Month: August 2011

As Lambs Among Wolves

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Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 21, 2011

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

“Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.” These are the words that were heard nearly two thousand years ago by a man named Thaddeus, and they were spoken by the Lord Jesus when He sent out the Seventy Apostles, other disciples of His beyond the Twelve who were commissioned to bring the Gospel to the world.

Thaddeus, whose feast day is today, was originally from the city of Edessa, which is in modern-day Turkey at a place now called Urfa, a bit over four hundred miles north of Jerusalem. Before he met Christ, Thaddeus had come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple there, as he was born a Jew. During his time in that area, he came to hear the preaching of John the Baptist, and like some of the Twelve, became a disciple of John’s and was baptized by him in the Jordan River. In due time, John pointed his disciples to Jesus, and Thaddeus, though not one of the Twelve, was among the many who followed Him and witnessed His teaching and His miracles.

The story of Thaddeus is linked to a curious feast day that we celebrated earlier this week. On the 16th of August, the Church remembers the story of an icon, a very special icon that was not made by human hands. The Church historian Eusebius records a story about Christ that was not included in the Gospels but is nevertheless part of Orthodox tradition. In this account, the king of the city of Edessa, a man named Abgar, sent a message to Jesus to ask Him to come and heal Him of the terrible disease of leprosy.

Jesus responded with a letter, saying that He could not come to Abgar at that time, but that after He had ascended into Heaven, He would send one of His disciples to him to heal him and to preach to him the Gospel. Along with the letter, the Lord sent a piece of cloth. That cloth, the Lord Jesus pressed to His face, and as He pulled it away, it was seen to have left behind an imprint of His countenance. That cloth has come to be known as the “Icon Made Without Hands” or the “Holy Napkin,” and it has served as the prototype for almost all iconography of the face of our Lord. That’s how we know what He looked like. And when King Abgar received the letter and the icon, he was partially healed of his leprosy but waited patiently for the sign he knew would come.

After the Lord’s passion, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, Thaddeus returned home to Edessa, having been told to go there both by Christ Himself and also by the Apostle Thomas, one of the Twelve.

It was not long before Thaddeus became known to the king, who heard of the healing and the preaching he was doing among the people. Perceiving that here was the one whom Jesus had promised him, he asked that Thaddeus come to him. The saint appeared before the king, healed him of the remainder of his leprosy, and preached to him the Gospel. Abgar was converted, and gradually the city of Edessa also listened to the preaching of Thaddeus and turned to faith in Christ and were baptized into the Church. The king even used his own hands to help build a church. Abgar wanted to invade Palestine to punish the Jews for crucifying Jesus, but Thaddeus convinced him that such violence was not becoming of a Christian, and he also insisted that force never be used in the spread of the Gospel.

And so we have the story of a lamb sent out among wolves, of a king converted by seeing the image of Christ on a napkin, healed by the touch of a follower of Jesus, and leading his own people to the knowledge of the true God. As with all accounts from the Scriptures or from the history of the Church, the questions we ask ourselves are, “So what will I now do? How does this apply to me?”

If you try to live the Christian life, even just a little bit, it will become clear to you that you are a lamb among wolves. Sometimes, we even have that experience within our own families, as not everyone in our households or extended relations is actually willing to repent, to humble themselves, and to give their lives over to God.

We also may experience this reality at school or at our jobs, where our Christianity stands out among those who think it’s a joke, those who just don’t care, those who would prefer faith to be reserved only for Sunday morning, those who may actively attack us as we seek to do God’s will and not our own will.

There is a difference between those who are really followers of Jesus and those who are not. Jesus said that His disciples would be known by their love for one another. Jesus’ disciples are known for setting aside their personal ambitions and desires, for doing what God wants them to do, for ordering their lives as God wants them to be ordered, for giving themselves not only to their own families, but to everyone who walks in the door of the church or is outside it, everyone in need, whether they like them or not, whether they are the same color as them or not, whether they’re the same ethnicity or not, whether they share the same temptations to sin as them or not.

Jesus said that, if we are like Him, then the world will hate us, persecute us, and attack us for our faith, because it did the same to Him. And if we’re not getting any resistance against our faith, if it’s easy to be a Christian, then we have to question whether our faith is really there or not. If we look just like the rest of the world, if we blend in just fine with the rest of the world, if we are successful according to the standards of the world, then are we not therefore of the world? He said that the world would hate us and persecute us if we followed Him.

