Contradictions About Mary

13 02 2008

Having undertaken a serious exploration of Catholicism before venturing eastward, I understand the difference between veneration and worship.  I just re-read most of Bishop Ware’s The Orthodox Church where he leads off his discussion of the Mother of God with this:

“Just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them.”  

Okay, so far so good.  But just as I was reading Ware, I was simultaneously reading Father Arseny – Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father.   This book comes highly recommended by Fr. Stephen Freeman, and is revered by just about all Orthodox for good reason as it describes the courageous faith and inspirational leadership of an extraordinary Orthodox Priest who suffered extreme persecution at one of Stalin’s most notorious death camps.    It is mostly short stories about Fr. Arseny and the faith he inspired amongst his beloved spiritual children.  

Sprinkled throughout this volume are references to Mary such as this:

“Prayer to the Mother of God was always the most saving and unfailing protection from all physical  and spiritual dangers.” 

“I entrust you to our defender, the Mother of God. You must each take a little icon with you and pray to her the whole trip.”  

“Oh Mother of God! O blessed St. George! Help them, save them, and protect them.”   

This goes well beyond merely honoring or venerating the Theotokos.  In the above citations, Mary is assumed to have saving powers and she is clearly being prayed to, not being asked to pray or intecede before the Father or Son as explained by Ware.  The Father and Son are bypasssed altogether, at least in their utterances.  

In two stories, Mary actually appears and saves women from danger.  These aren’t just poor, uneducated peasants.  They are Fr. Arseny’s spiritual children – people who take their faith very seriously and receive instruction from Fr. Arseny.   

I was a little surprised to see these kind of references to Mary in a book that is frequently recommended as introductory reading material for inquirers.  I’ve heard versions of Ware’s above explanation many times and have completely changed my understanding of the communion of saints. 

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) is written in the present tense!  I take great comfort in knowing that at an Orthodox liturgy, heaven and earth are joined together.  Therefore, we can ask for the prayers of the saints at any time, and just as we may ask a friend to pray for us, we can ask them to do likewise.  

But what we have in Fr. Arseny is the expectation that The Mother of God will take direct action herself.  This is sanctioned by Fr. Arseny and at least one other Priest in the stories.   

I’m sure someone will say that I need a more nuanced understanding of this and that I’m still seeing this through my “Western eyes.”  I mean no disrespect to Fr. Arseny or any his spiritual children who managed to keep their faith in the face terrible hardship.   

But it sure seems that Mary is coming awfully close here to adding to the trinity.            


“And Lord I Just Pray…”

8 02 2008

One of the most awkward and sometimes embarrassing things about evangelical life is the element of prayer, and the expectation that your prayers will be spontaneous and extemporaneous, usually beginning with: “Lord, I just…….”   

Shortly after I had “recommited my life to Christ,” I enrolled in a systematic theology course at an evangelical seminary taught by an esteemed British theologian whose prayers sounded like poetry.  

On the second day of class, he looked right at me and asked me to lead the class in prayer.  I was perhaps the only non ministry professional in the room and was left trembling as we all bowed our heads.  I managed to keep it short and not embarrass myself, but I spent the rest of the class thinking about better words I could have chosen to make myself stand out – never mind what God thought about it all!  

I wanted to be a spontaneous prayer warrior, and from that point on, worked very hard to memorize certain phrases and the language of “christianeze” to demonstrate my status as a godly man.    

Years later, this is still a struggle and I would say is one of the main factors in my realization of the un-fullness of my Christian life.  I’ve been through proper training on this.  At our first small group Bible study, we had a MacArthur Study Bible-toting guy who set the pray-aloud standard for all the men, and each week I would measure my prayers against his, having memorized scriptures and ripped off lines from others.   

The pressure to pray aloud eloquently and spontaneously is huge, but for me the result is almost always unsatisfying.  At the peak of my frustration I encountered Scot McKnight’s Praying With The Church, a book that has revolutionized my understanding of the meaning of The Church, and no doubt led me on the eastward path.  

For two-and-a-half years, I’ve prayed with The Divine Hours prayer book and have found a treasure I never would have discovered in low church evangelicalism.  More importantly, I’ve learned how Biblical it is to offer prayers with the church at set times.  

