Monday, July 22, 2013

Wisdom from the Fathers - St. Isaac the Syrian

In our church bulletin this past Sunday.

Answers to Prayer

"If God is slow to grant your request and you do not receive what you ask for promptly, do not be grieved, for you are not wiser than God. 
When this happens to you, it is either because your way of life does not accord with your request, or because the pathways of your heart are at odds with the intention of your prayer. 
Or it may be because your inner state is too childish by comparison with the magnitude of the thing you have asked for. 
It is not appropriate that great things should fall easily into our hands, otherwise God's gift will be held in dishonor, because of the ease with which we obtain it. 
For anything that is readily obtained is also easily lost, whereas everything which is found with toil is preserved with care."

from The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian

Friday, July 19, 2013

What I'm Reading - Six Frigates

     Starting in the Adams administration and continuing through to the end of the War of 1812, Six Frigates is a well researched and very readable history of the Navy of the United States. Begun in the shadow of the British Royal Navy that was thought to be unbeatable, the American Navy faced challenges of every kind. The navy grew as the country grew, by fits and starts, by rising to challenges (The Barbary pirates, Britain and France) and learning from mistakes. Toll's narrative covers the political, economic, social and technical challenges that faced shipbuilders, sailors, captains and congressmen that managed the development and operation of the fleet.

      From the last chapter: “What was remembered and cherished about 1812, above all, was the fact that America's tiny fleet had shocked and humbled the mightiest navy the world had every known.” This was the most significant outcome of the War of 1812, which is often overlooked by Americans and British alike. The United States, by it's naval victories and dogged insistence that it would not give in to being pushed around by anyone, won the respect if not the admiration of the powers of Europe. After 1815, the United States moved themselves out of the status of 'bloody colonials' and were recognized as a power to be reckoned with.

      It is also worth noting, as Toll does, that “it was only after the War of 1812 that Americans began speaking of the United States in the singular rather than the plural”. The War of 1812 helped to define America's sense of itself, and that would not have happened without the construction of Six Frigates. 

     Two hundred years on, the United States is in the opposite position. We've got the biggest navy in the world, and even I have gotten into the mindset that we can go anywhere we want to and nobody can stop us. This is exactly the mindset of the British in 1812, and as it turns out, they were wrong. I do not know who it will be but eventually some nation will rise up and challenge our dominance of the sea. Maybe it will be China, maybe Russia again, maybe India or Japan. Maybe it will be the European Union. When that happens, our planners and policy-makers would do well to take a lesson from our former adversaries, the British. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wisdom from the Fathers - St. John of Kronstadt

St. John of Kronstadt, a Russian priest of the 19th century said:

"Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

"Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it; where there is no struggle, there is no virtue. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations."

"Prayer for others is very beneficial to the man himself who prays; it purifies the heart, strengthens faith and hope in God, and arouses love for God and our neighbor."

Poetry by St. John

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Prayer to the Saints

    I recently had the opportunity to hear an Orthodox priest speak on the the Orthodox (and Roman) practice of directing our prayers to the Saints of the Church. He gave me permission to partially transcribe his lecture here. As I have shared the stories of many Saints on this blog, it seemed fitting to include also this explanation of the practice and its' validity as a Christian practice. 

