Did you see the video of the Orthodox priest from Belarus offering an ecumenical greeting to the PCUSA assembly? The video and accompanying article can be found here. This is a very short, but powerful clip. Fr. Siarhei delivers a number of zingers, but he does it in such a nice way that you wonder if anyone even noticed:

  • First he tells the assembly that the Orthodox Church has an unbroken, unchanged, and unreformed Tradition and that our theology has not been changed in the past 2,000 years.
  • He spends a minute thanking the PCUSA for their partnership in social efforts, but that doesn’t deter him from what he says next…
  • He tells them that they are using the revised version of the Nicene Creed which includes the filioque.
  • He tells them that Christian morality has already been established and doesn’t need to be re-invented. He goes on to say that attempts to create a new morality look like attempts to invent a new religion; a religion that he calls a modern-day paganism. (This is in reference to some of the issues that the assembly was voting on, which you can read about in the article linked above).
  • He questions whether it is really the Holy Spirit that guides people to make such changes in doctrine, or if it is indeed a different spirit altogether. “Are there different spirits acting in different denominations?” wonders Fr. Siarhei.
  • He concludes by saying this his desire is that all Christians should contend earnestly for the faith, which was once and for all delivered to the Saints. (Jude 1:3)

Wow, he packed quite a lot into a 5-minute speech! While Fr. Siarhei was invited to deliver an ecumenical greeting he really ended up delivering a word of warning and a call to get on the right course. It is a powerful message and I appreciate that Fr. Siarhei was so careful to “speak the truth in love”.

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I mentioned earlier that I have been reading Surprised by Christ. I’ll save a full review for later, but for now I want to mention one section of the book that has really clicked for me: the comparison of the Jewish view of sacrifice to the Christian view of sacrifice.  You likely already know the prevailing Christian view of sacrifice as it pertains to Jesus: He was a sacrifice for us. He died for our sins, in place of us so that we might live. The prevailing Western view (both Protestant and Catholic) is that of substitutionary atonement: “Christ is a sacrifice by God on behalf of humanity, taking humanity’s penalty for sin upon himself, and propitiating God’s wrath. In other words, God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve.” When one accepts this kind of view, it’s hard (impossible?) not to see God the Father as an angry God who can only be appeased through death of either us or His perfect Son. The Orthodox view – both Christian and Jewish – is entirely different. God doesn’t punish us for our sin; instead He rescues us from it.

The Orthodox idea of atonement is portrayed in the Paschal hymn, “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” As the hymn indicates, Christ’s death and resurrection mean that He has defeated death and has set humanity free.  But why is this accomplished through death on a cross? Why was He made a sacrifice for us, especially if we are not espousing the juridical substitutionary atonement idea? One reason is that while sacrifice does not change God (as is indicated in substitutionary atonement), sacrifice does changes us. Fr. James writes:

As I researched the subject, I discovered an essential aspect of the sacrificial system described in the Old Testament: the outer act of sacrifice should reflect the inner state of the offerer seeking personal reconciliation with God. The goal of the sacrifice was to gain interior cleansing and change of heart, not to change God. This contrasts with the pagan view, in which the efficacy of the sacrifice is not at all dependent on the state of the individual offering it. Its purpose is not to change the state of the offerer, but to appease and change the deity… [the pagan] goal has a materialistic and utilitarian motivation; its goal is not to gain interior change, healing or love, but instead to gain control over other people and objects.

Fr. James goes on to identify three purposes of sacrifice in the Bible:

  1. Sacrifice was viewed as a gift. There were many kinds of sacrifices that the ancient Hebrews offered (animal, fruit, grain, wine, incense) but what was really important was that the offering was made with the knowledge that the repentant offerer was returning to God what was already His. A verbal confession of specific sins often accompanied the offering (Leviticus 5:5, 6, 13 – a very interesting precursor to the Christian rite of confession).
  2. Sacrifice was viewed as a form of communion. The sacrifice was never meant to be substitutionary (again, a contrast with pagan practices). The portion of the sacrifice that was burned was thought to be consumed by God, and the remainder was often eaten by the offerer and the priest. This aspect of sacrifice is also present in the Christian understanding of the Eucharist.
  3. Sacrifice provides expiation. Here’s what I discussed earlier: sacrifice is not meant to appease God (propitiation) but rather to create a change in the offerer (expiation). For the Jews, offering a sacrifice was an act of self-denial and an aspect of purification. This expiatory view of sacrifice is a commonality between Judaism and Orthodox Christianity. Both are different from the Western propitiatory view.

