Mission

Facing Antioch: Hopes for the Antiochian Archdiocese Nominating Convention and Beyond

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We in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America come now to a historic moment, one that has not been seen for nearly half a century. That may sound a bit melodramatic, especially considering that we are really only a small community, both when compared with the rest of our country and especially when compared with the Orthodox world in general. But it is nevertheless historic for us, and there are many parties outside our archdiocese who are interested in what is happening for us right now.

I’ve twice written previously on my thoughts about our future:

In this final post in this series before our special nominating convention which will take place in just a few days, I’d like to focus on what my hopes are for our future specifically in terms of one central theme: spiritual renewal.

When the Orthodox Youth Movement was founded in the Middle East in 1942, its founders observed that church life in their place and time had largely devolved for the faithful into a kind of “institutional” relation to the Church. In 1964, Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) wrote about that time:

Popular piety, like the piety of other Mediterranean Christians, is profoundly ritualistic. Service books and diverse manuals of devotion put the allegorical and spiritual meaning of the Liturgy into relief, but the psychology of the ordinary Christian remains dominated by the sensual and aesthetic aspect of the Offices. The great majority of the faithful do not penetrate in any way into the spiritual significance of the rite. They often bring with them authentic private piety, but a sense of the liturgical community and of the bond between the individual person and the praying assembly is rarely consciously experienced by the majority of the faithful.

(A Sign of God: Orthodoxy 1964: A Pan-Orthodox Symposium, pp. 266-67, as noted in a recent podcast by Nicholas Chapman)

How many of us have seen this same thing in our own parishes? The great majority of the faithful—and I do mean here the faithful, and not the nominal, who bear the name of Orthodoxy but have little to do with church life—do not really relate to the worship of the Church in a genuinely engaged and personal way. The chanting is beautiful, the sermon is inspiring, the iconography is beautiful, the feeling is moving, etc., but the theological and spiritual character of the Church’s services and inner life is largely absent from most of the faithful’s experience.

How did this come to be? I think it is a temptation for all religions but especially liturgical ones for people to “institutionalize” their membership, and Orthodoxy is no exception. The faithful can attend services, even faithfully, work in various parish activities, fast consistently, say their morning and evening prayers, etc., but have little in the way of that genuine engagement with the meaningful content of the worship services and the whole of spiritual life. What was intended by Christ as a mystagogy—a spiritual initiation into a new life—becomes “church membership.”

Such devolution of church life is not, I think, anyone’s conscious decision but rather the result of what one might call a kind of spiritual entropy, the gradual decay that comes when a community is not watered with the blood of martyrdom, whether literal or figurative. So what is needed is a new martyrdom. Christianity is the only faith whose central act is the martyrdom of its God. And since we humans become like whatever we worship, we Christians are all becoming martyrs, “witnesses” to the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

And since we in the Antiochian Archdiocese find ourselves in a place where we can assess where we have been and where we are going, it seems to me that now is the time to ask ourselves what that martyrdom will look like, how we can be renewed.

As I’ve been able to find relevant translated materials (which are not extensive), I have lately been exploring some of the lessons of renewal that can be learned from the Orthodox Youth Movement—which still exists, by the way, and even has its own ongoing internal conversation about “a renewal of the renewal,” since it is now some 72 years old. It had many effects in church life in the Middle East, most of which are almost entirely positive. As I noted in my first post in this series on the American Antiochian future, it resulted in a marked increase in religious education, monastic vocation, asceticism, more vigorous parish life, etc.

That is a lot to contemplate all at once, but from the words of Metropolitan Georges above, the real emphasis of the Movement that is its genius is a sense of personal engagement with the life and spirituality of the Church’s tradition. One has to begin there before one can contemplate too deeply questions of larger structural changes. We can build all kinds of institutions and programs, but if there is not underlying them the character of genuine Christian love for Christ and one another and a theological revival in every sense, they will be like the “fast of demons,” which is strong and undeniable yet not vivified by faith.

As I’ve learned more about this approach to church life, I’ve come to decide that in my own parish community, we are going to be exploring how we can find this renewal for ourselves. The vehicle we’re using for this is the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, a lay organization of the archdiocese with chapters in many parishes. (In some ways, the FSJD parallels the OYM.) It is not so much that we are dead or stultified, etc., but that, just as Metropolitan Georges observed 50 years ago, we have a lot of “institutionalized” relating to the Church going on. It’s not everyone, but it’s enough that it is a real concern. So we’re adopting two practices over the next months:

  • The full list of every person associated with the parish has been divided up into parts and distributed to members of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine for daily prayer. Every person in the parish will be prayed for every day.
  • Once a month, the Fellowship will come together, not for a business meeting or for a class, but for a time of intercessory prayer and one other spiritual practice. The latter may include: a brief meditation on a scriptural or patristic quote, saying the Jesus Prayer together (probably with one person saying it out loud; this is a practice of some Athonite sketes) or reading the Psalms out loud to one another.

We need spiritual renewal, both individually and corporately. It is not that the faithful are unfaithful, but perhaps they have never been taught about this kind of personal engagement with the depths of Orthodox tradition. Perhaps they have never seen what it looks like. So we are going to be doing some of those things at St. Paul’s in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

So where does this leave the question of where we as an archdiocese are going, especially in terms of our new Metropolitan Archbishop? If he were to ask me what I would like to see to initiate spiritual renewal for all of us, what would I say?

There are a lot of things I could mention, but there are three in particular that I hope for in the next chapter of the life of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America:

  • An emphasis on monasticism: Not only will this provide a deeper “bench” for episcopal candidates (it’s not very deep at the moment), but monasticism provides a living and radical witness to all the faithful of what personal engagement with the faith can be like.
  • Bringing the lessons of the Orthodox Youth Movement to North America: The OYM is now the official youth organization of the Patriarchate of Antioch. It has no presence in North America. Perhaps the key here would be to re-tool Teen SOYO and the Fellowship of St. John the Divine to reflect what the OYM has learned over the years. (The OYM of course has its own internal controversies and is sometimes controversial within the patriarchate, but that doesn’t cancel out its overall contribution to church life.)
  • Opening the lines of communication to Antioch: I’ve written before (here and here) about why we—and all Orthodox Christians in America—need access to the spiritual riches of Orthodoxy in the Middle East. We need to hear from them, and they need to hear from us. There needs to be more translation going on, more media, more connection across the Atlantic.

