent a week recovering at home, I arranged a week’s worth of meals for him (he is not married). When I asked some of the church members to make a meal and freeze it, they looked at me like I had sprouted a mustache overnight. I managed to collect a week’s worth of meals, but largely because I made 4 of them myself.

    This is not to pat myself on the back but to illustrate the insular nature of our society. Care for someone else? Make a meal for them? Why?

    Lord have mercy on us!

  5. Trevor Says:

    No need to apologize for criticizing the suburbs! I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments about the loss of community, and in fact it was partly the intertwining of church life in America with this issue that turned me away from Evangelicalism and toward Orthodoxy. The irony, of course, is that Orthodox churches can be hard to come by in this country, so chances are good you’ll end up driving further to find one than with most denominations. But at least the ideal and cultural memory retain church as the center of the community.

    If anyone’s interested, I recently posted a bit on my own blog about this critique of suburbia:

    http://abuian.blogspot.com/2007/04/nowhere.html

  6. Stephen Says:

    I am against suburbs as well. I grew up in a crowded Asian city where there were no room for suburbs. There was always something going on, and the city felt alive. Moving back to Canada, most residencial places I have been to, even in Vancouver, feel like ghost towns to me. All these big houses all lines up, and no one in sight. Supposedly Canada is one of the best places in the world to live, but I personally think it is quite overrated for precisely this problem. On the other hand, the church community is pretty good, so that helps. Thank God for them.

  7. Fatherstephen Says:

    Trevor,

    Interestingly, we’ve had a number of families in the parish move to Oak Ridge (which I think is a nice little town, accidentally better than it should be but with a Bulldozer and about 20-30 million dollars I could do great things with its downtown). The fact that I have some Oak Ridgers, and some retired or otherwise free folk, make it possible for me to maintain a good schedule of services, including liturgies on feast days, etc. that are harder without doing “vesperal liturgies” a modern adaptation of the typicon to modern “needs” of suburban life.

    This, of course, is where the great difficult comes. The typicon that regulates church life, has an inner understanding that has to do with the rhythm of the church (though, typica usually developed in monastery settings). How much adjusting is too much adjusting? We’ll learn in time, I suppose.

    But the other neglected side of life continues to be a fuller expression of Orthodox home life. A “home” typica would be very useful. There is one very primitive such thing called the Domostroi – which was designed for medieval Russia. It is not useful to us today, but makes for very interesting reading – particularly if you like recipes for “Swan.” Apparently as common as chicken is for us!

    I read your blog article, and remain of the opinion (viz. your comment about the greater availability of Roman Catholic Parishes) that this is pretty much like saying there are more Protestant Churches. On paper, my arguments with Rome are relatively minor. In reality, my arguments are much larger. They are protestantizing their parishes (unwittingly) at a frightening speed. Perhaps this will be reversed.

    But the commodity driven culture is quickly morphing Christianity in directions that have been unanticipated and the power of that drive is sadly underestimated by most of us. It was said famously, “the business of America is business.” It may also be sadly true that “the religion of America is business.” We live in interesting times (in the Chinese sense).

  8. Coroebus Says:

    “But the commodity driven culture is quickly morphing Christianity in directions that have been unanticipated and the power of that drive is sadly underestimated by most of us. It was said famously, ‘the business of America is business.’ It may also be sadly true that ‘the religion of America is business.’”

    Father this acute observation deserves to be appended to your previous post. With it you have put your finger on the cultural context within which the lamentable theological and liturgical trends you discern in contemporary Christianity drink in their nourishment and justification.

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….”

  9. Michael Bauman Says:

    If we are going to counter the trend, we have to take specific action to recreate close knit extended family. The “family” may not be related by blood at all. There could/should be many different manifestations of the same idea, but we have to give up the idea that we are autonomous individuals with autonomous families and really start to share our lives with each other. Who knows, such an idea might develop into missonary pods to help spread Orthodox Chrisitanity and plant new Orthodox communities with a Holy Temple at the center.

  10. Michael Bauman Says:

    Father, I have a text, “Little Compline for Family Practice” I can send you if you don’t already have it. If you have MS Publisher that would work best. Let me know.

  11. Jfred Says:

    We left the Washington DC suburban rat race a year ago for a quiet, rural existence, where I drive past beautiful farmland to get home and can go the entire day without seeing another human being.

    I love hanging out with the birds and the rest of God’s creation, but I’m surprised how much I miss our old neighborhood, where I chatted with neighbors daily. What you find in the country are alot of urban refugees who have left the city because they’re tired of people!

