Month: August 2010

“Foundations of the Orthodox Faith” series fully online

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My Foundations of the Orthodox Faith series is now fully online at Ancient Faith Radio. This series represents an attempt at a sort of catechism—approaching the faith from four foundational angles: the revelation of God to man, authority in the spiritual life, worship, and morality.

As with most of my work, I attempted to keep these talks fairly free of religious jargon, approaching the subjects with only a minimum of assumptions shared with the listeners. My hope is that these will be digestible not only to Orthodox Christians, but to other Christians, members of other religions, those who are “spiritual but not religious,” and even unbelievers.

There’s something of a progression here, so skipping ahead is advisable only at your own risk. The progression makes some sense to me: God reveals Himself (1), leading us to ask what we should trust as authoritative (2), propelling us into acts of worship (3) and ethics/morality (4).

Here’s the full series with all the links:

Whatever assumptions you may have, this series is probably not quite what you might be thinking. (But, hey! Maybe it is.)

Discerning the One Thing Needful

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The Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

Holy Dormition, August 15, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Silence… is something that our culture wants to avoid at all costs. Some of us look for it on vacation. But on our way to that vacation, we make sure that we’re well insulated with noise, whether it’s blaring from the car stereo as we drive or plugged into our ears as we sit on the airplane. We may savor a few moments of quiet on a beach or in the woods or on a mountain, but then we eventually need a vacation from our vacation, and we rush back to get plugged in to the culture of noise.

Cellphones, Blackberries, texting, email, Facebook, television, Twitter, radio, laptops, GPS navigators, wi-fi, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iBooks—all of these are devices we employ to prevent being alone with our thoughts. Woe to that stretch of land that is not within sight of a cellphone tower!

We are a generation that has more access to incessant noise than any other in the history of humanity. This major cultural shift has largely taken hold for most of us without much in the way of introspection. And it has all happened rather quickly, too—with the exception of television and radio, all of the things I mentioned before have come into popular availability just within the past twenty-five years, most of them just in the last ten. As a result, many of us easily remember a time when such things were unavailable. And yet how often do we find ourselves saying, “I don’t know how I lived without that”?

Today let’s spend a few moments thinking about attention and how we divide and focus it. The Gospel reading which is appointed for this Great Feast of the Virgin Mary, her Dormition—that is, her falling-asleep and departure from this earthly life—bears within it two different contrasts, and both of them have to do with attention.

In the first, we hear of two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead. Martha is the classic “Type A” personality—she has to be doing something all the time. But Mary her sister just wants to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.

When we hear this familiar account, there is probably some part of us that looks at Mary and says, “Well, that’s boring.” For our culture, Martha is actually the much more attractive figure. After all, she’s doing something! Mary’s just sitting there listening to some guy talk, and it only makes sense that Martha would complain about that. But Jesus, Whose teachings will always be counter-cultural, says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

The Lord does not say to Martha that it is wrong that she be busy and working hard to serve. But clearly her attention is divided, leading her to be “anxious and troubled about many things.” Such a phrase can easily describe our culture, and probably many of us individually: “anxious and troubled about many things.” Jesus says “one thing is needful.”

I often think about the spiritual ramifications of our being anxious and troubled about many things. We are busy, busy people. I’m not really sure what all this busy-ness is supposed to be accomplishing, to be honest, except perhaps to make more money so that we can buy another device or another thing to be maintained to keep us even busier.

In recent years, I’ve noticed something that is both interesting and discouraging: People with more silence in their lives are easier to minister to. The corollary, of course, is that people with less silence are harder to minister to. It’s the ones who are constantly plugged in somewhere and cannot bear to be without some entertainment or distraction at every moment who, when they encounter spiritual experiences don’t offer criticisms but rather just this word: “Whatever.”

“Whatever” seems to be the motto of our age when it comes to what is eternal. Focusing on what will happen to us when we die or how we’re supposed to become holy people or how one succeeds in being in communion with God is not really being criticized any more. It’s just being dismissed as irrelevant. And it is. It is irrelevant to the goal of being always entertained. So many of us—and this often includes me—are so amused at every moment that we just can’t be bothered to see into eternity, to say nothing of our own souls.

It’s easy to see how constant distraction can lead to disaster in the case, for instance, of someone who gets killed in a car accident because he’s fiddling with some device. But what about other distractions and how they harm ourselves and those around us? I just read this week how police recently charged a woman for leaving her two kids in the car in a parking lot while she gambled for six hours in a suburban Philadelphia casino. Her response? “I just lost track of time.” And this is the third case like this from just this summer at that same casino. We as a culture are addicted to distraction.