So, that’s my “wishlist.” I have no idea who our next Metropolitan might be. Especially from what I have seen of the Patriarch and the Holy Synod of Antioch, I trust them to elect the man whom God has in mind. And my hope for our nominating convention this week is not just that we would vote, wanting this man or that, but that we would be gathering in a churchly manner, the royal priesthood of God, aware spiritually of one another, connecting spiritually to one another, and uniting our prayers for inspiration from the Holy Spirit to move in all of us in a new and beautiful way.

Pentecost is coming!

Coming this Fall: Ancient Faith Blogs

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Ancient Faith Ministries, the people who bring you Ancient Faith Radio and Ancient Faith Publishing (formerly Conciliar Press) have officially announced a new project for this Fall: Ancient Faith Blogs.

The beans being spilled:

If you’re like me, you follow several Orthodox blogs, but you don’t have the time or inclination to look into other such blogs that may or may not share the same quality. But what if the best and most reliable blogs on the internet were gathered in a single place, making it easy for you to consume and then cross-reference their content while resting assured that your reading stands on solid theological ground? I’m not talking new blogs, mind you, but rather the cream of the crop of what already exists, compiled together and carrying the imprimatur of Ancient Faith Ministries, one of the most trusted sources of Orthodox media in the world. Introducing Ancient Faith Blogs—your one-stop location for the very best Orthodox writing on the internet. Look for it this fall in conjunction with AFR 5.0, the most ambitious iteration of Ancient Faith Radio to date.

You will see several familiar blogs on the site, including Roads from Emmaus and Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, as well as almost a dozen others. There will be a couple new ones in the mix, as well, which I’m particularly looking forward to. Each weblog will have its own site within the site, but there will also be aggregators giving you multiple posts to browse through at the same time. And while most of the weblogs will be dedicated to constantly updating content, some will be oriented toward building resources while also including moving content.

In some ways, this will be similar to what Patheos is doing with its “Faith Channels,” but it will be fully Orthodox and integrated with Ancient Faith rather than dealing with all the concerns that Patheos deals with by being multi-religious and more specifically commercial.

This is something totally new in the online Orthodox world, and I think it’s going to be great. Be on the lookout.

“We speak one language: Antiochian”: More Thoughts on the Future of the Antiochian Archdiocese and Orthodoxy in America

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If you’ve done any reading from modern Orthodox saints, you know that there is a certain tone among the holy elders of Greece, another from Russia and so forth. Each culture enculturates the Gospel in its own authentic way and speaks of the truth of Jesus Christ with its own voice.

One of the things which makes the particular Antiochian voice distinct—although it is often not well known here in America, as I wrote in my previous post—is that it is not tied to any single ethnicity or culture. The ancient cultures and languages that have called Antiochian Orthodoxy home are diverse—Syriac, Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Cypriot, Central Asian—as are those which now are also home to the Antiochian church—English, American, Central and South American, Turkish, Australian, French, German and others. Ancient Antioch itself was a cosmopolitan city even in the time of the Apostles, and while the city of Antioch of today is now a small Turkish municipality, the spirit of Antiochian identity in its Christian form has remained cosmopolitan and multicultural. Some folks today equate Antiochian with Arabic, but that identification has never really been accurate.

Indeed, one of the greatest voices of the Antiochian church in America, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, regarded himself as being a man who identified with many peoples: “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.”

Yet while the voice of the Antiochian tradition is spoken in many languages and cultures, there is nevertheless a single “Antiochian language,” so to speak, a particular way of being and speaking in the Orthodox Church that is distinct.

I have been talking about this “Antiochian language” recently with friends who know it far better than I, and one of them mentioned to me a phrase used in the Arabic-language publishing and social media of the patriarchate, which gives this post its title: “We speak one language: Antiochian.” It has also been rendered in English as “Our Language is Antiochian. Our Language is One.” This certainly is not a reference to the Arabic language but rather to a kind of spiritual language, that particular voice which is the spirit of Antioch.

With the attention that our archdiocese here in America has received lately from the Patriarchate of Antioch, our connection to that Antiochian language has been strengthened, and I’ve noticed a particular tone—hard to describe, but definitely distinct. If I had to put adjectives to it, I might choose: accessible, direct, refreshing, bright, earthy, peaceful. It is not dark or hard, but it is also not too yielding or liberal. It is loving and un-self-conscious.

A bridge is being built between ancient Antioch and her children here in North America, and now there is traffic on that bridge, a kind of spiritual commerce and economy that has its own idiom. For many, this may be the first time that someone has “spoken Antiochian” to them. It is not that this has been absent from our archdiocese, but we have simply not had access to it in the way that we have over the past several weeks.

As I said, though, that voice is hard to define with adjectives, so I would like to give a few samples, both ancient and modern, which to me all sing in the same spiritual key, which speak with the same spiritual voice. The subjects are different, but the tone (to me) is the same:

Blessed is the person who has consented to become the close friend of faith and of prayer: he lives in singlemindedness and makes prayer and faith stop by with him. Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God. Prayer makes peace with the Lord’s anger and with the vehemence of His wrath. In this way too, tears that well up in the eyes can open the door of compassion.

- St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Armenian Hymn No. 1,” 4th c.

St. Ephrem is of course familiar to many Orthodox Christians, and he is not often thought of as “Antiochian” exactly, but this tone is still there. (And one recognizes the Semitic image of God’s “wrath” there, of course.) I especially love the phrase “close friend of faith and of prayer.”