    Orthodox Christians get asked this question a lot: ”why do you pray to the Saints?”  To answer this question we first need to understand that the word “pray” means at its elemental level simply “to ask”. Today the word pray is often conflated with worship, which is due only to God.  Worship certainly includes prayer, in terms of communing with God and developing our relation to Him, but as praying is essentially asking it does not always include worship.
    This leads to a few more questions:  “Why do we pray to God, when He knows everything?”  Prayer is not about informing God of our needs but acknowledging them & our inability to help ourselves, and turning to the One who is able to help us. Through prayer we purify our hearts, express our humble dependence upon God and unite ourselves to Him.
    Next, we need to ask “Why do we ask other people to pray for us when we can go directly to God ourselves?”  Prayer is ultimately about communion.  To be in communion with God includes being in communion with His Body.  We pray for one another because this is a way we express our love for one another and manifest the communion of the Body of Christ.  Prayer is also an ascent, and when we pray for one another we ascend and are found in communion with God and one another.
    Then, we need to ask “Why do many of us go out of our way to ask certain people to pray for our more serious needs?” We know either because of the Scripture or intuitively that some people’s prayer seems to be more effective because they are righteous and closer to God.  As St. James tells us, the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16)
    So, if prayer is about communion and we are to be in communion not only with God, but with the whole Church, how do we manifest this communion in a way which includes the Church triumphant, those who have gone before us, especially the Saints? Are those who are asleep in the Lord excluded from the Church?
    In Hebrews 12:1 we read that we “are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.”  And later in the same chapter: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.”
    Clearly the writer believes that not only the angels, but the spirits of the righteous are surrounding us.  In fact, when we are made members of the Church he says we are joined to the Church in heaven – to these righteous souls made perfect. They are a very real and living part of the Church and when we entered into a relation with Christ who is their Lord and ours, we entered into a relationship with them.
    The final question is “Are they dead?”  Those who insist that we are addressing dead people are directly contradicting the Scriptures and the words of our Lord.  Jesus said to Martha at the grave of her brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.”
    The Apostle Paul regularly refers to those who have “fallen asleep in the Lord”.  This is not Paul euphemizing death for the sake of his sensitive readers, but instead reflecting a truth to which the Lord himself witnessed in Mark 5:39 “the child is not dead, but sleeping”.
    Jesus teaches in John 6 that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood, speaking of the Eucharist, will live forever and not die. God is the God of the living and not the dead: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even the Rich man in Hades could communicate with Abraham across the chasm to Paradise.
    But now He has destroyed death through His Resurrection, and the Saints do not die, but live, even though for the time being their soul is not with the body.
    When we are joined to the Church we are joined in relationship with the Saints in heaven. The Saints are alive and present, surrounding us.  We cannot be in communion with God unless we are in communion with the Church, the Body of Christ.  And there is no communion without prayer.
    The Saints are alive, and they are part of our communion in Christ, and so we do not hesitate to ask for their intercession.  We pray together with the Saints in one fellowship, in one communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which never ends, and in which we express our belief in the word and work of Jesus, the Conqueror of death, in whom we have abundant and eternal life.

Off the Cuff Movie Review - The Lone Ranger

     No, sorry, not that Lone Ranger. I'm talking about the 1956 film of the TV Show staring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. With all the ads about the current feature film, my boys wanted to know about this Western hero. So we found on Hulu or Netflix that we could watch episodes of the 1950's vintage B&W TV show. The boys love it, and I've been enjoying the show as well. Good guys wear black (masks)!
    Now, the story in the film is, quite plainly, an extended length TV episode. No origin story, no startling revelations or world-changing plot twists. Just our eponymous hero and his faithful friend riding hard to save the day for settlers and the Indians. I know that some of the expressions, especially racial epithets and stereotypes, used in that era are not acceptable any more, so I'll try to avoid using them, but they are not enough reason to not see this film.
    The story opens in an unnamed territory out West, with the territorial Governor coming to visit an influential rancher. The territory wants to apply for statehood, but the Governor is concerned that “Indian trouble” will be a stumbling block to that process. You can tell almost right away who the film's villain will be. Rancher Kilgore gets a minor-key musical motif, and his name (Kilgore= kill + gore) implies wickedness.
    The Governor also has a secret meeting planned while in town, and eventually he meets up an old prospector who show him a silver bullet as his credential. After establishing that the Governor is on the up-and-up, the prospector does a quick change into the Lone Ranger! Clayton Moore does a great character switch; I really did not know he was both characters until the LR dropped into the prospector's voice to convince the Governor. The two agree to work together to maintain peace between the two sides, and root out the source of the trouble.
    LR & Tonto go to visit the local reservation and meet with Red Hawk, the aging chief, and his ambitious junior, Angry Horse. Is that supposed to sound like Crazy Horse?  Maybe. Anyway, the Indians (no tribal name is given) have their gripes with the Territorials, violations of their land, especially the Sacred Mountain, which is taboo for everyone. Tensions are on the rise, and the younger braves want to fight.
    Kilgore's men start up a cattle drive. The herds cross Indian land, the ranch crew steals cattle from another farmer and kills him, to further demonstrate who the bad guys are. At the other end of the drive, Kilgore's henchmen pick up a shipment of dynamite on the hush-hush, so you know they're up to no good with it.  Later some more of Kilgore's men disguise themselves as Indians and start a dangerous brush fire. The final straw comes when Kilgore sends his daughter away to keep her from danger and her carriage is attacked by the Indians. The Territorials form a posse behind Kilgore to get her back and punish the Indians.
    Our heroes, having discovered Kilgore's ultimate goal (surprise!) in causing all the strife,  ride ahead to the reservation to secure the girl's release. LR debates with Angry Horse, saying that he doesn't have the wisdom needed to be a leader of his people. The two get a good fight in, with the girl's release dependent upon the victor. You can guess how the fight ends.
    Unaware of all this, Kilgore leads his posse towards the reservation to start the war. LR & Tonto find themselves in the middle of the two warring sides. Do they survive?  Is a happy ending possible?  Of course, and I won't spoil it.