  12. Visibilium Says:

    I’m not sure that the lack of community in the ‘burbs prevails because of their layout or because of their residents. Who feels like socializing with the Other when our society is descending into a Hobbesian state of nature? Property rights are becoming too vague to offer material security to the less-than-wealthy–one’s neighbors may, in fact, be one’s greatest threat.

    Commodities aren’t a problem, either. All societies have been commodity-driven; it’s just that commodities are more plentiful in ours. Is material abundance a defect? I think not. Let me dare to compare favorably our society to the all-too-often tyrannical Orthodox societies that permitted a favored few to enjoy commodities that many folks now enjoy.

  13. Warwick Motley Says:

    What profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?

  14. November In My Soul Says:

    We had new neighbors move in last week. We live near a Navy base so there is a great deal of moving in and out in all our neighborhoods. As in many such instances our children met and talked before we did. In many cases (and certainly in ours) suburbia tends to isolate children from each other and they suffer terribly for it. I grew up in a large enclave where everyone was literally kin to everyone else so children were turned loose in the morning knowng that there were many surrogate parents more than willing to look out for them.

    We are fortunate in that there is at least a little communication and a sense of community on our cul-de-sac. We drive about an hour to church and we do feel the strain but it is more than worth the struggle.

  15. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    The internet fills in the gaps for a lot of my feelings of disconnectedness. I live in the Protestant Bible belt, so if the conversations goes very deep, points of view diverge rather quickly. There is such a strong prejudice against Tradition that it makes me understand and sympathize with ethnic minorities who are on the outs with popular culture. It’s easier to socialize if you’re a WASP, which I used to be.

    And I do think of my house as a sort of monastery. We have 6 kids and homeschool so we try to follow the Church Calendar and incorporate as much of Orthodox life as we can at home, and since our schedule is flexible, we are able to drive 45 minutes to attend most feast day Liturgies.

    Thankfully the kids have a good time with the outgoing and nice neighbor kids across the street. I find my closest neighbors – in spirit and in truth – in the blogosphere. : )

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Visibilium,
    I do beg to differ with you about commodities. There are many examples of free trade where things other than trade were the driving wheel of the culture.
    I do not, and have not, pointed to some century or culture as the pristine or perfect culture. I will say, however, that America of the 1950’s (my childhood) was less commodity driven and far more civil than we are at present. Everything from the saftety of a child walking to school or community among neighbors.
    It’s true that we lived far more homogenous lives than at present and perhaps that contributed.
    There are a host of contributing factors going on at present. But one of the results is that the culture is driving some parts of Christianity more than it is driving others and it is distorting the faith.
    Protestants have a very low “brand” loyalty today, and “shop” for churches when they get to town. Just an example. I know I’m a former protestant, so I can’t leave myself out. Though my conversion to Orthodoxy was not part of a shopping expedition.
    There are aspects of Orthodoxy in other cultures that had great strength, just as there have been times when Protestantism has fared well, though maybe never better than in America.
    But, comparing America to other places or other times is not really the point, is it? We are here and like a good America, I feel free to point out things that are problems, even if it’s my own beloved country. It’s an American hobby!

  17. Coroebus Says:

    Concerning evidence of what you call our commodity-driven culture, Father, you said it yourself above and in your previous post:

    1) “When Europe was still civilized…there were over 50 days a year set aside as feast days on which no work was done other than the festival of the Church.”

    2)”Two years ago…a large number of Christian Churches in America closed their doors for Sunday worship in order to steer clear of conflict with the ‘family holiday’ of Christmas.”

    What’s the common denominator here? In both cases extra-Christian human needs or desires have trumped traditional Christian practice. By no means may say, Visibilium, that there is anything intrinsically wrong commerce and family, but in our time these values are increasingly fetishized to the exclusion of authentic — this is to say, Orthodox — Christian piety.

  18. Coroebus Says:

    (…please forgive the typos, should have proofed before posting….)

  19. Justin Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Christ is Ascended!

    This blog was very helpful and causes me to take a look back at myself. Again I say thank you.

    In regards to suburbia, you are entirely correct. I live in an apartment currently, and know it to be much more involving (however little that is) than suburbs–and we don’t even have a laundromat where people gather or anything of the sort. I long to live somewhere like you mentioned. Where church is the center of a small village life where everyone knows everyone. Ahh, that is my dream place. I’ll probably be stuck in the city (*gag*) all of my life though.

    Anywho, again, thanks for the awesome blog entry! ^_^

  20. Damaris Says:

    A wise man once told me this: Americans work at their play, play at their worship, and worship their work.

