Saturday, March 31, 2007

how cool is that?

Let me say first that I am not advising anyone to go watch a movie during Holy Week :-) This is just for future reference. I saw Children of Men this afternoon. Not only is it a great movie (gave it five stars on Netflix), but I love that the only helpful strangers they run into are a family of Georgian Orthodox refugees (the one near Russia, not the one near Alabama), complete with icons on the side table. I'm not a film critic, and I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone. If you're not familiar with it already, the premise is that all humanity goes infertile somewhere around 2009. 18 years later, the cause is still a mystery. The youngest person on the planet is a huge celebrity, schools are closed, most of the world is in chaos, and England is fighting to rid itself of illegal immigrants. When a pregnant woman finally appears on the scene, the main character is unsuspectingly drafted as her guardian. It ends up being a great story about humanity amid the death-throes of Western culture. The message is not particularly religious, but you don't have to look very far to find truth and reality.

is it true?

Priest Andrew Phillips has written on his site:

However, today, the younger generation in many other Local Orthodox Churches are beginning to bring others to repentance, steering others back to Orthodox ecclesiology, the calendar and other traditions. Thus, it is rumoured that the Finnish Church is considering returning to the Orthodox calendar. A quarter of the parishes in the ‘Orthodox Church in America’ (OCA) are now on the Orthodox calendar and many there are now disenchanted with their previous errors on ecumenism. Some in the Polish, Czechoslovak and Japanese Churches, which allowed some to use the Roman Catholic calendar, are thinking the same way. A return to roots is under way. Relations between the Russian Church and the Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, Bucharest and Sofia are good, as also with the Churches of Greece and Cyprus.

I have no idea how much truth there is to it, but I find it encouraging to read. Not that I think the calendar is the only, primary, or most important issue to be resolved in Orthodoxy today, but if we're going to move in the direction of unity on this issue (as on so many others), I would personally like to see it come through a return to the traditional Orthodox calendar. I don't much care for the way the so-called New Calendar was instituted, least of all, that it was done piece-meal, so that today some churches follow it while others do not. As I've said before, one of the reasons this is my favorite season of the year is that we're in sync throughout almost the entire Orthodox world. It may have been a nice idea that the New Calendar would help relations between Orthodoxy and Western Christians, but at what cost? Now the more pressing concern is internal relations between Orthodox, and IMHO we could use things like a common calendar to remind us of our shared identity.

In any case, I'd rather see restoration come as it seems to be from what he says here--through the changing hearts of Orthodox people, not through something imposed on them from above. I'm also glad to see that relations are good between Moscow and Antioch. May such things spill over here in America!

Monday, March 26, 2007

spelling "relief"

I don't think it gets much air time anymore, but there used to be an ad campaign for Rolaids--a popular antacid--that said you spell "relief," R-O-L-A-I-D-S. This weekend I learned a shorter spelling for "relief"--B-O-W.

I finally had a chance to visit an Orthodox monastery. Every year a group of men from Holy Cross goes up to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery, near Scranton, PA, for a Lenten retreat. This year, at least, it was a relatively informal event. The general idea was to travel up on Friday and return Sunday afternoon. There was no set time to arrive (some of us set out mid-morning and arrived in time for Vigil, others came after work in the evening), and aside from the requirement that we attend Divine Liturgy Saturday and Sunday, no set schedule of events. I think just about all of us attended both DL in the morning and Vigil in the evening. Saturday afternoon, several of us also participated in an informal Akathist for the OCF groups in our area. We also attended a luncheon after DL on Saturday, followed by a visit to the bookstore and an impromptu tour of the monastery and seminary with one of the students, and ate two other meals at the seminary.

We didn't know when the weekend was originally selected that there would be an ordination on Saturday (the reason for the luncheon)--performed by our own Bp. THOMAS, no less. We also didn't know until we got there on Friday that a monk would be tonsured during the Vigil that night. Until this weekend, I'd never been to a hierarchical service of any kind or even seen a bishop in person. So much for that. Met. HERMAN, primate of the OCA, and Bp. TIKHON, OCA Bishop of Philadelphia, also serve respectively as Abbot and Deputy Abbot of the monastery. They served together at the Vigil and tonsuring on Friday. So not only was it a hierarchical service--there were two bishops, including a primate, with an army of priests, deacons, and sub-deacons. I'm guessing you don't get that experience too many places besides a seminary, or maybe a major cathedral. But at a large cathedral, I suspect you'd have more people and more space, and probably not be quite so close to the action.

