Sunday, February 25, 2007

round two

It snowed again today. Kind of a surprise, too, because they were calling for mostly ice. This time I shoveled all of the spaces right in front of our building (meaning, half of the total spaces, or more than that, if you don't count the ones the plow eliminates with its snow pile). That's not as impressive as it sounds--I don't think we got as much this time, and since there were cars parked in them, there wasn't nearly as much space for the snow to accumulate. Besides, it was mostly for my own sake, since I'm hoping to increase our odds of getting a clean space. And it was just enough for me to scratch the snow shoveling itch. (I know that, because when I turned to look at the other side, I wimped out.)

We haven't moved our car yet, so no way to know whether my attitude will be any better this time around. I would appreciate your prayers that this doesn't just add more sin to the pile (which I'm sure is considerably bigger than any of the snow banks out there).

Friday, February 23, 2007

most holy Theotokos, save us!

One area where I've got my head around Orthodoxy but am much slower to feel at home in it is veneration of and prayer to saints. I have no problem repeating the morning and evening prayers, or affirming what we sing and pray in services; but it's probably the most significant area--perhaps the only area--where I often feel like I'm just going through the motions. Tonight I had an unexpected opportunity to attend the Akathist service, which Holy Cross does pretty much every Friday during Lent. For those who don't know, it's pretty much one long hymn of praise to the Mother of God. Everything is grounded, of course, in her role as the bearer of Christ, but if you're not particularly comfortable with the idea of praying to human saints, it can feel disconcerting, or at best, like there's really not much connection.

Part-way through the service, though, a thought hit me. This is probably just a very tiny step, and hopefully in the right direction, but as we kept repeating after each stanza (there's probably a better word here, but I still haven't got a handle on all the musical terms), "Most holy Theotokos, save us!" I began to think of it in the context of the annunciation. Time tends to get a bit goofy in Orthodox worship anyway, so I don't think it's necessarily out of line to look at it this way. But I began to see it less as a request and more as an exhortation. In some sense, when we say that line, we're cheering her on, to say "yes" to God's plan for her. It is not by her own power that she can save us, but by her willingness to be used by God so that the Word can be made flesh. Without the incarnation, we're hopeless, and in that moment between the angelic proclamation and Mary's willing response, all creation shouts its encouragement.

Now, I know that there's more to it than that. I know that it's also dealing with present needs and asking for her prayers on our behalf. As I say, I can understand and accept that part in my head. But it's still not something I quite feel on a personal level. There's a growing process here, most of it still ahead of me. But I think tonight I acquired a piece, however small. And in some sense the rest of it really does flow out from there. I had glimpses. If she says yes, God becomes man; and who can really perceive all the facets of the salvation that comes to us from that event. Last Sunday, at Forgiveness Vespers, we were reminded how our sins affect others, however private they may seem. This unseen ripple effect touches every soul. But how much more does the work of Christ touch everyone in every way? If I pray for a sick loved one to be healed, or a city to be defended, or a danger to be averted, the salvation I seek in those situations comes through Christ. And like everything else, it all hinges on his becoming human on our behalf.

More to come, but for now I'll take what I can get.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

lent and legalism

I suppose I probably read or heard this somewhere along the way, but it came into my head the other day that there's a good picture of salvation in the Orthodox experience of Pascha (Easter). Of course, that should go without saying, but I have in mind a particular juxtaposition.

Orthodox Lent (and really the whole annual fasting cycle) is just about the most rigorous general fasting practice (to be distinguished from specialized monastic rules) in Christendom. Another way of putting this is, Western Christianity has scaled back its fasting practice from Church Tradition, to the point where it is barely token in Roman Catholicism and all but vanished in Protestantism. To over-simplify, we eat vegan for the whole period of Lent, plus cutting back the number of meals to one or two per day and some days abstaining from food altogether. There are more detailed specifications, and with all the available options, substitutes, checking ingredients, etc., it's easy, especially as a newbie, to get wrapped up in the mechanics and lose sight of the purpose. It's also easy to become critical of those who don't fast as rigorously, or self-satisfied with how strenuous one's own practice is.