Fr. James further explains:

When Orthodox read a verse like ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3), it is understood to mean that Christ died for us – to heal us, to change us, to make us more godlike – not that He died instead of us. The ultimate purpose of His death is to change us, not to avert the wrath of God.

This view of sacrifice has been revolutionary for me in many ways. One (of several) things that it is helping me to understand is why Orthodox Christians are so big on living sacrificial lives. Orthodox Christian sacrifice free time to go to church and to pray, sacrifice resources through alms giving, sacrifice many types of food during the many fasts, etc. It’s not that God is pleased when we don’t eat meat or dairy on certain days of the week, instead it is that we are a stretched and challenged and changed by making this sacrifice; it’s an act of self-denial and a type of purification as we reject our desires and die to our passions. Believe it or not, it is quite effective.

Fr. James closes this chapter of his book with a quote from St. Anthony the Great (fourth century): “God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”

Newly illumined!

July 6, 2010

The baptism and chrismation on Sunday went exceedingly well. I really could not have asked for Calvin (his Christian name is David – his middle name) to do any better than he did.

The ceremony was very beautiful. We were very honored to have our local family in attendance.

Calvin cried when he was baptized – no surprise there! But he calmed right back down.

Thanks to my brother-in-law, we also have the whole ceremony on video. We published some of it here. I had watched several videos of baptisms but I never was able to find one of a toddler my son’s age. Hopefully this is helpful for someone out there.

I found this a few weeks ago on an Orthodox forum. Orthodox Christians are really into prayer. Pray, pray, pray – it’s one of the main tenets of an Orthodox life to be sure. Fortunately we are given very practical guidance on how to do this.

Helpful Information for Keeping a Prayer Rule
By St. Theophan the Recluse

You ask about a prayer rule. Yes, it is good to have a prayer rule on account of our weakness so that on the one hand we do not give in to laziness, and on the other hand we restrain our enthusiasm to its proper measure. The greatest practitioners of prayer kept a prayer rule. They would always begin with established prayers, and if during the course of these a prayer started on its own, they would put aside the others and pray that prayer. If this is what the great practitioners of prayer did, all the more reason for us to do so. Without established prayers, we would not know how to pray at all. Without them, we would be left entirely without prayer. However, one does not have to do many prayers. It is better to perform a small number of prayers properly than to hurry through a large number of prayers, because it is difficult to maintain the heat of prayerful zeal when they are performed to excess.

I would consider the morning and evening prayers as set out in the prayer books* to be entirely sufficient for you. Just try each time to carry them out with full attention and corresponding feelings. To be more successful at this, spend a little of your free time at reading over all the prayers separately. Think them over and feel them, so that when you recite them at your prayer rule, you will know the holy thoughts and feelings that are contained in them. Prayer does not mean that we just recite prayers, but that we assimilate their content within ourselves, and pronounce them as if they came from our minds and hearts.

After you have considered and felt the prayers, work at memorizing them. Then you will not have to fumble about for your prayer book and light when it is time to pray;  neither will you be distracted by anything you see while you are performing your prayers, but can more easily maintain thoughtful petition toward God. You will see for yourself what a great help this is. The fact that you will have your prayer book with you at all times and in all places is of great significance.

Being thus prepared, when you stand at prayer be careful to keep your mind from drifting and your feeling from coldness and indifference, exerting yourself in every way to keep your attention and to spark warmth of feeling. After you have recited each prayer, make prostrations, as many as you like, accompanied by a prayer for any necessity that you feel, or by the usual short prayer. This will lengthen your prayer time a little, but its power will be increased. You should pray a little longer on your own especially at the end of your prayers,
asking forgiveness for unintentional straying of the mind, and placing yourself in God’s hands for the entire day.