We had an opportunity after Vigil to talk with Fr. David, who was being ordained the next morning. Actually, two opportunities--right after the service in the church, and later at the hotel restaurant. There isn't much around South Canaan, and the hotel we stayed at is pretty much the standard for visitors to the monastery or seminary. In fact, Bp. THOMAS was also staying there (but we resisted the urge to bug him, even though we found out his room number). So the family and friends who came into town for the ordination were there, and it was the logical choice for them all to go out to eat (despite Fr. David's disparaging remarks about the food when we talked with him earlier).

Saturday morning was my first time to see Bp. THOMAS in person. He served the liturgy alone (as alone as a bishop can be in such a setting; there were still a lot of other clergy, just no other bishops). I was personally blown away by his presence. A lot of it's hard to put my finger on--there's his strong and clear voice when serving, his down-to-earth and completely natural homily, and the personal affection you could tell he had for Fr. David (even though he's not actually his bishop). But the whole effect was much more that the sum of those parts--I just have no problem with the idea that this guy is my shepherd.

Saturday evening, Bp. TIKHON served alone at the Vigil, and Sunday DL was non-hierarchical. It was still a good service, though. I savored as much as I could, since I knew the weekend was about to end. Jim and I got to the church early, so I was able to make a full pass of the icons and relics, and one more to say good-bye at the end of the service. In addition to having a reliquary with some prominent saints--Herman of Alaska (just outside, actually), Nikolai of Zhicha, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Tikhon of Moscow, Raphael of Brooklyn--I know I'm leaving some out, but it really is a good collection--they also have the body of St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre. Jim tells me he was originally buried in the cemetery outside, then was dug up later and found to be incorrupt, moved to a mausoleum beside the church, then moved inside to the nave itself.

Attending so many services can be physically demanding when you're not used to it. You stand a lot in Orthodox services anyway, but normally you get some time in between to recover. By the end of the day Saturday, my feet and back were pretty sore. I commented to James before Vigil that night that standing for worship is like fasting. One of the things about fasting is, it helps you truly appreciate the foods you can eat when the fast is over. In our American culture, we typically have too much of everything and too often. When it comes time for a feast day, like Thanksgiving, the only way we can make it stand out is to truly stuff ourselves beyond all reasonable limits. By contrast, it doesn't take much to turn Pascha into a feast. As long as there's meat and cheese, it's a celebration. But you get that by preparing with 40-plus days of abstinence from those things. In the same way, when you stand a lot, you learn to appreciate the opportunities you have to sit.

After the service, I refined my observation. Yes, standing a lot does make you appreciate sitting. It also makes you appreciate bowing. Frequent bowing may seem like work when taken out of context. But when hours of standing have taken their toll on your back, bowing is such a relief! You look for every opportunity to extend a simple cross into a bow to the floor. And if it weren't the weekend, you'd happily prostrate to get off your feet. It occurred to me, after surviving the ordeal of that Vigil, that there's a metaphor in here for my own experience with Orthodoxy. I tried to stand on my own for so long, that the only relief I could get was to bow before Christ and humbly admit my own weakness. And the beauty of the metaphor is, it's an on-going thing. Life is a process of learning to bow. We all have to do it when we come to him for the first time, but it continues beyond that. As we grow, we gain more strength to stand, and the pain is less. (I think eventually we learn to bow out of love, rather than pain, but it has to start somewhere.) We might be able to stand for longer intervals, with the strength he gives us, but we always come back to the same place, on the ground before him.

From the outside, it's the bowing that looks like a hardship. Mostly, these spectators have given up trying to stand. They sat down long ago, or worse, they lay down dead. They've found relief from the strain of standing by another means--one that makes them forget why they were standing in the first place, rather than appreciate the relief of sitting. They can't fathom why anyone would want to bow, because they don't stand in the first place. Then there are those who stand in defiance. They grit their teeth through the pain. They curse God, who made it so painful to stand. Sadly, many of them will carry this posture into the next life, where the pain will only increase and relief will never come. But it's a pain they bring on themselves. Christ has already shown us the way. He bowed down himself, to reach us on our level. He wants to raise us up to be truly human, even more, to become divine. But if we won't bow, we cannot follow. It's not an arbitrary rule--it's just how our backs were made.

It's Monday again, and prostrations never felt so good!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the OT canon

In my third semester of seminary, I wrote a paper on the canonicity (really, the uncanonicity) of the Apocrypha. (Please forgive the lack of proper formatting. If I remember correctly the history of the document, it started in MS-Word, migrated to OpenOffice, back to Word, then to Google docs. I'm not concerned with making it pretty--the content is there, if you care to suffer through it. I also have no idea how long I'll actually leave it up, so it may happen that someone who dredges up this post in the distant future will find the link broken.) It's not my intention here to respond blow-by-blow. I mostly just want to take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the paper as it strikes me now. A lot has happened in the intervening decade. I like to think that I've progressed a bit in my writing skills and my sense of what constitutes good research. Needless to say, my outlook on the subject has also changed.