Fast-forward to Pascha, the end of Lent (well, technically Lent ends at Palm Sunday, but the rigorous fasting continues for one more week). In every Orthodox church around the world, the same homily is read every year, and has been read consistently over the centuries--the paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom. St. John preached some long sermons, many of which have been collected into several-hundred-page commentaries on the various books of the Bible. But this one's comparatively short and sweet. I suspect that at least part of the reason it's repeated every year is that it's hard to improve on. Perhaps a smaller part of the reason is that you always know what's coming. One thing about Lent is everything's done in view of what comes at the end. You know, from the first day of the fast, that at the end you will hear these words:
If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

We never feel satisfied that we've fasted perfectly. Each year we strive to do better than the last. Each year we face our own pride and sinfulness. We work to bring our bodies into submission, and to match our physical obedience with spiritual. But when all is said and done, we never earn God's favor. We never can, and that's not even the point. All are welcomed at the feast, however much they've stumbled, however late they've started, even if they haven't fasted at all. We don't do this to pull ourselves into heaven by our own bootstraps. It's an expression of our love for Christ, or it's nothing. The challenge is to remember that as we proceed.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

razor-sharp grass and back-breaking apples

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis portrays visitors from hell to heaven as phantoms. Their experience of the reality of heaven is literally painful--the grass is too sharp to walk on, and even a leaf can barely be moved. I felt like I was living a scene from that book this morning. As usual, Ian wanted to go out and play in the snow, which for him means mostly to shovel it with no particular objective. Wet snow followed by a cold snap gives you basically a coating of white ice, and it still hasn't warmed up enough to soften things up. He was determined, though. I'd watch him grunt and slide, until he finally managed to scrape free a few precious grains that could be hurled. He'd had enough by the time I was ready to go inside and went along willingly.

At one point, we tried walking out into the common yard between the buildings. You stay right on top of the snow, and if you're not careful, it's easy to slip and fall. Fortunately, with his snow pants on, he didn't get hurt from falling on his butt several times in a row. Still, it didn't seem like we'd get very far that way, so I had him sit on the shovel and pulled him around the yard for a while. That was fun while it lasted, but he still had to make the attempt at the shoveling.

Truly axios are those men of the Brotherhood of St. Joseph, who are probably assailing the shell around our church as I type this. I hope they have more pick-axes among them than shovels.

Friday, February 16, 2007

extra cheese & halopinos [sic]

The other day I was listening to talks from the Orthodox-Anglican conference held recently in Michigan. Someone quoted Bp. KALLISTOS as saying, "It's not the meat, it's the cheese." I'm pretty sure I agree. Since we had to go up to see my grandpa, I didn't get much chance to finish Meatfare with a bang, but I didn't have big plans anyway. We might have gone to Golden Corral toward the end of the week, so I could have a selection of meat, but it was mostly because I felt like I ought to. As it is, I ended up having beef on weck for my "last meal," which was certainly unexpected, but appreciated nonetheless.

But Cheesefare--I had a long list of foods I wanted to eat this week. I've hit most of them--raspberry danish, various types of cookies, cheesecake, apple pie, ice cream, macaroni and cheese (from KFC, no less), cheesy potatoes (still working on those), and pizza. For Valentine's Day, we went to Red Lobster; I got the shrimp pasta (very cheesy), Caesar salad, and of course the ever-popular cheddar biscuits. I still need to have eggs, and maybe some donuts, but I have a couple of days left. Tonight it was pretty cold, so Julie decided to order pizza, rather than go anywhere. The coupon was for two toppings. I don't like vegetables 0r fungus, and it didn't seem like a good time to find out whether I like anchovies, so we ordered it with extra cheese, pepperoni on half, and jalapeƱos on the other half. They don't normally put them on pizza, so someone hand-wrote "halopinos" on the receipt. Julie put it into words as well as anything: "Hooked on Phonics worked for me!" I don't think I've ever ordered pizza with "halopinos" before, but what else could I do? It was pretty good, but I'm sure I'll regret it in the morning.

I'm definitely going to miss dairy over the next several weeks. Still, I'm looking forward to the fast. I get lazy in between. Fortunately, this time it wasn't long between the Nativity Fast and Lent (pity we're not on the Old Calendar--they had even less time to relax). I feel like I've done nothing but overeat since Christmas. My goal this time (aside from the more important spiritual needs) is to control my portions better than I normally do, even when fasting. One meal a day I can do. Give me the list of what I can and can't eat, and I can follow it. But too often I end up stuffing myself.

