Archive for October, 2007

Orthodoxy in Indonesia

October 11, 2007

I found an interesting article through WordPress on the Orthodox Church in Indonesia. Excellent thoughts on dealing with the culture at hand. The artile may be found here.

Why I Am Not Concerned about the Church as Failure

October 11, 2007

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I suspected that having written about the “Church as Failure,” today’s post would be a required follow-up. I am not concerned about the Church as failure – because I believe the Church was meant to fail – if you’ll allow me explain. I have chosen the word “failure” to translate St. Paul’s description of Christ on the Cross as “weakness” and “foolishness.” I think those words were powerful when he was speaking to the Judeao-Hellenistic world of his time – but that those translations are not particularly powerful or scandalous to modern folk. American modern folk are far more scandalized by the notion of failure. We hate failure. Which is why I think it is such a good translation.

There are two ways for the Church to “fail.” The first is that the Church fails because it has embraced the cross and the Divine Failure of God (which saves us). It is the Church living utterly vulnerable to the Cross and knowing that it will only be as we fail and God succeeds that the Church will do what it is called to do.

A Christian standing in confession (as we do it in the Orthodox Church) and admitting that they have failed, is a Christian now ready for the Grace of God to work in them the righteousness of Christ.

The other way for the Church to fail (and this one does tend to dominate) is when it tries to succeed and be the thing it imagines God has called it to be, but by its own efforts. The result of such madness is failure of a catastrophic sort, with the Church being nothing of what Christ has called it to be.

The great good news in all of this is that even the second failure – if it is recognized as such – can become the first kind of failure, and thus the place where Grace begins the work of healing. The Good God has so established things that we cannot fail other than when we refuse to admit our failures.

I am not in the least saddened or dismayed by the failure I see across the Christian landscape – even the failures within the Orthodox Church. Or I should say that the only sadness I have is the sadness at human sin. But where sin did abound, Grace did more abound, as St. Paul tells us in Romans. Thus we stand at a landscape that could also be the place where an abundance of Grace begins to work.

For Orthodoxy in America, I pray that Grace will abound. We have our failures, which I choose not to ennumerate. It’s not my job. But for those whose job it is – I pray that they will call things by their right names and pray that Grace will abound (which it most assuredly will).

As an Orthodox Christian I cannot say what Grace abounding outside the bounds of Orthodoxy would look like. It is mysterious territory to me but it could only be a good thing because Grace does not work us harm.

In individual lives our failures can and should be moments that the Cross of Christ is triumphant. For what we cannot do (and we cannot do anything), Christ in us can do abundantly well. Thus to fail is to come to the Cross of Christ, if only we will.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace, help me in all things to rely upon Thy holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Thy will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that Thy will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. And pray Thou, Thyself, in me. Amen.

The morning Prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow

The Church as Failure

October 10, 2007

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I do not always like conversations about the Church. It invariably becomes problematic. The Orthodox sound unbelievably hauty in our description of the Church, others are driven to defensive positions, and on it goes.

When we look across the Christian scene, however, we should be accurate in what we see: failure. Not by counting numbers (they may tell us very little), but by how well Christians in fact show forth the faith that is within them. That the Church is a mess is a good description of history. The Catholic Church says one thing, but has a hard time finding a parish that actually believes and practices the magisterium of the faith. Protestants have launched into a sea of splintering that can only be justified by positing a deficient ecclesiology. The Orthodox, despite the accuracy of their historical claims, remain in the backwash of collapsing empires (both the Byzantine and the Russian).

Having offered a quick but depressing overview of the Church (which I could expand in any number of directions), let me be quick to say that there is something for us to understand other than how badly we’ve done with what Christ has given us. I believe the “failure” of the Church is itself a revelation: the failure of the Church is the result of man’s efforts to do what he cannot do. The failure of the Church, to put it clearly, is a result of works – a triumph of flesh over Grace.

In earlier postings on the “ecclesiology of the Cross” I have argued that the Church can only be the Church if it embraces the emptiness and self-offering of the Cross. I stated there and believe that the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church presumes this inherent weakness and that whenever we resist the self-offering of the Cross, Orthodoxy gets messier and messier.

