Life of the First Christians

It’s always interesting to think about life in the early church. When we read about house churches many in our day, particularly evangelicals, envision something that looks like a modern house community: an informal meeting with decentralized leadership. This is not the reality of the early church. Sacred Scripture and early writings provide elucidation on life of the first Christians. In addition, the religious and political landscape provide some important background information.

This is a transitional period from the Apostles and the formalization of Church ordination and structure to meet the needs of increasing Church size. The Church continues to expand after the descent of the Holy Spirit and begins to emerge as a distinct religion rather than a sect of Judaism. The political context over time is multi-faceted, including a unity among regions, local hostility, and an ebb and flow of persecution as Imperial policy. The Church also addresses internal heretical threats through the cooperation of local and synodal councils. Overall, the early Church is characterized by a mix of stability and transition ultimately grounded in Apostolic authority that reverberates in the proceeding centuries.

The religious landscape of the first Christians includes several diverse religions and philosophical belief systems. Prominent philosophies include the Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans believe pleasure is the highest form or good and Stoics teach that passion is a sickness and virtue is the sole human good (Walker, 10). Middle Platonism is also a major contributor in philosophical thought with ramifications on how society views reality and the nous (Walker, 12). Paganism, mystery cults, and idol worship are also defining features of the zeitgeist during this period. In Acts 17, St. Paul makes note of innumerable deities during his visit at the Areopagus, most notable is the shrine to the ‘unknown god’. Religion is personal, but it is also a definitive and formal feature of the Empire that impacts multiple spheres of life: local, regional, and familial. While the diverse worship of each household is tolerated, Emperor worship is one key element that unifies the Empire as a source of stability and unity. Christians failing to participate in these practices is one of the reasons they are persecuted and scorned during this era. Based on the preceding points, one could say that the first Christians experience life outside many of the standard social constructs.

Judaism is a religious and political group who exercise influence on the first Christians. The Jews are focused on the Temple, the Law of Moses, synagogue, and their scribes. There are three primary groups within Judaism: the Sadducees, Pharisees, and semi-ascetic Essenes (Walker, 17). Jesus’ era was defined by the intersection of religious and political turmoil; including, the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmonean rule, and Jewish zealots that continue to create a precarious political situation (Walker, 15). The first Christians are not entirely outsiders since many consider them a sect of Judaism and they are deeply immersed in Jewish society (Danielou, 3). Centered in Jerusalem, the first Christians remain faithful to the Temple and Law; however, over time they are recognized as a separate religion because of their unique features like Sunday worship services that consist of baptism, prayer, exhortation, and breaking bread (Danielou, 13). The Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) was celebrated frequently, sometimes daily (Acts 2:46-47). 

The geography of the first Christians is expanding. Christianity flourishes first in Jerusalem, but also spreads to Damascus which was a center for Hellenist Christianity and Antioch where believers are first called “Christian” (Danielou, 24). The Church growth necessitates additional leadership and ordination. This is evident in the selection of the seven Deacons in Acts 6. The authority of the Bishop appears as a characteristic element during this period; however, not all Christian communities have an identical structure (Walker, 47). The First Epistle of Clement XLII notes the appointment of their “Bishops in righteousness and their Deacons in faith” (Roberts et al, 16). In addition, XLIV documents the development of ordination and the establishment of these ministers (Roberts et al, 17). These processes and structures are further developed and solidified over time. St. Peter and St. John are pillars in Jerusalem while St. James also serves as the Bishop (Walker, 24). Eusebius notes that during the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 St. James possesses a central place of authority (Danielou, 16). To resolve issues the primates and representatives of the Churches work together and form councils: local, ecumenical, and other.  

The first Christians live in a formative, but stable period of liturgical development. They did not have a unified Apostolic liturgy but are unified in the basic form and elements noted in Justin’s First Apology LXV- LXVII which includes readings, preaching, prayers, the kiss of peace, anaphora, and most importantly being centered on the Eucharist (Roberts et al, 185). Christian initiation begins by teaching those interested in the faith and then admitting them after a period of preparation. Apostolic authority is evident when believers receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands which continues today in the Orthodox Church (Acts 8:14-15; 14:23). Justin Martyr’s First Apology LXI states, “those who are convinced and believe the truths that have been announced and who promise to live in this way are taught to pray, and while fasting, to implore God to forgive their sins” (Roberts et al, 177). The Didache vii also notes the process of Christian initiation through elements such as triple immersion baptism (Bettenson, 69). Further developments in St. Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures 19-21 note preparation, baptism, and chrismation where one renounces Satan, aligns with Christ, and receives new birth and empowering of the Holy Spirit.

This early period of the Church is also characterized by the development and proliferation of many heretical teachings. The Apostles make note of Simon Magus, a magician who offers money for the gifts of the Spirit in which St. Peter replies, “may your money perish with you” (Acts 8:20). St. Cyril of Jerusalem characterizes Simon as “the inventor of all heresy”. Justin Martyr’s First Apology XXVI states that Simon performed mighty acts of magic by the devil’s operation and the Simonians followed him as the first god and his doctrine causes many to speak blasphemies and practice promiscuity (Roberts et al, 171). The progeny of his blasphemies become Gnostics after 70 A.D. and lead many toward heretical groups and movements that impact the Church for centuries (Danielou, 56). 

The political context of the first Christians is also rather precarious. The Empire is unified by their Hellenistic culture but divided by regions and not all regions or emperors participate in persecution. It is important to note that persecution was not official imperial policy, but early persecution originates from popular hostility (Walker, 52). The stoning of Stephen was the signal or spark that initiated the general persecution and after seven years of repose the church of Jerusalem suffered under Herod Agrippa in 44 A.D. Imperial persecutions occur in 64 A.D. during Nero’s reign, charging Christians with sedition and practicing peculiar customs and superstitions (Danielou, 81). For Rome, religion is public and establishes a sense of unity and stability. The emperor is considered a living manifestation of the divine and Christians refusing to participate are a threat to Rome’s stability and an obstacle for Rome to appease their gods (Walker, 8). By this time Christians are considered distinct from Judaism and as outsiders they practice ‘superstitious’ beliefs and many label them ‘atheists’ for not worshiping the emperor and falsely accuse them of promiscuity and cannibalism. 

Overall, life of the first Christians is a mix of stability and change. They witness the importance of Apostolic succession and Church authority embodied by Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. The Apostles continue to preach the Gospel and over time their successors are imbued with similar responsibility through ordination. St. James is killed around the time of the Jewish rebellion 66-70 A.D. and by this time Paul and Peter are no longer alive. These events necessitate the development of ecclesiology to meet the needs of a growing group of believers spread throughout different geographic locations. In addition, liturgy and Christian initiation are preserved and developed in the early Church as a source of stability and distinctiveness. While there are waves of persecution and internal strife from heresy, the Church remains strongly united on the fundamentals of the faith. Subsequent centuries answer many of the lingering heretical offshoots and owe a great deal to the faithfulness of the first Christians. The blessed saints and Apostles of this era provide an important witness by safeguarding the faith despite persecution and they faithfully hand down Sacred Scripture and Tradition that reverberates in subsequent generations.

Works Cited

Bettenson, Henry. The Early Christian Fathers: a selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius. Oxford University Press, 1956.

Danielou, Jean, and Henri Marrou. The First Six Hundred Years. Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1964.

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A C. Coxe, Allan Menzies, Ernest C. Richardson, and Bernhard Pick. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.d. 325. Buffalo: The Christian literature Publishing Company, 2008. Print.

Walker, Williston, Richard Norris, David Lotz, and Robert Handy. A History of the Christian Church. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Healing the Rift of Digital Division

I miss the days when I was a kid before the proliferation of technology. Today it feels like most kids are consumed with electronic devices and instead of time outdoors and valuable time with family and friends we are consumed with social media. As a kid, I gained valuable socialization skills often lost today when we are primarily connected via digital means as noted by many psychological studies.

Before I go further it is important to note the many positives of technology and social media. We can share family memories, photos, and connect with groups who share likeminded activities and hobbies. Businesses use social media for marketing and customers can share experiences and recommendations. For those of us who live a great distance away from loved ones, perhaps technology offers some type of connection previously more difficult. I enjoy seeing traveling pictures, reading Orthodox quotes, and laughing at funny memes.