Fast forward several centuries, and that same feeling is still there. Here’s Sulayman al-Ghazzi (Solomon of Gaza), an Arabic-speaking Palestinian bishop from the 11th century:

Not all baptized with water are Christians
   Without the baptism of the life of the world to come;
In Christ the peoples of the earth have been baptized
   Though some of them afterward showed hypocrisy.
They became like a body’s parts in its natural state—
   Some helpful, some unreliable.
How many patriarchs are unpraiseworthy in their service,
   Miserable bishops and metropolitans,
Who are among the heretics, in place of truth,
   Preferring falsehood and slander!
Over them, God has favored a Church
   Whose stones are gathered from all corners and climbs.
Truth has built her edifice
   Rising to heaven on pillars and columns,
Fashioned from chrysolite,
   Precious stones, sapphires, and pearls.
Her foundation is the rock of faith,
   Rooted deep with pillars and walls.
All bodily creatures are pleased to see it
   When it appears in races and colors,
Byzantines, Russians, and Franks
   Joined with Indians, Khuzestanis, Abkhaz, and Alans
Armenians and Pechenegs in agreement
   With the people of the Jazira, namely Harran.
And Copts too, in the Lower Egypt father together
   From Upper Egypt to Qus and Aswan.
People of Shiraz and Ahwaz in harmony
   With Iraq, unto furthest Khorasan.
From the place of the sunrise to the place of its setting,
   To the Euphrates, to Sihon and Gihon.
White, blond, and brown in their churches
   Praise God with the yellow and the black.
All of them have come to the religion of Christ
   And are guided, gaining profit from loss.
Seventy nations, each with a language
   Branching off from one Syriac tongue.[*]
Hebrew was the speech of God’s apostles
   Before they set out with the mission of the Gospel.
Each apostle gained a language,
   Beautiful, reliable, and clear.
Not out of weakness but having heard proof,
   Those to whom they preached responded with faith.
So they spread out among their nations,
   None fearing the devil’s wiles.
When their service to God was done, they slept,
   Having roused many sleepers.

- Suleyman al-Ghazzi, from “Not All Baptized with Water Are Christians” (trans. Samuel Noble), in The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources, pp. 163-164

[*] Medieval Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, generally held that Syriac was the language spoken by Adam and Eve.

And roughly 1,000 years later, we still hear this same direct, refreshing voice from the leaders of the Orthodox Youth Movement:

The Church is the salt of the earth and completes the work of Christ in the world. The Church works, she is present, for the sake of the salvation of the world. We can say that she is the center of being, in her its destiny is achieved. The world corrupts and ages, but the Church is continuously renewed for the sake of the salvation of the world. But if the salt is corrupted, then how can it be salty?

The Church is the group of those who believe in the Lord Jesus and who have united around him to live the life of the Gospel, the life of God. They have no concern except to follow the Lord’s teaching and to follow in his footsteps. The group is in the world and for the world, but at the same time it is not of the world. From the beginning, from the ascension of the Lord to heaven, it is oriented toward the age to come, awaiting the return of the heavenly bridegroom and hastening him on. From now on, it lives in the last days, in the fullness of time, “it uses this world as though it doesn’t use it, and buys as though it doesn’t own.”

- Fr. Elias Morcos, “On Revival in Antioch,” 1964

We become children of the Resurrection when we become bridges of communication and encounter between those who are separated, and between those who are in conflict. Let us be bridges exactly like the Lord who did not ask anything for Himself, but gave the world everything, to such an extent that He offered Himself for the salvation of the world. Let us serve as ways of rapprochement for all. Through love, sacrifice and in deeds and truth we shall build our countries.

We become children of Resurrection when we live our faith in genuineness, depth and meaningfulness. External expressions are bound to change with cultures and ways of living, but the genuine Christian content preserves the trust which has been handed down to the saints under many different circumstances, cases and cultures. Let us imitate the courage of Christ who did not fear anything, even death. Instead He faced the cross with love and brought us to resurrection. Let us face the cross of this crucified East with overwhelming love for all those who are crucified on it, until we reach with them the resurrection we all expect. Let us live these painful days in simplicity, enjoying the bare necessities of life and experiencing the true wealth which is life with God….

Last but not least, we do not forget that God is the Lord of history, so we may always hold to patience and hope which do not fade away. Let us remember the words of the prophets and how much they called, in times of distress, for repentance and faith, until God intervenes and removes the distress. In these troubled days we are witnessing, we are in sore need of faithful witnesses. Let us move out of our distress with more faith, more purity and greater loyalty. When we understand that we only need God and no one else, the effects of resurrection will appear in us and in all our humanity. When this happens all around us shall be transfigured.

- Patriarch John X (Yazigi) of Antioch, Pascha 2013 Pastoral Letter

How should I conduct myself at Pascha? I try to become the Gospel, to become the word so that people may read me and live. Christianity is faces that are illumined in order to give light. This is the living Pascha. It is what causes me to pass through people to the Father’s face. How should I live? “I do not live, it is Christ who lives in me.” Christianity is not a religious system. It is love– that is, clinging to Christ such that you forget your own face in order to see His face and the whole world in His face. If we are people of Pascha, then we are in a state of constantly going beyond ourselves and the world in order to become Him and for Him to become us. It is not a matter of systems and it is not a matter of theoretical principles. Everything is His face, until all faces pass away or we read Him traced upon them.

- Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon, “Who Shall I Be at Pascha?“, 2014

And now this “Antiochian language” is also being spoken to us here directly in America by the representative of our patriarch:

Christ defeated death in our lives! He set us free from fear: from fearing death, from fearing evil, from fearing illness and calamities, from fearing each other, from fearing the uncertainty of the future, from fearing insecurity and unemployment, from fearing violence and terrorism, and from fearing persecution and sufferings for His sake. Instead, He gave us the power and the means to seek the true freedom. The freedom to love each other even though we differ in character, education and profession. The freedom to forgive each other even though we have suffered. The freedom to ask forgiveness from each other even though we have badly hurt each other. The freedom to serve each other even though we differ in origin, background and culture. The freedom to work together even though we differ in thinking, worldview, ability and capacity. The freedom to abide by the truth and raise our children to seek Him. The freedom to defend the unjust and the needy and restore them their rights. The freedom to be at the Lord’s hand, obedient, prayerful and faithful.