I would extend this to the entire Christian world (since the Cross certainly extends that far). I believe the claims of the Orthodox faith. But having said that, I also believe that there are many faithful Christians who are not Orthodox but whose Churches have in no way escaped the failure that has encompassed us all.

This is not an argument that says, “We’re all messed up, do the best you can,” though sometimes that is a temptation. But it is a call to look at failure for what it is and not be afraid to call it by its name. There will be failure in all Christian lives whenever we seek to live apart from Grace.

Promised definition: Grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. Only His life dwelling in us and doing in us what we cannot do will save us. That’s the simple truth, and the right reading of Grace in the Scriptures.

If we use the Church as a Bible (St. Paul called us “his epistle written in the heart”) then we have to say the message is garbled and in need of correction. I am the last person to call for Reformation of the Church (we’ve had too much already). It’s not reformation that the Church needs. It’s the reformation of Christians that is sorely lacking.

My own life, as I examine it daily, is wracked with failure. Anyone who makes confession in any frequent fashion will have to agree with me and say that their own life is no better. But the Gospel to us and to the Church is that God has come to redeem our failure. It is not the Reformation that needs justification, it’s our justifications that need reformation.

Nearly 10 years ago I entered the Orthodox Church after having been an Episcopal priest for 17 years. I had invested my life in what was a failure and an increasingly worse failure. I did not become Orthodox in order to escape failure – but in order to heal the failure that was me and to share in Christ’s healing of the whole human failure. I did not then think that Orthodoxy had somehow escaped the failure that had overtaken us all – but rather that it still taught the fullness of the medicine of immortality – Christ’s own remedy for the failure that has infected our race, and that its sacraments and way of life were indeed that medicine. I still believe that and moreso. But when we say that the Church is a hospital, we are confessing that Christ is the Great Physician and that all the rest of us are patients (priests included).

I do not confess the failure of the Church with sadness, but with frankness, because unless I confess this fact, I will delude myself into some sort of religious madness and begin to think myself a physician instead of a patient. It’s a dangerous thing to put the patients in charge of the asylum.

Thus, as one madman to another, I invite you into the honest conversation of our failure. I believe I have seen the cure, but I don’t think I’m cured.

Being Saved This Day in the Church

October 9, 2007

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I thought I would bring the discussion down from the heady heights of theology and into the place where I spend my time and the bulk of my life. Being saved in the Church is a very day-to-day and moment-to-moment thing.

Getting started: Do I cross myself before I get out of bed. It sure helps. My sincerest hope is that my desire for God does not weaken between bed, kitchen and my prayer corner. Too many distractions.

Getting started part 2: Since I am not required by a canon to fast before my morning prayers, I usually have a cup of coffee which helps prayer immensely. Caffeine addiction. Discuss with confessor.

Praying. The great struggle is to have a single concentrated thought about God. To hold in my heart the Creator of the universe – or better stated to hold my heart there in His presence. The good morning is the one where His presence is accessible and not missing for some reason. Time to search my heart.

Fasting – What day is it? And even though the food may be “compliant,” do I remember to leave the table slightly hungry?

Reading the Blog – What has happened overnight. What has Europe and the American Insomniacs had to say. If there is a Romanian translation, what does it say? Was what I wrote clear and what will be next?

The Day – My day has appointments or tasks to be completed, or phonecalls, or services to be prepared, and all of these in between times for prayer. Prayer – the same questions as the morning.

The close of the day. What did I do? Did I remember God. Did I come close to constantly remembering God. Where did I refuse to remember Him?

Why does the cat annoy me?

Everyday would look something like this for me. The conversations could be good or bad, heartbreaking or producing anxiety, depending. But all of it is made up of small minutes, small decisions, and each is a decision to remember God or to forget the one who died for my salvation. Each phone call is a call from Christ (God have mercy on me).

