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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

The following is an essay that I wrote several months ago about coming to the Orthodox Church.

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What does it mean to “be a Christian?” American society has some interesting ideas to say the least. To some, being a Christian is synonymous with being abstinent: Christians “don’t smoke, drink, or chew, nor go with girls who do.” To others, being a Christian means aligning yourself a certain strand of politics such as the Moral Majority or the Progressive Left. To a growing number, being a Christian means pursuing biblical scholarship with the intent of purging the Church of historical oppression and making everyone feel welcome whatever his or her personal creed. To another growing movement, being a Christian means to follow Christ as best as one knows how usually using one’s conscience as a guide.

All of these options have some truth in them. However, they fail to address key facets of what it means to find one’s life in Christ. Living is messy business. As we try to be in the world, but not of the world, we are bound to face challenges beyond our individual ability to pray, reason, or adapt. Living in Christ means hiding ourselves in Him (Colossians 3:3). We are called to abide in Him and walk the same way in which He walked (1 John 2:6). We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds that we may know God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Most directly, Christ commands us to be holy as the Father in Heaven is holy (Matthew 5:48). How in the world are we, sinful as we are, going to approach this Christian life by our own merits and doing? The answer lies in a simple truth expressed in Acts 11:26, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

There are four things to notice about this simple truth. Taking them in contextual order, for no reason than that an order must be presented, we see first that we are “in Antioch.” This reflects a geographical location intimately acquainted with the social and cultural framework of the day. Second, we see that there were “disciples.” Let it not go without saying that this word is expressed as a plural, representative of the unity present within the early community. Third, it is in this time and place that we have this “first” event. The necessity of the word “first” expresses that this practice spread beyond this place and time. And finally, we have the word of choice “Christian.” Why did the three elements of place, community, and practice join together to cross the biblical threshold of what it means to be Christian? Moreover, how does the life of the Orthodox Church reflect these three elements throughout history to present day?

To begin, we have a place. The Bible bears witness to Antioch as being a place where a significant number of Greek Gentiles heard the apostolic teachings of Sts. Barnabas and Paul. The inclusion of Gentiles and their customs challenged the early Church particularly when it came to the question of rites of initiation. God addressed this issue by sending Peter to see the Holy Spirit fall upon a group of assembled Gentiles in the same way of the first Pentecost (Acts 11:1-18). The Apostles and elders of the Church gathered to address these issues again (Acts 15:1-29) with the Church together making the decision. Gentiles and their customs where welcome with the noted exception of certain foods and sexual immorality. This establishes a firm precedent within the Church of extending welcome to those outside of her doors while at exactly the same time calling her people to live in holiness according to the Spirit of the Law.

This canonical precedent helps us move beyond Acts 11:26 towards the life of the Church today. The official pronouncement of welcome was not made in Antioch, but in Jerusalem. Moreover, while several bore testimony, it is not Sts. Peter, Barnabas, or Paul but St. James extends this decree. The elders came together as one body and, in good order, made a statement reflecting the life of the Church that allowed it to go beyond the first Jewish disciples. This precedent continued when Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the gospel to the Slavs. The question related to Liturgy and catechetical education. Drawing testimony from the Pentecost where those present were enabled by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of the day (Acts 2:7-11), the Church continued her practice of celebrating Liturgy in the vernacular of the people. Orthodox missiology seeks to identify intrinsic parts of culture that honor God and the places within the culture that point people towards fullness in Christ. However, the Church body as a whole extends the welcome and erects the necessary fence for that culture. This community partnership remains evident even today as the Orthodox Church extends into North America.

Community forms a central part of an Orthodox Christian experience. As noted earlier, “disciples” is expressed deliberately in the plural. The defining mark of those following Christ is the love they have for one another (John 13:35). Tertullian aptly stated, “One Christian is no Christian.” The earliest record of Christian community places apostolic teaching at the forefront (Acts 2:42); in Acts 11, we read that the community is under the instruction of Sts. Barnabas and Paul. This connection with the Apostles is essential because there were many false teachers. Sts. Paul, Peter, John, and James all warn about the teachings of false teachers. Implicit in this statement lay a belief that the new community is safe within the bounds as defined by the Apostles. Here again, the plural is essential. One Apostle on his own could be in error as evidenced when St. Paul confronted St. Peter on his fear regarding eating with Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-14); however, the unity of the Apostolic Tradition, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, empowers believers to this day.

