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 a country of over-abundance where gluttony is normal, but 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! (A later blog on salvation will further develop this connection).

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!

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An Orthodox View of Scripture: from the Church & through the Church

When I began studying the Orthodox Church a good friend challenged me, “do you reject sola scriptura (scripture alone)?” and “do you believe that we need man’s traditions?” These are great questions and an issue I needed to wrestle through as an Orthodox convert. I was raised in a nondenominational church that believed in the importance of the Bible, personal study, and applying the message to our lives. However, I don’t think we adequately addressed the complexities of interpreting scripture. We accepted the interpretation of our pastor and those within the nondenominational hermeneutic without question.

In addition, as a Protestant I don’t think I adequately considered the relationship of the Church and the scriptures. If I could revisit that conversation with my friend I think I would ask him, “what came first, the Church or the Bible?” The answer is the Church! The scriptures we hold in our hands and honor came from the Church and I believe are properly understood through the Church!

What is the Word?

We often hear the term the ‘word of God’. When we consider the forms of revelation this term is more accurately understood when we ask WHO is the Word!? The scriptures point us to God and therefore receive honor as one form of revelation. God has revealed himself to humankind through creation (general revelation) and in special ways on particular occasions (special revelation) as recorded in scripture. God spoke through the prophets, to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), and most importantly he revealed himself to humanity through the incarnation. The Word is actually the God-man, Jesus Christ (John 1). He is the ultimate revelation of God!

When we examine the scriptures we should start by recognizing that they did not descend from heaven in a pre-assembled state. The message of the scriptures was first passed down through the oral tradition of the faith community and then written down to ensure the message is preserved and unchanged. The early Church revered, guarded, and ultimately canonized the scriptures. For the sake of brevity I will not be dealing with issues of redaction, editing, or textual criticism.

The Form of Scripture

Orthodox Christians believe the Bible and understanding it’s meaning are vitally important for the Church as a whole and each individual Christian. This is why we emphasize the earliest canon of scripture accepted by the Church.

Let’s focus on the Old Testament first. As a student of the Hebrew scriptures I honor the Hebrew manuscripts and the Masoretic text (MT). For those who don’t know, there were many documents and fragments in circulation before the Septuagint in 2nd century B.C. The Septuagint, also referred to as LXX (meaning 70), is the first accepted form of the Old Testament by the Church. It is a translation by Jewish scholars, offering an indispensable understanding of the original text. For example, Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ’s birth specifically identifies Mary as a virgin and not merely a maiden/ young woman as the Hebrew indicates.

An issue that gives most Protestants reason for concern is the perceived addition of books to the Bible. From the perspective of the Orthodox Church, we wonder why Protestants accept the removal of so many books. We have 78 books while Protestants have 66. There are a few reasons for this discrepancy.

First, the Septuagint includes the deutero-canonical (apocryphal) books. Why are these books missing from the Protestant canon? On one hand, the Jewish community rejected these books leading to a different canon in MT. Some have argued these books were removed due to anti-Christian bias. We simply cannot address all of the issues related to this topic in a blog post, but I do not think this reason alone explains all of the factors leading to the expulsion of these books. From an Orthodox perspective these reasons do not really matter. What matters is the Septuagint was the accepted text of the early Church.

Another reason for the difference in books of the Bible is Martin Luther discounted several books. In fact, he also wanted to reject the book of James! That means Luther essentially rejected 1500 years of Church history, the earliest accepted Old Testament translation, and questioned the validity of New Testament books overwhelmingly accepted by the Church. As a Protestant I didn’t question these decisions and I should have!

New Testament Books

When the New Testament writers refer to the scriptures they are actually referring to the Septuagint. However, an examination of New Testament writers like Paul does reveal the availability and usage of the Septuagint and Hebrew sources. The New Testament was not compiled at this time. They were letters circulating from town to town and this is why they are addressed to specific churches, groups, and individuals.

The number of NT books does not vary between the Orthodox and Protestant traditions; however, it is important to note that the early Church went through a long and meticulous process of forming the canon of scripture by verifying authorship, inspiration, and coherence with Church tradition. One of the most important factors is ensuring the NT books come from those who experienced direct contact with Christ! Many letters/ books were accepted very early, but others like Hebrews did not receive unanimous approval since the author is unidentified. Revelation is also very controversial and not read in Church liturgy. In fact, some in the early Church rejected it as authoritative.