Wonderously I am remembering that everything is filled with God – that He is everywhere present. And stopping and going slowly through the day the brightness of this unmitigated joy overwhelms anything that would seek to replace. Not just the natural things that grow – but everything. Glory to God!

And each day, is a struggle to say yes to the Grace that pours out upon us more than we can bear. Glory to God.

I will sleep in Grace, in the palm of His hand.

Getting Saved in the Church

October 8, 2007

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I ask forgiveness for the offense the article will give to some – it is not my intent to offend. However, in the past several days, central doctrines of the Orthodox faith have been questioned in a number of quarter relating to articles or comments I have posted, most especially those regarding certain aspects of the Church. I post this article as an answer and an affirmation of Orthodox belief. 

I grew up in the deep South where “getting saved” was a part of everyday speech and we all knew what it meant. It was evangelical short-hand for “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” usually done at Church after walking the aisle at the end of the service. I did this at age seven. This action was followed by Baptism (as simply an outward obedience to Christ). It did mean I could start to take communion on one of the four Sundays a year this occurred. Though, again, communion was only meant as a meal to remember something Jesus had done once upon a time. In giving such a description, I am simply relating what I and any other member of the Southern culture at large knew. We could cite a few Bible verses that spoke of what we were doing and that seemed to make everything legitimate.

Of course in such a context, speaking about the Church in anything other than mere fellowship or accountability terms is a foreign thing. Verses such as those in Ephesians 1, where the Church is called, “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” either make no sense, or must be relegated to some Church of the eschatological future about which we can only dream.

Of course, all of this rural Protestant understanding presupposes human life defined in purely modern terms. We are individuals whose relationship to one another is at best emotional, psychological or affectional. We go to the same Church because we believe some of the same things (or for reasons much less noble).

Having been saved, there are really only two things left to do: help other people get saved (evangelism) and become a more moral citizen (sanctification). Sermons will usually talk about one or the other.

Of course, all of this is completely foreign to the Orthodox Catholic faith of the Fathers – the inheritance of the Church as given in Scripture and the writings of centuries. Anyone transported from our modern world into the 4th century and speaking of their salvation in the modern manner would have been judged a heretic (of a strange variety never seen before) and disciplined accordingly.

Several key elements here should be underlined:

1. Salvation is not something that happens to you as an individual in isolation from others.

2. Salvation is not a legal settlement between you and God in which, having your sins remitted, you are now permitted to enter heaven when you die.

3. The Church is what salvation looks like.

I’ll explain this third point in some detail. The Church is what salvation looks like because salvation is not a momentary matter, but a life-long event. It may be initiated by our acceptance of Christ, just as a battle against cancer may be initiated by a diagnosis and first dose of chemo. But the sin which affects us is not a mere legal problem – it is existential, ontological – it is deep in the core of us – and only a lifetime in Christ, bathed continually in grace, will we find a beginning to the healing of its destruction and prepare us for the life God is giving us.

What does St. Paul mean when he says in Romans 13:11:

Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

Or in 2 Corinthians 7:8-9

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.

Or most famously in Philippians 2:12-13?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

And again in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9?

But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In none of these cases is salvation used to describe a past experience (the word has a very broad use of meanings in the New Testament). These kinds of example can be multiplied over and over to demonstrate that the parlance of many modern cultural Christians is simply not at all in line with the Gospel as proclaimed in Scripture. It is a truncated, virtual version that does not express the fullness of the faith.

The idea of the salvation of an individual qua individual is also a modern idea. It is a modern idea, for the very concept of a human being existing as a self-existent, self-contained individual is a very recent idea. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity, carefully illustrates (in over 500 pages) the slow process whereby man as an individual came into modern consciousness. It is not surprising that the concept would come to dominate popular preaching. Preaching and preparation that has been cut off from the history, doctrines, language, and Fathers of the Church, is absolutely vulnerable to every pop cultural notion that comes down the pike. Thus it is that American Evangelicalism is mostly Americanism with a Jesus veneer. In some cases it can be as unashamedly American as Mormonism, a purely American phenomenon.