When Christ sent out Thaddeus and the rest of the Seventy Apostles, He told them that He was sending them as “lambs among wolves.” When Jesus was brought the epileptic boy in today’s Gospel and was told of the faithlessness of even His chosen Twelve, His response was, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”

The picture that Jesus paints of the world in which we live is not a nice one. It’s a world of wolves, a world of the faithless and the perverse. Look around you, and you’ll see that it’s still the same. Except instead of the seductions of paganism and the constant pressure to bow to the Roman Empire, we are now faced with other kinds of seductive addictions.

We are being seduced with the addiction to possessions. 2/3 of our economy is dedicated to consumptive spending. Our ongoing economic crisis is a crisis of debt and credit. We as a culture are spending far, far beyond our means, and a lot of that spending is on things we do not need.

We are being seduced by the addiction of pornography and other sexual addictions. Nearly 43% of all Internet users view pornography. More than 1/3 of all Internet traffic is dedicated to downloading porn. 47% of American Christians report that pornography is a major problem in their homes. 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn online. The average age of the first exposure to Internet porn is 11 years old.

And perhaps most perniciously, most subtly, we are being seduced with the addiction to constant busy-ness. At every waking moment, we must be entertained. We must be busy with some extra-curricular activity. We must be on vacation, on the Internet, in front of the TV, playing a game, playing a sport, texting, plugged in, tuned out. Noise. Busy-ness. No time for what is eternal.

O faithless and perverse generation! How long will Christ bear with us? In the midst of all this, He sends us out as lambs among wolves. This world is spiritually very, very dangerous. It is only because addiction has become the “new normal” that so many are oblivious to its siren song of seduction. We are lambs among wolves.

But Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world, as St. Thaddeus heard from John the Baptist so long ago. What will save this world, what will save us, is not that we become wolves, not that we respond to the violence of addiction with more violence and more addiction. What takes away the sin of the world—my sin, your sin—is that we become lambs, following the Lamb, the Lamb Who is mocked, the Lamb Who is hated, the Lamb Who is sacrificed, because on that altar, the very hand of God reaches down, shows us a vision of His holy image, and heals the leprosy of our sins. And we will be changed.

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.

Orthodox History Symposium early registration discount expiring

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I was asked to pass this on. God willing, I’ll be giving a short paper at this symposium about the detachment of the Antiochian parishes from the Russian archdiocese in the 1920s and 30s.

For Immediate Release

Registration Discount for Orthodox Conference at Princeton About to Expire

There are still a few days left to register at the early-bird rate for “Pilgrims and Pioneers: The Growth of Orthodox Christianity in 20th Century America,” a conference taking place at Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary from September 30 to October 1, 2011.

Some of the figures whose lives and ministries will be discussed during the conference include St Tikhon Bellavin, St Raphael Hawaweeny, St Nikolai Velimirovich, St Alexis Toth, Fr Theoclitos Triantafilides, Archbishop Iakovos Koukouzis, Fr Georges Florovsky, Fr Alexander Schmemann, and Fr John Meyendorff.

More information is available on the conference’s website:

Early-bird registration expires on August 15, so please register today—and encourage others to do likewise!

If you have any questions, please contact the Fr Georges Florovsky Orthodox Christian Theological Society of Princeton University at

Why I Can’t Be Your Spiritual Father: A Localist Lament

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Do you really know this man?
As I think probably happens to just about every clergyman who has some sort of media presence (even one so minor as mine), I get requests every so often from folks essentially to do the job that their local pastor should be doing.

Now, it may be that they don’t have a local pastor, perhaps because there is no Orthodox church near them, because they’re not Orthodox yet, or because they’re not committed to a particular parish. It may also be that their priest doesn’t have the time to help them, perhaps because he has a secular job, because he has health problems, because he’s lazy, because he doesn’t like them, or because the bishop has given him other responsibilities. It may also be because they don’t like their priest, because they want more from him than he has to give, because they don’t like their parish, or because they don’t want to commit to someone standing in front of them. It may also be that their priest is uneducated, that he’s overwhelmed, or even that he’s simply unaware of their problem. Maybe they’ve never even approached him.

There are probably many more reasons why people contact clergy they don’t know to try to get from them something that they aren’t getting locally.