One of the most glaring problems that strike me now is the shoddy research that went into the paper. My published sources were mostly slanted in an Evangelical direction, while the other side was covered by some e-mail exchanges with people I found in various newsgroups. Granted, there's something to be said for having actually exchanged blows with an enthusiastic opponent; but the tendency is still going to be for the published arguments to look more compelling, because they cite impressive sources, or they come from known, reputable sources (reputable in certain circles, that is). As I recall, this reliance on personal exchanges was one of the few substantive criticisms I got back with my grade. It was mostly a result of laziness--we didn't have a very good library, especially when it came to locating sources outside the Evangelical tradition, and I didn't make the effort to find them elsewhere. As a result, the deck was stacked from the beginning.

At the same time, the published sources I did use were second- and third-rate. Books on Old Testament Introduction are intended for a particular purpose and can serve that purpose well, but they should have been little more than a starting point. For the most part, I was not looking at primary literature (actual writings of Church Fathers, first-century Jewish writers, etc.), or even secondary literature (original studies of those writings)--I was looking at collections based on writings that may have been secondary literature, but also may have been tertiary. And although I had a half-way decent listing in the bibliography, the footnotes reveal that most of my points were supported by a small handful of resources. This problem doesn't in itself invalidate the points I made, but it does seriously call them into question.

There are also some pretty clear biases. For instance, I assume, rather than argue, that to be canonical, inspired Scripture, a text must be inerrant in all of its details. I also assume toward the end, when I'm talking about Jewish custody of the OT Scriptures, the Dispensational view that Jewish Israel continues as its own spiritual entity, with its own role in God's plan, beyond the foundation of the Church on the Day of Pentecost. I actually remember something of the fundamental outlook I took away from this study, beyond what's entirely clear from the paper itself. I was convinced that the Rabbinic canon was the one to follow, because God had given the OT to the Jewish people as an inalienable possession, and it was their business to define what constitutes its canon, not ours. And certainly it was beyond the ability of the largely corrupt, institutional Church to improve on their judgment. This outlook now seems so backward to me, that it's hard to fathom how I acquired it in the first place.

One thing I'm reminded of is how I lacked the courage to apply the same kind of study to the NT canon. I allude in the paper to the fact that Protestants generally accept the historic judgment of the Church in that area, and I remember having some misgivings about how hard it would be to get around the role of Tradition in the recognition of NT canon. Clearly, I couldn't accept the Rabbinic judgment that the NT was completely out of bounds. I was somehow satisfied with the idea that the OT belonged to Rabbinic Judaism and the NT belonged to Christianity. (Which is in no way to say that I thought Christianity should ignore the OT--far from it.) But if the Church couldn't be trusted to sort out the OT canon, why should it be trusted on the NT? And the fact was also there, that in any case, it really came down to the judgment of the community over what constituted Scripture--a judgment that, at least in the case of the OT canon, had no discernible relationship to the spiritual condition of the community. I didn't see it then, but it was an almost magical view of the Spirit's intervention to preserve Scripture.

Of course, I dealt with specifics as well. My arguments mostly consisted of showing how one form of evidence or another could go either way. It might be difficult to make a solid case that the Rabbinic canon was the only accepted list, but if I could show that it was just as difficult to affirm a longer canon, I had room to play with. Forget the fact that ascertaining the canon must have always been a gradual process, and that even though there may have been different perspectives on which apocryphal books really belonged, there is still significant testimony that the canon was open. I don't think I ever managed to remove from myself the assumption of a hermetically sealed canon, so it was really quite impossible for me to accept that it could have been so undefined as to allow for variant collections. And I never paid the least attention to what has been used in the liturgical life of the Church over the centuries.

I'm not sure if I ever actually considered how the progression must have worked. Jesus and the Apostles had a relatively fixed canon matching that later affirmed in Rabbinic sources, but then what? How did those wishy-washy Christians of the second and third centuries end up even considering that extra books might belong? What (presumably Gentile) Christian decided 1 Maccabees was important enough to include? And why add new books that had not been included earlier, calling them part of the OT? Why not make them part of the NT, since the canon of the OT had already been fixed by that point? Furthermore, how did any of this process make any sense at all, if Tradition was not a significant piece of the puzzle?