These are strong words but they are meant to be. The Gospel is a precious treasure and should not be made captive to the cultural forms of any land, whether America, Byzantium or Russia. At present, the world-wide danger is the complete and total captivity of the Gospel to American culture. American culture makes the Hellenization of the ancient world seem mild. Our culture is conquering the world, even where they hate us. And our ideas are supplanting almost everything with which they come in contact.

Thus to maintain a proper Christian understanding of what it is to be human is particularly difficult. We are not purely individuals, except as the most unregenerate sinners. We were created in the image of God, and even in that creation were declared, “Not good,” until we existed as male and female. We are created in the image of a Triune God. My life is not my life alone. Indeed, sin can best be understood as the rupture of communion between myself and God and myself and others around me. And if this is sin, then salvation will be the restoration of communion – both with God and with others around me.

Thus, the Church is what salvation looks like. It is here that we are Baptized into the very life of Christ, into His body. It is here that we are fed on His Body and Blood. Here in the Church we are restored to communion with God and communion with others. And it is here that the battleground to maintain that communion takes place. Thus God has given us the means to correct one another, to heal one another, to aid in the salvation, the complete restoration of each other in Christ.

Anyone who does not know that the Church is what salvation looks like has not begun to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. We cannot love one another unless there is another to love. Indeed, the New Testament, with the exception of the Book of Philemon and the Pastoral Epistles is written only to the Church. And those exceptions are written to men only in regard to their place within the Church. The New Testament belongs exclusively to the Church. If you are reading it as an individual and not as a member of the Church to whom it was written, then you are reading someone else’s mail.

Finally, the Church has always understood itself to be One (not an abstract “one,” dwelling mystically in some second storey, but a very concrete one). Those who establish fellowships and ordain leaders have not been given authority to do what they do. Reading the letters of Abraham Lincoln does not make one a U.S. Senator. Those who have authority in the Church were appointed by Christ and by those whom Christ appointed. Apostolic succession is real – though not merely mechanical. Those who sit in the seat of the Bishops must in fact teach what the Apostles taught. But to ordain men apart from this divinely appointed means comes dangerously close to the make-believe of cult-like groups who think nothing of proclaiming prophets and the like. Of course, the Orthodox Church treats with deference and respect those who lead Christian communities, and in most cases has graciously received converts from that number with respect (though some like myself, having been an Anglican, had to submit to re-ordination – I did not take this as an insult).

According to Scripture, it is only in the Church that we will find the “fullness of Him who filleth all in all.” Why would we want less than the fullness, and how could we dare to create our own organization and claim such a Divine reality to be its constitution? Those who have inherited their Church from their own fathers stand perhaps in a different quandary. But it is still a quandary to be pondered and not merely justified because it exists.

The Church of the Second Storey (And Why There Isn’t Really One)

October 5, 2007

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For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,  I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,  that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,  having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,  and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might  which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places,  far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come;  and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,  which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:15-23).

One of the great tragedies of the constant reinvention of Christianity over the past several centuries has been the tendency to forget very important parts of Scripture and to simply substitute human and cultural models for the revealed knowledge given to us by God in Christ. Perhaps the most obvious of these has been the complete forgetfulness of what the Scripture has to say about the Church.

In the multiform, constant chimera that has become the norm for Protestant Christianity, it is difficult to have a serious doctrine of the Church – the Church having been wrenched into forms and shapes that bear no resemblance to that which was established by Christ and which abides to this day. Instead, there has been the need to create abstractions such as the “invisible Church” where theoretical notions are made to substitute for the very concrete reality described in Scripture. The “invisible” Church is a pure modern fiction without warrant in the Scripture existing largely to cover the deformation of the Church that has happened at modern hands.

That which St. Paul would describe as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” is now spoken of as a “mere human institution” and such notions. Thus, “the Church,” like so many other realities of our faith, has by some been relegated to the “second storey,” a convenient place to store things that can be spoken of in ideal and abstract terms but which are preferred not to litter the landscape of the secularization of the first storey in which we live. (See my earlier articles on the “second storey“).