    In the whole issue of true neighborhoods, we can’t leave out television. Several of the comments here mention children being out and about, meeting neighbors, etc. But children — and adults — who spend all day in front of the tv will not be part of the most ideal neighborhood in the world. And television replaces the church calendar, as well. I’m sure more families make time to watch “Frosty the Snowman” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” than go to church together on or around Christmas, for example.

    I’m grateful for the resources available on the internet, as one commenter mentioned, but I am afraid that the internet too, like television, may replace genuine, messy, challenging, redemptive human relationships.

  21. George Says:

    “One of the reasons the Reformation resulted in such an increase of wealth, was it lengthened the work-year by 50 days…”

    The business of America is indeed business, as you point out, Father. And many modern churches purposely pattern their own conduct in accordance with best practices of big business, and seek the same sort of returns and quarterly increases. Wall Street runs on expectations set by business leaders, who in turn must drive expectations according to what shareholders demand. In order to realize the promised gains, executives must extract great productivity from subordinates, who in turn must obtain high levels of work output from employees. To sustain high and increasing productivity, companies need the ability to control the employees.

    I read somewhere a dictum of communist regimes, “To control a man, you must kill his intimacy”.

    A long ramble to get to this point – American business and much of its’ culture is, whether intended or not, set up to kill our intimacy, and thereby control us – to work more, buy more, buy this or that thing in particular, to work even more, etc. Many members of our parish are unable to attend Divine Liturgy regularly because of their work schedule, some have to be away from Services for extended periods. Our societal disregard for the Church calendar injures us, and makes it incumbent on us to do all we can to embrace the Church in whatever way we can, especially at home.

    Thanks Father for a great post.

  22. Michael Bauman Says:

    If we look at all of the activities discussed simply as activities that we have to choose between, we have already missed the point. We have fallen into the same trap Adam and Eve did when tempted. They were tempted by choice–external choice.

    Where is our treasure?

  23. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    I think we have to be careful not to be too legalistic or rigid about what the proper form of community looks like. We can even pray for people we see on TV – actors in movies and victims of crime on the news. I found Orthodoxy on a Protestant internet forum. I think loving our neighbor can take many forms. What’s different about talking in the marketplace and talking on a hospitable person’s blog comment section? The internet helps us refine our search for people. By the way, I met my husband, George (see above commenter) on an internet matchmaking site!!!!!

    However, I do consider myself somewhat “face to face” socially impaired – don’t want to go into that, but before telephones people used to interact via the written word all the time. And even reading books is a form of communion with the author, imo. I think the argument for monasticism is similar – work on your own soul before you can benefit your fellow (live) man through developing unceasing prayer where your relationships become truly inspired.

    Sorry to go on, Father.

  24. Fatherstephen Says:

    No matter where the Church exists, it will always encounter struggle, which is not bad for us, but good for us. It is good to look at what peculiar struggles we have in our own setting, not so much that we revolution-style change the setting, but that we work at struggling wisely – helping one another and our children in that struggle. As a Christian, it is a given that the world and culture is the arena of our salvation. Were we to be set in a perfect place, say the Garden of Eden, we might very well blow it. Been there, done that.

    It’s easy for me, or any of us, to fall into utopian dreaming – it’s actually quite America. We’re very idealistic. In truth, most of the things that effect us most we have a great deal of choice and power over. Like TV’s and the like.

    Some of our families in the parish have made very fundamental decisions about these things and I admire them. There’s never just one way – but always to know that it’s an arena, and, by the mercy of God, everything is for our salvation.

  25. Visibilium Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Two examples of less-than-absolutist Orthodox societies come to my mind: democratic medieval Great Novgorod and the limited monarchy of Serbia. I certainly don’t accuse you of engaging in the common Orthodox blather about how Czarist Russia or Byzantium were the ideal types of Orthodox societies.

    The 50s decade produced the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and other conformist stereotypes as well as the more benevolent Leave It To Beaver kinds of images. With marginal income tax rates in the 90% range, it’s little wonder that the 50s weren’t very fluid–entreprenuerial activity wasn’t encourgaged. Fluidity means mobility, including social mobility. Some people are threatened by fluidity and, others demand it.

  26. Fatherstephen Says:

    The fifty’s as you note were far from perfect. I do know that the average family thought what today is a small house, was quite adequate. We’ve kinda gotten silly about housing.

    I very much appreciate your posts. They are helpful and frequently help balance a conversation. I think my last note on everyplace being an arena is where I would rest my comments.

    I am glad I’m not a Tsar, or congressman or president (first off I’d be deposed from the priesthood). But I want to write in a way that helps us look at where we are and how we best can struggle. Changing our society is God’s problem, in the long run, not ours. How would we know how to do such a thing? But we can better manage our own struggle as we think together about these things. May God richly bless you!

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