So here's my wish-list for Lent this year--portion control, compassion for others, prayer from the heart, and tears of repentance. Knowing myself, I'll be lucky to get the first one, let alone the others, but I hope at least to keep them before me as I go. In the meantime, I still need to have some nachos before Sunday night.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

snow, dust, and ashes

Well, yesterday turned out to be the test of my ability to find God in shoveling snow. We had our first real storm of the season, which brought a mixture of everything from freezing rain to wet snow. The sun came out in the middle of the day, and the temperature stayed warm enough that, although the snow was wet and heavy, it was still loose enough to shovel. Last night it got cold again, and it's now hardened solid. I figured yesterday was the one good chance to move the stuff, so in the afternoon I got out there with my trusty shovel. Ian did his part, too, but I outlasted him. He went inside after about an hour and a half.

Although living in an apartment saves you a lot of work--someone else keeps up the grounds, plows snow, and shovels walkways--you still end up with about as much to do when it comes to shoveling out your car. You have the added difficulty of shoveling between cars (some of which don't belong to you, so knocking them with the shovel really isn't an option), and you spend a lot more time walking back and forth between where your car is parked and where you can dump the snow. Plus, although they do plow the parking lot, they don't want to hit cars either, so they leave a lot of snow in front of them. But the real kicker is that you never know who's going to end up parking in the area you clear out.

In our complex, there are no assigned spaces. So if you shovel the space where you're parked, the only guarantee that you'll get that space back is if you don't go anywhere. Otherwise, all bets are off. Most people don't shovel unless there's absolutely no way to get their car out otherwise, which is their own business if they're the only ones using the spaces they don't shovel. But of course if they take the spot you cleaned out, you're stuck with whatever mess they left. To make matters worse, the plows dump snow piles in empty spaces, so you end up with a general shortage. It's like some sick game of musical chairs, where the last person to come home might not have anywhere to park.

My solution is to shovel more than one space. I typically do two, even though we only have one car. I figure that increases the odds that we'll get to use one of them, and it also allows someone else to benefit. Plus, with the way things were yesterday, I couldn't pass up all those empty spaces. I knew if they didn't get shoveled then, they wouldn't get shoveled at all. Doesn't that make me a great person, shoveling more than is required of me?

No, it apparently just gives me occasion to sin. Aside from feeling proud of myself for clearing out an extra space, I also ended up judging the person who parked in it. Later in the evening, I looked out the window and saw that the biggest SUV in our building was parked in my extra space. That person obviously had not shoveled their own space (no one else had), and they had the vehicle most capable of parking somewhere else. If that wasn't bad enough, I knew their spouse also drove an SUV, and I was sure my other space would be gone as soon as we left. Sure enough, when we got back later that night, all the spaces were taken, including a car that doesn't even belong to anyone in our building. We ended up having to parallel park in front of the snow pile, and I had more opportunity to grumble about our inconsiderate neighbors.

So apparently I do fine when it's just me, God, and the snow. But once Satan shows up with my neighbors (not that he's making them do what they do, but he certainly draws my attention to it), everything falls apart. God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

and speaking of movie quotes . . .

. . . put your pinky to the corner of your mouth and say it with me:


(OK, if you've never seen Austin Powers, that probably makes no sense.) My brother-in-law is an evangelist with a ministry that produced these fake million-dollar bills with a quickie gospel message on them. They got in some trouble over them at one point. I'm not sure how that all panned out, but anyway, my father-in-law had a bunch of them hanging around. Ian liked playing with them (he pretty much likes playing with anything that resembles money), although his grasp of value is a bit off. No matter how much he was holding, he always had $26. We're not sure where that particular number came from (guessing from something on TV, but nothing we've noticed so far). Then again, he's probably smarter than we give him credit. It's fake money and pretty much worthless, so why not make up a value out of thin air? It's no more absurd to say he has $26 than a million. I kind of like that he's more interested in money as a toy than for anything more materialistic, but that's starting to change, and I'm sure it won't last much longer. Innocence goes quickly.

Anyway, he feel asleep on the way home with a wad of "money" in his hand, and we made an exceptional use of Julie's camera phone to capture the moment.

. . . and more snow

"God's given me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well."
--The Shoveler, Mystery Men

This past weekend we took an unexpected trip up to see my grandpa in the hospital. Things were looking pretty grim for a while, but he seems to be improving now. At least we got a chance to see my parents (who drove 38 hrs almost non-stop from Phoenix) and friends and family in the area. Ian was pretty excited. Not only did he get to see Opa (who lives in Opa-field) and Grammy, and Grandpa and Grandma, and Great Grandpa looking like an elephant, but perhaps best of all, he got to play in some real snow! I mentioned in my last post that he likes to shovel, even if all he can find is the filthiest dregs of what passes for snow around here. Well, this weekend he had a whole world to shovel. Opa got some great pics of him, including the one above. You can see his own, little shovel that we brought along, which is OK as far as it goes. But he really wanted to use the big one. There were other shots with him flashing his bright smile, but I like the determined look of this one.