You must also maintain prayerful attention toward God throughout the day. For this, as we have already mentioned more than once, there is remembrance of God; and for remembrance of God, there are short prayers. It is good, very good, to memorize several psalms and recite them while you are working or between tasks, doing this instead of short prayers sometimes, with concentration. This is one of the most ancient Christian customs, mentioned by and included in the rules of St. Pachomius and St. Anthony.

After spending the day in this manner, you must pray more diligently and with more concentration in the evening. Increase your prostrations and petitions to God, and after you have placed yourself in Divine hands once again, go to bed with a short prayer on your lips and fall asleep with it or recite some psalm.

Which psalms should you memorize? Memorize the ones that strike your heart as you are reading them. Each person will find different psalms to be more effective for himself. Begin with Have mercy on me, O God (Psalm 50); then Bless the Lord, O my soul (Psalm 102); and Praise the Lord, O my Soul (Psalm 145). These latter two are the antiphon hymns in the Liturgy. There are also the psalms in the Canon for Divine Communion: The Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 22); The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (Psalm 23); I believed, wherefore I spake (Psalm 115); and the first psalm of the evening vigil, O God, be attentive unto helping me (Psalm 69). There are the psalms of the hours, and the like. Read the Psalter and select.

After you have memorized all of these, you will always be fully armed with prayer. When some disturbing thought occurs, rush to fall down before the Lord with either a short prayer or one of the psalms, especially O God, be attentive unto helping me, and the disturbing cloud will immediately disperse.

There you are; everything on the subject of a prayer rule. I will, however, mention once again that you should remember that all these are aids, and the most important thing is standing before God with the mind in the heart with devotion and heartfelt prostration to Him.

I will repeat once again that the essence of prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God; these little rules are an aid. We cannot get by without them because of our weakness. May the Lord bless you!

Excerpted from The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It
(Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996).

*If you are interested in a prayer book, I recommend the Little Red Prayer Book. You can find some of the same prayers online here.

Radical Shifts

June 28, 2010

I’m currently reading Surprised by Christ by Rev. A. James Bernstein. Fr. James was raised by Orthodox Jewish parents, went on to become a Christian who helped found the “Jews for Jesus” organization and later he became an Orthodox Christian. It’s an interesting path, and I am especially interested in it in light of recent conversations I’ve had regarding Messianic Judaism. I am hopeful that the book will spur some interesting discussion here, but for now I want to highlight the foreword written by Metropolitan (then Abbot) Jonah:

Theologically addressing basic presuppositions, Fr. James shows that Orthodox Christianity has a vision of God and salvation radically different, and far more healthy, than the culturally conditioned presuppositions of American popular religion. To become an Orthodox Christian is not a matter of accepting a few additional doctrines, like the veneration of Mary and calling salvation “theosis.” Conversion demands a radical shift, not only in which church one attends, but in the very ways we think about God. How we think about God conditions our experience of Him. Conversion to Orthodox Christianity means that we have to change our basic presuppositions in order to open ourselves more fully to the great mystery of God’s Presence, love and mercy. We have to discard the old ways of thinking about God and salvation, which, insofar as they are erroneous, block the experience of God and present obstacles on the path to salvation.

My husband and I have been hearing a very similar message from our priest. We are to be converting, not merely adjusting. Since we were lapsed Protestants, our conversion does feel very much like a real conversion. We find that we are seeing the world from an entirely new perspective. It’s actually really exciting – kind of like have back-to-back lightbulb moments for the past year or so. We have experienced some of the radical shift that the Metropolitan mentioned, but I think it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

First Confession

June 25, 2010

Our chrismation is scheduled for July 4th. This secular holiday will soon have a very new meaning for us!

Since chrismation is nigh, we’ve begun thinking about and preparing for our first confession. Confession is one of those things that a lot of Protestants really, really don’t like. Yet the Bible is very specific on the topic: Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16). Though it would seem that there’s not a lot of wiggle room in this verse, reception of this command seems to vary. Many blow over it as if it’s a nice idea, but not really for them, except perhaps at a time and place of their own choosing. Others do find it important and set up accountability groups or partners to whom they can both confess and encourage. This is certainly a step in the right direction, though depending on the spiritual maturity of those involved it may be a bit of the blind leading the blind.