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself. Most of the papers I wrote in seminary were more apologetic in character than truly exploring new territory. You start with an issue and your preconceived conclusion (usually, the standard Evangelical line), and you assemble your arguments to back it up. Sometimes, if there are acknowledged options within the Evangelical mainstream, you can actually draw your own conclusion. But in some areas, you just don't take seriously the alternative viewpoints. Pretty much anything that looked like Catholicism fell into this latter category for me. We'll see it again if I get to my paper on "born of water and spirit" in John 3:5, which clearly had nothing to do with water baptism. That I dealt with things this way was predictable, given my background. That my teachers never objected also speaks to the environment in which I was learning. We all believed in sola scriptura, but we also stuck pretty close to our own traditions.

I hope I don't vanish into thin air

I'm not going to ask for a show of hands, who else practically memorized that great time-travel epic of the mid-80s, Back to the Future. (Sorry--my viewing options were limited.) I've always been kind of opinionated about time travel themes. I'm not sure what I think now, but for a long time, being the good Calvinist that I was, I unquestioningly objected to the premise that a person could travel back in time and change the past so that the present came out different. The sequence of time was a done deal--certainly in the future, and how much more in the past. I therefore considered Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to be more realistic (I'll pause for a moment so you can get back up off the floor, wipe away the tears, catch your breath . . OK, on we go), because the effects of their time travel were evident before they ever realized such a thing would happen.

Anyway, this metaphor is getting out of hand, so let me bring it back to the point. In Back to the Future, the main character Marty finds himself slowly vanishing, because his interference in the past is preventing his parents from falling in love, getting married, and eventually having kids. There are other, similar theories about the effects of time travel. If you meet yourself in the past, such that you as an individual are simultaneously present in two manifestations, you will self-destruct, or the space-time continuum will collapse, or who knows what other dire consequences. These ideas make for sometimes interesting plot devices--just don't spend too much time thinking about them.

What does all of this have to do with anything? Well, Roland's recent project of posting older writings on his blog has teamed up with a brief trip through my own archives to suggest something similarly spooky. I'm going to debate my former self--specifically, my Evangelical seminary student self from about ten years ago. Actually, "debate" is too strong a word (that would be just a bit insane, wouldn't it?)--maybe "critique" is better. The very idea raises an interesting hermeneutical complexity. I've often said that one of the problems with interpreting an ancient text like one finds in Scripture is that the author (from a human standpoint) is no longer available for comment. It becomes very one-sided when it's just the modern interpreter interacting with a text. (This is, I would say, a major problem with the whole idea of sola scriptura.) But what happens when the interpreter is the author, but is coming from a decidedly different frame of reference? Can we say that the author of a text is never truly available from the moment that the text is finished, because he is, however subtly, a different person?

OK, my head hurts. Enough meta-critique; let's just get down to the thing itself. I make no promises that it will be at all interesting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

throwing in the towel - part 2

I need to back up and cover some things that didn't come out in my historical sketch. Shortly before I went off to Bible college, my boss took me out for a steak dinner. He was a professing Christian and a bit eccentric. He always seemed to have some kind of grand idea about ministry, but there could also be a disconnect between his outspoken faith and his behavior in business. The point of our meeting (it turned out) was to try to persuade me that going to a small Bible college was a mistake. He told me that formal education is not about learning (which you can do anywhere) but about credibility. When I graduated, what I most needed was a name that people would recognize. He was speaking from his own experience of going through some sort of training program run by New Tribes Missions, which apparently wasn't quite what most churches were looking for in a pastor. But I was young and idealistic, and his words sounded to me like compromise. I gave them little thought and went ahead with my plan.

Of course, I eventually came to see his point, especially as I went looking for a Ph.D. program, for the sole purpose of winning credibility in the job market I had chosen. I believed firmly that my Th.M. was enough training for the career I wanted; it was because others would expect the doctorate that I had to go on. But another reason that I went on for the Ph.D. (and this is wrapped up with my decision to pursue an academic career in the first place) was a desire to get out of the Evangelical box I found myself in. Both in college and in seminary I went through similar scenarios, where theological debates erupted. In one case, a prominent faculty member lost his job over the position he took (which was not explicitly against the school's doctrinal statement but still ran up against the views of some powerful alumni). In the other, I found myself caught in the controversy and nearly resigned my position over it. I also didn't feel much like dealing with the personal issues that would inevitably plague a local church ministry. I wanted to retreat into academics. So, I didn't want to be a pastor, and although I wanted to teach, I didn't want to be stuck in a Bible college somewhere. The Ph.D. program was supposed to be my way out, without wasting the work I'd put in already.