    One of the things I appreciate about the TV show and this movie is that there is a balance – people on both sides want to fight, and people on both sides want to live in peace. Yes, Kilgore is the designated villain, but he's not the only source of ill-will and even he gets some sympathetic treatment. The local sheriff and Indian Agent want to maintain peace and respect the Indian's rights even against the sentiment of many of the Territorials. The gunplay is exciting but unbloody & the Ranger does a lot of his trademark trick shooting. There is one near-lynching of an Indian which is clearly meant to seem unfair and unjust to the audience.  The Ranger's simple and humble heroic career is a refreshing change from the modern penchant for jaded anti-heroes.  This movie is a fun, fast-paced adventure with lots to cheer about. It remains to be seen if the current feature film can live up to this standard of good guys, good friends and justice over vigilantism.

p.s.    As to the stereotypes, we've used them as starting points for conversations with our boys about how we, especially as Christians, treat those who are different from us, and recognizing & respecting virtue no matter who displays it.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wisdom from the Fathers - St Cyril of Alexandria

      “The Church is the holy city which ha not been sanctified by observing the Law - for the law made nothing perfect (Hebrews 7:19) – but by becoming conformed to Christ: participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through the communication of the Holy Spirit who stamped us with His seal in the day of our deliverance when we were washed from every stain and freed from all iniquity.”

- St Cyril, as quoted in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky

Monday, July 1, 2013

Listening to Young Atheists

Listening to Young Atheists – A reflection

     The June 2013 issue of The Atlantic magazine included an article by Larry Alex Taunton entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” I was very interested in what the author had to say, even though I don't know any atheists personally.

    Go and read the article, but here is a summary of their findings: (paraphrased by me)
1. Most had experience with Christianity in some form, and reacted negatively against it.
2. Those with church experience thought that their church's mission and message were vague
3. They asked hard questions, and were given superficial answers
4. They still had respect for Christians who believed and practiced their faith seriously
5. Most chose atheism between ages 14 and 17
6. The choice to embrace unbelief was in part an emotional one, not a purely rational one
7. The Internet, specifically Youtube videos and forum chats were significant influences

My thoughts about the article and its findings:

    On point one, It is implied not stated that most of those interviewed came from Evangelical or Mainline Protestant churches. As these are the expressions of Christianity with the most adherents in this country, that is a reasonable assumption.  Orthodox Christians should absolutely not assume that this is just a Protestant thing, and our children will not have to deal with this. We're all human. Anyone's kids can be led down this path. I do not think I can emphasize this point too strongly. Most all of the atheists surveyed became atheists in reaction to Christianity or some experience within a Christian setting. In a country where it is so easy and acceptable to be passively irreligious, there has to be some strong motivation for a person to become actively or even militantly irreligious.

    On point 2, how well are we communicating the centrality of our faith to our kids? Whether the Liturgy is in English or another language, we must take time to explain and inform. Orthodox liturgies are beautiful, and rich in worship and doctrine. Make sure the lessons are being caught. We may also want to explain them to visitors. Can we as parents explain the doctrines of the Church, especially justification sanctification and theosis?  If we can't, we are simply a cultural artifact with nice artwork.