Returning to the text again, the final pronouncement is that of being “first.” The nature of first necessitates that a continuum of second, third, and fourths are able to follow. The community at Antioch was Christ-centered, Apostolically-instructed, and mission-orientated. These communities remain and exist through to this day. The mere presence of the Holy Scriptures and ancient creeds speak to this community. Divinely inspired letters from the Apostles to various Christian communities circulated widely in the Church to provide instruction for life in Christ and were canonized to be the Scriptures we know today. As Christianity grew through the first centuries, the Creed evolved through the first two ecumenical councils to be what we confess today. The words of the earliest believers remain on our lips and permeate our hearts. The witness of the seven Ecumenical Councils guards us as believers today from falling away from the original deposit of faith. Moreover, a cloud of witnesses, faithful men and women throughout the ages who have found their rest in Christ, surrounds us (Hebrews 12).

And with this, we arrive back to the original question: What does it mean to be a Christian? Literally, to be a Christian means to be a “little Christ.” As we look for daily guidance, it is appropriate to turn to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the creed. Today, the Orthodox Church stands as one church, united through the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist. Today, the Orthodox Church remains true to the teaching of the Apostles, standing firm against all heresy and division. Today, the Orthodox Church has spread far beyond the geographical confines of the Middle East to be universal, becoming truly catholic. And today, the Orthodox Church remains true to the teaching of the Apostles.

The key feature of life in Christ through life in His body is to recognize that the only stability exists in the Church as a whole. As individuals, we fail; as a community, God promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We must all strive to become like Christ in every way, laboring together and encouraging each other along. In the Orthodox Church, we find ourselves in a continuum outside of time and space. It cannot be contained in any person, parish, or principality. The call is to follow Christ to be like Him; I am of the firm belief that the Orthodox Church gives the necessary tools for this pilgrimage towards Heaven.

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Shifting Perspectives

Of everything that I am learning about following Christ, one of the hardest lessons is “it is not all about me.”

Orthodoxy has challenged me in this regard to the deepest degree. At first glance, church is not the way I would like it to be. Music is simple singing. Chanting sounds funny. Standing hurts my feet. Sometimes I go and feel like I have wasted time. My friends and family find going to church with me to be boring. Sitting at coffee hour with tables means I talk to people. My present parish has a multitude of small children. During the week activities happen at 0700.

What happened to my contemporary music services with engaging sermons that I could apply to my life? What happened to the small group focus groups where I could choose who in the church I hung out with?

It seems that over the last 18 months, I am learning to die to myself. I am struggling to be remade. I find myself craving for the stories of the Saints to figure out how they managed to die to themselves. I find myself struggling to pray but grateful for all of the reminders that I am not alone. I am coming to grips with the idea that certain things are mysterious, but that does not make them bad.

In short, I am recognizing that it is in my weakness that I experience the most frustration. Yet, as I take steps back, I realize I am on the road of true transformation.

Lord, have mercy.

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To Struggle

If I had to reduce Orthodoxy to one verb, I think I would pick struggle. As Christians, we are called to struggle so that we may be united to God in Christ. Even looking at Christ, we see struggle as a central theme. Christ lived for 33 years in constant obedience to the Father even to the point of the cross. The fervent prayer modeled by Christ brought Him to the point of sweating blood (Luke 22:44).

Most of us do not know this magnitude of struggle although the Saints provide witness. Instead, God calls all of us to struggle against the passions. In many ways, this struggle is the requirement of being an Orthodox Christian. Are you willing to struggle? Do you want to fight the good fight? Do you want a lifestyle of repentance? Thankfully, God bears us in our weakness of body. Both Sts Mark and Matthew record Christ’s words that provide comfort to so many Christians along this journey, “Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38).

Nail our flesh to the fear of You, and do not incline our hearts to words or thoughts of guile. But wound our souls with Your love, that ever looking to You, and guided by You in the light, and beholding You, the Light ineffable and everlasting, we may offer ceaseless praise and thanksgiving to You. A prayer of St Basil the Great from 6th hour.

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Finding the Way

Sometimes, I feel convinced that there has to be an easier way to God than the way prescribed by the Orthodox Church. Prayer, fasting, standing for long services, maintaining my struggle against the passions…these all require endurance. Within my moments of weakness, I find myself wondering, “You know, do I really have to go this way or is God big enough, good enough, graceful enough to understand that I would really rather have some things in my life that I know go against the teachings of the Church?”

To be sure, my struggle against the passions will only intensify as I continue to grow in Christ. After all, I think it’s fair to say that theosis means casting off my nature for His nature. I am not perfect, and it’s strange to think that the goal of my life is to become increasingly aware of my sinfulness so I can become even more aware of my forgiveness. Paradoxically, it is as we see the Saints enter this space, the testimony of their contemporaries bears witness to the Saint’s holiness. The witness of Holy Tradition startles me. Why when someone grows closer to Christ, do they become increasingly aware of their sinfulness as opposed to power of God present in their life? Moreover, why do I long to see the power of God present in my own life?