If I already have a relationship with such a person, I may offer some advice, but ultimately, I always try to steer them toward the local church. If I don’t have a relationship with them, I may offer brief comments but typically will shy away from them. Here are some reasons why I almost always have to turn down such requests. I list them here not to talk about me, but rather as some things to think about when people are navigating the intersection of their spiritual lives in three dimensions with their virtual lives on the Internet.

    1. I don’t have the time. This is the biggest reason. I have a family and a parish I have to care for, and they require my time. If I began admitting people into my care who are not local to me, I would quickly become overwhelmed with email, phone calls, etc., that would soon destroy my ability to take care of my family and my parish. Most everyone who emails a priest out of the blue probably thinks he’s the only one to do so, but he’s usually not.

    2. I don’t know you. It’s really easy to lie over the Internet, whether intentionally or out of one’s own self-delusion. It’s also very easy to get the wrong impression about someone, because online we only present part of ourselves to our readers. It’s much harder to be fake and distorted with someone standing in front of you. Therefore, I am not qualified to give you spiritual direction over the Internet. I don’t have enough data to give informed advice.

    3. It’s draining for me. If you and I had a real spiritual relationship in person, then it could be sustainable for us both, but long-distance spiritual direction almost always is a one-way affair, and the clergyman can find himself giving and giving, and there is none of the renewal that comes of incarnate relationship. And, just to put it in stark, “earthly” terms, when you call on a clergyman outside your community to do work for you (and it is work), then you are practicing a sort of “spiritual socialism.” He is being supported spiritually and financially by another community, and you’re asking him to serve you without participating in giving to that community.

    4. I am not special. Just because someone writes a weblog or has a nice podcast or a book you liked does not make him an expert in theology, spiritual direction, etc. It also certainly does not mean that he’s holy. I’ve been given the responsibility by God for my family and by the bishop for my parish, and I try to do right by them. But I am no one special. Really. Don’t think that the clergy you see online are elite in any way. We’re not. In fact, you may want to question why a clergyman you see online all the time seems to have time for that kind of thing. Some of us are more “plugged in” than others, but that doesn’t mean we’re supermen. Some are online all the time because they have a lot of time on their hands. Others have just integrated Internet use into their work to a high degree. (See #6 below.)

    5. I do not want control of your life. I know that some people think of spiritual fatherhood in this way, and I think that’s a mistake. Even your local priest should not be treated as some sort of holy elder whose every command must be obeyed. That’s why I don’t like to use the term spiritual father to refer to myself, even for those who really are committed to my care. Confessor or simply father-confessor (or good old pastor) delineates the job more clearly. You are fundamentally responsible for your own spiritual life. The clergy are here to guide you, but they are not here to command you such that all you have to give is obedience. You’re a “rational sheep.” Use the brain God gave you. I can’t accept total responsibility for your salvation. I have a tough enough time with my own.

    6. I am not here for you. Yes, I have time to produce things that you’re seeing online, but almost all of them are simply a part of my parish ministry—I’m just doing my local job, and I happen to have a microphone and a weblog to go with it. I have them so that I can reach my own people even more effectively. If someone else can get something out of them, that’s a wonderful bonus, but that’s all it is. Now, if God puts you in my town or puts me in your town, then I will be there for you.

    7. I will not cheat your local community. If there is a genuine lacking in your local community, then instead of seeking out faraway surrogates, work to establish better community where you are. Talk to your priest, talk to your bishop, evangelize your neighbors, serve those in need—in short, do the job of bringing Christ to your place. If you instead rely on people far away and use them as stand-ins for what should be local, then you are cutting short the local hunger that makes the banquet possible. That is, if you think you’re getting via email what you should be getting locally, then you aren’t working to make it present to you locally. Don’t short-circuit the development of the Church in your community by bypassing the community. If you do not have it in you to do that sort of work where you are, then it might be a good idea to move some place where you can plug in to a healthy parish community.

    8. The priesthood is local. This is my most fundamental point. Almost everything a priest does in his priesthood requires physical presence. The sacraments, preaching, etc., are all fundamentally local acts, and even if some elements of the priest’s work can be published or broadcast, they always lose something in the transmission.

Now, there are of course many legitimate reasons why someone might be engaged in long-distance spiritual direction. The best one is probably the case of the person who physically moves away from their confessor after years of his spiritual direction. But even in that case, it’s a good idea to transition to someone local.