But it often happens that the attempt to deal with bad decisions short of repentance only makes things worse. It's like the guy who refuses to ask for directions, even though he's thoroughly lost, and continues to drive around until all hope is gone. I found myself stuck in a rut, where the only solution I had to changes in my perspective was to keep going to school and hope things would work themselves out. In the meantime, I was ignoring most other aspects of life, most of them much more important--my relationship with my wife, my own spiritual life, our spiritual life together, having kids, etc. I learned a great deal in seminary and graduate school--there's no question about that--but I was so buried in coursework that I hardly even noticed that life was going on around me. It was also going on inside me (or rather, it wasn't), as my spirit steadily shriveled up without any real nourishment. The great danger of academic work in the areas I was studying is that it can easily pass for a spiritual endeavor without being anything of the sort.

I'm not going to re-hash the intellectual progression that got me to where I am now. I'll simply make the point here that my graduate education (including seminary) has been intertwined with a set of misplaced priorities. Julie wanted to start having kids much earlier than we did, but she sacrificed that goal for my education. She worked full-time while I was in seminary and during the three years of coursework for a Ph.D. She spent her evenings alone--in fact, we spent very little time together over those years--and established patterns that now make it difficult for us to interact substantively. For the most part, we did not pray together, read Scripture together, or interact seriously on spiritual issues. As far as that goes, I did not pray, read Scripture (devotionally, as opposed to assigned work for class), or do much of anything for my own spiritual development. My primary effort for personal development was intellectual--I tried to apply the skills I was acquiring to a more rigorous study of theology--but the conclusions I reached rarely had any impact on my spiritual life.

During my Ph.D. coursework, I started to experiment with various devotional mechanisms--Orthodox fasting, Jewish prayer, etc. I got some benefit out of these things, but they were stop-gap measures and never really went anywhere lasting. Also, by that point Julie and I were in such completely different places spiritually that I didn't even consider involving her in these experiments. When I finally reached the point where I knew I needed to take more drastic measures, there was no common ground on which to address the issues. And even that point didn't come until after I'd finished coursework. In general, my life since then has been about re-acquainting myself with human existence. I got interested in politics for quite a while, which wasn't really on target but at least had more relevance than I'd seen in a long time. Now my interest is in the spiritual life, which has been going on for a few years, and I hope and pray it continues.

Of course, it's also during this time that my focus on academics has reduced to almost nothing. I'm not saying that it couldn't have been otherwise, but the contrasts have awakened me to what I believe are the serious underlying problems. To return to intensive academic work now would mean de-emphasizing my own spiritual development and the strengthening of my family. With another child on the way, I have no desire to give her any less of myself than I've given to Ian. In fact, I'd like to do more with my family. I want to keep working toward some kind of unity and improved interaction on spiritual issues. I want to grow in my interaction with them when we're together (often just together, as in, somewhere in proximity, but all doing our own thing). I try to avoid getting buried in whatever I'm doing when they're around, but the trend is still one of distraction. I also have a long way to go with my own spiritual growth, and a significant increase in the time I'm spending on academic work would detract from that effort.

I should add that my overall outlook on career issues has changed dramatically. I don't need a particularly fulfilling or challenging career, because that's not where I find my identity. It would be nice to do something I enjoy and that challenges me to grow in one way or another. But if I'm doing a job that needs to be done, I'm providing for my family, I'm learning discipline as though working for God, it's enough. It doesn't matter much what specific job I'm doing. Much of this change has come out of my spiritual development. Some of it also comes from what I would call a healthy realism about jobs and living conditions. A lot of people around here have what you might call "good" jobs. They pay well, they have lots of growth potential, the work is fulfilling, etc. But most of them still have double-income families, often with no or few children. Sometimes this is by choice, because both partners have their career goals, and children would just get in the way. Often it is because they feel like they can't afford the life they want without two incomes. And to a great extent, this sentiment is justified. It may be relatively easy to find a job around here that pays $50-100k per year. But when house prices are so high that even with a decent-paying job you still need two incomes to afford a home, what does it really get you? So for instance, in our case, moving back to Western New York would probably mean taking a pay cut, but ending up with less financial stress, better schools, and family close by.