My new understanding and practice of prayer has elicited some confusion.  Once as I was headed out the door my wife said she thought we should pray about something before I left.  My first impulse was to begin with “Lord we just……”  But I caught myself and simply recited the Lord’s Prayer. 

She looked at me like I was nuts while shaking her head in disappointment.  All I could say was that it was the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray and if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.  

I love the way intercessory prayers are done in Orthodox liturgy, when the names of individuals are sung by the Priest.  It is so simple, but powerful in that it is a direct petition to God without all the extemporaneous “vain repetitions” that characterizes so much of what I hear in my circles.   

Tomorrow I’m taking my teenage adopted Ukrainian daughters to a Slavonic Liturgy, and I pray they will see the beauty in the ancient prayers of the Church.    


The Danger of “Enthusiasm”

7 02 2008

 Scyldings in the Mead-Hall recently left a comment on Fr. Stephen’s blog that well describes my own meandering spiritual life:  

Sometimes it really scares me. The thought that I’m getting taken up into an ‘enthusiasm’, a new craze, and that not being taken up into Christ. A new, or even, an older, more authentic Christianity. But like all enthusiasms, it can just fade away – and then all the posturing, debating and “witnessing to the truth” can look rather silly. I’ve become self-skeptical, and sometimes find it difficult to express myself – because I doubt myself. Sometimes it is almost amusing.

I think this is one reason the Orthodox convert blog business is apparently booming.  It’s hard to talk to friends and family who have no curiousity about church history and most cradle Orthodox just think you’re nuts! 

Throughout the day I tend to ruminate about my spiritual life and frequently by the afternoon I’m weak and ready to chuck it all, convincing myself that I’m a coward and will never have the guts to leave my comfort zone.  Then I come home, turn on the computer, and bam!  I’m back in business, checking my ever increasing Orthodox blog list, listening to Ancient Faith Radio, and making plans to fast the next day.  

“Convertitis” is scary!    

An Orthodox Problem?

4 02 2008

nah-baptism-cropped0001.jpg This is a shot of my adopted daughter being baptized into the Orthodox Church at an orphanage in Ukraine.   The mass baptism is an annual event at orphanges and a fond memory for my now 17-year old. 

But it is also the last contact she had with the church that is synonymous with Ukrainian culture.  I spent two months in this fascinating country and as someone who had read about and already attended many Orthodox liturgies in my hometown, I was excited to have the privilege of visiting some of the most sacred sites in the Orthodox Church.  

I will always cherish the memory of going to the Monastery of the Caves and St. Mikhail’s Monastery in Kyiv, and attending daily liturgy at the Church of the Transfiguration in Odessa. 

But it was disappointing to see that in orphanages and other rescue missions, Orthodox Christians were nowhere to be seen.  I’ve heard the reasons for this:  lack of funding, an overwhelming burden that makes it impossible to help so many in need, the years of opression, and the explanation that evangelicals are able to do it because they’re backed by well funded ministries.  

These may be true to some extent, but the fact is that millions of dollars are being spent to restore Orthodox temples and new churches are dotting the landscape in every region, so pleading poverty is not convincing.      

I know of four missionaries who serve my daughter’s old orphanage full-time, along with many others who visit regularly.  One of the full-time missionaries is a Southern Baptist who’s been there since the Soviet breakup, there’s a young woman from a non-denominational church, and a Presbyterian couple that has moved to Ukraine permanently to minister to these abandoned children.  

Ukraine is indeed missionaried to death.  When we arrived at the airport in Kyiv we ran into a team of 40 para-church volunteers doing short term work at an orphanage.  It is unfair to dismiss them as do-gooders who are just going to spread the good news.  In my experience, I found them to be deeply committed individuals and families who are seeking to share the love of Christ in word and deed.  

The orphans take notice of this.  My older daughter spent 11 years in the orphanage and her Orthodox baptism is only a cheerful memory.  She has absolutely no desire to seek out Orthodox Christians in America.  The only Christianity she ever learned about was taught by Protestant evangelicals who have to continually raise money from individuals (not well funded ministries) to keep going.   

More importantly, the only Christian love she saw in action was by evangelicals, both American and Ukrainian.   I think most Orthodox leaders would agree that the overall lack of commitment to outreach has been a problem and that it is beginning to improve.  