Thus the Church that inhabits this first storey is constantly being “reformed” in order to conform it closer to the theoretical model that mystically hovers above us. Thus such two-storey Christians never attend a real Church, only a human institution. All relationship with God is second-storey and theoretical.

Though certain events such as the Cross are recognized as historical, even they become removed to a second storey where they can be more conveniently discussed in abstract terms. Thus second storey Christians will sing about the “cross of Jesus,” but would shudder at the idea that there might still be relics of that true Cross among us. Indeed, if confronted by such a relic, they would gladly choose the abstract over the hard wood in front of them.

This second-storey Christianity is disincarnate. The scandal presented by the claims of the Orthodox Church are that it dares to speak of the Church in terms as concrete as the incarnation of Christ and assumes that our salvation is worked out in just such a concrete setting. Items such as candles, icons, incense, liturgies, doors, curtains, relics, vestments, water, wine, oil, etc., will all be dismissed as “empty ritual.” And yet nothing could be emptier than life in the first storey where everything of meaning has been relegated to the second floor.

Christ became man and dwelt among us. He took flesh of His mother, the Virgin Mary. He traveled with His family to Egypt to avoid a very real persecution. They returned later to a very dusty, quiet Nazareth. Before He began His ministry He went to see His cousin, John the Baptist, son of Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth. This same John had lept in the womb of his mother at the very sound of the voice of the Virgin Mother of God. Christ stood before His cousin and asked for Baptism – in water – wet and dripping – in the Jordan. There was a revelation of the Holy Trinity in that very event (not in the second storey but here). Christ continued his ministry, fasting for 40 days and being ministered to by angels at the fast’s completion. He called 12 men, with names and occupations, and made them into Apostles. One of them betrayed Him. Christ turned water into wine, healed the sick on the sabbath, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, cast out devils – all in the context of this first storey of our universe. Here he was vilified. Here he cleansed the Temple. Here he was arrested and tried and here He was crucified, dead and buried. In the mystery of the ages He descended into Hades and set at liberty those who were held in bondage, trampling down death by death – but His resurrected body bears testimony that even that event is within this first storey (not in some spiritual never-never land). He taught His apostles, who traveled and taught and were all martyred with the exception of St. John. They administered the sacraments He gave them, Baptizing, Communing, Healing, Ordaining, etc., all in this world. They appointed Bishops to head the local Churches and to carry on the work of the ministry. That Church, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all, is the only Church that has ever taught, preached or practiced the gospel. No theoretical “invisible Church” has shed its blood. The members of the Church who now reign with Christ and await the end of the age pray for this first-storey Church, surrounding it like a great cloud of witnesses. This Church has remained. It has seen its own betrayers as Christ saw his (though the betrayer did not suddenly render the faithful apostles into invisible apostles). But this Church has remained. It has resisted the blandishments of Emperors and the false claims of some Bishops. It has preserved what was delivered to it. If there are some who fail her now, may God have mercy on them and not hold it against them on the day of judgment.

But it is all here – not somewhere else. The fullness dwells among us. What else would the incarnation have done?

The Theological Task of Orthodoxy in the West

October 4, 2007

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I am grateful to Dan Greeson for this excellent quote.

 Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Conflicts Large and Small

October 4, 2007

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I am certain that in most respects I differ in no way from other Christians. The vast majority of the conflicts I encounter are my own conflicts and they center around the Gospel and my obedience to Christ. Will I forgive an enemy? Will I turn aside a painful remark with kindness and generosity? I am sure that I could lengthen this list and that any of my readers could add to it as well.

There are other kinds of conflicts – those that are larger. Some exist on the parish level, some the diocesan or deanery level, some on the National or International level as well. Of course, the further removed the conflict the more difficult it is to take any worthy action. It is hard to steer a ship from afar, particularly if you’re not the one at the helm.