Christ defeated death in our reality! He gave us the gift to start anew, to renew our heart, to purify our mind, and to reaffirm our commitment of faith at His service. He restored in us the dignity of our person, the beauty of our nature, and the bounty in our personality.

Christ defeated death in our relationships! Christ is the only mediator between God and man. However, He made us “bridges” of salvation to reach others. As Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America, we are bequeathed an apostolic “lineage:” tradition, inheritance and mission. In this regard, the image of the “bridge” summarizes the Antiochian witness that emerges out of the past, prompts the present and prepares the future of the Antiochian Orthodox Church on the eve of the election of a new Metropolitan to succeed to His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip of eternal memory.

- Metropolitan Silouan (Moussi) of Argentina, “How to Resurrect with Christ: Pascha 2014 Pastoral Letter

I could give many, many more examples, and of course you can find a good bit of this sort of thing on the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy weblog. But I hope that these passages will suffice to give you some sense of the tone of “speaking Antiochian.” It is different from other languages, and while many of its speakers are these days from the Middle East, it is not the same thing as speaking Arabic, and there is no reason why non-Arabic speakers or people from outside the Middle East cannot speak it. It is a beautiful language, and it speaks to us of our Savior Jesus Christ with a peculiar accent and vocabulary of its own, itself building a bridge between persons, between peoples, and between mankind and God.

As I wrote last week, my hope for us Antiochians here in America is that we may hear more and more “speaking Antiochian” to us, so that we may better learn this beautiful language. And in so doing, not only will our own faith be strengthened, but we will also have something beautiful to offer to our Orthodox brothers and sisters throughout America.

Light from Antioch: The Future of the Antiochian Archdiocese and Orthodoxy in America

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Notes: The following is a personal reflection and represents only my own views. This piece is also available as an audio recording via Ancient Faith Radio.

This past Friday, I had the blessing along with other clergy of the Diocese of Charleston and Oakland and also the Diocese of Washington and New York to meet with His Eminence, Metropolitan Silouan (Moussi) of Argentina in Washington, DC. Sayidna Silouan’s purpose in calling this meeting, as well as many other similar meetings throughout North America, was to hear the voices of the clergy and faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, to hear what they yearned for in their future, in the light of the transition that is now upon us, namely, that within a couple of months we will be in the care of a new Metropolitan. +Silouan’s role here in North America is Patriarchal Vicar, and he is essentially in charge of the archdiocese until a new Metropolitan is elected. He serves as the voice of the Patriarch of Antioch in our midst.

The table where we met seemed to be mostly filled with listeners (which is a good thing in the clergy), but a few of us spoke when Metropolitan Silouan asked us directly to tell him what our hopes were. In his initial remarks on this, he said something that stuck with me: “Thinking according to the constitution is good, but thinking as the Church is better.” I’ll say more on that in a moment.

The other clergy who spoke mainly talked of their desire for the unity of the archdiocese to be kept intact, that we should not be divided. And +Silouan mentioned that he had been seeing peace everywhere in the archdiocese, wherever he went, that no one had to tell us to be unified and at peace, but that we simply were. And I have noted that this theme seems to be repeated in a number of the conversations between Antiochians I have been privy to. I have also noticed in my more than 16 years of experience in the archdiocese that there really is a common identity, a brotherhood among us. It would be a shame for that to be harmed in any way.

Some seem to believe that that unity would be harmed if, for instance, the archdiocese were divided into multiple metropolitan districts, “every bishop doing his own thing” in the words of one comment I read online. And that is typically contrasted with the system we have recently had, namely, a single ruling metropolitan with auxiliary bishops who served entirely at his blessing.

We also had a different system in place for a few years after the grant of self-rule, which was another iteration of the vision of Metropolitan Philip for our archdiocesan unity—diocesan bishops with more of their own authority in their dioceses, yet with a strong metropolitan at the head of the archdiocese. This was actually a traditional metropolitical system, in which the bishops on a synod do everything “with him who is first,” while the one who is first also does what he does with the consent of all. And it’s clear to me from my reading of Church history that there are many possible models that we could adopt which need not be read as “dividing the archdiocese.”

The exact details of how bishops who sit together on a synod presided over by their metropolitan can all work together and remain united and still have authority emphasized on the primate can have lots of different sets of details to define them. (Examples: Are finances shared? Is authorization of ordinations centralized? Can each diocese have its own educational institutions? Can bishops found churches and monasteries on their own?) I don’t see why any conversation about these things has to devolve into only two iterations—1) a sovereign metropolitan with auxiliaries or 2) fully independent dioceses each headed by a bishop who owes no particular allegiance to the metropolitan. These things sit along a continuum with numerous points in between, and they can all contribute to the question of unity.

This kind of thing seems to be on many people’s minds. But I have to admit that what comes to my mind when I think about the unity of the Antiochian Archdiocese and what came to my mind especially when Metropolitan Silouan asked us what we wanted for our future didn’t really have much to do with all these administrative details that are, to be honest, above my pay grade and not in my purview. I’m just a parish priest.

metr-silouan-fr-andrewBut +Silouan’s words stuck in my mind:

“Thinking according to the constitution is good, but thinking as the Church is better.”

I do not mean this as any slight to my brothers and sisters, but it seems to me that, while discussion about administrative details and rules (“thinking according to the constitution”) is important, there is something of greater importance that I hope will become more part of our conversations, especially as we head toward our special nominating convention on June 5. And what is that? It is our spiritual inheritance as Antiochian Orthodox Christians.

We rightly often speak of Ss. Peter and Paul and Ignatius of Antioch, and I love those parts of our tradition. But there is actually a great wealth of spiritual riches that have been developing in the Antiochian Church recently, as well, and it is almost entirely unknown to Antiochians in America.