Despite these positives, I have come to the conclusion that there are far too many negatives and this blog is specifically focused on the damaging spiritual and inter-personal dynamics related to social media. (For the sake of space and time I won’t be addressing the additional dangers of data harvesting, targeted sales tactics, tracking, and privacy issues.)

In our current digital age the world is full of illusionary connectedness and many are engulfed in hostile “opinionated-ism” where any fleeting thought finds a home for public consumption. We live in an age of rage where people are quickly galvanized for a cause, whether good or bad! Doctors and psychologists have noted the endorphin rush associated with social media and many people are simply addicted. We scroll for hours in our news feed and as a culture driven toward quick snippets of info it is more difficult to sit, be still, and contemplate more complex topics.

In my experience, sacred things are seldom guarded and deep spiritual matters rarely given adequate attention or detail in these venues.

Statisticians such as estatica estimate people spend on average 7.5 hours a day consuming media, while emarketers place that number closer to 13 hours a day. Our hours and days are consumed and forcing us into smaller, condensed, and fast-pace lifestyles. For Christians, I have noticed a more bite-size consumption mentality where many are catechized into shallow and often heretical beliefs online. For good reason Orthodox groups tell people “ask your priest” in a communal/ personal setting.

Most of all, we should be concerned with our children. Many are simply being lost as they consume media and participate in creating an online persona. Psychologists note the harmful affects of social media on their development and self-esteem causing many to suffer from depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. They are being catechized by the world, not the hour long service of church you may attend each week! St. John Chrysostom’s homilies reflect on our responsibility to our families especially pertinent in this age. He states, “Let us make them from the earliest age apply themselves to the reading of the Scriptures” (Homily XXI on Ephesians). “Pray together at home and go to Church. When you come back home let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers” (Homily XX on Ephesians). Let us guard our children and take this calling seriously!

Furthermore, there are some significant spiritual challenges for us in the digital age. Sacred Scripture calls all Christians to fight the passions and yet we are saturated in opportunities for instant gratification and fulfilling the evilest desires of our hearts. If I’m angry I can unload on someone removed from my physical presence that would normally temper my responses. Lustful desires are easily and yet temporarily satiated everywhere someone might search. Many other passions are further exacerbated by the availability of these technologies.

Let us contemplate the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers who teach us the benefits of separating ourselves, striving against the passions, and participating in a regular ascetic regimen. Not everyone is called to be a monk or nun, but all Christians are called to an ascetic practice that our spirit might be strengthened above the desires of the flesh.

St. Ephrem offers a moving reflection in his Lenten prayer and perhaps might help us consider the need for removing our superficial digital connection, or better controlling and limiting the impact, to connect us with God and love our neighbors. He says, “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grants me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed are thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

After considering the preceding points for many months I slowly removed myself from social media. I am continually challenged by St. Seraphim of Sarov who tells us that “silence is the cross on which we must crucify our ego.” As a practical discipline I refrained from commenting on many items and tried to keep my posts centered on the events of the Church calendar, but I was still struggling to embody the love and care of Christ in this digital environment. Few people ever call or text me personally to check in, am I giving the same type of superficial friendship? Social media has given us the illusion of connection and a platform for virtue-signaling from the comfort of our electronic siloed bunkers. Is this the way of Christ? There is little doubt that time dedicated to these platforms takes away in-person time with friends and family.

For me the way forward is considering how we might love our neighbors fully and personally.

God calls us to honor the ‘image of God’ (Gen. 1:26-27). This goes much further than simply the corporeal facets of our existence. If you have ever attended an Orthodox service you may recall the blessing of the priest when he says “may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Grace, love, and communion are the beautiful attributes we should embody and these are examples of the image and likeness of God that are communicated to us through the Divine Liturgy where we respond likewise to our neighbors.

The incarnation means the divine Son of God condescended to take on flesh (Matt. 1; Luke 1) in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Is. 7:14). He is Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us’ and this is the longing of all humankind for salvation. As the Kontakion of the Nativity states, “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angles, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child.”

His all-consuming love is neither shallow, superficial, or self-serving. God does not ‘virtue signal’ his affections toward humankind, because he dwells among us for our healing and salvation by meeting and healing us through the sacraments. The Eucharist is the means by which our membership in Christ is continually lived out and in the Eucharist he abides within us as we become partakers of Christ and sharing in his divine nature “for the healing of soul and body.”

Because God loves me personally and intimately I am called to love others in the same manner. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). I don’t want to fall victim to casual love from a distance or virtue signaling that creates an illusion of righteousness. I want to love truly! I need to love others beyond simple words, gestures, and across the vast chasm of digital disconnectedness. I may have ‘friended’ hundreds of people, but how many of them did I pray for, meet with, or call one-on-one? How many times did I allow social media to serve as a replacement for authentic and biblical love?

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). The way of healing is not airing out my grievances online nor am I fulfilling my calling to love others by keeping them at a digital distance. Healing and love come from the real and tangible presence of God poured out in our lives! May we become peacemakers and those who seek to live out faith personally, relationally, and full of redemption. If that means ditching the hundreds of social media friends for a few real personal connections, then may God bless your efforts to honor Him and love your neighbor!

May God keep our hearts and intentions pure. May He have mercy on us and save us. Amen!

Raise Us Up, Oh Lord

“Peering across the way one cold early day.
A shadow was downcast, hiding, and sitting.
Void and yearning, shaking and sighing.
None to placate; entrenched, struggling, and dying.
The darkness displayed the same in all.
Distorting and destroying, Adamic fall.
A shadow darkened toward light illuminated.
Nothing offered nor said had sated.
Only the One who’s image we bear.
Surpassing comforts and temporal care.
Penetrating and filling, love a soul fulfilling.
Partake of the Mysteries for the healing once seeking.
Ascending and striving darkness had blighted.
Eyes dimmed and blinded now open and enlightened.
Incarnate Creator freeing the broken.
Partakers of divine a shadow now human.”

“Blessed are the Peace-Makers” not the Rabble-Rousers.

(Updated)

“This is the most crucial election!!” I’ve heard this every election cycle over the last 35 years I have been watching, learning, and participating in American politics. Is this a legitimate statement or simply another year of fear-driven rhetoric? Don’t get me wrong, it bothers me that former President Trump pushes Constitutional boundaries and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. I’m angered that his rhetoric and the commentary of pundits emboldened violent extremism at our Capital.

It also bothers me that the progressive left has an agenda that would change many aspects of the United States. While I believe these are important topics stressing our republic on multiple fronts, I think our country will endure.


We are clearly divided! Opposing groups are clashing in the streets and in heated exchanges. Are we ripe for civil war? I hope not, but clearly we are living in uncertain times. America has survived a civil war already; however, we also had a strong leader at the time that united our nation and helped heal the wounds of conflict and division.

I am especially concerned with radical rhetoric fueling division within the Church including QAnon conspiracies and I call on all believers to heed Jesus’ words, “my kingdom is not of this world”… “blessed are the peace-makers” (Matt. 5:9) and not the rabble-rousers. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If the preceding scriptures are not convincing enough for you, “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44)!


As Charles Marsh clearly notes in his book Wayward Christian Soldiers, we are pawns in a political game that masterfully manipulates Christians. In my opinion, President Trump perfected the art of this manipulation.

We have conflated a political party with righteousness and the other with evil forces from the depths of hell. What aspects of the gospel and righteousness are we applying to this test? Clearly there is not enough room here to thoroughly examine topics like abortion and the impact of the Moral Majority in elevating it as the primary issue over all others. One can certainly argue that supporting anyone who ascribes to something so horrific as abortion, a great national evil, is unthinkable. I can identify with this sentiment!

The media, including our own carefully manicured social media and news feed, creates an atmosphere of fear by using catch phrases and key words rarely defined and contextualized: Words like Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Christian, and Capitalism are used to create angst and anxiety among voters with little examination of the these words historically, presently, or even how these elements could even be implemented given our current social, legal, and political systems and structures.