My experience as a clergyman within the Episcopal Church for some 17 years, was often one of great frustration and anger. Decisions were made of which I disapproved. Statements were made with which I disagreed. Every pronouncement from the National Church seemed to open the wound only wider. The result was never good for my spiritual well-being. It is one thing to start out one’s spiritual career with a notion that you will be among the “reformers.” This, in fact, is probably not good. The Church should exist to save us, not us to save the Church.

But it was also destructive to my spiritual well-being because I was frequently so deeply exercised about things over which I had no control. I could and did voice my opinion and even led one national movement that was engaged with structural change (we failed). But in such struggles other human beings can quickly become little more than adversaries – known by whatever name we know adversaries. Prayer without peace is deeply damaged prayer.

In early 1998 my family and I entered the Orthodox Church, utterly at peace with the fact that this is the fullness of the faith, Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I also entered (perhaps because I approached everything so slowly) well aware of the skeletons in Orthodox closets and the conflicts that exist within Orthodoxy. But I did not come to reform the Church. Somehow I knew I couldn’t and that it was not my place.

Since the time of my conversion there have been conflicts to come and go. I am now Rector of a parish and I have been elevated to the responsibility of dean (and thus some small conflicts are now in my lap) but I believe deeply that one must always act with discernment and not with passion. Mostly, my life consists in doing whatever lies at hand: to conduct a service, teach a class, hear confessions, write, preach, run a council meeting – whatever; and that my salvation lies in doing these things with kindness and generosity, with forgiveness where required, with gentle rebuke where required. And that in all of these things, the good God who called me to this path of salvation will provide for me all that my soul needs in order to be conformed to the image of His Son. It is for me to struggle with faithfulness.

There are conflicts large and small, just as there is stewardship of large things and small – and we all must answer for our stewardship. I pray for those whose stewardship is so much larger than mine and I try to be faithful enough to say, “Yes,” whenever I am asked to take on a larger stewardship (not abandoning the small). Where the greatest difficulty lies for any of us, is finding where our stewardship lies and being faithful in that place and praying for and being patient with the others.

If you are in a place where you justify your role by being a “reformer,” I would seriously counsel you to consider whether this is a delusion. The Church should save you and not the other way around. The myth of the Reformation is alive and well – but it did not work then and does not work now. Almost every effort I can think of that is a matter of Church reform resulted in the creation of new denominations that quickly became everything that its founders fought against. Read a little history.

If you are called to a larger stewardship, then be sure you have a good confessor who is not impressed with the magnitude of your responsibilities but instead cares for the very least things in your heart.

We live in frightful and terrible times. In almost all places sin is “ever present at the door.” With the instantaneous character of news, we also all know too much too soon and in such a way that we can emote better than we can pray. Fear the press and the instantaneousness of our news. The fathers said that the devil cannot predict the future – he only seems to because he is fast. Beware the speed of news.

And be aware of the slowness of grace – not only in your own life but in those of all around you. Pray with mercy and act with integrity. What else can we do? We who are but human beings?

Prayer to My Guardian Angel – A Post Revisited

October 3, 2007

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WordPress provides a fair amount of information to its bloggers – it gives you a chance to see some of what works and occasionally why. Then there are mysteries. One of my mysteries is the popularity of this particular post which first went up last January. Since then it has generated over 2800 views – probably more than 5 times the number of any other single post. Interestingly, it is daily listed among my top posts. Recently its viewing is simply growing everyday so that yesterday it had more views on that day than on its first day. I have looked at the listing of “referrals” (more information WordPress gives). I can’t see where the traffic is coming from. I don’t mind it. It’s a nice post. I was reading an article by Ochlophobist today that reminded me of it. So I am reposting it. If any of you have any hints as to why such a post would continue to grow in popularity (without generating comments particularly) I’d love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy. Thanks. 

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O Holy Angel, who stand by my wretched soul and my passionate life: do not abandon me, a sinner, neither depart from me because of my lack of self-control. Leave no room for the evil demon to gain control of me through the violence of this mortal body. Strengthen my weak and feeble hand, and instruct me in the path of salvation. O holy Angel of God, the guardian and protector of my wretched soul and body: forgive all the sorrows I have caused you, every day of my life. If I have sinned in this past night, protect me during this day. Keep me from every adverse temptation, that I may not anger God by any sin. Pray to the Lord for me, that He may establish me in His fear and make me, His servant, worthy of His goodness. Amen.

