Archive for November, 2009

Why We Fast

November 13, 2009

This Sunday, November 15, marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast (40 days before Christmas). The following article offers some thoughts on the purpose of fasting.

Russian_PeasantFasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. It is as though they were Jews who heard there was such a thing as kosher and decided to make up the rules for what to eat and what not to eat because no one knew what was actually kosher.

There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to almost meaningless self-sacrifice.

I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness.

But these are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything.

And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients – I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death – that is – they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who, having become anorexic, were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.

Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.

A Relationship With God?

November 10, 2009

IMG_0625What is the nature of a relationship with God? It is commonplace in our modern parlance to speak of a “personal relationship” which is either redundant, or a way of weakening the true meaning of “personal.” I suspect that the modern meaning of “relationship” is in fact not capable of bearing the true weight of theological meaning and is simply a shallow way of speaking about the Christian faith. What Scripture invites us into is communion with God. I have written on this topic previously, addressing the substitution of the word “fellowship” for communion. I have offered a new reflection here as well as appended two articles on the topic from my previous writings. They seem quite on topic. One could substitute “relationship” for “fellowship” and the articles would work in that way as well. God has offered so much to us – it is a pity if we allow language to lessen the magnificence of that gift.

To Be “Born Again”

This morning I received a small comment (deleted) that is not uncommon. Someone will have read an article on the blog and posted the question: “Yes, but have you been born again?” I know that the thought is well-meant, someone wondering if I am “saved” (according the understanding of some evangelical Christians). However well-meant such postings may be, they are ill-informed.

There is an assumption among a number of Protestant Christians that to be “born-again” is the equivalent of a particular decision (which the Orthodox would term “repentance”) at a particular time in which we repent of our sins and ask Jesus to be the Savior of our life. Repentance is indeed Biblical, as is the phrase “born-again.” However the conflation of the two, in which a particular response at a particular time (always and necessarily at the “age of accountability” or later) is equated with the “born again” in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. That conflation is of very recent vintage, a Biblical interpretation dating back to the origins of the Evangelical Movement a few hundred years back. That is to say – it is a novel idea – not an item of Christian revelation.

There is nothing within the actual text of Scripture that requires such an interpretation. Indeed, Christ’s use of the phrase in St. John’s gospel, makes specific connection with “water and the Spirit.” The traditional interpretation of the phrase “born-again” has in fact always been to equate it with Holy Baptism.  St. Peter’s reference to being “born again” (1 Peter 1:3-5) where it is written that God . . . “has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . .” is another reference to Baptism – for it is specifically in Baptism, St. Paul tells us (Romans 6:4-6), that we are united to Christ’s resurrection. This is the faith of the Orthodox.

However, such a belief carries within it an understanding that Holy Baptism is more than a “mere symbol” or an “empty ritual.” It is the means given to us by Christ through which we are united with Him. It is also the understanding of the Church that the gift given to us in Holy Baptism should be continually received by us in the life of faith. But being “born again” is not to be reduced to a “spiritual transaction.”

At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be in relation to God. How is it that we are saved? What is the goal and purpose of the Christian life? Some versions of modern Christian thought have offered radical departures from classical Christian teaching – making salvation external to our life (in various forensic models) – or grounded in various transactional accounts (with emphases on our ‘decision’ for Christ).

Salvation is union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. It transcends the will though it includes the will. It transcends the will just as the will is not the ultimate seat of our personhood. It includes the will just as the will is an important aspect of our existence. Those who have exalted the role of ‘decision’ in our salvation have also unwittingly diminished the personhood of those in whom the will is diminished (the unborn, the mentally impaired, etc.). The exaltation of the will, it would seem, is a by-product of a culture in which the most important role of human beings is as consumers. Salvation in Christ is not a product for our consumption. It cannot be marketed or reduced to something grasped by the will.

Who can give a true account of the mystery of grace that brought him to Christ? I appreciate St. Paul’s brief summary of his conversion:

But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace to reveal His son in me… (Galatians 1:15)

It is a wonderfully elegant version of all that transpired in his life – including his encounter on the road to Damascus. What was filled in Baptism in Damascus began “when God…separated me from my mother’s womb” (and surely while he was within the womb). We do well to give thanks to God for the mystery of our salvation. We also do well to avoid modern reductionist accounts of salvation – they are insufficient for the fullness of the faith.

Is “Fellowship” with God Possible?

Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

What Does It Mean to have Communion with God?

