Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Safest Place in Europe

What would you say the safest place in Europe is? Sweden? Denmark? Switzerland?

Did you say....the Balkans? Yes, you read me correctly! I said, "the Balkans."

I came across this article today and couldn't resist sharing it. As someone who lived in the Balkans for over three years, I found it fascinating. It is written by By Dusan Stojanovic (a good Serbian name), Associated Press Writer.

The Balkans, a hotbed of crime and violence during the Yugoslav wars and the chaotic transition from communism, has become one of the safest areas in Europe to live, according to a U.N. report released Thursday.

The report concluded that nine Balkan countries — including Bosnia and Croatia, which saw vicious ethnic bloodletting in the 1990s — now boast lower levels of homicide, robbery and rape than Western Europe.

"Surprising as it may be, the Balkan region is one of the safest in Europe," the report said.

"The Balkans is departing from an era when demagogues, secret police and thugs profited from sanctions-busting and the smuggling of people, arms, cigarettes and drugs."
Click here to read the full article.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

Disclaimer: This post has little or nothing to do about Orthodoxy. That's now 2 in a row. Please forgive me!

Do you recognize the man in the above picture? My guess is that you probably do not. I am confident that 99% of you who are reading this never had the privilege to meet this fine man. Because today is Memorial Day, I would like to tell you a little about him. The man in the picture is my father, Col. Cleland E. Early, USMC (retired). He died in 2004 of complications related to Alzheimer's Disease. I miss him very much. Here is his story.

My father was born in 1919 in rural Colorado, but moved with his family to a small town in the panhandle of Texas while still a small child. He grew up during the Depression in a family with very little money. He graduated first in his high school class and then worked his way through Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, graduating with honors in 1940. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, my father enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. While he was still in boot camp, his superiors recognized his outstanding leadership ability and sent him to Officer Candidate School. After his graduation in early 1942, Dad was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He immediately volunteered for a new elite, commando-style unit called Carlson's Raiders. Soon he and the rest of his battalion (the second Raiders) shipped out for Midway Island.

For the next three and a half years, my father participated in some of the worst fighting of the entire Second World War, including the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The platoon that he commanded participated in the famous "Long Patrol," in which the 2nd Raider Battalion spent a month behind Japanese lines, doing serious damage to the Japanese occupation forces. From this mission, the Marines emerged emaciated, starving, and suffering from malaria and diarrhea. In 1943 on Tarawa, Dad was in charge of the identification and burial of more than 1000 Americans, an experience from which he never fully recovered. By the war's end, my 25-year old father had already risen to the rank of Major. He received a Silver Star medal for courage in Guadalcanal, along with two Purple Hearts. He was nearly killed on numerous occasions.

During the Korean War, Dad helped plan and carry out amphibious campaigns, including the landings at Inchon and Pohang-Dong. For gallantry during these campaigns, he received the Bronze Star with the Combat V device representing valor. In 1964, as commander of the 9th Marine Regiment in the 3rd Marine Division, Dad trained his command for service in Vietnam. He then spent the remaining three years of his military service in the Pentagon working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency. For these services, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. After retiring as a full Colonel in 1967, