Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hard Christianity




Pysanky - Ukrainian Easter Eggs

As I was waiting to meet my priest for confession the week before Holy Week, I remember thinking how, as a Protestant pastor, I had become an expert at minimizing my sins and convincing myself that my particular ‘issues’ were manageable, all the while being careful not to let on about what I was really struggling with for fear that would be the end of my job and possibly my career.  And here I was, having listed examples of those very same defects, ‘issues’ and sins, about to walk in and discuss them with another person, and then confess them before the icon of Christ, and receive the healing forgiveness that comes when one acknowledges one’s true state and one’s true need and cries out for mercy.  Such an honesty would have seemed too costly in my former life, too risky.  Now I am part of a church where this sort of confession is what all of us do.  It is the norm.  We are sinners.  We need forgiveness.  This is how we receive grace.  Hard Christianity.


On Good Friday night, I was standing at the chanters’ stand waiting for the service to start.  I was thinking back to all the churches I had been a part of.  Some of them attempted Good Friday services but stopped them because of lack of interest.  Others had mid-day services attended by a hand-full of people on their lunch break.  Others decided to put their energies into a full-blown Maunday Thursday service the night before and let that carry them through till Easter Sunday.  Sometimes, it seemed that the most important issue was what was most convenient for the most number of people  And as we began chanting the service and the first of many, many psalms that we would chant and hymns that we would sing and readings that we would chant, I looked behind me and saw a crowded sanctuary full of people who would spend the entire six hour service standing and attending to what we were singing and to the liturgy.  Three hours later, my feet were hurting, my shoes were off, and we were still standing and chanting and listening to Scripture and singing.  Moment by moment we were using the liturgy and the hymns to enter into the experience of that day, to look up and find ourselves in the icon of the crucifixion, the icon of the deposition from the cross, the icon of Christ and the small clutch of grief-stricken mourners at the tomb.  We went on a procession, carrying the icon of the body of Christ outside around the Church, just like a middle-eastern funeral.  And when we closed the service near midnight, in a church darkened except for a few candles, each one of us approached on our knees the makeshift tomb in the center of the nave, and kissed the wounds on Christ’s body in tender reverence.  And then we left in silence.  I dare say this was not very seeker-sensitive. But it is the way the Church has been marking the death of our Lord for more than 1500 years.  It’s how we receive grace.  Joining with the angels in worship.  Hard Christianity.


For 50 days we had been fasting.  This is not the ‘giving up chocolate for Lent’ fast of fashionable High-Church Protestants.  This is the no meat, not dairy, no eggs, no oil fast that the Orthodox have been doing for as far back as there are records about such things.  So I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a lot of pasta and tomato sauce, a lot of beans and rice.  Full disclosure – I made the unilateral decision to declare apple pie an official fasting food, so I ate a lot of apple pie, too.  Over the years I’ve discovered that I really don’t like soy milk, and I really can’t abide almond milk.  So I eat dried fruit for breakfast.  The two great things about Orthodox fasting is that, first, it’s not legalistic.  We are told to do what we can.  And we are told not to impose our fast on anyone else.  So if we are invited to dinner by someone who isn’t Orthodox, we receive with gratitude whatever is served.  Secondly, we are all in it together.  All of us are fasting, because that’s just what Christians do to get ready, in this case, for Holy Week and Pascha.  So there is no sense of ‘I’m more spiritual than you because I am fasting’, for the simple reason that everybody is fasting, or doing what they can.  I find fasting a challenge, because I rather like food, and I don’t like saying ‘no’ to what I want.  Realizing this is a step in the direction of fathoming the church’s real reason for fasting – fasting from food is of some value; fasting from sin is even better.  We are reminded that Jesus fasted, that his disciples fasted, that Christians in the early church fasted.  Fasting has been a central part of Christian spirituality and discipleship from the very beginning.  And it is hard.  The church doesn’t apologize for asking Christians to do something difficult, for expecting that its members will fast.  That’s what Christianity is about.  Hard, blessed Christianity.


Nothing prepares one for one’s first experience of Orthodox Easter, or ‘Pascha’.  I arrived at the church at 11:15 pm (!) on Saturday night in order to ensure I had a place to park.  Earlier in the evening, I baked a chocolate sour cream pound cake to share with everybody after all the chanting was done.  I entered a darkened church.  The entire church was an icon of the tomb.  I fell to my knees and approached the icon of the body of Jesus in the tomb and kissed his wounds, and then took my place at the chanters’ stand where two readers were in the process of reading the entire Book of Acts as people come in. 