I recently encountered a quote from Abba Ischyrion that declares that at the Christians of the last times will “not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith will be glorified in heaven more than our Fathers who raised the dead.” Far be it from me to challenge a desert father, but I wonder how Orthodox Christians today have assumed that we are the Christians of the last times. Is not part of keeping the faith believing that God will work through us? Does not the fervent prayer of a righteous person avail much? Do we not have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us? Is not Christ present in every hour of every day? Do we expect little of God because we hope He expects little of us?

And there, in the last question, is the question I need to be asking myself. The expectations of God challenge every fiber in our being. Graciously He establishes His Church to help guide us into every good and perfect gift. The ascetic struggle demands everything that we have, everything than we are, and then still more that can only come from the power of God working within us. As Christ declares, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us remember that Christ invites us along this one path that invites us to find ourselves in Him.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. +

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To be the Church

And I think that it’s fair to call this post a “Part 1” even though I have no idea how many parts there will be.

Within the walls of our local parishes we find a mystical realm. This realm connects us to all who have gone before, are going now, and will come in the future. Simply put, we gather as disciples of Christ, united in the universality of the Eucharist. Our icons remind us of those who have gone before, standing now to encourage us in our efforts.

As it is written, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” We must remember this cloud. We must remember the faithful men and women who have preceded us in the faith. We must realize that they come from every corner of the Earth. We must realize that as much as our community is local, it is truly global, compromised of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

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In thinking about the gifts of the Church, I keep coming back to the Sign of the Cross. How can one gesture say so much?

When I make the Sign of the Cross, what does my hand say?

To begin, my first three fingers come together, joined at the tips: God is 3 in 1. My 4th and 5th fingers rest together on my palm: Christ in His two natures, God and Man, has come to earth. My hand rises to allow the Trinity to touch my head. Yes, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and He cares for me. He calls me out because He created me in His image. Next my hand traces my mid-line, coming to rest well below my heart. I can make this part of the gesture as big as I want to. There is a constant struggle to offer myself fully to God, yet He makes Himself known in my full person. He cares for my heart and my soul. Moreover, Jesus Christ comes down to Earth in the Mystery of the Incarnation, humbling Himself to be born of a handmaiden. Tracing up to my right shoulder and my left, the Sign of the Cross is complete. In many ways, we say a number of prayers simultaneously:

  • Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
  • By the power of Your Cross o Christ, enable me to love the Lord my God with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength.

In no way is the list above to be taken as exhaustive. I absolutely cherish the gifts of this seemingly simple gesture.

Lord I have fled unto thee teach me to do thy will for thou art my God. Taken from the Great Doxology of Matins

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The Two Questions

Occasionally, we see things clearly. We can identify the source of our own strains of thought. These identifications can be useful because they empower us to shift our worldview, however microscopically.

Previously, my Christian life depended largely on advancing my understanding of the Bible. The Bible, I thought, had all of the answers. I hoped that in asking it the right questions, its secrets would be revealed. In addition to reading the Scriptures, I read book after book and listened to sermon after sermon. Each sermon, it seemed, boiled down the Scriptures into various things I could do to manifest the truths of the Bible more fully in my life. Such an experience definitely challenged the way that I live in and think about the world around me. I am most grateful.

That being said, I see that approach of being a bit myopic because it seems to imply that the entirety of God is contained within a book. In focusing exclusively on how to apply these truths within my life by seeking to do the right things, I engaged in a fabulous exercise in missing the point. By looking outwardly, I missed the realm of inner transformation. I certainly pursued inner transformation, but I found myself always advancing an agenda that distanced me from God because I thought I had to do the work myself.

It seems that there is a dance that happens between humanness and the divine. When we understand ourselves, we understand God. When we understand God, we understand ourselves. The fact that we are not God creates a gap between humanness and the divine. Moreover, the only place that humanness fully connects with the divine is found in the God-man Jesus Christ. So then the questions become: Who is God? and Who am I?

The interesting thing about answering the first question–who is God–is that it has no direct answer. Even when we consider the essence of God, we come up short in our understanding. To say God is Love means that we must simultaneously recognize that love goes beyond our every comprehension of love. Our understanding and practice of love is but a pale shadow of the Love of God.

Similarly, the second question–who am I–retains its nature of flux. I am not the same person I was 10 years ago. I’ve morphed and changed. God willing, these changes have increased my ability to reflect Christ.

Therein, the two questions give foundation of the journey of faith. Every other question seems to stem from these two.

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