One of the things that keeps us from realizing the danger that distraction puts us in is a distorted understanding of the spiritual life. We often believe that if we just make sure to “take care of” certain things—getting baptized, going to confession once in a great while, making a contribution, helping out here and there—then we’re all set for eternity. But the spiritual life is not like paying a bill, where you just write a check and mail it and everything’s fine. It’s much more like being married—in marriage, attention is everything. Status is nothing. The ring is meaningless if your attention is everywhere but your spouse.

This was the error expressed in the second part of today’s Gospel reading, where a woman cries out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that Thou didst suck!” She wasn’t wrong, of course, but she seemed to believe that the blessedness of Jesus’ mother was due to her status as His Mother. In other words, Mary’s salvation was assured because of a kind of membership she had in Jesus’ life. But the Lord says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The Virgin Mary was not blessed by virtue of being Christ’s Mother. No, it is because she heard the word of God and kept it. That was what resulted in her becoming His Mother.

Jesus Who made us and therefore knows what really works, calls us to “hear the word of God and keep it.” That is what it means to attend to the “one thing needful.” And doing so is almost impossible in a life where we are always distracted, always busy, always plugged into something.

I’d like to suggest an experiment, most especially for those of you who are most “plugged in” (which includes me). You know who you are. Go for one weekend without any wireless devices, without any television, without any computers, without anything that plays any kind of recordings, without going out somewhere to be entertained. Do this without going on vacation, so that what you get is your normal life but without distractions. Try it and ask yourself what it was like. If you’re really daring, perhaps try it for a week. You can also make a pilgrimage, which is not the same thing as a vacation, because you’re not going to be entertained.

I once mostly did it for a month almost ten years ago, while I was on a pilgrimage alone to holy places in the British Isles, and I’ll be honest that it was at first extremely hard not to have anyone to talk to most of the time—no distractions. Just life. And the wonder of the holiness of God’s creation and the places He has made holy. It changed my outlook on life. It changed my life, and it broke a number of my own addictions to distraction. I still have a lot of work to do. But if you can break even just one, arranging your life so that you are in charge and not your addictions, then perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

Even aside from my own experience, I can tell you that people whose lives are not dominated by the incessant noise of our noisy culture are more likely to see and hear God. He speaks with a “still, small voice.” Are we quiet enough to hear Him?

It doesn’t mean that we have to become Amish in order to be true Christians, but we do have to learn how to set these things aside every so often so that we can hear with undistracted ears what is so clear to those who know how to listen.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


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Jan Hus, inspiration for the founding of the Moravian Church

Some years ago a resident of Emmaus said to the writer in her native dialect [Pennsylvania German], “Heit iss der Hussedaag” (Today is Huss Day). I asked her what that meant. She did not know, but said that they always sowed their turnip seed on that day. Thus did the memory of John Huss, the great pre-Reformation reformer, find a place in our local folklore.

—Preston A. Barba, They Came to Emmaus (1959)

Emmaus residents: Make sure you plant your turnips on July 6, the day Jan Hus was both born and burned at the stake (1373 and 1415, respectively). (Wikipedia claims he was born “ca. 1372″ with no actual date listed. I’m not sure of his source, but I like Barba’s claim that July 6 is also Hus’s birthday.)

The God in the Bread

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The Breaking of Bread at Emmaus

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lammas), August 1, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today, let’s spend some time thinking about bread.

I don’t think we have any British wheat or grain farmers here, but if you were such a person, you would probably be working right around this time of year to bring in the first harvest of grain. As such, there is an ancient English Christian custom, probably not really followed much any more, of baking a first loaf of bread from the flour of that harvest and then bringing it to church to have it blessed.

This custom came to be fixed for celebration on August 1st, and so today is called “Lammas,” which is a compound word formed from the phrase “loaf mass.” There are actually a number of English words formed in this way, such as Michaelmas for the feast of the Archangel Michael in November or Candlemas for the feast of Christ’s presentation in February, when candles are traditionally blessed. But probably the only one most of us are familiar with is Christmas, the feast of Christ’s nativity. Today is Lammas, a day to focus on bread.

Blessing a loaf of bread in church may sound a bit odd to some. What’s so special about bread? But to those who find that odd, it may also be interesting to note that the standard Orthodox prayer books for priests also have prayers to bless not just things like grapes for Transfiguration, flowers for the Dormition, or palms for Palm Sunday, but also for digging wells, for salt, for sowing seed, for barns, for herds and enclosures for cattle, bees, beehives, honey, planting vineyards, stocking fishponds, building boats, ambulances, fire engines, trains, cars and bridges. And that’s just in the abridged volume.

What’s interesting to note about all these blessings is not so much their specialness, but rather their very ordinariness. Many of them have to do with an agrarian farm life that most of us never touch directly, but certainly at least one of them touches us in some way, even if it’s just the blessing for cars or salt.