Given all the madness in our present situation what I can control is myself and the example I set for my family. As a student of the scriptures naturally I have to make judgments and ascertain the actions and attitudes of myself and the Church based on scripture. For a group of people that so badly want the Ten Commandments proudly displayed in public spaces and “in God we trust” on our currency, we generally fail to holistically apply scriptures to our own lives and hearts. For example, why is a public display of the Ten Commandments so important when we refuse to apply the “beatitudes” in our own lives?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3-10)


Our cognitive dissonance has led to several unfortunate events. A sad yet lasting impression in my mind are the visceral knee-jerk reactions and character assassinations from professing Christians. Many do not fairly assess the gravity of sins like slander when passing information regarding political opponents or making assertions regarding those they may disagree with (James 4:11-12), much like many conveniently disregard sins such as gluttony. I’ve been on the receiving end and openly slandered for questioning the character and judgment of a preferred candidate and our focus as the Church. I’ve been accused of putting my head in the sand because I question the legitimacy of sources and “evidence” presented. My faith has been attacked because I won’t ‘toe the line’ in support of a pro-life candidate at all costs.

Now that the election is done and we are more divided than ever many are calling to bear arms and “take up the sword.” I think we all need to ask ourselves ‘is it worth it’? Will you be proud of the things you said and how you treated your fellow-citizens and those created in God’s image deserving of dignity? Will you be proud of the candidate you aligned yourself with? Are you proud of their words, actions, attitudes, and how they treat people? Are you simply a pawn of a system, an actor, a manipulator? Is your gospel witness damaged now because of who you have aligned yourself and the information you post or pass along? Was it worth the time spent digesting hours of information confirming our biases?


In humility I admit I don’t have all the answers and I continue to wrestle through them. I grow weary of nationalist fervor, idolatry, and “special revelations” from so-called christian sources that conflate Christianity with the aims of the “religious right”. How are we bringing his “kingdom come and [his] will be done”? It must be through the radical gospel witness that surpasses all nations and politics. The good news is good news for everyone: the oppressed, refugee, and immigrant; the marginalized and minority; the widow, orphan, and fatherless; the wealthy and the impoverished; the citizen and non-citizen. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. Lord have mercy on us, the Church!

An Orthodox View of Infant Baptism

It seems like yesterday I sat in the large amphitheater on those warm summer mornings. Our pastor had just finished his hour long sermon and like every Sunday the musicians made their way to the stage for the closing altar call. “Who knows if you’ll have another chance to accept Jesus?” he challenged the congregation. Dozens of people came forward to “ask Jesus into their heart” and to be submerged into the waters of baptism.

Adults and older children are welcomed with open arms and a warm towel as they exit the baptismal.But how do infants fit into this picture? Infant baptism is totally out of the question in this context. In fact, the pastor often said if you have been baptized as an infant you should come forward and be re-baptized.

The Orthodox Church views salvation and baptism differently.

Allow me to briefly note the process of salvation, known as theosis. I have been saved (2 Tim. 1:9), I am being saved (1 Cor. 1:18), and I will be saved (Rom. 5: 9-10). This is contrasted with the transactional commodification of faith often evident in some Protestant churches. Salvation is not something I obtain by praying a prayer or through intellectual assent. It is a relationship with God and a process of refinement with the ultimate goal of union with God (2 Peter 1:4). There is much that could be said about this; however, it is more suited for a future blog exclusively on the topic of salvation.

It wasn’t until I began my journey toward the Orthodox Church that I began to examine baptism more closely. Certainly I always valued adult conversion, but as a father leading his family toward the Orthodox faith I had to seriously think through the doctrine of infant baptism.

Old Testament

What evidence do we have in the Old Testament? The most evident correlation to baptism is the practice of circumcision. Circumcision was an act of obedience to God’s command and an outward sign of covenantal participation and identity. Jewish boys were circumcised on the eighth day, including Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 21:3-4). Abraham was our great example of faith and his household followed him. Just as Noah’s whole household was taken into the Ark (Gen. 7:1), Abraham and his whole household were circumcised (Gen. 17:23).We see this term “whole household” repeated quite often and children were equal members of the covenantal community.

In the Exodus narrative we see that the entire household of every family was taken out of Egypt and God’s institution of the Passover included everyone, including the children (12:24-28). Each child was a full participant and member of the covenant fully capable of eating the Passover sacrifice.

New Testament

In the New Testament we see that John the Baptist was circumcised (Luke 1:59). Jesus himself was also subjected to circumcision on the eight day (Luke 2:21) and Jesus was also baptized by John in Matt. 3 as an example for every Christian. In this narrative we get a beauiful glimpse of the Trinity.

So what happened to circumcision? A thorough examination is beyond the scope of this blog. However, we see in Paul’s writings that circumcision was certainly not required for Gentiles who became Christians. The first Jerusalem Council argued against the “judaizers” who pressured Gentile believers to be circumcised and follow Jewish rituals (Acts 15:5).

We also see a clear emphasis on the “whole household” in the New Testament. There are no explicit statements of infant baptism, but there is also no clear abolition of baptism as it relates to children of the faith community.

Let’s look at a few of the examples from the New Testament. The entire household of Cornelius was saved (Acts 11:13-14), the household of Lydia (Acts 16:15), the Philippine jailor’s household (Acts 18:8), and “I baptized” the entire household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16). While some may argue that these households may have not included children, it seems more likely that there would be children included just as the Old Testament Jewish context included children.

One of the things we often forget in our hyper-individualized society is that covenants are not specifically an individual arrangement. There is certainly a requirement for the individual to remain faithful to covenant; however, covenants are instituted between God and the group (Israel and the Church) and within these covenants each household participates.

Early Church Attestation

The early church carried the torch of faith from the Apostles and continued the practice of infant baptism. They saw continuity between the Old Testament covenant of circumcision and the practice of infant baptism. Lets examine a sample of quotations from the early Church period.

Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan (A.D. 111-113) expressing his amazement that children “belong to the Christian cult” in just the same way as do the adults.

St. Justin Martyr tells of the “many men and women who have been disciples of Christ from childhood (referring to their initiation through baptism).”

St. Irenaeus states in A.D. 190, “‘And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan’ [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:5]” (Fragment 34).

In A.D. 215 St. Hippolytus states, “baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them” (The Apostolic Tradition 21:16).

In A.D. 388 St. Gregory of Naziansus says, “do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!” (Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7).

St. John Chrysostom tells us in A.D. 388, “you see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21).

Lastly, St. Augustine states in A.D. 408 that “the custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39).

Opposition

In order to fully understand the controversy surrounding infant baptism we must also examine the opposition. For example, Tertullian’s objection must be understood within his context. He objected to infant baptism due to the heretical teachings of his time that sin after baptism was nearly unforgivable.

Some of the Christians of the third and fourth century were also not baptized as infants despite being born to Christian parents. Many postponed baptism because they wanted to counteract the pagans who were baptized simply to belong to the faith of the emperor. Postponing had nothing to do with the validity of infant baptism; rather, it was to show their genuine faith within their cultural context.

Reformation Period

Martin Luther and John Calvin both supported and insisted on the importance of infant baptism.
“Since our baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children, and since no one can prove with good reasons that they do not have faith, we should not make changes and build on such weak arguments” Martin Luther.

John Calvin also identified baptism very closely with circumcision and asserted infants are regenerated through baptism.

Opposition in its present form really developed after the Protestant Reformation. The radical Ulrich Zwingli brought about the first serious objections. His position seems to define much of the Evangelical/ Protestant position today. In fact, several of Zwingli’s followers even decided to be re-baptized. They claimed that their infant baptisms were insufficient believing valid baptism must follow a profession of faith.

Luther wrote against the Anabaptists, denying that faith needed to be present in order to baptize. He even pointed out that the “rebaptizers” could never really know for certain if they really had faith.

Clarifying Questions

Is baptism just a sign? I remember hearing in my evangelical upbringing that baptism was an “outward sign of an inward decision.” While clearly it is an outward sign, it is so much more. Baptism has always been understood as entrance into the life of God: the saving covenant and a union with the whole people of God.

Do unbaptized children go to hell if they die? This question comes from a misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin. Orthodox Christians do not believe that we are guilty of Adam’s sin (original sin). We teach the doctrine of ancestral sin, which means we are guilty of our own sins and yet we do suffer the effects of the fall in the form of a fallen and sinful nature and world. While there is no original sin to “wash away” through baptism, we are all called to participate because our lives are defined by submission to God’s will (Luke 22:42), called to be baptized into Jesus’ life and death (Rom. 6:4), making us co-beneficiaries and bringing us into union with him (Eph. 1:3; 1 Cor. 6:17; 2 Peter 1:4).