I am sure that the title of this section seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. I noted in the section above that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in ourontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

St. Nektarios of Aegina Sings (or wrote hymns)

November 9, 2009

Today is the feast day of St. Nektarios of Aegina, whose hymn “O Virgin Pure,” is among the most popular modern hymns in the Orthodox Church. Here it is sung by monks of Valaam Monastery (in Russian). An English translation follows. Saints sing.

O Virgin Pure

by St. Nectarios
Plagal First Tone (Tone 5)

Refrain: Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

O Virgin pure, immaculate/ O Lady Theotokos
O Virgin Mother, Queen of all/ and fleece which is all dewy
More radiant than the rays of sun/ and higher than the heavens
Delight of virgin choruses/ superior to Angels.
Much brighter than the firmament/ and purer than the sun’s light
More holy than the multitude/ of all the heav’nly armies.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

O Ever Virgin Mary/ of all the world, the Lady
O bride all pure, immaculate/ O Lady Panagia
O Mary bride and Queen of all/ our cause of jubilation
Majestic maiden, Queen of all/ O our most holy Mother
More hon’rable than Cherubim/ beyond compare more glorious
than immaterial Seraphim/ and greater than angelic thrones.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

Rejoice, O song of Cherubim/ Rejoice, O hymn of angels
Rejoice, O ode of Seraphim/ the joy of the archangels
Rejoice, O peace and happiness/ the harbor of salvation
O sacred chamber of the Word/ flow’r of incorruption
Rejoice, delightful paradise/ of blessed life eternal
Rejoice, O wood and tree of life/ the fount of immortality.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

I supplicate you, Lady/ now do I call upon you
And I beseech you, Queen of all/ I beg of you your favor
Majestic maiden, spotless one/ O Lady Panagia
I call upon you fervently/ O sacred, hallowed temple
Assist me and deliver me/ protect me from the enemy
And make me an inheritor/ of blessed life eternal.

Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!

Why Does God Sing?

November 9, 2009

I wrote this piece last Spring. The thought of God singing is among my favorite meditations. Yesterday was the feast of the Holy Angels on the Orthodox Calendar – who themselves sing with unceasing praise. Today I celebrate a birthday (not one of the “big ones”) and my treat for myself is to reprint these thoughts on the song of heaven.

200px-Bouguereau_The_Virgin_With_AngelsWhy would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. This past autumn I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September [2008]. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else.

Talking Theology

November 7, 2009

SuperStock_990-2182I learned during years of theological study that it is possible to give a “theological account” of almost anything and even make it sound cogent. Of course everything that sounds cogent is not necessarily true. In my morning paper I read the following account from a local Church. It was under the heading, “Cafe Worship”:

Cafe Worship is an interactive church service designed to engage all five senses. Instead of pews, congregants sit at round tables and interrelate through various exercises created to encourage deeper spiritual awareness. “Sometimes we forget that prayer can be more than just words”….”Prayer can be song, or it can be moving our bodies in an attitude of prayer. If you feel like you’re lacking in the ‘ability to move’ department, you can sing. If you feel like you’re lacking in the singing department, you can move. If you feel like you’re lacking in all of those departments, you can listen. Listening is also prayer”….At Cafe Worship, you’re still having a real worship service”…”but…you’re going to feel bread, and drink coffee, and look across the table into other people’s faces as people of God. It’s funny how intimate that is, to actually look someone in the eyes.”

The idea of Cafe Worship came as a response…to be inclusive toward all people.

If you’re going to have an open and inclusive theology or version of Christianity, you want your worship service to be open and inclusive as well…”

Of course, it is easy from an Orthodox perspective to view such theological accounts and worship arrangements from a self-satisfied distance. I believe myself to be fortunate that there are no ‘worship decisions’ to be made on a Sunday morning. The liturgy is the liturgy. But distractions abound – particularly within our own minds. We are all frequent customers of the “Cafe of the Mind,” in which we can judge others and generally distract ourselves either with our dissatisfaction with the past or our anxieties for the future. I could probably find a way to theologically describe such anger and worry as “worship” but it would not make it so.

Worship is communion with God in which we offer to Him all that we are and have. It is the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

On the other hand, we live in a very broken world. For most of the modern world, inherited traditions have disintegrated and those who seek God are left with no marked trails for the journey. The journey is made all the more difficult by the fact that one finds so few authentic Christians along the way. I cannot judge the lost – only myself for being less than authentic.

I Don’t Know About That

November 5, 2009

DSCF0620A hermit advised, “If someone speaks to you about a controversy, do not argue with him. If what he says makes sense, say, ‘Yes,’ If his comments are misguided, say, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ If you refuse to dispute with his ideas, your mind will be at peace.”