Understanding the Bible Through the Church

Did God abandon the early Church? Did they simply fall ‘off the rails’? If so, how and when did this happen? Was it before the canon of scripture received its final form from the Church? How can you trust the scriptures if that is the case and by extension the resurrection? Why do we claim to trust the Apostles and applaud their missionary efforts, but then reject the disciples of the Apostles and those who carried the torch of Christianity after? These questions swirled in my head while investigating the early Church in seminary.

I believe that God was faithful to lead and guide the early Church against many heresies, trials, and through periods of persecution and martyrdom. Many sought to destroy Christianity, but failed.

The Church Fathers were led by the Holy Spirit in testing, affirming, and passing down the earliest reading and understanding of scripture. To answer the earlier question, “do we need man’s traditions?” My answer is yes and we ought not allow the term ‘man’s traditions’ to be used in a prejorative sense.

Tradition and scripture go hand-in-hand and even the Apostles make note of their tradition and gospel (2 Thess. 2:14-15)! I have come to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church is the pearl of great price, a rich treasury that preserves the early Christian faith and tradition.

Following the teachings and traditions of the early Church does not mean that the scriptures are impersonal. It means they are not monopolized by personal interpretation and must be understood according to the interpretation of the Apostles preserved and promulgated by the Church Fathers.

Sola Scriptura

Protestants adhere to a philosophy known as Sola Scriptura (scripture alone), one of the five ‘solas’ that resulted from the 16th century Reformation. There are several problems with this approach. First, it doesn’t explain the origin of the Bible. God inspired authors to write the contents of the Bible and the formation of the canon was dependent on the authority of oral tradition and ecclesiastical (Church) authority.

In addition, scripture must be interpreted and everyone appeals to some authority for interpretation. To state that scripture alone is sufficient denies the reality that anyone who approaches scripture brings something to the text, an innate bias and preconceived notions. Do you rely on the interpretation of the Church Fathers, the Reformed traditions of the 16th century, the Puritans, Baptist’s, the Jesus Movement, or perhaps read it on your own and derive meaning based on your own ideas?

Many of the modern evangelical teachings regarding scripture are in line with Sarah Young’s book Jesus Calling. The book essentially gives you, the 21st century reader, authority over the text and Church tradition to derive any meaning your feelings and thoughts dictate. This is both damaging and dangerous!

Sola scriptura is also rejected by the Bible! There have always been competing views and contradictory ‘gospels’. As Orthodox Christians we take Paul’s exhortation seriously, “to this He called you through our gospel, so that you may share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and cling to the traditions we taught you, whether by speech or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:14-15).

In short, Sola scriptura is an aberration that has led to many schisms- an explosion of competing interpretations resulting in thousands of denominations and traditions that often contradict the early Church and by extension the Apostles themselves.

Can’t we let scripture interpret scripture? It can and it does, but as stated once you approach the Bible you bring a perspective and there are differing opinions on how it interprets itself. This is one of the reasons why Apostolic succession is so important and the faithful transmission of the Christian faith, lest we be led astray by an entirely different tradition and gospel.

In Acts 15 the Church gathered at the Jerusalem Council to condemn the false gospel of the Judaizers. What is typically forgotten or ignored is God’s faithfulness after the book of Acts to protect and preserve the gospel and traditions of the Apostles. Look at the Church’s defense of Christ’s divinity at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the condemnation of heresies in subsequent ecumenical councils.

Early Church Attestation

“We should not seek from others the truth which can easily be received from the Church. For in her, as in a rich treasury, the Apostles placed in fullness all that belongs to the truth, so that whoever wishes can receive from her the water of life. She is the entrance to life.” (Irenaeus of Lyon 125- 202 A.D.).

“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds.” (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]).

“But beyond these [Scriptural] sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept.” (Athanasius, Four Letters to Serapion of Thmuis, 1:28).

“What I have been taught by the holy Fathers, that I announce to all who question me. In my Church the creed written by the holy Fathers in synod at Nicea is in use.” (Basil, To the Church of Antioch, Epistle 140:2).