Most clergy are the kind of people who like to help, who may even feel a need to be helpful. And it can be flattering to have someone approach you because of your “fame” online. But, like Admiral Ackbar said, it’s a trap! (Especially if the person contacting you is an apparently attractive female. Or at least her profile pic looks that way. Remember that, on the Internet, no one is quite who they claim to be.)

Curiously, many of the dangers of online, long-distance romantic relationships essentially apply to online, long-distance spiritual direction. It’s really the problem with any virtual relationship. Man was not made to live in a non-dimensional world. He was made to live in communion, in community.

All that said, if you happen to email me, I will try to answer your email. If I do not already know you, especially if your email requires thought, my response may well be quite delayed. It’s nothing personal. Really. But maybe it’s time to go ask your own priest. Don’t have one? Here’s a place to start.

Encomium Fidei

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The Anthem of Nihilism
In light of yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful to comment on the “other” side of the questions of inter-religious relations. By no means is this a sort of antithesis of yesterday’s thesis. Indeed, I believe a vigorous engagement precisely on doctrinal terms is the basis on which the best inter-religious friendships can occur. I’ve known some good men who have been engaged in honest, “ecumenism with a gun” type of dialogues who have made many good friends along the way, even if they remain on different sides of doctrinal questions.

Now, it should be noted that I do not rise in any sense in defense of “religion.” There is no such thing. There are only religions. Religion is far too broad a term to be useful in any real sense as a phenomenon to which one can point or offer criticism or defense. (For more on this, see the opening pages of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). That said, I find religion quite interesting, and if we boil it down at least to its etymological roots (re + ligio), it means “reconnection.” Religion is fundamentally about reconnecting oneself—to community, to transcendent principles, to metaphysics, to tradition, etc. And in that sense we can see the fundamental irreligiosity of our age—even while attendance at religious services remains quite high just about everywhere, there is more and more a fundamental cultural sensibility of disconnection rather than reconnection. Indeed, much religion is, in this sense, distinctly irreligious.

The forgetfulness of politics (e.g., the senator who today insists that the sovereign debt ceiling must be raised who five years ago spoke out against it on principle, yet without any loss of reputation or influence), the ahistorical character of much theology and spiritual life, the general ignorance of history and disdain for tradition, the banality of modern industrialized mass education, the popularity of contraception—all of these things form a maelstrom of disconnection, of people from their pasts, of people from each other, of people from what orders their lives toward what is noble. The irony of our age is that, as telecommunications gives us more of the illusion of connection, we are plunged further into isolation.

Thus, I rise today in praise of faith, which is fundamentally not a set of beliefs, but an act. Faith is the act of reconnection. It is the act of religion.

I am fascinated by religions, and the more I learn of them, the more I learn to love Orthodoxy—not out of disdain, happy to be “free” of their problems, but rather out of being able to see my own faith more clearly and having my blind spots cleared up because of the way some other faith emphasizes things. It was a class on Hinduism which helped prepare me for the paradoxes of Orthodox Christianity. It was a friend’s decision to become Roman Catholic that articulated for me why I could no longer be Protestant. It was in seeing Islam in prison that I caught a glimpse of what prisoners experience. It was a Roman Catholic roommate in college who demonstrated for me what firmness in faith could look like for men in their twenties. And of course it was my Evangelical upbringing that gave me Christ.

All those who believe in what is beyond the world of the dull senses, who are willing to use tools of knowing that are beyond what has become standard in our world, have something in common, and that is that we believe in the possibility of self-transcendence. If there is a God (or even gods), then that means that humility is called for.

There is also something about man’s reach for transcendence that produces beauty. I can see the beauty in Buddhist culture, though I have a hard time relating. I can see it much more clearly in Catholic and Anglican Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, I still feel more at home in those Western Christian worlds than I do in the cultures of Orthodoxy. I of course want to go see Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., but I don’t think that they will thrill my heart in quite the way that my pilgrimage to the British Isles did in 2001. And I still try to read Tolkien every year.

I am also moved by the seriousness and capacity for compassion of the believers I meet outside of Orthodoxy, as well. Of course the family in which I grew up is highest among them. But I also greatly respect my clergy friends in other confessions that live and work here in Emmaus. I don’t believe in their theology, but they (who are mostly far more experienced than I) have a maturity and a comfortableness in their own churches that I hope someday to attain in my own. And I also very much wish that the sort of strong moral voice that certain communions have in America (particularly Rome) were characteristic of the Orthodox.