To give but one example of this, one of the major developments of the 20th century in the patriarchate was the founding of the Orthodox Youth Movement. This movement was founded in the 1940s and was the instrument of an astonishing spiritual renewal over the decades that followed. It not only produced abbots, bishops and even patriarchs (Patriarch Ignatius IV was one of the founders of the movement), but it began church schools, founded and revitalized monasteries, emphasized personal holiness and asceticism, and rapidly expanded theological education throughout the patriarchate. It was a powerful and thoroughgoing reform movement that radically reshaped a church that, sad to say, had been moribund with nominalism for quite some time.

The results of the Orthodox Youth Movement, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2012, are a vital and spiritually rich Antiochian church in the Middle East, a church which even now is showing its spiritual strength as it endures crucifixion anew. Thanks in large part to the movement, there are now monasteries where there were none. There are charitable programs where there were none. There is theological education. There are holy elders. There are not just old monasteries that were previously on the brink of abandonment and are now filled with monastics, but there are even new monasteries.

And most Antiochians on this continent have no idea about any of this. Much of it, I only learned about recently myself.

So what did I say to Metropolitan Silouan when he asked us what our hopes were?

My hope for the future of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America is that we can receive some of these great spiritual riches.

orthodox- church-arab-worldWhy is it that an Orthodox Christian in America can easily access the 20th century holiness of Elder Paisios, Elder Sophrony, St. Silouan, St. Porphyrios, St. John of Kronstadt, Elder Cleopa, etc., and not feel that they are becoming Hellenized, Russified, Romanianized, etc.? These holy people are naturally attractive to us, because they are saints, and their holiness transcends cultural barriers. But why are we almost entirely ignorant of the immense spiritual power of Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East?

There are probably a lot of answers to that question. One of them is that not much is getting translated from Arabic to English. We are blessed to have the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy weblog to help us connect to that great spiritual wealth, and its author has recently contributed to a new volume to help us connect with some of that historical inheritance, too: The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources (a wonderful book I recently got a copy of, by the way). But there needs to be more of that kind of thing—a lot more.

There is a beautiful, vast treasure trove of Antiochian spirituality that most Orthodox Christians in America—even Antiochians—are mostly unaware of.

One of the things that has struck me profoundly during the past several weeks since our father Metropolitan Philip reposed in the Lord is how immediately and how refreshingly our patriarchate has become involved with us. I am not part of the “administration,” but I have not felt for one moment that we were “under” some “foreign bishops” during this process (something one often hears within Orthodoxy in America). Rather, my feeling has been that we are being attended to as family by family, that we are being loved by spiritual fathers who really care what happens to us.

All this brings us to the question of what this attention from the patriarchate might mean. It certainly has not seemed to me to be overbearing in any way. Some have suggested that it means that the patriarchate wants to draw us closer to itself so that there may be more solidarity between us. Some fear that this may mean “Arabization” (for whatever that might mean). Some fear that this may put administrative unity in Orthodoxy in America in some jeopardy, i.e., if the American Antiochians become more Antiochian, they will be less American.

I cannot answer all of those fears, because I do not know what the future holds. But I will give one example to address one of them. For some folks, “Arabization” might mean a new emphasis on the Arabic language in worship. That would of course be a tall order, since roughly 3/4 of our clergy are converts and most converts have no knowledge of Arabic. But I do not think it would be ordered at all, to be honest. We have a patriarchate that has parishes in Turkey, just over the border from Syria, that worship in Turkish—not Arabic. We also have a patriarch who, when he was assisting with parishes in Europe, insisted on taking an intensive English language course so that he could both liturgize and preach in English before he visited any parishes in the United Kingdom.

What I would like to see is a new infusion of the spirit of Antioch, a new and increasing access to these spiritual riches—Middle Eastern saints and elders, monasticism, vigorous and traditional Byzantine music education, mutual visits, etc. In short, we are a family that needs to become closer.

None of this is meant to be a criticism of Metropolitan Philip, by the way. He was the man for his time—a great man—and he accomplished many remarkable things. And I felt a personal loss at his death. At the same time, I am also reminded of words spoken by Archbishop Joseph at Sayidna Philip’s burial, when he was speaking of what the new Metropolitan would need to do:

“David fought the wars, but Solomon built the Temple.”

I don’t pretend to know exactly what he intended that to mean, but one interpretation that occurs to me is that +Philip fought many wars and was a victorious warrior. And the next Metropolitan now has an opportunity to take us to another level, a place where the spiritual depth of Antioch is brought to us in even greater power.

So what does all this mean for our fellow Orthodox Christians here in America who may wonder if the Antiochians might become too preoccupied with being Antiochian to be as concerned with administrative unity?

Just as all the other Orthodox traditions in America each have their own contribution to make to the Orthodox Church here, the Antiochians do, as well. And we should bring our very best to the table. Frankly, there is a lot in our own tradition that we haven’t accessed yet. And I want it for myself and for my own children. And it’s not out of any ethnic sentiment on my part that I want it—I’m Lithuanian (though I barely know what that means). I want this stuff because it’s a whole world of holiness to explore.

So that brings me to my final point, which I believe answers both the question of unity in the Antiochian Archdiocese and also unity within Orthodoxy in America:

The more authentically Orthodox Christian we become, the more united we will be.

The root of all division is sin. And the basis for all true brotherhood in Christ is holiness. It’s really pretty simple. So if each of us adheres more closely to what is best within each of our traditions (without ignoring other traditions, of course), then we will become one. Administrative issues are really secondary to the question of spiritual renewal, and if there is authentic spiritual renewal, the administrative issues will work themselves out a lot more easily.

So my hope is this: If anyone in the Holy Synod may happen to read this, and if any Antiochian or any Orthodox Christian happens to read this, that all our prayers will be joined together in the Holy Spirit so that the outcome of the next couple months’ deliberations pertaining to the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America is this:

Whatever might happen with the election of a Metropolitan or even questions of how we are to be administered, may it open up new channels for the abundant streams of grace from the Antiochian tradition to flow to us here in North America.

May God’s will be done.

Raising Authentically Christian Children: Good News and Bad News

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Palm Sunday procession in Emmaus
Palm Sunday procession in Emmaus

My friend Seraphim Danckaert published an article today on the O&H site that I think every Christian (Orthodox or not) should read: Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church. Why? Almost every kind of church throughout America is losing kids. So read it first before reading the rest of this.