“Wherefore all other generations are strangers to truth; all the generations of heretics hold not the truth: the church alone, with pious affection, is in possession of the truth,” (Ambrose, Commentary of Psalm 118,19).

“And let no one interrupt me, by saying that what we confess should also be confirmed by constructive reasoning: for it is enough for proof of our statement, that the tradition has come down to us from our Fathers, handled on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them,” (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 4:6).

“But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures . . . Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them and the table of your heart.” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5:12 (A.D. 350).

Concluding Thoughts

I believe we can conclude two important points about the scriptures in relation to the Church: the scriptures came from the Church and they are accurately interpreted through and in the Church. The Church arduously, prayerfully, and faithfully worked to preserve the canonical scriptures bearing authoritative witness to Christ and ensuring Apostolic tradition is passed down. The Church tells us what is scripture and also how to understand the scriptures. Whether we interpret the Bible from a position of ego, ignorance, or personal preference with a selected interpretive hermeneutic, we should never supplant the teachings of the Apostles and those who learned from them.

I remember when I first read the Bible cover-to-cover. I felt like the Ethiopian trying to understand what I was reading. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). You and I both share this difficulty in understanding the scriptures!

As a student of the scriptures I began to question why I ignored 1500 years of Church tradition. While Protestants may claim they are retrieving the teachings of the Apostles, they are ultimately ignoring or selectively choosing from the history of the Church and as a result questioning God’s faithfulness in leading and preserving the Church’s witness. At this point it becomes a theological ‘buffet line’ of picking and choosing and a slippery slope toward misinterpretation that ultimately can lead to heresy.

As Orthodox Christians we read the Bible personally but we do not interpret as isolated individuals. We find understanding within the ‘mind of the Church’. We can determine the mind of the Church from the teachings of Jesus, preserved in the tradition of the Church as presented through our ancient liturgy and by consulting the writings of the Church Fathers. As St Vincent of Larins states, we (the Orthodox Church) have preserved what was held by Christians “everywhere, always, and by all.”

Each and every person adheres to some interpretation of scripture, but the question is whether it conforms to the message of the Apostles given to the Church Fathers. Holding a high view of scripture is important, but let us also consider the vital importance of rightly understanding scripture through the Church.

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In Pursuit of the Judiciary- Christian response while justice hangs in the balance

Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination has captivated the country and there are no shortage of opinions. I find these events fascinating but mostly disheartening. I listened to both testimonies, observed a firestorm of responses, and noted the following reflections.