That kind of thinking seriously minimizes the usefulness of a Ph.D., especially in an obscure field, because you're no longer willing to take the steps necessary to get that first steady job. I'm not about to put my family through the uncertainty of playing this game, so common now, where you teach one or two adjunct classes over here, one or two over here, and spend your life running from one campus to another, making little money when it's said and done, and ending up less marketable, because people wonder why you did that for so long. I'm much less likely to take a job in California or Europe, because that's where something is available, but we'll never see family. Add on top of that, that I no longer have the option of teaching in an Evangelical seminary or Bible college, I no longer have such a positive image of studying the Bible as mere literature, and I'm more interested now in other dimensions of the Christian life--the odds are pretty slim that I'd ever find a teaching position to be happy with.

I still want to be challenged intellectually, but I can get that regardless of what I do for a job. That much has become perfectly clear over the past several years. I still want to serve God with my mind, but there are plenty of opportunities for that outside of academia. In fact, my perspective now is that there are significant ways in which such service happens that are superior to strictly academic pursuits. I used to say that, if I didn't end up teaching, at least I'd have a very interesting hobby. I can still have that, since I don't need a degree to apply what I've learned. And in fact, since making the decision not to finish, I have felt free once again to apply my skills to what interests me (and happens to have spiritual value as well), where before I was reluctant to start little side projects, because I felt like any effort I put into that area ought to be on my dissertation.

So on the positive side, I have restored joy in the subject area that I was studying, I can continue pursuing more important things like spiritual growth and family interaction, and I can stop sinking money into a degree that is now of no apparent professional value. The only real negative is the wasted investment of time, energy, and money up to this point. But in that respect, I think we're legitimately cutting our losses. If I continue, we're going to have to spend quite a bit more money before it's all done, and based on my track record so far, it's hard to expect that I'll be able to finish even in the couple of years I have left. If the degree isn't going to be of any professional use, what is it good for? Not much. I don't want the title for its own sake, and I have no intention of hanging the certificate on my wall. So how does the wasted effort and personal sacrifice change, if we have to invest substantially more over the next couple of years, and the outcome is still of little or no use? I do genuinely regret the cost of this program, more so in terms of relationships, time and energy, and especially what it has required of Julie, than in terms of the money involved. Whether I finish or not, the outcomes are not worth the investment. But I can't convince myself that seeing it through to the end is a more productive response than walking away now.

Someone recently raised the objection that it will be hard to tell my kids they need to finish things they've started, even if they don't feel motivated, especially when it's school work that they never wanted to do in the first place. I don't think it will be that much of an obstacle. Teaching kids discipline is important, but they also need to learn right motives and right priorities. They need to learn about repentance and the consequences of mistakes. I hope that my kids can learn from my mistakes, why family and faith are so much more important than academics and careers. I hope they won't have to repeat them but can learn from my example. But if they do get themselves pointed down the wrong road in life, I would be honored to see them walk away from that degree, that high-level job, that special honor, for five more minutes spent meaningfully with their own children. What better way is there to glimpse the true value of people and relationships?

throwing in the towel - part 1

This week, I officially declared my intention to quit my Ph.D. dissertation. It's not a decision I came to lightly, but I'm confident that it's the best one I can make in this area right now. Let me start with some background.

I decided when I was about nine years old that I wanted to be an engineer. No, I didn't want to drive a train--I wanted to build bridges. (I'm guessing most kids at that age don't even know that meaning of the word.) About five years later, I refined my ambitions and decided I would prefer electrical engineering, because it was closer to pure physics. Then I had one of those summer camp moments, where I felt that God was calling me to be a pastor (as he does with so many 15-year-olds). I decided to go to Bible College, because that's what my pastor had done, and generally speaking, that's what anyone at my church did who was planning on ministry. The fact that I was seeking a bachelor's degree rather than a three-year diploma worried me a bit that maybe I was in it too much for the academic honors. But I was a bit young to be starting college anyway, so another year delay before entering full-time ministry probably wouldn't hurt.

I started my undergraduate studies at 17 and finished at 20. (Yes, I crammed credits, but not too much--mostly it was that they gave me a lot of transfer credits for the AP courses I'd taken in high school.) At some point in my last year, I started thinking about the remote possibility that I might want to go back to school someday and get a seminary degree. I browsed catalogs in the library, figuring I had better resources at the moment to evaluate schools than I might later on. At least I could get a sense of where I'd want to go, if it ever came to that. Then, I'm not sure where it came from, but a thought awoke in my head, that most churches don't hire 20-year-olds for anything beyond youth ministry. I'd been working in youth ministry throughout college, and I didn't think much of it. So maybe it wouldn't hurt to use the academic momentum I already had, keep going to school for a while, and that way by the time I finished (at the ripe, old age of 23), I'd have a better shot at the job I really wanted.