One of the illnesses of our age is that Christians have removed God out of the ordinary. The essence of secularism is not so much a denial of God or even a rejection of coming to church, but rather the relegation of spiritual things to one compartment of our lives. We can understand easily why God would bless someone’s heart and soul, but it’s perhaps less obvious today why He would bless salt or a loaf of bread.

Yet, if we think about when God touches us in the Church most clearly, it is precisely through objects like this, in the most primal, elemental, basic and foundational stuff of everyday life: Water, wine, oil, bread, cloth, hands, hair, dirt, stone, language, fire, wax, wood. All of these are to be found in the sacramental, mysterious life of the Church, and it is through them that the divine presence is communicated to us. Through these things, we connect to God.

The ancient Celtic Christians, the neighbors of the English, also had prayers for rather ordinary things. Babies were washed by dipping them three times in the water, while saying the Names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—an echo of baptism. There were also prayers for rowing boats, walking, giving birth, and lighting fires. It is so, so very sad that so many of us have lost this sense of God’s presence in the mundane, ordinary moments of life.

One of the things priests sometimes hear in confession is that God feels distant. Being told “blessed are they who believe without seeing” is sometimes not very comforting, because our hearts, whether we know it or not, very much long to see God, to experience Him in a way that we know for certain that He’s there, that He loves us, that He is touching us and connecting with us.

If God feels distant to us, it may be because we have not invited Him to be with us. Our Lord and Savior, in His great love and kindness and compassion, will never force Himself into our lives. He is there just as much as we want Him to be. But how much do we want Him? We have all known people who want something so badly that they will do whatever it takes to get it. Perhaps we have been that person. Perhaps we were training as athletes or academically ambitious or in love. Do we have that same fire for the eternal love of God?

The star athlete will tell you that he did not go from being a flabby weakling to an all-star overnight. He worked at it, doing what he could, taking it slow, then gradually building up to an intense, driving training in his sport. Spiritual life is the same. If we want God to be present for us in the extraordinary moments, we need to invite Him into the ordinary ones.

So we begin again with bread. Of all the physical things that the Church makes use of in her life, there are two which are at the very center of what it means to be Christians in communion with our God—wine and bread. Since today is Lammas, let’s talk about bread.

With the exception of God’s gift of manna to the Hebrew people in the wilderness and moments such as the miraculous feeding of the Prophet Elias, bread is always the result of the work of human persons. It is baked in an oven, tended by a baker, who has formed the bread out of flour, salt, water and yeast. And the flour is from wheat, which is harvested by people. The salt is distilled from the sea or dug out of the ground, the water is drawn from its source, and the yeast is collected and propagated. At every stage, human activity is required for there to be bread.

Yet there would be no wheat without God, nor would there be water, salt or yeast. Even the strength and knowledge of the baker find their ultimate source in God, to say nothing of his very existence. And God created the physical laws according to which the matter of the universe normally operates. So it is clear that at every stage of its development, divine activity is required for there to be bread.

These two observations, that there would be no bread without man and that there would be no bread without God, are an indication of what in Orthodox theology is called synergy, the working of God and man together. Far from solely being our Creator and our Lord, God also joins us as our co-worker, standing next to us in the most basic and ordinary moments and tasks of life. If we consider bread in particular even more deeply, it is not only something that we make together with God. It is our nourishment. Nearly every diet in every culture in the world includes bread in some form. Even the most meager of diets—bread and water—includes bread. Bread goes to the very heart of human life.

It is therefore no coincidence that when the Lord chose the means to make His Body available to us as food, as the divine Eucharist, He chose to do it through bread. Let us consider for the moment therefore the holy and divine Eucharist we are about to receive. It was made with the hands and the knowledge of a baker, and at the same time, it is the fruit of the divine Energy of God in His creation. And it is this ordinary product, which comes from the ground, from the water, from the air, and from seed, which is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in synergy with the prayers of the holy people of God, the royal nation of priests which is the Church—this is what now holds the awesome mystery of the wholeness of the Godhead within itself.

Christian life truly is so very intimate. Its power is that it spiritually intertwines the uncreated God with the created world. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the most basic, fundamental, everyday things become for us the vehicles for the communication of what is truly beyond our ability to describe it. So consider therefore, when the blessed Chalice comes forth from the altar this morning, that contained within it, in a great mystery, is God Himself. And that is what you will be eating.

How can we not stand in awe at the God Who touches the ordinary to make it holy, Who lifts up broken, messed-up people to become saints? Let us therefore remember at all times to invite Him not just into the high point of our week—Sunday morning—but into every little moment.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.