What about the age of accountability or understanding? The concept of celebrating intellectual reason is a direct result of our modern age born of the Enlightenment. For an adult convert surely intellectual consent is important. However, faith fails if it does not go beyond our individual reason and intellectual assent. Personal faith is certainly important and yet our faith finds validity within the Church community.

Conclusion

I’ll admit that as a Protestant I didn’t really wrestle with the totality of evidence concerning infant baptism. Orthodox Christianity is very different. Adults and infants are equally baptized in water three times; in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Then we are chrismated with oil in the sign of the cross.

I rejoice in the fact that our children were welcomed into the Church. Our youngest is too young to comprehend the faith, but like an adult we fully participate in the faith community through the sacraments and experience the wonder of God’s mercy. Whether we understand or not we experence the blessing of Orthodoxy through our senses; the beauty of sights, sounds, and smells of liturgy.

Through the Church the infant is supported and raised as a full member of the faith community. When we baptize a child we make a solemn promise to God- doing everything in our power to bring the Child to Christ which can only be done as we draw near to Christ.

Finally, it is through the incarnation that God redeemed all humanity at every age. A child of any age is capable of participating in the life of God and the holy mysteries. We are all baptized into the story of God’s people and into the life of Christ. Children may participate differently than adults in the life of the Church and yet their involvement is no less authentic.

Baptism involves physical elements like water, but it is so much more. It is spiritual, mysterious, and communal as we live into this historic and sacred sacrament.

Glory to God!

Sunday of the Publican & Pharisee

The tax collector and the Pharisee is a thematic story recorded only in Luke’s gospel among a series of similar parables. In chapter 15, Luke records the parable of the lost coin and the rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner. The parable of the prodigal son also exemplifies a theme of repentance and an atypical ending due to the father’s acceptance of his son, despite the shameful actions. Jesus often uses role reversal that challenges his audience. Similar to the prodigal’s father, God does not reject the tax collector but accepts him.

In verse 9 Luke states that “some were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”

Verse 10 identifies the arrogant parishioner as a Pharisee. During the New Testament period the Pharisees were popularly regarded as the chief interpreters of the law. The actual origins of the Pharisees are uncertain; however, they were probably the successors of the pious Jews who joined Judas Maccabeus to fight the implementation of paganism; therefore, they were known as a group that stood for religious purity and separation. They compiled the oral traditions, known as the Talmud, in order to encourage adherence to the law and promote cleanness.

According to David Wenham in The Parables of Jesus, the New Testament puts the Pharisees in a negative light; however, it is important to note that they were an “outstandingly religious group.” Jesus did not ostracize them or condemn them in totality. He engages and challenges the religious leaders, encouraging observance of the law. Questioning Jesus about his teachings, the law, and theology in general would have been a normal activity for the Pharisees. As teachers of the law they often engaged in theological discourse. According to Flavius Josephus, the Pharisees wanted to please God and follow the law in every aspect of life. For the Pharisee in the parable, going to the temple to pray would have been expected as a part of his regular religious routine.

Regardless of the positive impact of the Pharisees, what makes the Pharisee in this story bad is his “self-aggrandizement”.

Jesus pointedly confronts the hypocrisy of the religious leaders on several occasions. In Mark 8:15 Jesus warns against the yeast of the Pharisees. Matthew 23:27 presents an even more scathing rebuke. He states, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs.”

Jesus also confronts the Pharisee’s confidence in being Abraham’s descendents. In John 8:39-41 Jesus makes an important distinction when he characterizes the Pharisees as children of the enemy and not Abraham. In reality, God allows unlikely individuals into his family that does not rely on progeny but the faith of Abraham (Rom. 4). As John 8:39 says: “If you were Abraham’s children you would do the works of Abraham.”

The posture and actions of each prayer in the parable is an important point of contrast. In verse 11, the Pharisee stands and prays about himself. It was not uncommon to stand and pray; however, the Pharisee stands and thanks God that he is not like other sinners. He specifically notes some of the most grievous offenders: robbers, adulterers, and a direct comparison to the tax collector.

The Pharisee also recites a list of his good deeds, specifically mentioning fasting and tithing. The Torah directs at least one fast day a year, the Day of Atonement, as well as special holidays throughout the year. It is important to note that over time the teachers of the law created several exceptions to tithing a tenth of all their increase. The Pharisee in this parable does not concern himself with the tithe exemptions; therefore, in regards to tithing and fasting the Pharisee goes above and beyond what is required. Despite his numerous religious observances the Pharisee lacks humility and relies on these good works as the basis for his prayer.

In the temple the tax collector also stands and prays. Tax collectors maintain a very negative place in society and specifically Judaism. Jesus places the lifestyle of the culture- the continuum of the best-to-worst- and pits them against each other. The mention of a tax collector likely stirs feelings of angst among Jesus’ audience. They are as bad a lot in most people’s eyes as the Pharisees are good.

The animosity toward tax collectors is not one-dimensional. First, taxation was a political issue. Society likely viewed tax collectors as traitors working for Rome. Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and Herodians over taxation in Matthew 22:15-22 highlights this point. Under Roman control several elements within Judaism fought taxation. This resistance likely fueled a great deal of animosity.

More importantly, tax collectors are unclean due to their contact with Gentiles; therefore, they are often excluded from the Jewish community of faith.

In this parable Jesus is redefining the stereotypes of society and making it clear that the outcast can be part of his family. This is one of the main characteristics of the new covenant. Similarly, in Mark 7: 27-28 Jesus accepts a Gentile woman; traditionally ostracized and labeled a ‘dog’ by society. The tax collector is an individual of ill-repute, labeled a thief and unclean sinner.

Justification is not determined by outward signs of religion. Verse 13 describes the penitent heart of the tax collector enabling him to walk away justified. He stands at a distance, refuses to look toward heaven, and beats his breast. He prays aloud “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”. The distance noted in the narrative may indicate shame regarding his sin and desire for separation from others at the temple. It is unclear what the distance specifically signifies. The tax collector does not look toward heaven which also reveals a significant sense of separation; specifically, from God. According to the Hebrew tradition, a worshiper lifts their hands and eyes toward heaven after properly fulfilling the obligations of Torah. His stance speaks volumes regarding his heart. His downcast posture and countenance may suggest that he stands out among others at the temple as one who realizes that he is unjustified before God.

The shame and repentance of the tax collector is also evident in the beating of his breast. Within the Jewish culture there are several outward signs of distress, mourning, and shame. In Mark 14:63 the high priest, convinced of Jesus’ blasphemy, tore his garments as an outward sign of distress. The sadness after the death of a loved one often includes the rending of garments and the beating of the breast. While all of the outward signs of mourning and distress hold significance, a male tax collector beating his breast is the most impacting. The beating of one’s breast is often the practice of women at funerals. For the tax collector at the temple this clearly indicates extreme anguish and contrition.

The tax collector realizes his unclean status. In verse 13 he asks God for mercy and states that he is a sinner. He notes his transgressions against God and his need for forgiveness.

Similarly, in Psalm 41:4 David says “have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” Like David, the tax collector shows remorse for his sins and the need for forgiveness. Resulting from his inward repentance, God accepts the prayers of the unclean tax collector and declares him justified in verse 14.

While the Pharisee is an avid follower of the law accompanied by many religious practices, he does not display inward repentance or humility. The conclusion of the parable makes it clear that getting right with God is not on the basis of religious status or lineage, but entirely on the basis of God’s mercy and our humility.

Jesus often crosses social and religious boundaries and in this story he compares a representative of the most religious with a representative of the most irreligious. Luke’s gospel conveys a portrait of Jesus as the savior for all people and this particular parable highlights the inclusive nature of God’s family. By declaring the tax collector righteous there is a sense of hope and a call to action for all who are considered unclean and ostracized. Jesus is looking for the appropriate human response- repentance and humility.

Today we recognize that the chief weapon for virtue is humility, and the greatest hindrance to it is pride. The Church Fathers have set three weeks before the forty-day (Lenten) fast as a preparation for the spiritual struggles of virtue.