Yes, I want everyone to be an Orthodox Christian. But I do not go around trying to “make” people Orthodox. I will of course debate doctrine if that is appropriate at the moment, but I’m mainly interested in trying to facilitate an encounter with Christ. And just like St. Justin Martyr believed of old, Christ can be encountered outside the visible boundaries of the Church, as the spermatikos logos, the Word of God in seed form. That doesn’t mean that Christ’s Church doesn’t have boundaries, but it does mean that He’s out and about. He’s on the move.

It is not the case that everything outside the Church’s visible boundaries is unmitigated darkness. Any place where God is sought, where Christ is loved, or where the Truth is desired is a place where I can find joy.

There are, of course, cheerful materialists out there, people for whom transcendence or absolutes are utter nonsense yet are not bothered by it. But almost all of them are enjoying the inheritance of religion and not really ready to abandon it.

John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. The last prominent man who really did that with any consistency and honesty was Nietzsche. And I’m not fond of the vision he concocted. He was ready to deal with a world with a dead God.

It’s a good thing he was dead wrong.

Ecumenism with a Gun

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Statue of Elias on Mt. Carmel

I was recently taken to task via email by a local acquaintance who is a senior clergyman in another Christian confession. At issue was my occasional habit of using sarcasm when discussing the differences between faiths. A couple of his parishioners had attended one of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy lectures that I gave in Emmaus in the Fall of 2009, and I think appalled is probably the right word for their impression.

Now, there are a lot of reasons why someone might walk away from an encounter with me appalled, and most of them are probably pretty good reasons. Some of you know that I worked as a professional stagehand for ten years, and in that world, sarcasm is essentially the basic mode of communication. I confess that I still use it entirely too much, and I’m still working on cutting back.

Aside from my own sinfulness, though, it’s an interesting question as to whether it is ever okay to ridicule other doctrines—not just a little incredulity (which is probably the primary mode of my sense of humor when it comes to other doctrines), but actual ridicule. I actually think it’s a bad idea to ridicule other people, and I don’t believe that doctrine itself is a laughing matter, even utterly false doctrines. But let’s face it—prophets, saints and even the Lord Himself have been known to use strong language when speaking against those who oppose them. Perhaps the clearest use of sarcasm by a holy person in the Bible is when the Prophet Elias openly mocks the prophets of Baal even while they were in the midst of prayer. And if that moment of ecumenical sensitivity were not quite enough, Elias later had his ecumenical partners seized and then killed them (a scene which is depicted iconically on a small medallion my father-in-law gave to my son Elias at his baptism).

Now, I don’t think that Elias’s behavior is a normative model for ecumenical engagement. After all, he was alive in a very different time and place than our own, and in some sense we have to look at the slaying of the prophets of Baal as a sort of capital punishment for their crimes of leading the people of Israel astray.

But nevertheless, even if inter-religious engagement is not properly embarked upon by Christians with the use of violence, we can still see that, throughout the history of the revelation of the true God in true religion, first to the Jews and then to the New Israel, the Church, those who represented the faith did so with great vigor. The ecumenical “niceness” which is now the general norm in our own time is, historically speaking, something of an aberration. Throughout most of history, people who disagreed with each other over religion did so with fire, even when they weren’t using the sword. (So perhaps Elias can be rehabilitated as a patron saint of inter-religious dialogue, after all.)

This brings me to what I (yes, sarcastically) call “ecumenism with a gun.” To me, this phrase is shorthand for being a true representative of one’s religion, not compromising on its teachings or practices in order not to offend. So if I ever call someone an “ecumenist with a gun,” that’s what I mean. I don’t mean someone who attacks other people, but I surely expect them to attack what they believe are false doctrines.

Now, part of the problem with the word ecumenism of course is that it can mean anything from (1) doctrinal compromise to (2) real doctrinal engagement to (3) simply meeting together with folks from other faiths for the sake of friendship and cooperation in charitable work and common moral witness. I think the latter two of those three are worth doing, and I try to do both of them with some regularity. Usually, those two aren’t mixed very much, though I think it would be quite interesting if they were. Nonetheless, one must gauge what’s going on (especially with the third) to see if the second is going to work within those particular relationships. (I belong to an Emmaus group of clergy of various kinds, mostly Trinitarian Christians. We do not, in general, really discuss doctrine, though we once had a fascinating discussion on the spiritual character of church architecture.)