Yet when I see the discussion that takes place on blogs and in Orthodox broadcasting, very little seems to be devoted to recognizing and remedying this glaring weakness.  Is this an inherent weakness of a Church that takes such justifiable pride in its beautiful liturgy, but fails, or refuses to see what is happening outside its walls?    

Now that I’ve been taking a harsh inventory of my fellow evangelicals for the past week I thought it was fair to raise an issue that has never been satisfactorily resolved for me.  

A Divine Moment

3 02 2008

Being the only non-sick person in my family, I took advantage of the opportunity to attend Divine Liturgy this morning.  It was my first visit to an Orthodox Church since last summer in Ukraine and it was wonderful to understand the liturgy. 

I almost left before communion was served to give my aching back a rest, but I stuck around and I’m so glad I did because I witnessed one of the most lovely and beautiful things I’ve ever seen in church. 

The first person to step forward was a mother with her new born daughter, who had been baptized yesterday.  The baby girl was the very first to take the bread and wine!  I’ve seen small children taking communion before, but this moment was special as I came to grips with the powerful fact that this act was confirming that this tiny infant is a Christian!

“But she doesn’t have a personal relationship with Christ,” I could hear myself thinking. She slept through the entire sermon and doesn’t understand the doctrine of regeneration, justification, or adoption! 

But she had something I didn’t.  That tiny baby was joined to the body and blood of Christ, and I am now beginning to understand that she, and all other baptized believers in that room, are all part of His church-body, the pillar and foundation of truth.   

She will never have to agonize over whether or not she is saved, or whether she is an elect member of the body, and she will not have to base the quality of her worship experience upon the quality of the sermon. 

As I’ve struggled with my withering spiritual life of late, the simple act of witnessing a baby taking communion today filled my heart with love.     

Blogging and Being

1 02 2008

 The level of thought and discussion in the Orthodox convert blog world is high and I discover incredible new journals daily.  I’ve never encountered so many intriguing people! You are poets, humorists, hard-core readers, and all people who are dead serious about the ancient faith of Christianity.       

My blog has been up less than a week and I’m just blown away by all the kind, loving and insightful comments and emails.  But as exciting as it’s been to sit down in front of the computer lately, it occurs to me that there could be a downside to sharing all my feelings ala Oprah style.   

My biggest criticism of evangelical practice is rampant Me-ism.  I self-righteously sneer at them, but I must confess that I’ve been consumed this week with ME, and specifically my blog!  I’ve been sober for 13 years and I definitely recognize some self absorbtion with a tendecy toward addiction in all this.  

I just read something on “Notes From a Common Place Book” that nails it for me:   

 There is something of a cottage industry among Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. For some reason, we all feel compelled to share our particular “conversion story.” This is understandable, human nature being what it is. In all probability, however, our time would be better spent remaining quiet, and learning how to actually be Orthodox, rather than pontificating on how we had “figured it all out. 

I don’t offer this as a criticism of others because you have all inspired me and I’m sure many others who never comment or start their own blogs.   But this quote is a good warning for me.  At least I think I should strive to pray one-tenth of the amount time I blog!   

An Honest Look Within

31 01 2008

An inevitable result of casual style worship services and happy-clappy churches is the inability of those churches to deal with suffering.  Some evangelical leaders are taking note, such as Michael Patton of Dallas Theological Seminary.  This man knows terrible pain, as his sister committed suicide four years ago, followed by his mother suffering a debilitating stroke, and under the crushing burden of it all, his father has succumbed to alcoholism.  

Patton still manages to crank out one of the best blogs around, and he recently described the results of a tour of various evangelical churches:  

The pews are filled with people who are weak and totally unestablished in the faith. Most really don’t know what the Christian message is outside of “Jesus loves you and wants you to have a wonderful life.” Many claim Jesus, serve Him, and lift up their hands in praise, but what happens when someone or something challenges their faith? Where are they going to turn? To the shallowness of the entertaining commercials or out of context self-help lessons? Where will they go when the foundations are destroyed?

I could go on but this experience has confirmed to me the desperate shape that the modern church—the Evangelical church—is in and the need that we have for renewal. When things get tough (and they will), who will people turn to? Where will people go when the entrainment, laughter, and fun serve no purpose?

May God grant us a mindset to give people their true needs, not their felt needs.

This is something that most evangelicals don’t have to deal with until tragedy strikes.  When it does, something just feels wrong when you go to church and sit next to someone drinking Starbucks.