“Imitate the Publican and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.” – Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Iconography: beauty and theology for a spiritual life

Growing up in church I was used to our Protestant worship space consisting of blank walls, a stage, and pulpit. While I didn’t know anything about icons, I remember how much I loved stained-glass windows when we visited a more liturgical church. Depictions of Christ performing miracles and the Last Supper spoke volumes to me as a kid.

When you visit an Orthodox Church one of the things that immediately stands out is the ascetic beauty. The walls and ceiling are adorned with imagery of Jesus, Mary, and Christian saints who inspire us to follow God. Sometimes these icons may cover every square inch of usable wall and ceiling space.

As a seminary student exploring this tradition I had a lot of questions. Why are there icons? What do they mean and what are their place in worship? Perhaps the most sobering issue, how do you deal with God’s commandment against imagery?

Old Testament Examination

In Deuteronomy 5:8 we find one of the recitations of God’s commandments to the Israelites. “Do not make for yourself an idol any likeness that is in heaven above or on earth below or that is in the water under the earth.”

That clears it up, no images at all, ever… right!? Many Orthodox Christians have been accused of idolatry so I take this passage very seriously.

I believe these accusations are based on a false reading of this commandment. Perhaps some Protestants have forgotten that they also have  images. You may only display it once a year but that cute little manger scene of animals, people, and Christ constitutes imagery. Does that break God’s Law? What about statuary, paintings, and other depictions in stained-glass?

One must examine the Second Commandment within its context. The Israelites certainly lived in a time of prevalent idolatry. They were surrounded by pagan nations that crafted gods from common materials and precious medals, bowing down and serving them. But YHWH is different! He is Spirit and cannot be depicted. One thing you will notice as you examine the Old Testament is that Israel’s identity and calling are closely linked with YHWH and an evangelistic mission. In short, they are called to be different and reveal the uniqueness of God to the nations (see Deut. 4).

The Israelites are a holy people because of their relationship with God. This separates them from all other people. The Hebrew word “segullah” is most often translated as prized and describes this special relationship between the Lord and his people. Therefore, setting up an idol in any form to represent one who is unrepresentable is an affront to God’s identity and uniqueness.

Let us also consider whether the Second Commandment is a universal and timeless abolition of imagery. If this is the case then what happened when God commanded Israel to adorn the ark with cherubim and “icons” were allowed in the temple for worshiping YHWH (see Exodus 36:35- 37:9)?

Based on our findings I believe we can conclude that in Israel’s context YHWH could not be depicted; however, the commandment in question is not a total ban on all imagery, in all places, and for all time. I believe God is abolishing Israel’s ancient Near East tendency to create and worship idols (false gods that would “inhabit” these objects) in place of God. Their God is different and following his commands reveal his uniqueness to the nations. Placing YHWH in any form would be insufficient because he is spirit, unrevealed in any form, and neither animal nor human form could suffice.

New Testament

What was once concealed has now been revealed. When Jesus, the second person of the trinity, became man everything changed (John 1). The God who could not be seen is now present and visible to human eyes. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).

Paul tells us that “the Son is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col. 1:15). God is now revealed in Jesus Christ, hence the use of Christo-centric iconography where the unrevealed God has in fact been revealed in the God-man.

Early Church

Since God is revealed in Jesus there are many examples of icons depicting Christ. But also those who exemplified the Christian faith and are worthy of admiration. Mary, the disciples, and other Christian saints are often depicted.

Eusebius tells us, “This statue, which was said to resemble the features of Jesus, was still there in my own time, so that I saw it with my own eyes” (Church History, Book 7, Chapter 18). He tells us also that portraits of the Savior and of Peter and Paul had been preserved, and that he had examined these with his own eyes as well.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa was deeply moved by an icon of the sacrifice of Isaac. He says, “I have seen a painted representation of this passion, and have never passed by without shedding tears, for art brings the story vividly to the eyes.”

For early Christianity, Icons are common in spaces of worship. An examination of house churches provides some remarkable findings.

As a Protestant I looked at the New Testament’s use of “house church” and often used it to promote a modern de-centralized view of church. Meeting in the homes of various individuals scattered throughout the city seemed contrary to a formal church structure. I think this a pretty common misconception among Protestants and yet not the model we find in scripture (1 Cor. 1:11, 16; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15).

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These houses were usually the homes of wealthy individuals with a lot of space for a large assembly of people and it was a formal worship service.

Often times, an entire floor of the house was dedicated to this worship space. These house churches ultimately developed into the basilicas and larger church structures when the faith was no longer forced underground by persecution.

Dura Europas is an amazing archaeological discovery and helps us understand some of the earliest forms of iconography in the Christian Church.

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Judean Synagogue in Dura Europos. Murals date back to 235 A.D.

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Scene from the Book of Esther.

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The most ancient of all Christian churches is preserved at Duro Europas. Sections of the iconography can be seen on the wall. Opposite the entrance stood the elevated Altar. Archaeologists tell us this is where the liturgies took place, on this altar, by the Bishop (230- 260 A.D.).

Dr. Despina Iosif at the University of London tells us, “the edifice had initially been built at the beginning of the 3rd century, in close proximity to other houses and temples. It was not, however an ordinary, humble abode. Its owner must have been affluent and prominent member of the community. In the year 232- 233, the house underwent alterations, with the intention that a section of it was to be used as a meeting place and a house of worship for Christians. This is the earliest example of an above-ground Christians temple that we know of to this day.”

Dura Europos is a fascinating discovery that yields abundant examples of iconography throughout the house church structure (there are frescoes of Christ as the Good Shepherd, him walking on water, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb). In these structures we also have evidence of Hebrew fragments that reveal a continuity between the Eucharistic liturgy of the first century Didache and the more developed (fourth century) Apostolic Constitutions.

Iconography Codified

If iconography was prevalent in the early Church why was the practice not codified until A.D. 787? The early Church met in seven Ecumenical Councils with the purpose of affirming the faith “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”. Just as earlier councils affirmed the divinity of Christ, the trinity, and a host of other core doctrines under attack by waves of heresy, the seventh Ecumenical Council confirmed the Church’s stance on icons as a result of persecution from the iconoclasts.

The controversy essentially began as the birth and influence of Islam in the region increased pressure to condemn images. In 726 Emperor Leo III outlawed the veneration of icons. The conflict was brewing for decades. Bowing and kissing icons was culturally acceptable to show respect. The question went much deeper. According to Islamic belief, one would never depict Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad. As Islam spread so did the condemnation of images which increased pressure on Christianity to rid their worship spaces of icons.

In A.D. 730 Leo commanded the destruction of all religious likeness including icons, mosaics and statues. The iconoclasts (image-smashers) went on a destructive rampage attempting to rid the Empire of nearly all icons.

One of the most vocal defenders of Christian iconography was John of Damascus. From the Holy Land he challenged the iconoclasts. He argued that icons should not be worshiped, but they could be venerated.

In A.D. 787, the leadership of the entire Christian Church convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council. After a thor­ough and lengthy examination of the Scriptures and a consideration of Church tradition the body decreed:

“We, therefore, following the royal path­way and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certainty and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life­giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy Churches of God, and on the sacred ves­sels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, of the hon­orable Angels, of all Saints, and of all pious people.”

John of Damascus tells us that “the icon is a true image, a window to heaven and a light which guides us there. In that sense it takes the same role as the pillar of fire which guided Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land and the star which led the Wise Men to Christ. The icon is not intended to serve as a photo­graph of an earthly scene. Nor does it merely awaken in us the sense of ages past. Rather, the icon is there to lead our hearts to the King of Kings, to the brilliant glory of the Age to Come.”

Orthodox Christian Worship Space

The Orthodox Church sees an indispensable continuity over the course of Church history. The early Church emphasized the importance of maintaining sacred space, special liturgy, and the use of iconography in their worship space. The Orthodox Church’s use of icons today is an affirmation of the incarnation and our role as icons, which is confirmed by tradition and history.y_c8e4f215-1

As Orthodox Christians we are not simply entering a local building of believers. Our thoughts and attention are drawn to the reality of the Church as a whole (past and present, near and far). We join the saints and angels in one voice of worship, just as John depicts in Revelation.