  1. I am dismayed and embarrassed at evangelicals like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Jack Graham, Focus on the Family, Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr. and others that were outspoken in support of Judge Kavanaugh before testimony or the polygraph results from Dr. Ford (or the other potential victims) saw the light of day. In addition, the continued evangelical support for Kavanaugh despite the allegations of sexual assault is slipshod in my opinion. Politics today for evangelicals are often characterized as ‘the ends justify the means’. In other words, ‘character matters’ is a slogan of the past and has devolved into an ongoing apologetic effort regardless of mounting evidence of impropriety. This is further substantiated in statements from prominent Evangelical leaders excusing or ignoring alleged assaults and impropriety committed by the President. Little attention is directed at how this union will damage the witness of the Church. Recent polling data reveal that many will support Kavanaugh no matter what, even if he is guilty of sexual assault. Above all, I’m frustrated & saddened in the present circumstance by the lack of care and attention that Dr. Ford received as a potential sex assault victim. The clear lack of advocacy in the Church feels eerily familiar to the mishandling of sexual assault allegations and trauma uncovered within the Church. Notice that I’m not saying he is guilty and I am also not calling her a liar. I’m talking about taking the allegations seriously.
  2. Both testimonies were passionate in presenting their position. Dr. Ford was calm but emotional. Kavanaugh was emotional, but also angry and sarcastic on many occasions. Dr. Ford says she knows with 100% certainty Kavanaugh assaulted her. Kavanaugh claims his name and family are ‘destroyed’ by false allegations. I want to believe that people are truthful in these circumstances. It’s hard to make a determination and this is why I am completely exhausted by people’s exaggerated responses for one side.
  3. I see a “he said/ she said” situation with a few key exceptions that have me leaning in one direction. Dr. Ford willingly took a polygraph test which concluded .02% chance of deception. In addition, she confessed these details multiple times to therapists over a period of several years. Is he also willing to have a polygraph? Kavanaugh claims he has ‘evidence’ in his calendars, that apparently he kept for almost 40 years, suggesting he was not at this party where the assault occurred. How diligently did he stick to this schedule? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is Sen. Blumenthal had the calendar in hand for questioning. He noted that Kavanaugh’s documentation actually places him with the individuals named by Dr. Ford also indicating they were drinking which is further corroboration of her testimony.
  4. There was no shortage of grandstanding by our lawmakers. Lindsey Graham’s shouting was met with applause by many without questioning his dismissal of Dr. Ford’s testimony, polygraph results, or the need for further investigation. Sen. Hatch oddly said that Dr. Ford is “attractive” and “pleasing.” For a hearing that alleges sexual assault can you be any more creepy!? I did not hear questioning from every senator, but I imagine there was also some grandstanding on the other side. Let’s also keep in mind that this is not a criminal proceeding but a job interview for the highest court and I think the circumstance begs the question of our senators- is there no one better?
  5. This is a lifetime appointment and it is within the purview of the Senate Judiciary Committee to determine if the candidate is an ethical person. Previous FBI investigations are irrelevant, other than they prove nothing alarming was located at that time. This doesn’t mean impropriety doesn’t exist. Something can easily go unnoticed or unmentioned if you don’t have access to specific people & information. However, when allegations come to light it’s their job to determine the veracity of the claims. Even the American Bar Association is urging senators for an FBI inquiry into these allegations! If they question his ethics after reviewing the evidence then so should everyone else. Many sexual assaults go unreported because victim’s are often not supported, trusted, and even shamed or blamed for the assault (you wore sexy clothes, you asked for it, etc.). I would recommend people stop being in a hurry and support a thorough investigation into these allegations! You may not believe Dr. Ford but at least respect her and the judiciary by ensuring these allegations are investigated.
  6. Kavanaugh became snarky and combative when asked about supporting an FBI investigation into these allegations. He wouldn’t really say yes or no. His hesitancy to advocate for a thorough process of discovery of evidence and corroboration of testimony is what I found most striking. I don’t think this an absolute indication of guilt, I find it interesting that when asked “in your opinion, is an FBI investigation” the right course of action he refused to answer in the affirmative and continually repeated “whatever this committee decides”. Yes, the senators can request such an investigation, but I find his response puzzling and perhaps senators were wise to include this question to gauge his reaction. Sen. Flake did request an FBI investigation and delayed the proceedings one week. I’m grateful there is some effort to investigate this matter further; although, it is uncertain if this investigation was thorough.
  7. I believe the media has been unfair and hostile toward both and there are many people adding fuel to this fire. Many are questioning the timing of these allegations for obvious reasons. Did Sen. Feinstein purposely withhold these allegations until it was opportune for democrats to stall the proceedings!? It’s possible, perhaps very likely. The same could be said about those trying to force this vote before the elections. Alternatively, did Feinstein attempt to honor Dr. Ford’s request for anonymity by witholidng this evidence!? That is also possible. We know that Dr. Ford has at least claimed she desired anonymity and didn’t come forward to testify until the information was released to the press and pressure mounted for her to testify. Again, we also know that she provided her account of the assault confidentially to multiple therapists in past years. The media response and our knee-jerk reactions have forever affected two people. Sen. Hatch rightly stated, “here we have two human beings” and they have become the collateral damage of political battles and ‘gutter sniping’. Kavanaugh’s reputation is marred should he be innocent. Dr. Ford’s name is also the target of character assassinations.
  8. I have continued to follow the FBI investigation up until the conclusion and there are certainly many allegations of “shoddy” and half-hearted follow-through. Like many others who could corroborate Ford’s story, Kenneth Appold, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary had also not been contacted by investigators despite having reached out to the FBI and submitting a statement through the bureau’s website. Appold said he had not been present at the party where the alleged incident had taken place, but said an eyewitness told him about it soon after it occurred.” “I can corroborate Debbie’s account,” Appold told sources. “I believe her, because it matches the same story I heard 35 years ago, although the two of us have never talked.”