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There is an element of this story which makes many want to cry out, “Yes, but!” It is a story similar to Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek.” And like the instruction to give the cheek – this suggestion of ‘I don’t know anything about that,’ feels like a guaranteed way to allow those who have false ideas to win. And the anxiety it creates, I believe, is the same anxiety. To a degree it is the anxiety of ‘Christian atheism.’

We have an option: either we believe that God is alive and working for our salvation or we believe that God, though alive, is removed from our lives and that we must do all in our power to advance His cause (for it seems He will do little of that Himself).

I am overstating the option on purpose. The second option is overstated to the point of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. An anxiety besets us in which we feel that the success or failure of the truth of the faith is dependent upon our actions. We can cite very active saints such as St. Athanasius who tirelessly sought to defend the Orthodox faith and to counter the arguments of the heretic Arius. Or we can even think of St. Nicholas of Myra (today known as ‘Santa Claus’) who at the Council of Nicaea even smote Arius on the cheek for his impious statements (St. Nicholas was disciplined for this but restored at the miraculous intercession of the Mother of God.

I should therefore state that I believe some are called to be like St. Athanasius and some are perhaps even to be like St. Nicholas. But Athanasius is known for his lonely persecutions and exiles – which things we should seek to imitate if we plan to take up his great defenses as well. And St. Nicholas was known primarily for his wonder-working miracles and his extreme charity towards children and even towards convicted felons. Such extreme charity should also mark our lives if we feel called to follow in the apologetic footprints of the kindly saint.

But for many, I fear, it is neither saint that is the model for their vigorous defense of the faith, but rather a certain anxiety, that heresy and ideas opposed to the Orthodox faith will somehow go uncorrected. It is here that we must stop and ask ourselves, “Is the Orthodox faith a set of ideas or a divine reality?” If it is a set of ideas then we’d better get our arguments together and do it soon.

Christ himself said, “…if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…” But His kingdom is not of this world – it is not among the things that are passing away. It is that which is coming and it will never pass away. Many accompanying aspects of the Kingdom have come and gone and come and gone (I think of the outward trappings of empire and the like). Those things which have come and gone are of this world and should be of no concern to us.

The ability to remain silent even in the face of an invitation to argue is not weakness, but confidence in the truth.

My father-in-law, a wonderful man of God, often met my many arguments with, “Well…I don’t know about that.” It was frustrating for me but also a great learning over time.

The faith has never failed because we lacked good arguments and the will to carry them forward. The faith has failed at points because we failed to believe it. If the Orthodox faith flourishes in this world, at this time, it will be because it flourishes in the lives of those who have embraced it.

We live in a 24/7 news cycle – marked mostly by talking-heads and interminable arguments. Does anyone actually believe that another argument, even when brought by a Christian, will matter?

An argument won’t matter. But a Christian will – precisely because an authentic Christian is so hard to find.

Wrong Turns and the Providence of God

November 2, 2009

Southwest Trip 317The following is, in part, a response to a comment posted earlier today. It seemed worth sharing more prominently, since not everyone reads comments.

These are some thoughts on the Providence of God and its work in our lives.

I think there is absolutely such a thing as Providence (not that we have much of a clue as to what God’s plan is in our life). Rather Providence is the trust that our lives are in the hand of a good God who is working all things together for our salvation (even when we sin and take a wrong turn). There is a common understanding of Providence, common in our culture, that would tend to see only one highway for our life [God’s plan] and that would argue that wrong decisions can only be corrected by returning to the previous point and starting over. Thus when we take a wrong turn – we must go back and correct it and get back on the previous route.

This reminds me of the GPS unit in my car which occasionally, having run out of “on-the-map” solutions, says, “If possible make a U-turn!”

There is another understanding of Providence, more common in the Eastern Fathers, in which God’s work in our lives is seen as far more creative. There is not one route, but one destination. Thus if we make a wrong turn, God is quite capable of continuing to bring us to union with Him. The problem is not that of a route, but of our heart.

Repentance is not the correction of the path in our life (which would tend to make history utterly immutable and the real “god” in our life). Repentance is having a heart with which God can do something. The best example I can think of in this is King David, whom the Scriptures describe as a “man after God’s own heart.” Of course, he was also complicit in the death of Uriah the Hittite whose wife he had taken in an adulterous affair. Murder and adultery are clearly quite wrong. However, when the Prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, he did not seek to defend or excuse himself. I’ve often thought that he could have argued that he wasn’t directly reponsible for Uriah’s death, etc. Instead, David is a man after God’s own heart. Faced with his sin he repents – in sackcloth and ashes – in fasting and prayer. And he finds mercy from God (though a difficult mercy). Later a child from that union would be in the line of the Messiah. Such is God’s Provident mercy. We cannot say that God willed for David to murder or commit adultery.