People who aren't from the area seem to mix up what's going on weather-wise in upstate NY. The big snowfall comes off the east ends of the Great Lakes, so Buffalo gets quite a bit from Lake Erie (although much of that typically leans toward the south of the city). That's just a taste, however, of the snowfalls they get off Lake Ontario, to the northeast, in Oswego County. For the past several years, the church we grew up in has held its snow camp at a 4-H facility up there (in case you ever wondered where people from Buffalo go to get more snow). They're planning it for next weekend, but we'll see if they can pull it off. The camp was closed last weekend, after nine feet of snow fell in one week. Where we were, though, in Oakfield, lake-effect snow is hit-and-miss, and they had only about a foot on the ground. It's a very flat, windy area, though, so they get a lot of drifting, which gives someone like Ian plenty of towering banks to play with.

But, snow isn't all fun and games. With a larger storm system rolling through the Northeast, we decided to hurry back yesterday (missing a chance to sit down with our old youth leaders and good friends for dinner and a conversation about Orthodoxy) and beat whatever came. They're calling for more snow, of course, up there, and mostly ice and slush down here (go figure). The timetable's been pushed back, though. Instead of a bad commute this morning, they're now calling for a bad one this evening and probably tomorrow morning too. Hopefully the bad stuff will delay even further, so tonight's commute home isn't too bad. And hopefully Ian will get some kind of white stuff he can shovel.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I had an epiphany this morning. (Not literally, at least I don't think so.) It's not so much cold that I like, as it is snow. I mean, I do prefer cold to hot. (There's a limit to how many clothes you can take off.) And I do like the feel of the cool/cold air. I almost feel the blowing of the Spirit in a brisk autumn wind. But snow! I don't know what it is exactly. I don't particularly care for driving in it, but then, I'm not a big fan of driving under any circumstances. In fact, that might be some of it.

I like how enough snow can bring some of our human busyness to a halt. No matter how gently it falls, snow has a way of forcing itself into our lives. You go to sleep one night, and by morning this silent intruder has closed your workplace, trapped your car, and given you manual labor to perform. And although I might have been able to find better ways to spend my evenings when I was growing up than shoveling from the time I got home until well after dark, I now appreciate the opportunity. It probably helps that we live in a warmer climate, where snow isn't quite so frequent or overwhelming, and in a complex, where all I have to shovel is our parking space. I spend my days at a desk, call the landlord when something breaks in the apartment, take the car to a mechanic when it needs work, and let someone else handle the landscaping. Shoveling snow is one of the few manual tasks I have left. It's a chance to find God in the exertion; and I must say, I'm also gratified that my son likes to shovel, even if it does mean I have to go out and stand in the cold and wet while he throws around whatever slushy muck can pass for snow most of the time around here.

But today is different. We've had seriously cold weather the past few days (a necessary ingredient for good snow). This morning I got out for my 5:00 a.m. bus before the cleanup crews arrived. It had that satisfying crunch under my feet, and the occasional slip on unseen ice patches. The world was just a bit muffled from its usual noise, and the flakes reflected the light of the street lamps. My usual walk to the bus stop takes me through what can lightly be described as woods. One nice thing about Columbia is that it has a network of walking paths throughout most of the villages, some of which do a pretty good job of avoiding roads. There's one that runs along a little creek beside our complex. If you follow it one way, it takes you over a footbridge and up the bank to the street. It's a bit shorter going that way than if you walked out the driveway of the complex; plus, there's no sidewalk going all the way to the road, so it's a bit safer. You pass through some trees along the way--not nearly enough to hide the buildings, especially without their leaves in winter, but enough that you can barely imagine.

If you follow the path the other way, it follows the stream through trees and behind houses, over a few footbridges, and eventually over a hill, to a small, man-made lake. It takes about 20 minutes (at a brisk pace) to get there and another 20 or so to walk around the lake, so it's a good hour's walk, without crossing a single street. (That's not quite true--the path around the lake isn't continuous, and there are a couple of points where you have to go up to the sidewalk on the other side of the houses. In one case, I think you could take a longer way around the end of a cul-de-sac, but I usually just cut across.) It's my default route when I get the chance. I really wanted to head that way this morning. Looking down the path, I could almost imagine a Russian monastery somewhere at the other end.