As John of Damascus points out, veneration of icons is acceptable. But what is veneration? When you walk into an Orthodox service you will see people venerating, or kissing icons. Veneration is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator. Just as Paul tells the Church in Rome to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:16), we also greet one another with a kiss and venerate icons. The point is not to honor the piece of wood, but the one depicted and ultimately God. This is similar to saluting a soldier as a sign of respect or a soldier in war kissing a photo of his wife.

1C48038E-1E8E-4EBA-8990-5AC23C62F127Icons are also deeply theological. They are full of symbolic meaning to convey truth and our core doctrine. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. Examine the festal icons of Christ (Nativity, Theophany, Crucifixion, Resurrection). You’ll see Christ wearing a red tunic with a blue cloak, showing us that he was divine (red) but took on humanity (blue).

This picture shows some of the symbology located in an icon. There are entire books written on the theology of icons. This blog is insufficient to examine them all, but I do encourage further study for those interested.

Icons are also important because they communicate to all people of all ages and education levels. There was no official New Testament canon for over 300 years, very few copies of the Scriptures since there was no printing press, and not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read, including many of our children. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints. They reveal the whole story of salvation and invite us to be a part of that history.

Icons are not simply for the Church, but also our homes, vehicles, and workplace. Having a prayer corner or wall to gather for family studies and prayer is an important way to transform your home into a small church.

Overall, I can’t say that it was easy for me to accept icons as a former Protestant, especially venerating icons. I’m not naturally an outwardly affectionate person and the practice of kissing to show honor is eastern rather than western.

As an Orthodox Christian I have grown to love the beauty, meaning, and significance of icons in my life and the life of the Church. I can’t help but admire the role and example of Christian saints. They inspire me toward a more holy life. When you enter an Orthodox Church you enter sacred space and you can visually see the gospel story along with the saints and angels currently in his presence. These ‘windows into heaven’ are rooted in our tradition and faith. They are beauty and theology. Just as God is truly beautiful so our worship with the saints and angels in heaven is made to reflect this reality.

“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” -John of Damascus

The Light Meets the Dark: a soldier’s story

I remember the summer of 2004 like it was yesterday and yet it feels like a distant memory. I’ll never forget my parents hugging and kissing me goodbye. It was no ordinary goodbye not knowing if I would return. I put on a brave face refusing to let my trepidation and anxiety show. Their tireless love and support helped carry me through.

The flight across the Atlantic seemed to take forever. It was the longest plane ride of my life. Stopping in Kuwait for a few days I experienced the intense desert heat and wide-open barrenness of the land. We were located outside of a populated area in a military ‘tent city’ where we could eat, relax, sleep, and even purchase store items in air conditioning tents.

After four or five days we boarded the military flight moving toward our imminent destination. I didn’t know what to expect and could feel the butterflies in my stomach. Down below I could see the lights as we flew over Baghdad toward Mosul, Iraq; located in the northern Ninewah (ancient Ninevah) province near the Syrian border.

They referred to this area as the ‘wild west’ because the fighting was so fierce and our military had not yet made significant headway in securing the city.

The tempestuous and tenuous circumstance required a quick landing and exit. We dropped in altitude very rapidly because a slow decent would make a prime target for RPGs or SAMs. The plane landed but never really made a complete stop. We all grabbed our gear and ran off the plane. Immediately following our exit it rocketed back into the sky, leaving little opportunity for enemy fire.

Our brigade was located on several FOBs (forward operating base) and I was stationed at FOB Freedom, later renamed Courage. We utilized several of Saddam’s palaces for our operations and placed living quarters throughout the walled-in area. Each section of connex containers where we resided were surrounded by concrete barriers and sandbag bunkers.

One of the most striking realities of Iraq was the juxtaposition of palatial comfort for Saddam Hussein and the squalor of his people. I had the opportunity to take a Blackhawk helicopter trip to a nearby FOB and my initial observations from our convoys were further substantiated by this flight. The sights and smells were horrendous. Houses and city buildings lay in disrepair while Saddam’s sadistic and egocentric lifestyle sucked the life and profits from their country. Road conditions were rough in several places and the proliferation of road side bombs exacerbated the situation. Every hole in the ground or suspicious object became a potential bomb requiring constant vigilance. There was a piercing stench of raw sewage emanating from the Tigris river and local streets that overwhelmed your senses as you drove by. The beauty and prestige of ancient Babylon and Ninevah seemed all but lost.

Life around the FOB was busy and full of activity. My daily routine consisted of 8- 10 hours of work plus convoys and tower duty along the exterior walls of the FOB as needed and on a rotational basis.

Trucks routinely drove through the area spraying the mist of bug repellent to fend off mosquitos carrying malaria. Plumes of smoke filled the sky daily from the trash burn. Many who were housed near the burn piles are now experiencing cancer related testing, treatment, and suffering other health related issues.

Episodes of fear, anxiety, and disruption were occasionally interrupted with a calm that most might consider mundane. A gentle dusting of snow brought a sense of peace and normalcy to an otherwise chaotic existence. Petting the local wild cats as they roamed to-and-fro within the walls also brought a sense of comfort reminiscent of home. Care packages from home routinely arrived making mail call feel like Christmas and bringing great joy.

Securing the city was paramount and early on the city was a mess. Iraqi police and military often proved untrustworthy and despite our efforts to train them many didn’t have the will to fight the insurgents. I quickly learned the value of fortitude and how desperately we needed Iraqis to own their freedom. It felt like a small but meaningful victory to witness Iraq’s first democratic vote. People flooded the polling places despite threats of violence and victoriously raised an ink stained purple finger indicating their participation.

Despite every effort to keep us safe, shootings, bombings, mortar, and rocket attacks routinely occured claiming the lives of many. Day and night soldiers swept the city attempting to gain control.

It was nearly impossible to sleep some nights. If I wasn’t awoken to the sounds of weapons fire or incoming mortars I definitely couldn’t sleep through our own 155 m.m. howitzers firing and nearly rattling me out of my bunk onto the floor.

I served a very diverse role during my deployment. Coming from a proud lineage of military service I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps as a military intelligence soldier. I served with an intel team and also had the opportunity to participate in several convoys as a driver and 50 cal gunner. Despite the hazards I distinctly remember standing fully exposed outside the top hatch of the LMTV with my hands on the 50 cal…waiting and watching. I didn’t feel fear, but an indescribable sense of peace and divine presence! I remember thanking God for this odd opportunity to feel such calm among the storm.

The specific job I fulfilled was very unique, because the position was created especially for our circumstances. One of the many gaps in our intelligence was identifying key targets. Nicknamed ‘CSI Mosul’ I attempted to piece together captured information to assist in identifying insurgents.

During the thirteen months of my deployment there were many tense moments. I remember one day looking out over the city. We received multiple reports that insurgents had captured the police station, taken all the weapons, and lit several buildings on fire. Smoke filled the sky while gun fire and explosions rang out across the wild and unruly landscape. Fearing the FOB may be attacked and perhaps overrun we all gathered at a central palace known as the ‘bombed out palace’ due to the devastation sustained from a JDAM bomb most likely dropped from an F-15 during the initial invasion. We remained at the palace for several days until the situation became more stable. The uncertainty of the scenario was stressful, but luckily we regained control and assisted in reestablishing their police and military forces.

Vigilance and upheaval is one thing and loss of life is another. Our brigade experienced many casualties, more than most. Friends and fellow service members were shot, hit by IEDs, and routinely targeted by covert attacks.

I remember the deadliest attack of the Iraq war at that time. A suicide bomber entered the dining hall during meal time on FOB Marez. I remember the dining hall well. During our convoys we gathered there seeking a brief respite from the dangers located ‘outside the wire.’ The Army teaches us to ‘stay alert, stay alive’ and never underestimate the enemy. A suicide bomber, disguised as Iraqi army, entered the dining hall wearing a ball bearing and C4 loaded vest. The detonation tore a hole in the roof of the structure and shot ball bearings all over creating an unthinkable sight of food trays and carnage. On subsequent visits I recall seeing the charred remains of the steal pipe and white tented structure. I ate in this dining hall several times and yet I was not there on this dreadful day. For more info read the Washington Post article .

How does war affect a person? The effects of combat on each person tend to vary. A psychologist once instructed his students, ‘don’t ask a veteran what they did in the war.’ In general, I think that is good advice! It depends on the person, their job, what type of activity they experienced, and how they are able to process it. One thing I want to emphasize is that every soldier comes back a changed person! I am continually plagued with anxiety and hypervigilance. Some suffer from terrifying dreams. Sights, sounds, and smells can remind someone of war. We will never forget the faces, voices, and names of those who were lost.

