A Stranger in a Strange Land

The Old Testament has a very discernible type within its stories: that of the stranger in a strange land. Joseph the patriarch is such a character in Egypt. Daniel is such a character in Babylon as are the Three Young Men. To a degree, Jacob is such a character in the house of his father-in-law. In each of these cases the stranger is seen to be faithful to God despite many incentives to do otherwise. He is also seen as uniquely blessed by God, and those around him, who are kind to him, are uniquely blessed as well.

These strangers, are a type of Christ, who is the qentissential Stranger within the strange land. Though he came to his own, his own received him not – the sin of man had rendered our planet “strange” to God. And yet he is faithful at every moment to his Father, and those around him find themselves blessed (in the New Testament measure of the Cross). Lazarus is raised from the dead; others receive children and servants raised from the dead; the blind see, the lame walk, etc.

Today Christians, particularly Orthodox Christians in the West, are strangers in a strange land. We say we are “Orthodox” and others, even other Christians, look at us with puzzlement. “Jew?” they ask. Byzantium is barely mentioned in American textbooks. And Russia only comes under discussion as an adversary. The rich culture of Byzantium and Eastern Europe, the resiliency of Orthodox Christians under persecution is a story not told in this strange land.

We live in a land of automobiles in which commuting to grocery stores and Church are commonplace. In a faith which seems to have been designed to exist best in a small village, Orthodox are turned into American religious commuters. Some of my parishioners come from 75 or more miles away.

Of course, the commuting Christian is a world away from normative Orthodoxy, and brings pressures to make of the parish little more than an Orthodox version of the commuting Protestant world. Our traditionally long services are hard for those commuting. The cycle of services frequently are shortened or changed in order to accommodate the American way of life. And yet the American way of life is only designed to make us consumers – not the image of the living Christ.

How do we live as faithful, Orthodox Christians in a strange land?

There is a Biblical model for this – it is not the first time we have met such trials.

First, we must remember Zion – that is, we must remember what the Church is and how it is when it is not in this strange land. We must not forget “where we came from” (even for us converts who came from consuming America – we must remember the shape and life of an Orthodox parish we never knew).

Daniel, estranged from the normative life of a Jew in Jerusalem, became a faithful Jew in Babylon. Like his friends, the Three Young Men, he faithfully turned his face to Jerusalem and prayed three times a day. In like manner, even 75 miles from our parish, we must turn our faces to the East, stand before our icons and pray. We must do this faithfully, particularly because the land outside is strange.

That and many other things that belong to the Orthodox home are utterly essential in this strange land. St. John Chrysostom describes the home as a “little Church.” And, interestingly, our homes are not a commute away from where we live. At the same time, parishes need to provide more material in guiding people in keeping a “little church” in the home. We need help.

Since we have the freedom to travel to the Church – we may need to budget to be there (especially in our present oil crisis). But attending the cycle of services – particularly surrounding the major feasts is important. We should pay as much attention to these days as we do to scrambling for the prime vacation days. We are strangers in a strange land, and we must assemble ourselves together as Church often. There we are fed by grace and manifest who and what we are to an even greater extent by the goodness of God.

God honored Daniel, the Three Young Men, Jacob and Joseph. He will honor us as well as we struggle to remain faithful strangers. We must, however, recognize the nature of our situation and not suggest that since the Church lives in Babylon it must do as the Babylonians do. I would gladly argue that this would be our worst mistake. Orthodoxy has a life that bears a shape, formed in a crucible, that we should not lightly change in the culture we now find ourselves in.

None of this is to suggest that the Church should not speak English or exist as an ethnic enclave. These matters are not inherently Orthodox. We do, however, need to practice patience in such things.

It is not unlike God to place someone as a stranger in a strange land. He has done it before. Thus we should not be frustrated with His providence but trust that we were born for such a time as this.

We would do well to ask the intercessions of the faithful strangers. They will hear and intercede, as will the many thousands of martyrs of the 20th century who offered themselves to God in order to remain faithful.

May the faithful God keep us faithful and strengthen us precisely where we need strength.

18 Responses to “A Stranger in a Strange Land”

  1. Brantley Thomas Says:

    Thanks, Father, for this post.

    I think that the “commuter parish” phenomenon is probably woefully common. It’s my belief that this is spiritually destructive because it removes the communal atmosphere that was the hallmark of the early Church (and of Orthodoxy too, up until very recently in history). (However, there is a couple in my parish that has driven 50+ miles for 17+ years now, if I recall correctly….surely this is to God’s glory.)