In thinking about all this, it occurs to me that there actually is a realm of vigorous discourse in which most of us are fine with an energetic pursuit and critical approach (and even assault) regarding the beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Indeed, it is almost expected that such discussions will turn into debates, and we commonly select people to conduct such raucous dialogues on our behalf, while also not neglecting them ourselves. And what realm of discourse is that? It’s politics. In politics, if you’re not pushing ahead full-bore and openly declaring the wrongness of your opponent’s ideas and even sometimes expressing incredulity or ridicule toward his stances, then you’re not doing it right.

Why is this? Why do we have no problem with knock-down, drag-out politics but want inter-religious discussion to be “nice”? I don’t think it’s out of a sense of religious charity, but rather out of a sense that religion really just doesn’t matter that much, that doctrine isn’t worth fighting over. Or perhaps we think that religion is basically private and therefore inappropriate for public debate. But if the sovereign debt ceiling of the United States is worth fighting over, isn’t eternal life for billions of God’s children worth something? And isn’t the self-revelation of the God of the universe to all of mankind a matter of public concern?

Anyway, I actually am sorry that I do indeed get carried away with my sarcasm at times. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t do it, and I apologized to my fellow cleric and asked him to pass on my apology to his parishioners.

At the same time, I very clearly remember their visit to the lecture, and I don’t think they were appalled only by the tone. I think they were (at least partly) appalled that someone was describing their religious tradition in critical terms. They engaged me during the lecture, and during that engagement, neither they nor I mocked each other but only talked specifically about doctrine and practices in direct terms. They said that I was misrepresenting their tradition, and I know that I was—but mostly in the sense that I don’t believe in it. (I did make some changes when I revised the originals lectures to become the book, and there were some corrections of errors to be made. I had gotten some things wrong, so they were at least partly right.)

But it’s not as if the advertising on those lectures was in any way misleading. The title for the lectures was also “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” and the posters and other publicity all made it clear that we were going to be looking at other faiths from the point of view of Orthodoxy. And obviously, since it was an Orthodox priest giving the talks at an Orthodox church, Orthodoxy was being presented as the right way to go.

I did send the flyer to some of my contacts in other faith traditions, but when I do that, I always preface my request for their consideration with a comment that I’m asking them only to post such things if they find it appropriate. I myself do the same. Most (though not all) of the publicity I get from other religious traditions I would never put on the walls of my church, mainly because they promote a spirituality and doctrine that are alien (and even hostile) to Orthodoxy.

As I said, I am sorry that I offended some folks. I did not know until they began engaging me that I was dealing with folks from the faith tradition in question (though I should have known better and adjusted accordingly). The vast majority of the audience were Orthodox, and the lectures were explicitly designed for Orthodox Christians (something I also noted in the preface of the book). They were not designed as inter-religious dialogue.

But my hope is that, instead of just being offended, folks who become appalled at criticisms leveled at their beliefs (though not at them personally, since that is really not the point and is not honorable) will research and see whether what I or other critics say is true. And if what we’re saying is not true (at least from the viewpoint of their own tradition), what I would like to see happen is the mounting of a vigorous response. At the very least, I would love to sit down and talk with them about this very bad impression they’ve remembered for two years and perhaps express my regret to them directly for the offense I caused.

Although these issues are apologetical in their character, I’m really not an apologist, but I do try to understand the basic apologetic issues, because they’re important. Why? For one thing, truth is worth debating and contending for. When the issue is doctrine, I fully expect to be doctrinally attacked by people whose tradition puts me under anathema. I always am a little suspicious when I’m not. I have little time for the ecumenical professionals’ “agreed statements” while the official books of other faiths officially consign me to the netherworld. (“Yes, well, technically we do curse your name and cast you into Hell because you do not believe this thing we believe, but can’t we really talk about something else, like recognizing each other’s baptisms?”)

There are, of course, inherent limits to apologetics. There are the human limits of people like me, who are not as well-versed as we should be in all the realms of religious theology that are available. And some people are simply not very well-versed in their own tradition. (I continually find a discrepancy between the official teachings of a faith and what its followers actually believe or are being taught.) Another limit is the simple reality that different people (even smart, sincere people) can look at the same set of evidence and come up with different conclusions. But perhaps the most important limit for this discussion is that followers of disparate traditions don’t always have to be talking about doctrine.