By 11:45, all of my fellow choir members had arrived.  And the service started. It is first a matins (Orthros) service, which means lots of Psalms, and then, through hymns and Scripture the stories of the past three days are told leading up to the moment where we are.  The singing is like a funeral dirge.  We are reminded that Christ is not simply dead in the tomb but is busy freeing all of the dead in hades from their chains, including our first parents, Adam and Eve.  And now the hinge of the ages is upon us.  We go on a procession following the priests who carries the icon of Christ’s body over his head.  


Outside into the chill across the front and then around to the back of the church and then back to the front door, where the priest raps on the door with his cross and proclaims the resurrection of Christ.  And immediately we sing the resurrection hymn which will be repeated several scores of times – ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!’  And we all process back into the church, at which point there is much singing, with the priest and deacons and acolytes repeatedly rushing into the midst of the congregation with the glad news that ‘Christ is risen!’ with all the people shouting back ‘Indeed He is risen!’  Handbells are ringing, the lights illumine the once darkened church, the choir sings version after version of the Resurrection Hymn, the priest rushes all over the church censing, the people shouting – it is a raucous, happy cacophony! This part of our Pascha winds down, and we turn the corner joyfully to celebrate St. John Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy.  Never mind that this means another two hours of service, never mind that it is nearly 1 AM, we are all right there – this is what it is all about and none of us is going to miss this for anything.   


Halfway through (at this point, about 2 am), we are treated to St. John’s Paschal homily that urges all to come join in the Feast, regardless of how much you may or may not have prepared by fasting.  It’s a sermon preached more than 1500 years ago.  Followed by our own priest, who began his sermon on the Prologue to John’s Gospel by assuring us that he had been reminded by his wife that it was, after all, almost 2:30 am.


After we all partook in the Eucharist, the service came to an end, or rather moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship room where all the families had brought special baskets full of all the foods that we had not been eating for the past 50 days.  The baskets were blessed with prayer and holy water, and the feasting began.  Sausages, hams, cheeses, stuffed shells, casseroles, chicken fingers, lots and lots of brightly colored eggs, bottles of wine and beer, not to mention cheese cakes, custards, chocolate candies, and my chocolate sour cream pound cake.  And a whole lot more. With lots of Paschal greetings – ‘Christ is risen!’  ‘Indeed He is risen!’  It was glorious!  A real celebration, with lots of energy, good conversation, getting up for seconds and thirds (we were hungry, having had to fast before participating in the Eucharist). 


The entire experience was a sensual feast – of the eyes with the vestments, the candles, the icons the people; of the ears with the chanting and hymns and prayers and then the bells of celebration; of the mouth with the Eucharist and then the paschal feasting; and of the body with the crossings and bowings and prostrations and processions.  Every part was engaged.  It took a long time.  But since nobody had anyplace else they had to be in the middle of the night, time was forgotten.  We could just join the river of the liturgy and flow with it until we were done.


It was strange making my way home at 4:30 AM, which is usually just past the time I’m getting up to go to work in the morning.  Even more strange was going on a long run at 11:00 AM just as the Methodists and the Presbyterians and the Baptists down the street were all arriving in the Easter Sunday best for their hour-or-so-long celebration of Easter.  I found myself running to the rhythms and harmonies of the hymns and chants I had worked so hard to master just a few hours before.


Attending an Easter service that stared just before Midnight and went on for almost four hours is hard.  So is trying to master the different ‘tones’ for the chants, they different tunes for the hymns, they different harmonies that go along with them, not to mention the protocols of when to bow, what to kiss, when to cross.  Oh and did I mention that we stand for our services – for the whole thing, except with the priest is preaching?  With so many trees it might be easy to miss the forest.  But the opposite is also true.  I have been a part of churches who in their zeal to simplify remove so many of the trees that the forest is reduced to clear-cut nothingness.  I for one would much prefer too much than not enough.  Too much content.  Too much theology.  Too much Scripture.  Too much meaning.  Too much Christ.  Too much Theotokos.  Too much holy Trinity.  But maybe that’s just me.

Definitely not easy.  Overwhelming in both form and content.  Hard Christianity.  But so very worth it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Educating Christians