    I’d be curious to know how Russia is dealing with this issue, now that the larger cities have a “middle-class” (who almost universally want to have the affluence that a large city brings, but who don’t want to live in the city). I suppose it’s probably not as big of a problem simply from the sheer number of Orthodox churches that are open.

  2. Bill M Says:

    The “commuter parish” is not just an Orthodox problem – though as you have pointed out, it is one that bears extra weight due to the cultural and liturgical issues you discuss.

    There was a time in America – though perhaps more common in stereotype than in reality – when Christians of whatever heritage worshiped at a gathering point close to home. The tiny small towns had one, maybe two church buildings – and everyone who worshiped, went there. It was also the center of town activity – ice cream socials, committee meetings, community events. In the city neighborhoods, where ethnic populations gathered into communities, there was the parish everyone walked to, and again, it was the center of activity. The picture was probably much more complex than this, but it is true enough that the stereotype developed.

    Now the church is not the center of activity – it is another consumer option. In my small city of 20,000, we drive past 8 or 10 church buildings of various kinds, on our way to our worship on the South side. As we drive, we pass other worshipers leaving the neighborhood of our church building to commute to their church flavor on the North side.

    On one road I travel on my commute to work, I pass three church buildings – two beside each other, and one across the road from the other two. Serbian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, and another EO (without ethnic designation on its sign). Yet, there is not a huge population in that immediate area, so I suspect that all three are “commuter” churches.

    Your comments about the home being the “little church” are part of the answer to this. But I wonder what the long-term negative impact will be.

    You sure tackle some tough issues here!…🙂

    (PS -> Thanks again for your generous and gentle spirit with those of us who are outside the Orthodox fold.)

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    It is surely the case that God has placed us here – thus we must bless and be thankful for His providence. It is for us to be faithful, and accept the difficulties given to us. It’s not like we’re in prison or something. But it is a small suffering to be borne. But we must bear it like Orthodox Christians, and not become Babylonians.

  4. Katrina Says:

    This “strange-ness” is always most acutely felt by me on Bright Monday. That uncontainable joy wants to share itself with others, yet there is no one in my immediate vicinity who wants to share it with me (other than my sweet children). It is very strange that on this bright day of rejoicing I always feel a bit of sorrow in this fact. This year was a little different however. After I dropped my daughter off at school, I happened to see a former neighbor who is Orthodox. We drove by each other and I could see the Paschal Joy on his face and I yelled “Christ is Risen!” out the window as we were passing! I suddenly did not feel so strange anymore.

    Additionally, coming here and reading the posts and watching that beautiful YouTube video also makes the strange-ness fade.

    As you mentioned Father Stephen, being a stranger in a strange land is not a new thing. I recently read a book called “Hunky”. It is the immigration story of all of us who trace our ancestry to Eastern Europe, particularly the Carpathian Mountain areas. These poor people were
    constantly being subjected to new governments, rulers etc. In fact to this day it very hard to say exactly what country they belonged to. Sometimes Poland, sometimes part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, current day maybe you would say the Ukraine. Sadly, regardless of who ruled their land, because they were very simple and mostly illiterate they were always treated as the lowest class citizens. They were constantly “strangers” with no country to really call their own, and no government to look after them. HOWEVER, the best quote in the whole book was that despite these persecutions “their only allegiance was to Christ.” That was all that mattered. Even when many were forced to become Eastern Rite Catholics, they believed that their allegiance was not to the Pope but to Christ alone. They lived simply and they knew where their true allegiance should be. If my ancestors lived like strangers in a strange land, then so can I. Perhaps it is a suffering to be borne, but one to be borne with joy.

    Christ is Risen!

    P.S. Today we remember St. Alexis Toth who was instrumental in bringing many of those Eastern Rite Catholics back to the Orthodoxy of their ancestors! Pray for us Father Alexis!

  5. Phil Says:

    This post is particularly apposite, especially to those of us with non-Orthodox families (I am not yet Orthodox, but, hopefully, the point stands). I especially appreciate Katrina’s comment about coming to Bright Week with the entirety of the rest of the local world seeing Easter in the far distance of its rear-view mirror.

    What other things are there that belong to the Orthodox home? That would be an interesting subject, perhaps for another day.