We can be friends without that. You can tell me that doctrinal engagement is off-limits, and unless you’re actively seeking to undermine my faithful and my church, I will leave such topics alone. (Public statements invite public response, however.) I have lots of family and friends, people I love and who love me, with whom I don’t talk about doctrine. (My Baptist grandmother did happen to attend the lecture I gave which critically treated the revivalism that is the source of her tradition’s shape, but she knew what she was getting into.) We can even still talk about religion, which I find fascinating even when I don’t agree with particular tenets. And on top of all that, it’s not like we should spend most of our time on these things. Most of what believers should be doing is following the teachings of their traditions.

And even if I do not agree with the doctrines and practices of another religion, I do respect the faith of those who follow it, especially those who follow it with seriousness. Indeed, I almost always make it a point not to stir up such serious people to try to coax them into Orthodoxy. Someone who loves God and is earnestly seeking the Truth is not someone I need to seek out for prodding.

I believe that Orthodox Christianity is the one, true way, that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church, and that every single man, woman and child should be an Orthodox Christian. I hope that other religious people believe the same things about their religions. If they don’t, they are at least partial relativists, and if one is a relativist, I don’t see the point in being part of a religion. (Or they could simply be very mean—their faith is the one, true faith, but they don’t want to see other folks in it.)

But that does not mean that I or anyone else have to spend all of our time trying to make people into members of our churches. One must try to gauge the right moment to present the Gospel in its fullness (especially in terms of comparative theology). Not every time and place is the right time and place to do that—but rest assured that there is indeed such a time and place.

We should be at least as serious about religion as we are about politics. If we’re not, I have doubts about whether we really believe in that stuff, anyway.

The God in the Bread: A Sermon for Lammas

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The Breaking of Bread at Emmaus

The following is a repost from last year of the sermon I gave on Sunday, August 1, 2010. Happy Lammas!

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.

Post Script for the 2011 repost: The following is a comment I made on the post last year which further explores why it is the Church blesses physical objects:

In a world in which the Son of God did not become incarnate, there is of course no point at all in mingling up spiritual things with the material world.

But because the Son of God did become incarnate, then that means that physical matter has the possibility for bearing within itself the divine energies of God. The event of the Incarnation has ramifications throughout history, both before and after the Annunciation.

There are numerous cases in Scripture of God working through physical matter—indeed, almost every time we see Him doing anything, it is with created matter as a major element, whether it is healing the blind or snake-bitten, resurrecting the dead (e.g., as upon the relics of Elisha in 2 King 13:21), the cloud and the pillar of fire for the Hebrews, ordination, baptism, the Eucharist, etc.

The point in asking God’s blessing upon physical objects is precisely the same. We are asking God to make Himself present in them, so that in and through them we may come into contact with His divine power, His energies. We do not believe blessed objects are “magical,” possessing any independent power of themselves. They are simply vessels for God’s grace, His actual presence in and with us.

In short, we are banishing secularism from our world. There is no place and no thing where God does not wish to manifest His presence. He has chosen to work through our prayers to make this a reality.

And the winner is…

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Jennifer Hock has just won a free, autographed copy of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. Her entry was drawn randomly from numerous entries via the True Random Number Service. Jennifer entered the contest via both Facebook and Twitter, giving her two entries. (By using a combination of weblogs and other social media, one contestant had 10 entries!)

Coincidentally, Jennifer is also the person behind the Illumination Learning website, which is a “hub for finding Orthodox Christian education resources.” It’s worth checking out. Her site and its related Facebook page have become particularly noteworthy among Orthodox homeschoolers.

Congratulations, Jennifer! Your autographed copy of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy will be on its way to you soon!

Thank you to all those who entered the contest. I appreciate your help in promoting Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, and I also appreciated the kind comments that many of you included with your entries and email to me. Even though the rest of you didn’t win this copy, I hope you’ll consider purchasing a copy either via Conciliar Press or, that you’ll also ask your favorite local bookstore and parish bookstore to carry it, and most especially that you will continue to tell your friends about it.

On a related note, if any readers are interested in getting a review copy of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy for reviewing on your weblog, please contact me with your name, address, and blog URL. There was previously a logistical snag in getting copies out for reviewers, but that has been taken care of. If you have previously asked about this but not received a copy, please contact me again.

Also, if you are within driving distance of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and would like for me to come to visit your parish or group for a booksigning and/or talks (which can be based on any of my podcasts or other writings, as well as other topics I have prepared), please contact me and let me know.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated in any way with the Illumination Learning site nor with Mrs. Hock. Her entry was drawn purely at random.