Wheaton College



The way higher education at the PhD level is set up puts a premium on original research as the basis for being acknowledged by one’s peers as having achieved the status of an academic doctor.  As in the sciences, most of the humanities still provide ample regions in which to explore and do work that no one else has done.  My observation about the areas of Biblical Studies and Christian Theology, however, is that they are much more crowded, and that it is much more difficult to carve out a niche where one can satisfy the original research aspect of advanced studies.  There simply are too many people trying to say something original about increasingly small patches of intellectual territory.  A trip to a research library and to their section on Biblical Studies monographs bears this out. There one will find shelves and shelves of books with exceedingly obscure titles on topics that could only be loved by their author (and loved only because it was his/her ticket to a PhD). More often than not, these published PhD theses had a publishing run of maybe 300-400 books, and prices in excess of $100, most of which were sold to libraries such as the one you are standing in to look at them.  And while we academic doctors often look down our noses at ‘popular’ books that sell thousands and tens of thousands of copies to the great unwashed masses, surely there is something to be said about having one’s work actually read, as opposed to sitting in the dark stacks of some library and existing notionally as a line item on some CV.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The prolific Evangelical theologian Roger Olsen seems to bear this out in theology as well.  In his most recent blog post ‘What’s left for Theology to Do? Some Musings aboutTheology’s Future’, he explores the perception that there is nothing new in theology.  An obvious example has to do with Christian doctrine.  There is actually no such thing as ‘new’ Christian doctrine.  Nor is there such thing as a new heresy.  After nearly two millennia, what poses as new today is likely merely the latest reincarnation of ideas that have been circulating around Christianity for centuries, having been dealt with by Christian thinkers in one generation only to reappear in some subsequent generation to cause a stir until it is dealt with afresh by a new generation of Christian thinkers.  Two current manifestations of this would be Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, both of which claim to be new and fresh revelations of God, but which are actually the latest manifestation of 3rd and 4th century heterodox teachings (variations of Arianism and Gnosticism, respectively) posing as ‘real’ Christianity today just as they did with considerable success back then.

Fuller Theological Seminary

It is a measure of just how wedded Western Christianity is to Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge that this discussion is even possible.  Christian doctrine and the Bible is treated as if they are academic subjects which can be parsed and explained as one of any number of other academic subjects.  Advancement to the upper levels is dependent upon mastering vast amounts of other people’s academic productions, and of arguing about everybody else’s ideas about the issue one is dealing with.  A case could be made for pursuing either as a kind of intellectual history.  But such a designation gets one further and further afield from how the Bible and theology are actually used by the people who care about them.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

None of this has anything to do with actual faith.  I was told by my own supervisor at an early point in my writing to ‘cut out the uplift’.  The intense subjectivity of religious experience evidently has nothing to do with the supposed objectivity of academic research.  The headlong rush by Christian colleges and universities to secure academic credibility has succeeded in academizing areas such as Christian education, pastoral ministry, Christian counseling, as well as theology and Biblical studies.  But at what cost?  Increasingly, these areas of study have been effectively removed from the church and from any sort of relational context and placed instead in an academic context where mastering knowledge through reading and attending lectures, taking exams and writing papers, supply the markers for successful acquisition of  adequate knowledge to advance to the next course.  In other words, it is entirely possible to be a profoundly knowledgeable theologian, an expert in Biblical studies, a whiz at Biblical languages, a marvel at hermeneutics and exegesis, and at the same time to have little if anything to do with being a follower of Jesus Christ, or what the New Testament describes as being a Christian.  Western Christianity’s abdication to the academy for the formation of its leaders guarantees that the suitability of those leaders to actual Christian ministry will be a matter of sheer luck and not intent.  And men and women who themselves are not disciples can hardly be blamed if they are not making disciples.  We’ve trained all these people to do really well in classes, not so much when it comes to being a Christian.

Reformed Theological Seminary

The Eastern Churches have a different emphasis.  Human pride being what it is, I am sure Eastern Christians would have more than matched Western Christian’s achievements when it comes to academic advancement.  It’s just that a millennium of life under the Crescent in many Orthodox lands, as well as a century of brutality under the Hammer and Sickle in many others have meant that almost all Orthodox energy has gone into merely surviving.  But even so, there remains a different perspective on the place of theology in the life of a Christian for the Orthodox.  Theology is not something we take courses to ‘learn’.  Kallistos Ware writes, "Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed.’ (On Prayer, 60).  Instead, as Evagrius of Pontus said, ‘A true theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a true theologian.’ (P.G. 79, 1180B)

Asbury Theological Seminary

It is a relatively easy thing to master a subject area like theology, to advance in skills necessary for Biblical studies, to acquire the professional credentials needed to climb the ladder of churchly authority.  It is another thing altogether to pray, to seek God, to repent.  This may be one of the reasons that we in the West are more like the world around us than we would perhaps like to think. Which explains a lot, actually.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Holy Week - Crash Helmets Required




Accidents are by definition unexpected.  I was jogging down a hill at dawn several months ago, and before I had time even to think much less react, I was on the ground hard, having slipped on a patch of black ice that I never even saw.  As a five year old, I was so excited to try out my new fishing rod that I went down to the dock by myself, where I carefully baited my hook and the cast it so hard that I fell into the cold April water and went under.  If my older sister hadn’t noticed that I was gone and then heard a splash, I wouldn’t be writing this today.  Some of us are in situations today that, had we known this is where our paths would take us, we might have opted for plan B.