Okay, done?

First, some bad news: If you’re counting on your church having awesome programs for your kids to make them be and keep them being good Christians, you’re going to be let down. There is only so much they can do, and expecting that they will do all the heavy lifting in your child’s spiritual life is extremely unrealistic. On a personal note, I’ve spoken with many 20- and 30-somethings who were very active in youth groups, Bible studies, outreach projects, etc., who all checked out of church after they left home. Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t active in public religiosity. It goes deeper, to the day to day stuff. Follow the path home. That’s where they learned to be adults. If the faith isn’t visible at home, which should be regarded as a “little church,” then it’s not going to be visible when your children start their own homes. You cannot outsource the spiritual side of parenting. And simply taking them to Sunday School (even consistently, which itself doesn’t seem to happen often any more) isn’t enough, either.

Okay, some good news: This piece is good news for all those parents who are striving to make their faith real in the home. Mothers especially are the heroes here, but fathers are critical, as well. Pray together with your kids, and not just over meals. Pray before they go to bed and at other times. Read the Bible to them. Read saints’ lives to them. Talk with them about what you read. Let your kids hear you talk about your faith, your hopes, your trust in God, your wish that you could spend more time in church, more time in prayer. Let them see you reading the Bible and other spiritual books. When you’re alone in your study and praying and your toddler sneaks in to play with forbidden things, pick him up and keep praying. All that agonizing you’re going through to make faith alive in your home is not in vain.

Another obvious conclusion is that you shouldn’t choose godparents for your kids based purely on familial or friend relationships. Your child needs to have an adult spiritual mentor who will model adult faith. Your pastor probably cannot be that person, not just because he cannot be an at-home part of your child’s life with great frequency but also because his status as a clergyman puts him outside the “role model” world for most kids. Most kids don’t imagine themselves as clergy, but they are more likely to imagine themselves to be like an aunt or uncle or close family friend. Imagination is critical in terms of spiritual possibility. If a child knows what it looks like to be a serious Christian adult, he’s more likely to be able to do it.

Regarding Seraphim’s third point, that a child needs not only authentic home spiritual life and a non-parent spiritual mentor, but that he also needs to have a spiritual experience of some kind before he hits his late teens, well, that can be a bit harder. You can’t make a kid experience the grace of God. But one thing we can count on is that there will be crises. And the direction we go when we experience a crisis will very much determine whether we experience grace. Do we model for our kids that we take such things to our pastors and into the sacrament of confession, that our first remedy is prayer and fasting? Or do we look for other solutions? (This is not to say that sometimes medical help may not be validly required, but it shouldn’t be sought out to the exclusion of spiritual guidance.) Someone who is raised going to confession regularly (not just once a year!) will likely think of his confessor as a go-to resource for dealing with a crisis. And while there’s no guarantee, he’s more likely to experience God’s grace there than if he turns to some other remedy.

I write all this in the context of working on the youth ministry in my own parish. It seems to me that it should probably mostly be geared to teaching how to make all these things a part of daily life, not just making time to get together and be spiritual and/or religious for a while and then go home. I also write this in the context of learning how to be a better father to three little Christians. I’m no expert. But I’m working on it. And I’m glad my wife is working hard on raising our children as Christians, too.

12 Reasons Why I Became and/or Remain an Orthodox Christian

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Lists like this are usually so much clickbait, I know, but I thought it was nevertheless worthwhile to compile a list of most of the reasons why I became and/or remain an Orthodox Christian. Some of these things were not really on my radar when I became Orthodox in 1998, but they are part of the reason why I genuinely do love belonging to the Orthodox Church (which is why “and/or Remain” is in the title).

The nature of lists like this is such that they can’t constitute apologetics, really, nor is this one (at least) intended to be universally applicable — these are my reasons. They may not be someone else’s. It will also become apparent that my background as an Evangelical prior to becoming Orthodox is a major factor here. So, all that said, here’s the list.

1. I believe the Orthodox Church really is the one, true Church of Christ.

There’s a lot that could be said here, but the reason why I believe this is that I examined both the Scriptures and the early history of Christianity, and I became convinced that the only church that matches them both is Orthodoxy. Particularly formative for me were the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John. The church life he described was definitely not what I saw in Evangelicalism. Since he was someone who learned how to be a Christian from the Apostles themselves, I wanted to be in his church.

Orthodoxy takes history seriously and doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff. It also doesn’t pick and choose from early Christian witness to develop a streamlined “system” of theology that is easy to swallow. Rather, because Orthodoxy is truly the community descended from the Apostles, within its theological memory are centuries of dogma, doctrine and theological reflection. Not all of it is totally consistent or easy to sort out, but it is nevertheless one great river of truth with an overall unified direction. One doesn’t see that in the same way in Roman Catholicism (there are several major turns in history), and it is impossible to find that in Protestantism. Most Protestants aren’t even concerned with it.

None of that means I regard non-Orthodox Christians as damned, nor do I even regard all Orthodox Christians as definitely destined for eternal bliss. And Orthodoxy’s truth is no testament to me. Orthodoxy is true, but not because of me.

2. Orthodoxy gives me something to do.

I don’t mean that I was bored and needed something to entertain me. I mean that the Christian life as I had been taught it prior to becoming Orthodox was essentially non-critical. I had been “saved,” and there was really nothing critical to do after that. I should try to be moral, of course, and get other people to get saved, too, but those things weren’t really necessary to the big question, which was: “Do you know what would happen to you if you died tonight?” Well, I knew. I was “saved.” I was going to Heaven.

But what if spiritual life is actually all critical? What if you need to endure to the end to be saved? What if being a Christian means working out your salvation with fear and trembling? Orthodoxy provides a full-bodied, full-souled spiritual life that assumes that everything you do as a Christian makes you either more like God or less like Him, and because becoming like God is what salvation consists of, that means that everything you do is critical. You haven’t “arrived” in this life. You should be moral and you should be evangelistic not because they get you bigger rewards in Heaven but because those things are part of what it means to cooperate with God so that you can be saved.