  6. nancy Says:

    Indeed, so many of us are strangers in this strange land. Since I became Orthodox ten years ago, I have commuted to Church, first a mere thirty miles, and now about 100 miles one way to a wonderful Church which has managed to keep its sense of community, even though it is located in a large city. I regret that I’m not able to partake of many of the daily services, but I try hard to get there as often as possible, and I thank God for this lively, diverse, pan-Orthodox parish.

    But, coming from a small town Protestant background, I know that most of my friends have no understanding of the richness of the Orthodox Tradition. At first, I wanted to shout to the world and all of them about this treasure I had discovered, but those whom I tried to introduce to the Faith, were “put off” by our long Liturgy, those strange looking icons, music they had not heard before, and, probably, the ethnicity they witnessed in our Parish. More than once, I have been asked if I had become an Orthodox jew. But no matter. For me my discovery of Orthodoxy was the difference between white bread, and a full bodied homemade brown bread. We “strangers” are often a stranger in a strange land, but thank God, we have found a home in the True Faith.

  7. neil Says:

    Today, I feel like a stranger in a strange land, but oddly, a land that I used to feel much more a part of. I had an email exchange with a friend who is a Protestant minister, as well as a feminist of sorts. I sent her a link to a Flickr photos set that had pictures of women with icons, thinking she’d be inspired, but she was saddened by it, claiming that patriarchal church was damaging to men and women. As a white american male who is slowly converting to Orthodoxy, I’m a little non-plussed. I don’t have anything to say that would be gently convincing of another point of view. I can only do what I know to do and strive to do it well under the guidance of the Church. I am grateful to have such a foundation to stand on and such a path to follow. This strange land gets stranger the closer I grow towards God, Lord have Mercy.

  8. Hartmut Says:

    Since Christ came as a stranger in a strange world – though he came into his own – and the christans of the first centuries were strangers in their world, so maybe it is the “normal case” for a christian to be a stranger in this world: “in this world but not from this world”. I grew up in an atheist country (East Germany) and it was normal for us christians to be strangers. Now, almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall and living in West Germany, in the “Christian Occident” I, even as I was still evangelic, felt as a stranger. Sometimes here in the west I felt an even stronger animosity or even hostility against christianity as in the former east. But the church was, in the eastern as well as in the western part of Germany as a rule within walking distance frome the home. This is changing now (evangelic and roman catholic parishes are shrinking and therefore they give up church buildings and people have longer distances to their “new” church) and for many orthodox christians it was so all the time.
    I am privileged – or blessed: I have only a five minutes drive to church, but many of my orthodox brothers and sisters in my parish have fare more to drive. And some can’t therefore attend all of the services. This is a problem.
    But strangers are all of us: strangers among our work-mates, strangers among our neigbours, strangers among friends, maybe even in our familys.
    Small is the path that leads to heaven, whereas the path to hell is broad an conveniant. But with the grace of God, I hope, we will overcome. May God grant us to be the salt of this strange world and a light that no one can overlook.

  9. café de soirée Says:

    Looking for the Local Church…

    Slightly in relation to the last post, I want to talk a bit about the notion of the local church. What brings me to mention this is the most recent post from Orthodox priest, Stephen Freeman. I’ve mentioned him a number of times here on this blog, an….

  10. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for taking the time to post this acknowledgement and this encouragement. The acknowledgement of what is the experience of many Orthodox Christians in America currently (and many others around the world). The encouragement to live our Orthodox faith in the home. Above all, thank you for the direction to remember Zion, to remember what the Church is. May God bless all you do!

  11. mattyonke Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    When my family became Byzantine, we lived about twenty miles from our parish, which did, especially with small children, make the rigorous schedule surrounding Holy Days very difficult.

    We are now greatly blessed to live literally across the street from our parish (I’m looking at the Church as I type this) which is the greatest blessing I can imagine. It made Holy Week in particular a joy instead of a burden, even with the challenges of trying to balance naps and feedings and all the viscera of young children with the several services a day.

    I’ve heard stories that in the old days, when everyone lived within walking distance of the Church, people would sort of wander (not exactly the word I’m looking for) in and out of Church as life required during long services. Perhaps leaving to tend to dinner for a few minutes, or things of that nature. It makes the idea of three hours of services seem much more bearable. It also makes me feel less guilty when I have to leave to change a diaper or soothe a crying child. Any truth to those stories?