But going to work could have been worse. At least I didn't have to drive in the stuff. I had a nice, quiet wait at the first stop--got there a bit early because I wasn't sure what to expect with the snow, and the bus was a bit late. I'm usually the only one there anyway, and I had a chance to watch the snow fall. The walk across campus wasn't too bad either--more activity, more traffic, and six inches of salt on the sidewalk (an annoying feel under your feet) but the snow was still there. It gave me some time to gradually return to "reality," before walking into my building where someone was running an obnoxiously loud machine. Ah, industry!

The snow has stopped now, and the sky is clearing. Here, anyway, you can still see the grass peeking through, so it can't be more than an inch or two. It still looks nice, though--a little bit of frosting on the trees. They're calling for a high of 25 degrees, so hopefully it will stick around for a while.

I remember a couple of years ago, walking to find the Middle Patuxent River--the closest significant body of water that isn't man-made--just so I could watch it go by and know I was looking at something that hadn't been manufactured--something that could almost be called "natural." The nice thing about snow is that it comes to me. It's God breaking into our human existence to remind us that he still rules the universe. I concluded a long time ago that the problem with driving around here (well, one of the problems) is that people don't get their place in creation. Further north, where snow is more ubiquitous, you just know that you'll have to adjust. You can't drive like you would on bare pavement, and sometimes you can't drive at all. It's just part of life. Here, when it snows people seem to do one of two things--either they drive as if nothing has changed, or they act like the world is coming to an end. Both endanger themselves and others, and both miss the point. Yes, one day God will come in judgment, and although I suppose perhaps snow will play some role in that, I don't think it's mentioned in the Bible. But here and now, he's looking for us to wake up and notice that he exists, and that that makes a difference in our lives. Snow is one of his gentler reminders of that presence.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Western Orthodoxy?

I like to think of myself as a relatively balanced person. I mean, I can be idealistic at times, even something of a curmudgeon, but I think I usually do come back to reality at some point. Case in point--when we were trying to pick names for our first child, it was almost impossible to agree on a strictly biblical name. The main reason is that I wanted the name pronounced "correctly," not according to whatever warped English spelling and pronunciation had become commonplace. I now realize it was a silly thing. I still like to pronounce names correctly, especially if they're not very well-known, but I'm not going to jump all over someone else for following the norm. I also have what I think is a healthier sense of the fluidity involved. Pronunciations change over time and place, even if they don't move from one language to another. And sometimes it's just an educated guess what's original. Besides, the main point is that we all know what or whom we're talking about.

On the issue of American Orthodoxy, I suppose I have my preferences. I'll freely admit that I was attracted to Orthodoxy in part by the foreignness, or more specifically, the Easternness, of its worship. I don't like the idea of Western rite Orthodoxy--not that I've ever tried it (or have any specific plan to do so). I guess maybe the idea of reviving a pre-schism liturgy is fine (although it seems a bit like the whole primitivistic impulse in many forms of Evangelicalism), but my personal preference says that adapting the Anglican liturgy to make it Orthodox just misses the point. On the other hand, I don't want a liturgy I can't understand. I can appreciate the beauty of listening to it in Slavonic or Arabic, but I'd really rather be able to follow along. Maybe I'll feel differently once I've thoroughly memorized the flow of the services, so I don't need to hear the words to know what's going on. But for now, given the choice, I'll take it in English, thank you. But that just seems like a common sense necessity.

On other points, give me Eastern. Keep your pews and your organs, your shortened services, your heads uncovered, your four-part harmony, and your Westernized icons. Not that I'm particularly judgmental toward those who use such things. I understand the historical reasons for the various adaptations, and I understand everyone's in a different place. I also understand that I could easily get caught up in externals and forget about what's truly important. I'm just saying that, given the choice, I'd rather go old-world. Of course, I also recognize that there's a certain degree of irony. For instance, it's a later development to go back to strictly Byzantine iconography.