I am interested in the political ramifications of these proceedings and the direction of the country. However, first and foremost I am concerned about the conspicuous Christian response to the situation. I believe people are innocent until proven guilty, but from the beginning I have been wondering- Where are the outspoken Christian voices in favor of protecting victims of sexual assault? Why were so many adamantly in favor of a candidate before all the evidence is thoroughly vetted? Why wouldn’t you want every resource, witness, and lead investigated to ensure you aren’t dismissing one who has been victimized?

It’s true that we ‘see through a glass dimly’, but I wish many of the responses weren’t darkened by politics, partisanship, and the insatiable appetite for political power. Where is our charity and care for the vulnerable? We aren’t simply called to speak for those in the womb. A truly pro-life stance speaks to the value of all life, including those dismissed or demonized to gain a seat in the judiciary. The pastors who unquestioningly support the political agenda are a poor reflection of our Gospel witness! May we learn to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly!

They will know you by your love (John 13:35). 

Orthopathy- the struggle with our passions

[This is a response to Tony’s Protestant view of orthopathy.]

A friend recently told me a story about a Protestant man visiting an Orthodox Church. During his conversation with the priest he was suddenly, but graciously, interrupted by the priest. The priest told him he needed to take a break from their conversation because it was time for him to pray and he invited the visitor to join him. The Protestant man stood amazed as the priest poured out his heart in earnest prayer before the icon of Christ. What may have previously been assumed as rote ritualism now holds tangible purpose in the mind and heart of the visitor as he wrestled with his own lack of intense personal prayer.

While many acts of piety including the disciplines of the faith are often foreign to Protestants, there is no shortage of examples in scripture that continue throughout the early Church. Life is a struggle and the Orthodox Church continues this emphasis on disciplines like prayer and repentance as we strive against the passions. Orthodox Christians follow a Church calendar that grounds us in the events of Jesus’ and the saints’ lives with regular periods of fasting and intentional liturgies and prayers for help and strength. Daily we must take up our cross to follow Christ and deny ourselves as we seek to develop orthopathy.

What is orthopathy?

The term orthopathy comes from the Greek words ορθώς (right, correct, upright) + πάθος (passions, affections) and includes sexual desire, anger, fear, love, hunger, & a host of others.

Due to the fall the likeness of God is marred and we are polluted by sin resulting in an inclination toward self-love. St. Augustine comments on this tendency when he uses the term “incurvatus in se” (the turning inward on oneself), highlighting our propensity toward ego-centrism rather than love of God and others.

Many of the passions we experience feel pleasurable and natural, but they must be kept in check since they are capable of causing spiritual suffering resulting in deleterious effects on our relationship with God and others. Gluttony, pride, lust, anger, avarice, and host of others pull us away from God.

There is nothing wrong with our desire for food or sex, but they must remain within a divinely ordained context as defined by scripture and Church tradition. The struggle with our passions are difficult and real! There are no simple answers to the complexity of the human condition and the passions that entangle our lives. Many struggle with the same passions their entire lives while asking God to remove their desire for those sins. What we learn through this process is to rely on God who gives us the strength to endure.

I agree with my friend Tony’s point that we need a “reorientation of emotion [and] this requires an understanding that emotions are an intrinsic component of the Christian life.” The word ’emotion’ is often viewed in narrow terms and should be broadened to include passions or affections.

I want to advance the discussion by pointing out that we cannot have right passions until we adhere to right belief and right practice. Orthodox Christianity emphasizes three interconnected and necessary areas of the Christian life: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, & orthopathy. All three are instrumental components in directing a person according to God’s desired end- union with God. As St. Peter says, that we may become ‘partakers of the divine’ (2 Peter 1:4).

Right belief/worship (orthodoxy) propels us toward right practice (orthopraxy), which reins in and transforms our passions and affections (orthopathy) for His glory! So often we are unbalanced or negligent in fully incorporating all three aspects.
Saint Anthony tells us that life is a struggle with the passions in our pursuit of honoring God. He says, “it’s not a sin to eat, so that the body will be properly maintained in life without any evil thought, but it is to eat without gratitude and improperly and without restraint; neither is it a sin to look with chastity, but it is a sin to look with envy, pride and desire; it is not a sin to listen quietly, but it is with anger. It’s not a sin to let the tongue be unrestrained in thanksgiving and prayer, but it is to speak evil; to not let your hands do acts of mercy, but to commit murder and theft. So each of our members sins if it does evil instead of good, doing things its own way and not according to the will of God.”