Providence is the mercy of God displayed in history. It redeems history – gathering the whole of it into the renewal and recreation of the world in His glorious resurrection. If you choose wrong – choose God. Even history is redeemed by Him.

I was tortured for a number of years over several decisions in my life that, like many decisions, were irrevocable and seemed wrong in retrospect. The adversary tormented me and I found it depressing. Coming to understand God’s Providence in the manner I’ve described has allowed me to bless God and give thanks to Him for all things (including my wrong decisions – for by His mercy even these things have been used to His glory and for my salvation). I would not be where I am, doing what I do, etc., except for those wrong decisions. But I do not see my present circumstance as a result of wrong decisions, but the result of God’s mercy which has redeemed all things. He is the “glory and the lifter of my head.”

And so we can truly say, “Glory to God for all things!”

Learning to Sin

November 2, 2009

IMG_0759This morning I had a chance in a conversation to remember Stanley Hauerwas with whom I studied in my time at Duke in the late 80’s (and early 90’s). This article begins with a reflection from a Hauerwas contention: “that sin is something you have to learn.” It is typical of his thought – startling statements that beg a question – followed by a frequently new insight. The insight of this piece is not new (at least to my regular readers) but will, I hope, be worth the read.

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As strange as it sounds – human beings have to “learn to sin.” Not that we need any help doing the things that sinners do – all of that comes quite easily to us. But we have to learn that we are sinners – and this does not come easily to us.

Oddly, I first heard this when listening to one of Stanley Hauerwas’ lectures at Duke. “You have to teach someone to be a sinner,” was his statement. What he meant by that is that the Christian understanding of sin is not something we are born with. We have to be taught to understand the human predicament and the precise character of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Depending on how you define the problem, the answer will come out differently. Another way of saying this would be: sin is the question to which Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer. To a great extent, it is likely that the disciples did not understand the teachings of Christ because they did not see death and resurrection as an answer to any of their problems. Indeed, though death is seen as problematic on occasion in the Old Testament, it is not always seen as the over-arching issue. If someone could live to a ripe old age and “be gathered to his fathers,” then it doesn’t sound like the writer saw this as an existential crisis.

Christ not only reveals Himself as the answer to our problem, but defines the problem as well.

In our modern world, the success of preaching the gospel may often depend upon whether anyone thinks he needs such a gospel. In a “culture of death,” is a resurrected Messiah such good news?

From the Church’s perspective, the very fact that our culture has become a “culture of death, ” a place where death can be seen as friendly, a welcome end to otherwise meaningless suffering, is tragic indeed. Some of the “extreme” character of things today (sports, etc.) has a way of taunting death and mocking it as though it were not a problem. I can recall conversations of my teen years (not particularly great moments in my life) when no one in the room seemed to think living past 30 was such a great idea. The death of contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, et al., were seen as tragic only in the sense that there would be no new albums coming from those sources.

Strangely, it was reading history that first taught me to “sin.” I finished high school and announced that I was not going to college (what was the use?). Long story short, I wound up living in a commune (actually a Christian commune) which included among its members a number of young college intellectuals (if you can say that without laughing too hard). But they were the first people I had ever met who actually read history and had a thought or two on the subject.

It was reading the stretch of Western Civilization and realizing that it was, in fact, headed for destruction, that first awakened the despair of sin within my consciousness. If that sounds too intellectual, forgive me. It wasn’t that “heady” an issue. It was simply waking up and realizing that the things around me were the bits and pieces left over from a train wreck and not the “modern world,” that overwhelmed me. It was not so much my own personal death that awakened this sense of loss, but the fact that in the midst of the death of a culture, a single life could have so little meaning and purpose.

That “the wages of sin is death,” made sense – but not the sense that “if you do something wrong you’ll die.” Rather something much larger. I can recall reading Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” as if I’d never heard the ideas before:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

By this time the poem has almost passed into cliche. But it remains prescient. Thirty some-odd years later the center holds less and less and the shape of the beast that slouches seems far more clear – on many levels. For myself, I feel ever more profoundly the sinner, dwelling in the midst of sinners, and the beast threatens to swallow us all.

Thus it is that I love the Savior who enters the belly of that beast and brings us all safe again to some paradisiacle shore. It is not the footsteps of something slouching I hear, but the approaching sound of victory, trampling down death by death.

Doubtless there are many other ways to present the gospel – Christ is the Savior and the Savior of us all – and not just a gloomy historian. But to know He saves is also to know, at least in part, from what it is we are saved.