I guess I mostly just want to go on record, that for myself at least (and undoubtedly there are other converts and catechumens who feel the same way), the more traditional elements are a draw to Orthodoxy, rather than a turnoff. I worry sometimes that this point might get missed. Consider for a moment the Ark--the new online radio station that's supposed to broadcast contemporary Orthodox music. I somehow missed the "contemporary" part when I saw the announcement and spent a full day trying to figure out what they were thinking. You'd get the occasional liturgical piece, mixed with some contemporary music that I recognized as Orthodox. (I'm using the term "contemporary" loosely here. Evangelical music typically lags behind secular, and to me it seems like "contemporary" Orthodox music lags similarly behind Evangelical. I don't know the copyright dates, but from what I can tell, it's not a positive trend.) That apparently wasn't enough to fill up the time, so you also got a generous helping of Evangelical music, perhaps in some cases performed by Orthodox artists (what do I know?), but perhaps more often performed by well-known Evangelical artists. At least once I figured out what the station was supposed to be doing, I got some sense of the logic--if you can't fill your air time with what you really want, go with something similar--Orthodox but not contemporary, or contemporary but not Orthodox. I personally found the resulting product off-putting and haven't tuned in since.

I guess my next question after figuring out what they were up to was, "Why?" There was a time when I was up to my neck in the contemporary Evangelical music scene, and I remember the continuing battle to justify its existence. One of the favorite arguments you would see or hear (but one that no one I knew seemed to take seriously) was that it was an evangelistic tool. These kids will listen to anything that sounds good, and we might just sneak some words in there that will make a difference. Of course, the strategy only worked to the extent that they really weren't paying attention, in which case it was all quite pointless. Add to that the vague lyrics of many performers, and the incomprehensibility of their singing, and the fact that the quality of the music usually wasn't good enough to get someone to listen in the first place, and the whole thing really starts to fall apart. The plain truth was, the industry wasn't there as an outreach--it was there because Christian kids wanted music like their friends had, and their parents would more willingly take them to concerts and buy them CDs (being a bit anachronistic here) if they could attach a Christian label to it. My gut feeling is that the Ark is someone's bright idea to bring in new Orthodox converts and keep Orthodox kids from slipping away, but I have serious doubts that it's going to do much of that.

The point is, we're not going to win many points by trying to copy what seems popular in Western culture, especially if we start with Western Christianity as our prototype. In that vein, here's a tip. No one likes pews to begin with. If you want to be Western and win friends, go with chairs--movie theater-style, with high backs, soft cushions, and cup-holder armrests would be a good place to start. They're not big on organs either. A guitar would go a lot further and probably cost quite a bit less to install. They also won't know how to harmonize, because they haven't used hymn books in ages, and you don't put sheet music on PowerPoint. I should also dispel a myth about service length. Yes, Westerners are probably used to shorter services than you traditionally get in an Orthodox church. But keep in mind that an Evangelical service typically spends 30-40 min. on the sermon--the least interactive part. If you cut the sermon down to 15 min. and give people something to do through the rest of the service, surely you can take more time at it.

OK, this is getting rather long. I should make some kind of point and wrap it up. All that other stuff is basically my rant, to say that somehow Orthodoxy attracts Westerners without being particularly Western, and it's not always a step forward to become more Western, depending on what "Western" means. I'm sure there are those who are more likely to come to an Orthodox service if it's shorter, or they have a chance to sit, or something else that might be more familiar or less daunting. But there's a point at which this kind of accommodation gets you numbers but doesn't get you Orthodox converts. In other words, if Orthodoxy has to become something it's not to meet them where they are, something Orthodoxy is not may be all they'll ever get. That's not to say that any Westernization is a slippery slope to oblivion; I just think sometimes we need to put in perspective the push to fit the culture.

On the other hand, we don't need to treat church like it's some kind of boot camp, where we're trying to weed out the weak. We don't need to go out of our way to make it difficult. We certainly need to welcome people with love, regardless of their cultural background. We need to be gentle with their human weakness, wherever they are now. And I'm sure that Orthodoxy in America will take on its own local flavor over time. I am, however, in favor of taking things slowly. This isn't pagan Russia with a newly converted emperor. This is a culture that was born out of Protestantism, and a lot of the converts coming into Orthodoxy right now are coming from some kind of churched background. Somewhere we need to draw the line between contextualization and Protestantization, and I'm honestly not sure where that line should go.