May God help us in our struggle!

Praxis-

As Christians we are called to fight our passions but sin has made the struggle difficult. Humanity is sick and we were never created to live in this state. Unlike many in the West (Catholics refute this teaching so I am referring primarily to Protestant denominations) that adhere to a teaching of total depravity and the use of legal terminology like penal substitution, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that humanity is ill and a natural result of this sickness is sin and our struggle with passions. Our true nature is to be healed by God.

We are called to love God and our neighbor and embody the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Our spiritual sickness makes this difficult and the way to attain these fruits is through repentance which leads to true healing and the implementation of the disciplines for a life of struggle.
St. Peter tells us, “Gird up the loins of your mind… not conforming yourselves to the former lusts but … you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:13-15). “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul… submit yourself to every ordinance… ” (1 Peter 2:11, 13).

Orthopathy indicates a fundamental orientation regarding ourselves and our relationship with God and the world. This life, Jesus tells us, is not meant to be egocentric but one of love for the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind; and, loving our neighbor as ourselves (Lk. 10:27).

Abba Evagrius states, “What a man loves, that he certainly desires; and what he desires, that he strives to obtain.”

St. Innocent of Alasksa also writes, “Every individual instinctively strives for happiness. This desire has been implanted in our nature by the Creator Himself, and therefore it is not sinful. But it is important to understand that in this temporary life it is impossible to find full happiness, because that comes from God and cannot be attained without Him. Only He, who is the Ultimate Good and the Source of all Good, can quench our thirst for happiness.”

Consider how our affections are often manipulated. Our culture is saturated with entertainment and driven by our freedom to pursue our passions. Public spaces like shopping malls or advertising on TV are designed to capitalize on our desires. James K. A. Smith notes that these methods of marketing essentially function as liturgies that shape our affection. How much more should Christians be regularly involved in the Orthodox liturgies and prayers that strengthen us spiritually!?

As Orthodox Christians we practice many disciplines in order to ‘rein in’ our passions. The knotted prayer rope (komboskini) is often utilized by Orthodox Christians to keep our minds focused during prayer. Many Orthodox Christians participate in the daily prayer rhythms (orthos, 3rd, 6th, & 9th hour, vespers, etc.). The Jesus Prayer is perhaps the most popular and succinct Orthodox prayer: “Lord Jesus, Son of God have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

Praying with prayer rope

Other disciplines like confession with your priest provides us with spiritual guidance and accountability. Alms-giving helps to loosen the bonds of avarice. Fasting (from food, sex, entertainment, or other vices) is designed to keep our gluttonous appetites in check.

The didache (διδαχή) which means ‘the teaching’ contains additional information about fasting. It is also referred to as The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. In chapter 8 of this 1st century document it states that the Jews fast on Monday and Thursday, but the early Christian Church fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. Orthodox Christians continue this practice by fasting from meat and dairy. We also fast for longer periods of time, like Nativity (Nov. 15th- Dec. 24th) and Great Lent, or shorter periods throughout the year to commemorate significant events in Church history (More information on the disciplines will be provided in a subsequent blog.)

Living a life focused on orthopathy emphasizes the reality of various ‘doors’ to our hearts that can influence our affections/passions. Things we see, hear, and touch can affect us. If the sights, sounds, and touches we are allowing are producing affections contrary to right belief and practice then it is not aiding in our process of theosis (a soteriological and sanctifying movement toward unity with God).

Elder Ephraim the Philotheite encourages us, “Struggle, my child, for God’s road is narrow and thorny; not inherently, but because of our passions. Since we want to eradicate from our heart the passions, which are like thorny roots, so that we may plant useful plants, naturally we shall toil greatly and our hands will bleed and our face will sweat. Sometimes even despair will overcome us, seeing roots and passions everywhere!”

If we deny the necessity of right affections/passions then we are left vulnerable to influence from external sources and remain spiritually unbalanced. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to emphasize the triad of spiritual life. Right belief about God, ourselves, and neighbors (orthodoxy) helps to inform right practice in our lives (orthopraxy) which further contextualizes our passions (orthopathy). As we endeavor to live this Christian life let us be passionate for God and remain vigilant to strive against the passions that so easily entangle our flesh.