I remember many lighthearted days and sad days. Most often we tried not to think of death, but death reminded us of his ever-present grasp. Living in constant vigilance surrounded by death creates a calloused person and a hardness that is difficult to process. Some will never overcome these effects. The hardness of a person is a defensive mechanism because one cannot function effectively in war if they are emotionally distraught. Over the years I have been able to process these thoughts more fully and I feel more capable of feeling today.

One of the things you quickly learn about high pressure situations is the necessity for friends and finding ways to unwind.

Prior to deployment I felt an inexplicable sense of urgency to learn how to play the guitar. It was divine providence because when I arrived at our FOB I located our brigade chaplain to enquire about serving. He had been looking for help in the chapel and it was a great fit. We quickly developed a united spirit of friendship and service. I’m so thankful I had the ability to serve as the worship pastor in such a difficult place and during a trying time for so many.

There’s also something indescribable about the bond you make with those whom you serve. I developed several life-long friendships and they remain brothers to this day. We didn’t see each other all the time because we were often separated on different FOBs, but it was very exciting to catch up when we randomly ran into each other. As luck would have it, we all played different instruments and formed a band before the deployment. On a few occasions we had the opportunity to play together in chapel. Ironically, my friend Craig was located nearby the entire deployment and I’m so grateful for our close proximity that allowed for frequent visits. Brandon’s unit was later moved to our FOB allowing the three of us an opportunity to catch up when time allowed.

Unfortunately, I did not see our other brothers Ben and Sam very often. My physical location and schedule made it difficult to see either of them often. I remember the day Ben was sent back to the states due to injuries from an IED explosion. It was sad to hear the news, but we are all grateful he survived.

It’s very difficult to adequately describe these types of experiences. I have had several civilians ask me and to be honest if you haven’t been there, words simply cannot suffice. It has taken me fifteen years to write about these events and despite the negative aspects of war in the preceding points I can’t help but reflect on the positive impact. For example, I don’t know if I would value life so much had I not experienced such destruction and devaluing of life.

One of the struggles I experience since my return is a mythological narrative of military service and a romanticized idea of war permeating our society. Let us not mistake gratitide and care on one hand and blind support of military action on the other. As a scholar of the scriptures I have learned to question the morality of conflicts and how our support for pro-war agendas creates trauma, destruction, and death. I was far too cavalier, calloused, and nationalistic. Civilians of countries we attack are not simply unfortunate collateral damage of an agenda and our enemies ought not be casually killed. All people have inherent worth by bearing the imago Dei. It’s very easy to support military action that will vaporize enemies, but Jesus never promised loving our enemies, or neighbors, would be easy! Let us pray for them as fervently as friends, family, and fellow citizens. Lord help us!

As followers of Christ we must take these issues very seriously! Our calling is not to secure American hegemony or our international interests, but the proliferation of the gospel in word and deed.

Being a soldier during a time of war is terrible and amazing in so many ways. It can be a place of darkness mentally and spiritually. I witnessed the tragic and heinous evil of those who find pleasure in beheading and dismembering others. Suicide bombers left sad and grotesque remains all too frequently on street corners that claimed the lives of innocent victims.

This was a journey of uncertainty, sorrow, fear, victory, anxiety, defeat, and blessing. I am grateful for God’s comfort and divine presence in these situations. Looking back, I am reminded that in spite of chaos there is peace. Despite sorrow there is joy. In turbulent times and in a terrible place the light pierced the darkness and I experienced the warmth of God’s embrace!

The Call to Community

What is community and how do Christians pragmatically apply such a philosophy? I’m not sure I knew the answers to these questions before experiencing married student housing at my university. It was an amazing place and I want to encourage each one of you with my story.

My wife and I visited the college campus in 2013 and it was an amazing fit. The townhomes are situated very closely with shared walls, slightly cramped living spaces, and a large central courtyard we shared where the kids could play. It was normal for several different neighbors to sit outside together in the evening air discussing life, sports, and classes.

Our children played together, learned together, and we all bonded as a community united in caring for one another. The best comparison I can provide is the early Church. Acts 2:44-45 states that “all the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need.” When one of us was in need of anything from baking items, cold medicine, or childcare, we were there for one another. In fact, when my wife went into labor with our third child a neighbor graciously watched my kids while I rushed her to the hospital.

After three years the university decided to sell the property. We were shocked, saddened, and crushed to see this treasure sacrificed. My intention is not to attack the college but note the impact of community. They had difficult financial decisions and the residents went through a grieving process as a result.

After hearing the news of their decision I wrote a letter to the administrators in order to provide a voice for this community. My thinking was, if you haven’t lived it then you likely don’t know the value of it. I’d like to share with you a portion of that letter.

“As a student and one living in married student housing…we are experiencing fear and frustration. I disagree with the decision, but I accept it and continue to seek God’s provision as it affects my family. Personally, I want to express my gratitude for married student housing which made it possible for me to become part of the community here. Like many others, the housing is one of the main reasons I am here and have survived. As I read through the handout provided to us I recognize that our core competency is education. But I can’t help but ponder that our calling has been so much more in the past than just a place of education. It has been a community that fosters Christ-like attributes where we learn to serve and love our neighbors. It has been a place where everyone has a place to live out faith and find support.

For those of us who are married students with kids, the housing has been our sole outlet for this support, ministry, and life-enriching experience… The courtyard has been our place of community and friendship. I remember the day I arrived here 3 years ago. My neighbors dropped everything, helped me unload my uhaul, brought us coffee and made us feel welcome. Everyone is in this together. We all left homes, jobs, and traveled miles away from everything familiar with the responsibility of family on our shoulders. Our kids play together; sharing life and learning about God as a big family. We have bible studies, prayer meetings, watch each others’ kids, provide meals and support groups for those who give birth or are in the hospital. In short, this is the most authentic Christian community I have ever been part of and it makes this place stand out among all others. It is a true gem and asset!

Optimistically, I am pressing forward, praying for an open door that will allow some of us to remain here and be a light and blessing to new neighbors. Ultimately, I just hope the end goal we are seeking by selling is worth the high price we are paying.”

You may be wondering how the community has changed. There are a few families that remain. As expected many people left and without affordable housing there are only a few new families. Many are in the process of leaving now and in all honesty I never dreamed I would be so relieved to give my 30 day notice.

Unfortunately drug activity, domestic disputes, and restrictions that prevent children from enjoying the common space of the central courtyard are common struggles. People care so little about the community that they throw garbage everywhere.

It’s interesting to look at how much changed in the five years we were there. When we arrived at the college students with families had many more resources including housing options, holiday activities like Easter egg hunts, discounted family meals in the dining hall, and common space to share for special occasions. The emphasis changed and slowly the communal family atmosphere was lost.

The sad reality for many is the feeling that their grieving has been unwelcomed and gone unheard. Families were heard in private meetings while public displays of frustration and sadness shunned. “It’s all in the past and time to move on!” But it isn’t in the past for those living in the situation.

It’s truly sad to see and know what so many will miss out on. I’m saddened by the current status of our once close community and yet I see it as a factor leading us to new adventures in new places.

I have learned so much from my neighbors. My tendency is always individualism and isolation. But for those of us who call Jesus Lord, I pray that we would use these types of communal experiences and the scriptural witness to propel us toward a healthy vision of community.

We have so many treasured memories of our time and as we all move on to new places I pray that each one of us will bring this communal spirit wherever we are called to reside! As the old saying goes, ‘bloom where you are planted.’ I’d like to bloom, but let us also commune! When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors it isn’t from a distance. Listen to your neighbor’s story and pray for them. Be there when they need support! Let’s build bridges with our neighbors by welcoming, befriending, and showing them the type of genuine care God shows for us all. I guarantee it can change lives!

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Christian Disciplines- rhythm for a spiritual life

Every time we approach a fasting season I find myself challenged to meditate on the purpose and importance of the disciplines. There is always a tendency to fast without prayer or contrition. Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

The word ‘discipline’ means to practice or to train yourself and the Apostle Paul loved using sports metaphors to emphasize this theme. As a Christian one must exercise their soul carefully, regularly and just as rigorously as the Greeks exercised their bodies (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Galatians 5:7; Philippians 2:16; 1 Tim. 4:7-9). When you become an Orthodox Christian you join a spiritual gymnasium that is continuously strengthening and stretching your soul!