    On point 3, I don't think that this is as serious of a problem for the Orthodox. I hope I'm not wrong, but I might be. With centuries of Church Fathers who spent their lives pondering and inquiring into the mysteries of God, there are probably few topics that the Church has not already tackled. So any question should be answerable, if we are willing to do some reading. Our kids deserve to be taken seriously when they ask serious questions. This could even be a time to grow together as you seek answers to questions. 
    Evolution & creation?  Yes, the Church does speak to those things, but without the essentially Enlightenment & Rationalist mindset of some Heterodox groups. Sexuality? Orthodoxy has a very well developed theology of the human person, which includes sexuality. It is holistic, balanced and grounded in Scripture – like all of the Church's doctrine. What it is not is agreeable to the modern secular 'personal fulfillment uber alles' mindset. Biblical inerrancy?  Here the Orthodox may surprise many in that it is the Church, not the Bible that is given highest authority. The Bible exists within the life of the Church and is interpreted by her. The Orthodox do not adhere to rigidly literal interpretation, so textual disputes have less significance. This is not to say that there is not discussion or disagreement about some matters, but not major issues of doctrine. 

     N.B. I just have to take issue for a moment with the inaccurate equating, in this article and American culture generally, of Christianity with the Bible. Jesus created the Church at Pentecost (celebrated recently in the East) and the Church compiled the Bible. The Bible is part of the Church's expression of its fullness. Clear?  Moving on.
     Only one way? Orthodoxy has a very elaborate and rich Christology. Christ is the Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos. We cannot with our limited understanding declare with certainty who is or is not a part of Christ. What we do say is that the Church is what Christ gave humanity as the way to Himself, as our Rule and Practice.
     Purpose? Significance?  We bear in our humanity the Image of God! We are called by God to assist in the redemption of the Cosmos! How much more significant can we be?  Orthodoxy does not accommodate the ethical standards of any age or culture. The Church's ethical teaching is consistent, unified and clear. The right thing to do is not hard to know, it is hard to do.

     On point 4, how are we responding to visitor or inquirers?  I've heard many anecdotal accounts of cultural Americans entering Orthodox churches and being asked “why are you here (since you don't look like us)?” We had better not think that the Gospel and the Church belong only to people like ourselves. If we don't want to share the Faith, then maybe it doesn’t' mean much to us either.

     Orthodox evangelism is in my experience more subtle and less transactional than the approach favored by some other groups. “Come and see” is an often used invitation. Still, I think we could be more willing to accept as the article says “socially awkward"-ness  to initiate conversations about the Church. Always, of course with “gentleness and respect”.

    I have yet to meet an Orthodox priest who does not take his calling and the Gospel entrusted to him seriously. A priest is no more likely to become wealthy than any given Protestant pastor. Most every priest of my acquaintance works a 'civilian' job on top of their clerical duties to support their families.
    What about us lay folk? It is a lot easier for us to be passive and think 'that's the deacon's/priest's job' instead of confronting attitudes habits and behaviors that are not Godly. For my own part I admit to often avoiding this because I don't want things to be 'socially awkward', even with young people at my own parish.

    On points 5 & 6, teenagers are emotional critters. This is common knowledge. If something in or at the Church is creating an emotional situation for your kids, let them talk about it – even if they're angry. Take it seriously and never assume that they won't decide to leave on emotional grounds. For one example, what will they do if their heterodox or irreligious girl/boy-friend does not want to join the Church? Do we really think that our kids would never walk away from the Church for 'love'?  There are plenty of other touchy situations that could go badly if not handled with care – refer back to points 2, 3 and 4.  The teenage years are tough, with lots of changes coming fast and from all directions. We the parents and the Church should be the rock, the stable point that they can rely on as they work and grow towards the maturity we all want for them.

    On point 7, this is just one more reason why parents in particular, but Church family as well should know what the kids are up to online. I am glad for all of the Orthodox blogs and sites that communicate the Faith, and some that engage the atheist world view with the Truth that has endured. I wonder, I don't know, if we Orthodox Christians should seek out and engage the atheists on these forums, presenting the Church that takes the Faith and the Bible very seriously, that has a firm purpose and message, and that has the hard answers to the hard questions. If we do, it cannot be to pick fights and hit people with our doctrine stick but always to share the fullness of the Faith, the true Life who is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. 

Lord, have mercy on all who have been deluded by atheism, and have mercy on me a sinner.