Friday, February 02, 2007

a bunch of little old men standing around in the dark

If you've spent much time on this blog, you've probably noticed that I seem to have a lot of affinity for ROCOR (to those who might not know the ins and outs of Orthodox jurisdictions, that's the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, also known as ROCA, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad). Partly, this impression is exaggerated by the process that's been underway over the past few years, and particularly over the past year or two--the movement toward reunification of ROCOR with the Moscow Patriarchate. I hope that my excitement over this process is shared by more in the Orthodox world than those who lean toward Russian Orthodoxy in particular. We should all rejoice to see old divisions (well, maybe not so old in the Orthodox perspective) ready to heal. And I don't think it's exaggerating to say that all of world Orthodoxy suffered the effects of the Communist regime in Russia--it was a huge blow to what was at the time the most powerful (and still the largest) Orthodox Church in the world. Certainly some suffered worse than others, but all suffered. Here in America, the vision of a unified Church still seems remote--a vision that would in all likelihood have been a continuing reality if things had gone otherwise.

But yes, I personally do feel an affinity for ROCOR. Given the choice of parishes in my area, I ended up going with an Antiochian one for various reasons (most of which are probably around here somewhere); but the second candidate was definitely ROCOR. I guess some of it is a general respect for Russian Orthodoxy. I wouldn't necessarily follow the hard-line Third Rome way of thinking, but Russia really did step up to protect Orthodoxy when so much of the Orthodox world had fallen under oppression. I also appreciate the outreach of Russian Orthodoxy that took place before the Revolution. How could I not? It was Russian Orthodoxy that began the missionary enterprise in North America and gave us our first saints. I also like how they preserve just about everything in their worship. While I respect the effort to accommodate people's weakness, with shorter services, more sitting, etc., I love this Church that doesn't shy away from standing for hours at a time. And regarding ROCOR in particular, how can I not appreciate their suffering, and their perseverance, to hold out hope that one day the godless regime would fall, and once again Russia would be Russia. Along the way, they've had to endure the label of schismatic--but this reunion is their vindication. I rejoice with them in that, and I pray for their success.

I love this quote (the subject line of this post) from Fr. George, now of Holy Apostles Church in Beltsville, MD. He says in his conversion testimony that a friend described ROCOR worship as "a bunch of little old men standing around in the dark," and that he felt he just had to check it out. But these little old men are giants, and under all the pressures that came in their lives, they did what they had to do--they stood. As he puts it, they "had not bowed the knee to the Bolsheviks." When you boil it all down, this is what martyrs and confessors do--they know how to bow before God and stand before men, and not confuse the two. That's what I like about St. Peter the Aleut--we know almost nothing about him except that he stood his ground in the face of persecution and even death. And so it is with the countless saints who suffered under Communism.

Fr. George also points to an influential book--Russia's Catacomb Saints--that first awakened him to the spiritual strength of these people. When he originally told me about it, I wasn't able to find a copy to buy or borrow. He had had two copies at one point but loaned one out that was never returned. He was reluctant to let the other one go. I see, though, that someone is working on putting the book online. There are a few chapters available, with many more to go. It's a good taste, though. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Armenian creed

We recently had a guest talk on the creed. The speaker brought several different versions, including an Armenian English translation. It has some interesting differences from the Chalcedonian:
We Believe in one God, the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible. And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of God the Father, only begotten, that is of the same substance of the Father. God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten and not made, of the self-same nature ofthe Father, by whom all things came into being in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; who for us human beings, and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate, was made man, was born perfectly of the holy virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit; by whom He took body, soul, and mind and everything that is in man, truly and not in semblance. He suffered, was crucified and was buried and rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven with the same body and sat at the right hand of the Father. He is to come with the same body and with the glory of the Father to judge the living and the dead; of whose kingdom there is no end.

We Believe also in the Holy Spirit, the uncreate and perfect, who spoke in the Law and in the prophets and in the Gospels; who came down upon the Jordan, preached in the apostles and dwelt in the saints.

We Believe
also only one universal and apostolic holy Church; in one baptism with repentance for the remission and forgiveness of sins; in the resurrection of the dead, in the everlasting judgment of souls and bodies, in the kingdom of heaven and in the eternal life.
Nothing earth-shattering to say here. I just thought it was worth having a look at. There are a few elements here that you don't find in the Chalcedonian version and a few there that you don't find here. On the whole, I don't think an Orthodox Christian should have any objection to affirming this version of the creed (there's nothing it says that we should object to), and it makes some interesting contributions as well. I'm not going to give an opinion on whether this means it should be easy to restore communion with Armenian Christians (what do I know?). I just think it's worth considering what's here.