Life as an evangelical simply did not include an emphasis on the disciplines. I didn’t actively participate and our church was mostly silent on the practical and spiritual importance. Being historically and scripturally ignorant on the topic I didn’t question what I was told, or rather was not told.

I think there are a few factors leading to my ignorance on this topic, including an innate bias against Catholicism and even general misconceptions regarding the disciplines. Many believe there is tension between our works and salvation by faith, an issue that helped spark the Reformation. I do not consider Martin Luther the authority on the disciplines and yet there are striking differences between his positivity on the subject and rejection or apathy among many Protestants today.

The truth of the matter is the early Church embraced the necessity of these practices and so should we!

The Disciplines

Participation in the disciplines is not a way to earn salvation. It is one of the most practical ways of living out the Christian life. As an Orthodox Christian I am becoming more acquainted with the benefits of prayer, alms-giving, and fasting.

Prayer

A common misconception is that liturgical traditions practice empty or rote rituals. I can’t tell you how many times I practiced evangelical traditions in an empty manner. Some days I went to church because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. My mind would often wander during a long sermon and I dodged every handshake possible. The bottom line is anything you do half-hearted or in an empty manner will obviously result in robotic participation & emptiness.

If you’re an evangelical attending an Orthodox service or are familiarizing yourself with the disciplines of the faith you may wonder if participation in prayer times (1st, 3rd, 6th, & 9th hour, etc.) and fasting are less meaningful. Admittedly, I held this opinion for several years. I wanted to pray as the “spirit leads.” I can pray my own prayer and that makes it more sincere right!? Look at the songs we sing in evangelical services. Are these not the prayers of other people we are simply personalizing in the moment!? I think the same can be said about liturgy and communal prayer.

One important difference is Orthodox liturgy is ancient, deep theologically, and recited as a collective community of believers. We are united not simply around the world but also in our joining the choruses of heaven which includes the departed saints.

One of the most commonly repeated Orthodox prayers is the Jesus prayer- “Lord Jesus Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Many will use a payer rope to keep them focused and engaged as this prayer is repeated several times.

I never comprehended the beauty and importance of continuously praying with the broader Church community. Rather than viewing myself as an autonomous individual who attends a community once or twice a week I am a member of a visible faith community that join in one voice of praise continuously and regularly.

The Orthodox faith calls us to implement a consistent, intentional, and thoughtful prayer life. But for many Christians prayer is often monopolized by busy schedules and convenience. It’s easier to pray when we have time or feel like praying. This isn’t the historic understanding of prayer. Our Christian lives and practices should be the determining factor in our schedules as we strive to become more Christ-like. The Apostle Paul tells us that all Christians must pray and pray unceasingly (1 Thess. 5:17).

J.C. Ryle states it beautifully when he says “praying and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer.” When we acknowledge how sinful we are it only makes sense that we engage in regular prayer.

As Orthodox Christians we engage in both corporate and personal prayer. Our individual prayers are balanced with participation in the liturgy of the Church where the whole community gathers for worship and prayer. St. John Chrysostom tells us, “he who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne.”

Alms-giving

Alms-giving is a universally emphasized discipline in the scriptures and throughout the history of the Church. I’m often tempted to turn this spiritual issue into a political one. Our responses are often biased by American, capitalistic, and individualistic lenses. It’s my money! Aren’t they able to work and earn money? They’re probably being lazy or they’ll just purchase drugs and alcohol. Notice how scripture never admonishs us to question and judge those who receive alms. The trajectory of our focus is obedience to God by releasing our possessions and subsequently freeing ourselves from the bonds of avarice.

“But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:3-4). “And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11).

St. Basil also states, “If every man took only what was sufficient for his needs, leaving the rest to those in want, there would be no rich and no poor.” He also says, “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor” (Saint Basil).

Giving alms must be an act of personal sacrifice and it has great spiritual worth. God does not want us to give what is left over, but to take from one’s self and give to others.

Fasting

Another discipline unfamiliar in my evangelical life is fasting. I love food and I enjoy it. As Orthodox Christians we fast to control our bodily desires in order to build us up spiritually and to commemorate the holiness of seasons and sacraments. We sing during the first week of Great Lent, “while fasting from food, let us also fast from our passions.”

Fasting is a period of intentionally depriving oneself of food (sometimes we abstain from sex). We do not starve ourselves, we simply consume only what is necessary and often limit certain foods from our diet. The point of fasting is not to reject good food, good sex, and certainly not to create an over- spiritualized facade. Remember that Jesus condemned the practice of appearing godly while having improper motivations. He did not condemn the practice itself! In Matthew Jesus says, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites,” an indication that Christ assumes that one does fast. He says “when you fast” not “if you fast.”

Fasting is an important Christian practice as we mirror the example Jesus, the Apostles, and the Church Fathers. Denying our bodies provides us with the opportunity to free ourselves from selfishness, sloth, and gluttony. This is especially pertinent for our context. We live in a country of over-abundance, where gluttony is normal and self-denial is foreign.

It’s important to note that eating less does not necessarily capture the heart of fasting. We can be very disciplined and yet miss the point entirely! A priest once told me that it would be better for me to stuff my face with a burger during the fast than diligently fast and hold a grudge against my neighbor or be negligent in prayer and confession. We do not simply fast as an act of spiritual passivity or obligation because we must prioritize prayer, forgiveness, and other spiritual acts that actively engage mind, body, and soul.

Confession and fasting are part of our preparation for receiving the body and blood of Christ each week. This means we abstain in order to prepare for the sacredness of the Eucharist.

The regular cycle of fasting is Wedneday and Friday. Wednesdays are in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ and Fridays His crucifixion and death. On these days we practice a vegan diet by refraining from alcohol, oil, meat, dairy, and fish. Why these days? Evidence of fasting is located in the New Testament and in other first century documents like the Didache (The Teachings of the Apostles). The Didache tells us that fasting occurs on Wednesdays and Fridays, not Tuesdays and Thursdays like the Jews (Didache 8:1).

Those who are committed to a strict ascetical lifestyle may also refrain from eating more days and totally fast from any food.

Designated periods of fasting is an important way to commemorate holy seasons for Christians and key events of Christ’s life and also the saints.

The primary fasting seasons include-
-Nativity Nov. 15- Dec. 24th
-Great Lent and Holy Week 1st Monday of Great Lent- Great and Holy Saturday
-Apostles Fast June 11- June 28th
-Dormition of the Theotokos Aug. 1- Aug. 14th.

Lastly, let’s consider the importance of Jesus’ words to his disciples struggling in spiritual warfare. “After Jesus had gone into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it (the demon) out?” Jesus answered, “This kind cannot come out, except by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:28-29). By denying ourselves we gain strength over our physical bodies and become more prepared to engage in spiritual warfare.

It is important to note that there are exceptions to fasting if you are very young, older and unable, or taking medications that necessitate food consumption.

Disciplines are not found wanting,
but difficult and untried

Why aren’t more Christians involved in the disciplines of the faith? I think there is a false dichotomy of faith and works that has pitted many professing believers against the disciplines as “works-based” salvation. In reality faith and works are two sides of the same coin. Examining scripture and the early Church reveal that we cannot discard either!

In addition, some don’t want to participate in the disciplines because they are difficult or inconvenient. Others simply don’t understand the scriptural support and admonition to participate.

St. Kosmos reminds us that “even if we perform upon thousands of good works, my brethren: fasts, prayers, almsgiving; even if we shed our blood for our Christ and we don’t have these two loves [love of God and love of brethren], but on the contrary have hatred and malice toward our brethren, all the good we have done is of the devil and we go to hell.”

I am far from perfect in implementing the disciplines, but they are now part of my journey, struggle, and how I have attempted to align myself with scripture and Church tradition. By following the example of Christ, the Apostles, and the Church Fathers we find ourselves in a rhythm of spiritual life that strengthens us as we deny ourselves, moves us to serve God and love neighbors, and loosens us from the bonds of gluttony, sloth, and avarice. May God have mercy on us!