3. Orthodoxy gives me a way to see and touch God physically.

The Son of God became the Son of Mary, and that means that He became visible and touchable. In Orthodoxy, the implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation are that the divine presence — holiness — actually becomes present in the material world. Now, one can argue that that presence is uniquely present only in one physical place — the human body of Jesus — or one can be consistent and see how holiness shows forth in lots of other physical places both in the Bible and in subsequent Christian history. Saints’ bones, apostles’ shadows and even handkerchiefs touched by apostles have all showed forth the power of God.

Within that context, when Jesus said “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” it makes more sense to take Him seriously and not just metaphorically. That’s why St. Paul warned that people who received Holy Communion unworthily could get sick or even die. If it’s “just” a symbol, why would it do that?

The physicality of Orthodoxy — sacraments, incense, vestments, church architecture, icons, etc. — don’t get between me and God. They put me in touch with God. A bridge between two cliffs does not get between the cliffs but rather connects them. Orthodoxy’s many physical elements not manmade magic, but the working out of God’s gift of the Incarnation, the reconnecting of God and man.

4. Change is really hard.

People sometimes joke that Orthodoxy is not really an “organized religion,” with emphasis on “organized.” There is no pope handing down uniform instructions to the whole Church; our chiefest prelates often can’t seem to get along; and it seems like we’re never going to get around to holding that Great and Holy Council we’ve been talking about for nearly a century. But all those things don’t bother me. For one thing, it means that sheer logistics make it nearly impossible for us to alter what we do.

And if all that Eternity and Truth stuff is really true, why should we even think about altering it? It can’t get voted on democratically, and it can’t get imposed monarchically. So change doesn’t much happen. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Orthodoxy is not going to change out from under you.

That lack of organization also leads me to love Orthodoxy for another reason, too:

5. Orthodoxy really is one Church.

Unlike the denominationalism of the Protestant world, the various churches of Orthodoxy really do have to talk to each other and work things out. A Presbyterian and a Lutheran may each recognize each other as Christian, but they have almost no stake in each other’s internal church life. The same even holds true of someone belonging to the PCA and someone belonging to the PCUSA (both Presbyterian denominations). They don’t have to work anything out between them. A PCA church plant does not in any way infringe on the territory of the PCUSA, because they’re not the same church.

Orthodoxy may often bicker and fight (though most parishioners never see this unless they happen to be in a dysfunctional parish), but the fact that we have such bickering and fighting with each other means that we recognize in each other that we are one Church, that we have a problem and that we need to fix it. Protestants always have the option of just splitting (and once splits occur, they don’t have to bother with each other), while Roman Catholics can ultimately appeal to the Vatican, who can impose solutions that work for the Vatican but might not work for everyone else involved.

6. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole life.

Because Orthodoxy comes with a vast set of expressions of its tradition, you can never exhaust it all. There is always something new not just to learn but to become. While we don’t really “arrive” until the next life (and I’d argue even that is not an arrival; that is, it’s not the end of the road of salvation), there are many way-stations in this life that delight and grant joy. The difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in this regard is that I’m talking about not just growing in wisdom, which is common to all religious traditions, but that Orthodoxy tracks many stages of spiritual development throughout a whole lifetime.

I remember one time hearing a monk explain the response he got from a holy elder on Mount Athos after asking him many questions. The elder replied that some things just wouldn’t make sense to him until later, until he’d received some level of illumination (theoria). It’s true. One cannot read a “Statement of Faith” from Orthodoxy (not even the Creed) and say, “Ah, yes. That is everything Orthodoxy teaches. I understand it now.”

Again, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Yes, we like things to be simple, to be readily accessible to everyone, but any faith that is not complex enough to address all the complexities of human experience is not worthy of the dignity of mankind. Orthodoxy provides that in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else.

7. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole world.

There are no “target demographics” for Orthodoxy. We don’t do market research to figure out how to attract young people, old people, urban people, suburban people, or whatever particular demographic we might desire for our parish. A parish can often have a certain degree of commonality among members, but that isn’t by inherent design. There was no committee that met saying, “How do we get the 30-something suburbanites?”

Yes, Orthodoxy is sometimes plagued with ethnocentrism. But that’s a distortion of Orthodoxy, not faithfulness to it. And it’s not everywhere. I’ve belonged to both more ethnically focused and less ethnically focused, as well as ethnically non-focused Orthodox parishes, and none of them had an ethnic membership card check at the door. Orthodoxy is really a universal faith that has shaped numerous cultures and languages over many centuries.

If people as diverse as Arabs, Greeks, Serbs, Georgians, Russians, Estonians and Finns can all sing the same faith, and if both their young and old can sing it together, then truly, anyone is welcome. (Some Orthodox need to remember that more than others, though.)

8. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole person.

Mankind is not just emotionally moved by beauty, but he aches to be near it, to create it as much as that is possible. More than any other iteration of Christian faith, the Orthodox Church knows how to envelop the worshiper with beauty in all five (or more!) senses, both otherworldly beauty that transports the worshiper and otherworldly beauty that transforms the earthly.

One might describe this as aesthetic, but it is not “mere” aesthetics in the sense of something that appeals only to the senses, perhaps for entertainment value, but goes nowhere in particular. This is aesthetic in the sense that God Himself is beauty. That is why Orthodoxy, while sometimes homely or homey, is never cheesy. It is timely and timeless, but not “contemporary.”

The beauty of Orthodoxy addresses the whole human person in multiple ways. It is not a faith just for the “soul” or the “heart,” but for the body, as well, including our ability to apprehend beauty.

9. God really does love you the way you are, and He loves you so much, He won’t leave you that way.

There seems to be a constant battle these days, especially within Protestantism, over whether God should be perceived as loving or as a judge. Even those who preach that God is love still tend to preach a God Who is angry at you for your sins and has to be appeased. But Orthodoxy preaches the God Who is consistently loving, a God Who loves with such strength that His love will change you, if only you will cooperate with it. The change won’t be lousy, either, turning you into some goody-goody prude. Rather, it will be a change into authentic personhood, where virtue is striven for because of communion, not because of adherence to arbitrary rules.