My wife recently asked me, “Do you know the prayer to the Guardian Angel?” I admitted that I was familiar with the prayer but she said, “No. I mean have you learned it yet?” I admitted I had not (she memorizes things much more easily than I do – that’s my first excuse). But it turned my attention to this simple prayer, and to the remembrance of my guardian angel. In Orthodoxy, by prayer, an angel is specifically assigned to your life as part of the rite of Baptism. I’ve always liked that fact, and known that my angel watches over me.

Many people associate Guardian Angels with “getting out of a close one” or barely avoiding a wreck. While traveling in England this summer, we apparently ran a red light on a roundabout (they rarely have lights on roundabouts so we were unprepared). A car pulled out, and all of us in the car were completely convinced by our eyes that we must have hit this car. By visual report it is impossible that we did not hit this car – but there was no sound. There was a bit of a dirty look and the other car drove on. We got out just a short bit down the road to see if we had been hit or touched in any way. There was no evidence. Part of me wanted to go back and look for feathers, thinking surely that a Guardian Angel had been injured in the event (I don’t think that’s actually possible).

But there is great comfort in thoughts of my Guardian Angel. According the traditional teaching, though, the task of my Guardian Angel is not to make up for my lack in driving skills (although I did not drive in England) but to see me safely to the harbor of salvation. “Safe” is the same thing as “saved,” and that’s not over ’til it’s over.

Another prayer you will find written no where else. It was created by my son when he was four years old (that was almost 16 years ago). He had a small statue of St. Michael the Archangel beside his bed on his nightstand. He liked it so we bought it for him. It was a very manly Michael, with a great and terrible sword drawn, and the devil, stuck beneath one of Michael’s feet, writhing helplessly.

My son’s prayer (still a family favorite):

Dear St. Michael, guard my room.

Don’t let anything eat me or kill me.

Kill it with your sword. Kill it with your sword. Amen.

Now that’s a fine prayer, particularly for a four year-old. I’m not certain what made him think of things that would eat him, but when you’re four, it’s good to cover all possibilities. The prayer worked. He has been safe all these years. The only thing eaten in his room have been several tons of pizza.

I do not really understand the objections that Protestants have to such prayers. I’m told “there is only one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.” Well, of course. But that sense of mediation is a meaning of the word that Christ alone could perform. No angel, no other creature can unite me to God. Only God become man is able to unite man to God.

But we’re talking about prayer, not union, per se. Can someone else pray for me? I hope so and the last time I checked, even Protestants are allowed to pray for me (please do). Can angels pray for me (yes they can and they do). Is it wrong to ask them to do so or thank them for it (certainly not). Can saints in heaven pray for me (the Bible says they do). Is it wrong to ask them (Holy Tradition says it is not). In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man prays to “Father Abraham” to intercede with Lazarus for him. It is of no use in his case, but he was not rebuked for speaking to Abraham. Being told “No,” and being rebuked for even having the conversation are two very different things.

I give thanks to God for the dear fellowship of the saints. For those who pray for me that I have asked, and for the many who have prayed for me that I have known nothing about. I just know that part of the joy of being an Orthodox Christian is the fact that prayer is never a lonely thing. God is the “Lord of Hosts.” He is always surrounded by such a cloud of Angels, saints, etc. He cannot be approached “alone.” This great company of witnesses, as the book of Hebrews calls them, bears witness to my prayers before God, and hopefully improves greatly upon them. They see so much more clearly than I what I see. I see and know so little. Thank God someone is praying who knows. God knows, but it is His delight, in the utter humility of His nature, to share that knowledge and to invite us to pray.

May all the saints in heaven pray for you. May St. Michael pray for you and guard your room. May your Holy Guardian Angel pray for you and the saint whose name you bear. And may you know the great fellowship of heaven even here on earth. They are truly with us.