So it was that, after waiting to finish college before getting married, my wife and I began our new life together hundreds of miles away from home in a place we'd never expected to live, temporarily of course. We moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, where we still live, eleven years later. The plan was to earn a Th.M. (master of theology) degree, which is sort of like an M.Div. on steroids. An M.Div. (master of divinity) is the standard professional degree for ministry--like an M.D. for medicine or an M.B.A. for business. An M.A. is generally a more academically-oriented degree in the humanities, often the first stage in a Ph.D. program, for instance. A Th.M. is essentially a combination of the two, so you get your professional degree but with an extra academic emphasis. A faculty mentor in college had told me his one regret about seminary was that he didn't get the Th.M. while he had the chance, and I figured too that it would give me a chance to balance out my languages. I started learning Greek in college and continued throughout seminary; with the later start on Hebrew, a Th.M. in OT would allow me to catch up.

The other nice thing about a Th.M. is that, as an academic degree, it's supposedly useful for teaching. Once upon a time, you could, for instance, be a Bible College professor with just a Th.M. That's becoming less and less the case. The desire to get and maintain regional accreditation is pushing even Bible Colleges to require more doctorates, and the market seems to be providing them with more than enough candidates. If I'd realized that earlier, I might not have bothered with the Th.M., but at least it opened the door to the possibility of a career in the classroom, rather than the local church. Also, because I had to earn the M.Div. first, before moving on with the extra year for the Th.M., I got a chance to do some adjunct teaching, which I found that I enjoyed. So by the time I was wrapping up seminary, I was thinking more and more of an academic path, which meant I now had to start looking at Ph.D. programs.

I ended up with a choice to make. I received a three-year full tuition scholarship to the Catholic University of America, which would allow us to stay in the area, and which fortunately knew something of the small seminary I'd attended (mostly positive). I had applied to two different programs there--Biblical Studies, in the School of Divinity, and Semitic Languages, in the School of Arts & Sciences. I felt like Semitics would be more useful, more challenging, and less redundant of what I'd already done; the only problem was, I'd have to get another master's degree. I figured it would be worth the extra effort, since I'd come out with a broader range of qualifications. It would require three years of full-time coursework, plus doctoral comps and a dissertation. Realistically, I could still be done with school by the age of 30.

This is going to get kind of long, so I'll break it off here and continue in another post.

Monday, March 12, 2007

permanent repentance

Orthodox praxis is often described as a "lifestyle of repentance." This description is borne out in the repeated cry of kyrie eleison ("Lord have mercy!") and its longer cousin, the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"), the frequent fasting, prostrations, etc. To Protestant sensibilities, all this repentance can evoke memories of the Catholic monk Martin Luther, wearing out his confessor with long lists of sins, finding no rest until he realized that justification comes by faith alone. How, one might wonder, can I constantly repent without wallowing in discouragement over my own sinfulness? How can this be the life Christ called me to?

I've been chipping away at Fr. Dumitru Staniloae's Orthodox Spirituality, and in the section on repentance he writes:
But this repentance . . . shouldn't be confused with a discouraging dissatisfaction, which can paralyze all our enthusiasm. It must not be a doubt in our greater possibilities, but a recognition of the insufficiencies of our achievements up to now. If it is discouragement, it itself is a sin, one of the greatest. Our repentant conscience doesn't continually pronounce a critical judgment on our past actions because of the sentiment that nothing truly good can be accomplished. Instead it judges with the deep conviction that it can also do better, based on the experience of a mystical power much greater than its own nature, which can always be made stronger by the divine. It judges with the feeling that in what we have done and in the way in which we have behaved we have realized only in an insufficient measure and in a colorless way what we could have done. Repentance expresses the thought: "It can be better." Discouragement on the other hand says: "This is all I can do. I can't do better." Strictly speaking discouragement is opposed to repentance, because where something better can't be expected, regret has no place. This is a fatalistic sentiment, a skeptical resignation. Repentance is borne by a faith in something better.
I like that. To say that even our virtues require repentance, because they could have been more frequent or consistent, or come sooner, is an expression of profound hope, because by God's grace we can always do better. It's hopeful as well, because even the greatest of saints can end life with a cry of repentance. Clearly, our eternal fate, our standing before God, our relationship with Christ--whatever you want to call it--is not dependent on personal perfection. If it were, none of us would be saved. But neither do we sit back and say God's grace must mean our sins are irrelevant. We live every moment in repentance, because that is the only proper attitude before a holy and perfect God.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