For me personally, the idea of confessing in the presence of a priest was not a hurdle to overcome on my journey to Orthodoxy. I did think that it was a curious custom, but initially it was something that I was neither for nor against. As I contemplated the concept, I realized that without confession the priest has no idea what is going on in the lives of most of his parishioners. I thought about some of my Protestant friends and their churches. I may know many of the things that my friends struggle with, but do their pastors have any idea? In every scenario I could think of, I determined that the answer was “no.” How in the world can a person pastor a group of people when they do not really know those people as individuals? What kind of church has no (or very limited) accountability within its body? How can people really grow or mature without the involved guidance of someone who is spiritually more mature? After this line of questioning I began to see the sacrament of confession as a very good thing indeed.

Another reason to confess is to prepare oneself to receive the Eucharist. We know that one must be careful to not partake of the Eucharist in an “unworthy manner;” such a manner may include hidden immorality, disunity, doctrinal heresy, or disorder. We need to examine ourselves, and part of this examination is confession before God in the presence of a priest who visibly represents Christ. Why not just confess to God without the presence of a priest? We know that the “heart is deceitful” and as St. Paul wrote, “if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” (1Co 11:28) I know that I try to be introspective and aware of what it is that I do, but at the same time I will readily admit that I can easily rationalize my behavior. I imagine this rationalization is not so easy when confessing in the presence of a priest.

My husband and I have both been really looking forward to our first confession. I believe it will be cleansing and edifying. I am looking forward to the direction that it will provide. It may seem strange, but I am very excited to confess my sins.

Does God care how we worship Him, or is it a matter of our own preference?

Does our church reflect that Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, or does it accomodate the changing world and ever-changing tastes?

Does your church look like a lecture hall, or like a temple?

These are issues that I never fully considered before my introduction to Orthodoxy. Oh, I certainly had opinions on worship; the traditional Protestant type worship often seemed dead, and the more contemporary version of the same often seemed overly emotional. There were elements of both that I could appreciate, but nothing that I could consistently latch on to as “true worship.”

Furthermore, as a Protestant I felt that worship was so dependent upon various aspects beyond my control: Which songs were we singing today? If the songs were among my least favorite, then there went the whole experience and the chance to really worship. Is the choir good today? Is the worship leader present? If not, then chances were good that my mind was on the quality of the music rather than worshiping. And if there was bad theology in a song? Oh well, it rhymes nicely. Perhaps worst of all, worship was mostly a preparatory exercise to hear a sermon; that is to say that worship was a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.

But let’s really get to the heart of the matter here: What does it mean to really worship God? And what about worshiping Him the way that He wants to be worshiped, rather than the way we prefer to worship?

Orthodox worship is a serious – but not stuffy – affair. As I pondered this ancient form of worship, it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t up to me to decide the best way to worship God. Maybe, just maybe – it wasn’t about how I felt about the worship – maybe it was about how He felt and what He wanted. Maybe it shouldn’t be about having the right music to “get in the mood” to worship – maybe it should be about worshiping regardless of how I feel.

When I changed my perspective, the pieces began to fall into place. I’ve been attending Divine Liturgy for almost a year, and it’s more or less been the same thing every Sunday. Yet weekly I am amazed by the enormity of the beauty and wonder that I witness. For the first time I feel like the focus of worship is completely on God and not even slightly on me or how I feel. Pay close attention to many Christian hymns and songs and you will find that somehow the worship has become intertwined with the individual and his feelings. Look at the words to Amazing Grace, for example. It’s a nice song but it hardly qualifies as worship.

I’ll close with these comments from Fr. John Matusiak:

We do not gather for worship to be entertained, to be “relevant,” or to “appeal” to this group’s “taste” at the expense of the whole. While humans have the need to worship, worship must offer a glimpse of the divine, not an affirmation of humanity. Worship must always be seen as focused on God, period, and not on “me.”