For the disciples, the week that we are about to commemorate was one accident after another; we might call it, anachronistically, a train wreck in slow motion.  Nothing went right.  Matters became increasingly muddled.  At every opportunity Jesus deliberately steered the ship towards the rocks.  They never took him seriously when he spoke plainly of going to his death.  They were holding out for a kingdom and were sure that Jesus was just feinting with his words to keep his powerful adversaries off balance until the right time.  And now that the right time had come, Jesus was instead purposefully snatching disaster from the jaws of glorious triumph.  The events of this week left them utterly disoriented.

We Orthodox are about to enter Holy Week.  For those on the outside, the list of services scheduled for the run up to Pascha (Easter) is staggering.  Even for us Orthodox, it’s daunting.

April 14th  (Holy Monday) - Presanctified Liturgy 6pm
April 15th  (Holy Tuesday) - Bridegroom Matins 7pm
April 16th  (Holy Wednesday) - Presanctified Liturgy 6pm
April 16th  (Holy Wednesday) - Holy Anointing 7:45pm
April 17th  (Holy Thursday) - Vesperal Liturgy 5pm
April 17th  (Holy Thursday) - Matins / Passion Gospels 7:30pm
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Royal Hours 8am
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Vespers / Shroud Procession 6pm
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Jerusalem Matins 9pm
April 19th  (Holy Saturday) - Vesperal Liturgy noon
April 19th  (Holy Saturday) - Midnight Office 11:45pm
April 20th  (Holy Pascha!) - Divine Liturgy 1am
April 20th (Holy Pascha!) – Paschal Fellowship Meal 3am
April 21st (Bright Monday) - Divine Liturgy 8am


Having participated in this cycle of services in Nairobi, and now in Virginia, the multiplication of services is an invitation to walk with Jesus in his last week.  These services are full of Scripture, both the gospel stories themselves, as well as light shed from other parts of the Bible on what was going on and what it all means.  These services are full of prayer, attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible.  It is enough that God becomes a man, and even that this man becomes a slave.  But to watch as the incarnate Son of God takes deliberate steps towards execution as a Roman criminal is incredible.



One enters the storm of services simply trying to keep up with what is being chanted and prayed.  But something happens at some point during the course of these services.  I go from going through the motions of crossing myself, of bowing, of prostrating myself, of saying the responses, singing the hymns, chanting the prayers, to owning them.  The service, as a service, is just a reading through the liturgy; and as long as I remain on the outside, the service remains just a service.  But as with so many things Orthodox, the externals are deceiving, and are not even intended to be the reality, but rather a means into the real reality.  And just as an icon at one level is just paint on wood or plaster, but on another level is a window into the reality portrayed; so the service becomes a window, or the doorway, into the place where God is.  And in the case of Holy Week, the place where God is takes our breath away.  God is with disciples whose inability to get it comes to a dissonant climax during this week.  God is with mourning sisters and a dead brother.  God is with Israel and Jerusalem in one final supreme effort to extend his hands to a people who simply would not come.  God is with a thief being executed for his crimes.  And God is with us as he dies a bloody terrible death so that he might remove its deadly sting from our hearts.


At some point in the long liturgies of the week, we find ourselves in a different world, in a different place, seeing with different eyes, understanding with different perspectives.  It is very hard work.  And the liturgy has the priest saying repeatedly, and with good reason (!): ‘Let us be attentive!’  But maybe we have become so used to the virtual journeys afforded by our medias, ‘journeys’ or experiences that take us nowhere and cost us nothing,  that we forget that taking a real journey is never easy. There is always a cost.  And the purpose is always to take us to a different place.

Holy week is a time when accidents happen.  My reality, our realities crash into Jesus’.  Our moneychangers’ tables are flung to the side.  Our pharisaical presumption is left sputtering.  Our carefully constructed arguments against what Jesus might say are exposed as having missed the point entirely.  Our loud insistences that we can see just fine become further evidence of our blindness.  We watch our hopes for glory, security, power, control die a miserable death on a cross.


In the midst of this debacle, we hear Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him.  And by doing so these next few days, deliberately, we learn something of what this meant for him.  And something of what it means for us.  And we come out on the other side in a different place, profoundly grateful for the resurrection.

Holy Week is not for the faint of heart.  Crash helmets and seat restraints required beyond this point.


Full disclosure:  The idea of needing crash helmets at Christian worship services is not original to me.  Rather one of my favorite authors, Anne Dillard, put it this way:



Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.