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Photo credit: upsplash, Nathan Dumlao

St. Chad of the British Isles- patron saint & bishop

[This is part 2 of a blog concerning patron saints. St. Chad is located in the center of the picture above.]

As you may have guessed by my blog name (OrthodoxEphrem) I have a baptismal name as a result of my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. The practice of acquiring a new name is documented in the New Testament when Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, Saul becomes Paul, and others documented by tradition. The early Church continued this practice as pagans converted to Christianity and left behind their old lives for Christ. My baptismal name is Ephrem Chad. To read about baptismal names, patron saints, and St. Ephrem please reference part 1- Ephrem the Syrian- patron saint & hymnologist. Information about saints in general can also be found here- Saints: Our inspiration and intercessors.

Many Orthodox Christians choose one patron saint, but I had the added bonus of picking St. Chad of Lichfield as my second. While St. Ephrem’s writings speak to me with deep theology and hymnology, St. Chad reminds me of humility, prayer, & service.Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 4.00.52 PM

St. Chad was an early saint of the British Isles and his life is documented in writings of the Venerable Bede of Jarrow located here. Since he is a pre-schism saint he is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

St. Chad was born in the 7th century, the youngest of four brothers. He worked closely in the ministry with his brother Cedd, the bishop of London, and together they established the monastery of Laestingaeu in Yorkshire. They served together until Cedd’s death.

Being a man of good repute, St. Chad was appointed as bishop. He traveled to see the people and care for his flock and they loved him dearly. St. Theodore contested Chad’s position as bishop due to the legitimacy of the procedure for selection. The selecting bishops were out of communion with the universal Church & the consecration ceremony was improperly performed.

St. Chad did not want to be Bishop in the first place, feeling himself unworthy. In response to St. Theodore, Chad replied “If you decide that I have not rightly received the episcopal character, I willingly lay down the office; for I have never thought myself worthy of it, but under obedience, I, though unworthy, consented to undertake it.” (Bede, Hist. Eccl. IV, 2). St. Chad willingly stepped down as Bishop and relinquished the see of York.

In 669 St. Chad became the first Bishop of Mercia, receiving his appointment from St. Theodore at the behest of the pagan King Wulfhere. Thinking he could use the Christian religion to control people the king needed a bishop. St. Chad was known as a servant of the people and his passion was bringing Christianity to the pagans of the region. Despite the great distances he traveled and the insistence of others to use a horse St. Chad followed the tradition of the Apostles by traveling on foot to meet and serve the people.

St. Chad was a man of prayer, humility, and forgiveness. He forgave even those who sought to do him harm and he humbly served people! As a dedicated man of prayer he would often sit at the bottom of a well to engage in intense solitary prayer. Bede tells us that the people knew he was in the well because “a light like that of the sun, would shine from the bottom of the well” (Bede). His gift of praying resulted in the healing of many sicknesses and demonic possessions.

St. Chad also founded monasteries at Lindsey and Barrow-upon-Humber. He reformed monastic life in his region and built a cathedral on land in the region of Lichfield. A place that had been the site of 1,000 martyred Christians.

Legend says that one day King Wulfhere’s sons Wulfade and Ruffin were on a hunting trip and came across St. Chad. They were so struck with his glowing face as he knelt in prayer that they were immediately converted & baptized. King Wulfhere was so enraged by this news that he killed both of his sons & hunted St. Chad. When the king approached the bishop’s cell he witnessed a great light shining. The king fell face down and begged forgiveness for his sins. He was converted and as penance for the murders he built churches and monasteries in Jesus’ name.

Near the end of his life St. Chad also became known as one who saw angels. One of his monks reported that he could hear singing descending from the sky near Chad’s residence while he was praying. St. Chad told the monk that the singing came from angelic hosts informing him of his impending death in seven days.

On March 2, 672, seven days later, St. Chad became ill from the plague. “His holy soul was released from the prison-house of the body and, one may rightly believe, was taken by the angels to the joys of heaven” (Bede). St. Chad was recognized immediately as a saint by the Church. His tomb, well, and holy relics kept by the Roman Catholic Church at St. Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham, England are all credited with numerous miracles and healings.

*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.