searching for common ground--first cut

About six months ago, Julie and I met with the elders at Bethany (the Evangelical church we'd been part of for most of our married life) to ask for prayer and guidance about our situation. On that particular occasion, the senior pastor recommended that I read Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, which I commented on earlier. The point then, as when we had met with him about a year earlier, as when they sent us a letter immediately before I became a catechumen, was that perhaps we might find somewhere we could both be happy. Particularly, Rob Bell fits into a movement known as the emerging Church, which is pretty diverse in its expressions, but often includes more traditional elements borrowed from the ancient Church. I was pessimistic about the idea after reading Bell's book, and now that we've had a chance to visit a church that falls somewhere in this category, I'm not feeling much better about it.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a follow-up meeting with a couple of the elders about the letter, and one positive outcome was that both Julie and I realized we'd somehow jumped to the conclusion that the other one was not interested in trying to see if there might be some kind of church out there that would meet both our needs. Now that we know we're both open to it, we've begun taking some steps in that direction. It's hard to say where it will lead, if anywhere. We may find that the best we can do is go somewhere that neither one of us would like, in which case what we're doing now is probably a better option. We may learn something along the way--something about each other's unique expectations, something about what we really hold in common, or maybe just something about what alternatives really exist. A renewed perspective wouldn't necessarily be a bad outcome. Or we just might actually find something that works for both of us--perhaps as a permanent home, but perhaps also as a temporary stopping point along the road, where we can both find some degree of contentment as we prepare to look further together.

Of course, part of the problem now is, how do we actually go about finding something that's in between Bethany and Holy Cross? We had the suggestion of emerging churches, and particularly of Cedar Ridge Community Church, founded and until recently pastored by Brian McLaren, which happens to be down the road from Bethany. We've also spent some time talking with Rick Laribee, pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, who himself was a Baptist pastor before he started exploring more traditional forms of Christianity. So that church is on the short list. Someone else suggested Missouri Synod Lutheran, which tends to be more conservative in its theology than some Lutheran denominations.

We know there are going to be some challenges. Neither of us is particularly comfortable with female clergy, and that's something we're going to run into in both Episcopal and emerging churches. We also tend to be pretty conservative on theology and ethics. Even if we find a particular local congregation that's OK on those points, will its denomination be more problematic (thinking here particularly about Episcopal)? And there's still the nagging suspicion (for me, at least) that whatever compromise we find is going to be better on the less important issues but not so good on the substantive ones. For instance, more liturgical worship without a solid grounding in traditional theology isn't going to do much for me. But we're trying to be open-minded and just see what's out there.

So, today we made our first visit. We started with Cedar Ridge. The people we talked to--a greeter who met us at the door, a woman who helped us with signing in our son (who ended up wanting to stay with us in the service anyway), a staff member who gave a brief intro to the church after the service--were friendly enough, but then it was also their job to be nice to visitors. The sermon was decent, but somewhat repetitive and rather long (not sure of the exact length, but the first hour consisted of one song, a brief welcome, and the sermon). The music was entertaining, but we both agreed that the instruments were so loud that they de-emphasized the singing and seemed to make it easier just to sit back and listen than to participate. The last part of the service was interesting, but seemed tacked-on. After the sermon, a different staff member came up and gave a brief explanation of what would come next. During some time of silence and (comparatively) quiet music, people could proceed to various locations throughout the room where they could take communion (self-administered), or pick up some handouts about the action items from the sermon, or light a candle, or pray quietly with some guidance for contemplation, or ask some designated persons to pray with them. Eventually, the singing resumed for about three more songs, and the service closed in a final prayer.

For the most part, I can see what they're trying to do. The general structure of the service follows the traditional flow of Scripture/preaching then communion. I appreciate that they take communion weekly, and I guess I prefer the idea of going forward for communion over passing trays around while everyone remains seated. On the other hand, it shifts communion more toward the individualistic end of the spectrum, which bothers me a bit. There's some advantage to having opportunities for personal devotion, like lighting candles and praying at various stations (vs. not having them at all, which is what I've seen in most Evangelical churches), but it lacks the natural expression and the blend of spontaneity with regularity and shared devotion that you get in Orthodox worship. And when you think about it, to throw in 15 min. of interactive worship at the very end, after an hour of rather non-interactive observation, seems a bit out of balance.

All in all, there may be a few surface-level gains (from my perspective) over our experience at Bethany, but neither of us was terribly impressed, and I don't think it would substantially change our current dynamic. I would still feel a need to involve myself with Orthodoxy, and all that would have changed is Julie would be uprooted from her church home and transplanted somewhere quite similar. There may be other emerging churches out there that do a better job of incorporating traditional elements, but for now I think we need to move on and look at something with more actual, handed-down tradition.