    Thanks for a great post Father.

    Matt

  12. Mary Says:

    To the denominational mind, traveling a 100 plus miles one way to find Pravoslavie, Right Glory, seems unimaginably eccentric when a near-Bible-only-match to every Protestant iteration is always just around the corner. Some immigrant Orthodox gave way to that availability and so their children and grandchildren were reared Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodist. Cut off from the Church, they still find their way home, rejoicing. Thanks to faithful missionary Bishops like St. Raphael Haweeny, who traveled from New England across the great expanse of America, seeking his scattered flock, churches were planted from Kansas and Nebraska to Mexico.

    St. Raphael, pray for your children in this strange land, which knows not Joseph!

  13. Adam Says:

    While living in Costa Rica I noticed the many churches throughout the larger cities. Most people were no more than 5 blocks from the nearest church. While today there is not a need for all the space because of decline in worship, it is amazing to think that at one time all the churches were necessary so everyone would have a place to sit.

    I too commute an hour to make it to church. But, the drive gives me time to reflect on the week and think about the upcoming experience. I find it a good time to sing the hymns appointed on the way back home. It sure helps to keep the joy alive!

    ¡Cristo ha resucitado!

  14. Robert Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Well I should consider this article an answer to the question I posed in reponse to the Serge Schmemann article. (or perhaps we are thinking the same things? – hopefully it is not the Borg speaking LOL) Be it as it may, if you will check my question there and understand that while reading the letter of Schmemann’s relative in prison it came to my mind. The letter so beautifully pictured in words the Russian landscape during springtide. Then it dawned on me: that era is gone! No more small village, no more walking to church, no more bonds of proximity and necessity.

    Now you say: “At the same time, parishes need to provide more material in guiding people in keeping a “little church” in the home. We need help”.

    Fr. Stephen would you care to elaborate? How specifically are we to keep a “little church” in our homes? And, how are Orthodox parishes to play a part in bringing this about?

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,

    It would take a much longer job to do this justice. It is normative for Orthodox families to keep daily prayers in the home, as well as the observance of feasts and fasts. This has always been the case, even when the Church was the village Church. It is increasingly important, however, as the village has largely disappeared.

    The parish can help (particularly because of the growing number of converts) by teaching people how to properly keep prayers in the home (how to establish an icon corner, etc.). Provide necessary materials and encouragement. But to recognize especially, that since Orthodoxy is a way of life, its life in the parish must be increasingly supplemented by such home activity. There is much to be discussed in this, and much of it is taking place in many parishes. I simply observe that the “commuter” model of American Christianity must not be treated as acceptable by itself among the Orthodox, but to “extend” the parish and its life in a way that encompasses the whole of our life.

  16. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    I’m blessed by this reminder that I am a stranger and pilgrim. May we keep our eyes on the Great Stranger as we head home. Through Him all things were made, yet the world knew Him not.

  17. The Scylding Says:

    A small aside: Here in Saskatchewan, the term “Orthodox” is normally understood as Ukranian Orthodox, given the large amounts of Ukranian immigrants that arrived here just over 100 years ago. Unfortunately, many of the old churches are now no longer regularly used, but are still fairly well kept. In some areas it is not unusual to see the Orthodox domes sticking out behind some trees, close to the road. I’ve often thought that there are some great photographic oppurtunities ….

  18. Patty Joanna Says:

    Dear Father Stephen, and fellow commentors,

    Christ is Risen!

    My comment relates to the Little Church at Home. I agree that there is a general need for instruction regarding making the Little Church at Home. God in His great mercy has given me a godmother who has been Orthodox for 20 years, and she has given great instruction. Nevertheless, I have more than once considered how to create a situation where my pre-teen son can be sent for a sleep-over with the family, so that, sort of a stealth observer, he can find out what it means to live in an Orthodox home and come back and report to this newly baptised and chrismated family and help us create the Little Church. I think of Caleb, going in to “spy out the land of Canaan” when I consider making this happen.

    Father Stephen, your prayer rule for your church on your website has been part of our formation, as have the instructions of our priest and our godparents. And I know it *could* be taken as a legalism if a booklet on “The Little Church” were produced and taken as LAW. Nevertheless, for strangers in a strange land, some element of instruction is more than needed–it is welcome and hoped for.

    Kind regards,
    Patty Joanna

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