The Fullness of the Faith

October 2, 2007

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The word “fullness,” is a very Orthodox word, one that is used for theological expression fairly frequently. It is perhaps among my favorites, as any regular reader here can quickly attest. It is a New Testament word, usually applied to Christ or to a sense of the “fullness” of time. But there is a sense that it also carries within Orthodox usage that refers to the Gospel itself. In this usage, fullness refers to the Gospel as a whole, versus some lesser aspect or special point of view of the Gospel. In this sense, the Gospel, in its fullness, cannot be summed up by a single Bible verse (despite the popular appreciation of John 3:16), much less reduced to four spiritual laws.

The fullness of the Gospel, in this sense, is the entirety of salvation history – from beginnig to end. It begins with the creation, extends through the life of Israel, reaches a climax in the Incarnation, mission, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as well as His ascension and the culmination of all things at His second coming. For most Christians, such a panoramic portrayal of the Gospel is simply foreign to experience, or is so truncated (for instance in some Eucharistic prayers) that the fullness becomes too reduced.

I found myself preaching on the topic of the fullness when I was visiting Nicholasville, KY, this past weekend for the Sunday and Monday celebration of the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. I had thought about the feast and planned to preach on Mary’s role in salvation history as an inherent part of its fullness (meaning that you cannot tell the whole story of the gospel without mentioning her). While we were praying Great Vespers, however, my sermon changed. Not its topic – but the illustrations I had in mind.

What happened could have happened in any Orthodox Vespers or Matins of a feast. Orthodox services (particularly those that make up a Vigil (Vespers, Litya, Matins) will almost always find a means of stating the Gospel in its fullness, regardless of the feast that may be celebrated. Part of this is a living demonstration that each feast is about all feasts – or, as I have said elsewhere, everything is Pascha. I will offer a few illustrations of what I saw and heard Sunday evening. These are only three of the “stichera” (verses) sung in the course of the service:

You are like a divinely-planted paradise, Theotokos, the place where the tree of life was watered by the Holy Spirit! We acknowledge that you gave birth to the Creator of all who feeds the faithful with the Bread of Life. Together with the Forerunner, entreat Him on our behalf// and by your precious veil protect your people from all attacks!

Heaven and earth are sanctified, the Church is radiant and all the people celebrate, for behold, the Mother of God enters invisibly with the armies of the angels, the Forerunner and the Theologian, the prophets and the apostles! She prays to Christ for Christians and entreats him to have mercy on this land and people// who glorify the feast of her protection.

You are the beauty of Jacob and the heavenly ladder upon which the Lord came down to earth. These images were manifestations of your honor and glory, Theotokos! Angels in heaven and men on earth call you blessed for you gave birth to the God of all! You pray for all the world,// by your mercy, protecting those who keep your holy feast!

In three short verses, mention or reference is made to:

  • creation and paradise (Genesis);
  • the tree of life (which is also the Cross);
  • watered by the Holy Spirit;
  • the annunciation and incarnation;
  • the Eucharist and hence Christ’s sacrifice (the giver of the Bread of Life);
  • the Forerunner (John the Baptist, greatest of all the prophets);
  • and Mary’s motherly care for the Church.
  • The liberation of heaven and earth (Romans 8);
  • the army of prophets and apostles (the great cloud of witness of Hebrews 12).
  • The dream of Jacob in which he saw a ladder (which is a type of the Theotokos for God comes to earth in her in the incarnation); and etc.

These are typical of every feast in the Church, and but a small sample from the Vigil of that night. But this is the character of Orthodox worship. Whatever event or person is celebrated, the center of the celebration is ultimately the Pascha of Christ, who in Himself, gives meaning to everything around Him. And it seems to have been the joy of Orthodox hymnographers through the ages to see if it were possible to include everything within the course of a feast. Every feast (to use an old jazz term) is a riff on the same theme.

It helps that Orthodoxy is not in a hurry to get through a service. It takes time to celebrate the fullness. But celebrating less leaves us bereft of the revelation God has given us. Why would we want to sing less than everything?