10. Orthodoxy is both mystical and rational.

Some Orthodox will oppose the mystical to the rational, but that’s a mistake, I believe. For all the apophatic theology (theology which emphasizes our inability to know God with our minds), there is also a lot of cataphatic theology (theology that makes clear, positive truth claims) in the tradition of the Church. We don’t have to choose one or the other, nor are the two really alternatives to each other. Apophatic theology is also not merely a “corrective” to cataphatic theology. Rather, both are simply ways of talking about theological emphases within Orthodoxy.

It is not as though, when I am serving the Divine Liturgy, I switch on the “rational” part when preaching the Gospel and then toggle the switch to “mystical” when I drink from the Chalice. All these things are in play simultaneously. I love that, and I haven’t really encountered that anywhere but in the Orthodox Church.

11. Orthodoxy is ascetical.

No Christian body takes asceticism as seriously as Orthodoxy does. Roman Catholicism has it in its tradition, but it is mostly ignored. Yet Orthodoxy expects all Christians to fast, to stand vigil, to be as non-possessive as possible, etc., and it provides a programme for how to do that. You don’t have to make it up for yourself, because the tradition is already established. And it’s also customizable according to the pastoral discernment of your father-confessor.

Asceticism is a way to do real battle with the broken modes that the human will functions in. It allows a man to take control of himself in a powerful way so that he can redirect his God-given powers and energies back toward God and away from his base appetites. Asceticism doesn’t save anyone, but it certainly does help. Why? Because we are only saved to the degree that we want it. Asceticism helps us to want it.

And as anyone who has really fasted for all of Lent and then tasted that first taste of roast lamb at Pascha can tell you, asceticism actually makes the good things of this earth taste better. Far from being a denigration of God’s good creation, asceticism returns the creation to us and opens up its beauty in ways that consuming it without restraint cannot ever do.

12. Orthodoxy aims higher than any other Christian faith.

While theosis (deification/divinization) is not the only model of salvation in Orthodox Christian theology, it certainly makes some of the strongest claims. There are hints at doctrines of theosis in Roman Catholicism. (I am not aware of any Protestant groups that teach it.) Yet it is only in Orthodoxy that one is taught that salvation means to become by grace what Christ is by nature, that “God became man so that man might become divine” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation) that becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) is actually expounded upon. “I have said, ‘ye are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High’” (Ps. 82:6) is taken very seriously. You won’t find that anywhere else.

Even Pentecostals who teach that you can be chosen by God, spoken through by God, etc., aren’t really teaching that you can enter into such union with God that you begin to take on the divine attributes. But that is exactly what Orthodoxy teaches, that the transfiguration, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ are all what it truly means to be a Christian, that mankind is now seated on the very Throne of God Himself, and being in Christ means being seated there, too.

Pretty daring. But why settle for less?

So those are some of my reasons. What are yours?

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus, Redux

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bethke

This coming Sunday, Jan. 12, will be the two year anniversary of the post that has inexplicably (to me) probably been the most-read thing I’ve ever written. It’s always somewhat odd to me to note the things that get the most hits. They’re almost invariably stuff that’s more off-the-cuff than much-deliberated (like this silly post of coffee and theology jokes). (Kind of depressing, really.)

One thing I’ve noted from the comments on the post is that, at the time, many people chided my criticisms since I was picking on some “kid” who was just expressing himself, while I insisted that he was acting as a professional and making a contribution to public discourse that was therefore subject to critique.

Since then, that “kid” has of course made quite the career from the video in question and now has a book entitled JESUS > RELIGION. It’s still selling quite well on Amazon, with 308 reviews and counting, and is a NYT bestseller. His Facebook page currently has over 231,000 “likes.”

Now, one might argue that it was this video that propelled him from “amateur” to “professional” status, and it certainly did make him a celebrity. But as I mentioned at the time, the video was quite professionally produced, and he had already been soliciting speaking engagements for some time before the video came out. So he was clearly a professional, just not quite yet a very successful one.

But now he has joined the pantheon of Evangelical pop spirituality stars. I wish him well. I do not think that that kind of spirituality will long endure, however, as Evangelicalism now seems to be engaged in a fairly serious self-critique which is coming to look at the sort of religion this gentleman pushes as rather shallow and even heretical.

I actually ended up doing a couple of follow-up posts to explore some further issues related to the original. Here are all the posts in the series:

A lot of this kind of thing I would probably today post on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, but the site didn’t exist yet in January 2012. The popularity of the original post and its follow-ups are actually part of what led me to start the O&H site in the summer of 2012.

Thanks to all my readers. I appreciate whatever attention you can lend.

Fall Speaking Engagements: New Jersey, Georgia, SE Pennsylvania

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I’ve got several upcoming speaking engagements this Fall. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you:

I would love meeting many of you!

“Churching the Nation: Sharing the Orthodox Faith in America” near Atlanta on May 26

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cumming-2013

If you live in the Atlanta area, you’re invited to this event on Sunday, May 26, hosted by Ss. Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox Church, in Cumming, Georgia. I hope to meet many of you there!

For those of you on Facebook, there is an event page there for you to join.

No True Church? No True Church History.

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One of the criticisms of Orthodoxy’s understanding of its own history (not to mention, Roman Catholicism’s) is that there really is no unbroken Christian tradition of anything at all, that Church history is really just about multiple movements, doctrines and practices that cannot coherently be traced back to the Apostles. This is essentially one version of the historiography of the anti-ecclesiologists. If there is no true Church, then there certainly cannot be any true tradition of continuity.

The above is the first paragraph of a post I published today on the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy weblog, entitled “No True Scotsman does Church History Polemics.” It deals with one of the approaches to Church history taken by those who not believe in one, true Church (what I call the “anti-ecclesiology”), simply denying what those who lived in the centuries prior believed about their Church, that it is the unbroken continuation of the very Church of the Apostles.

I hope you like it.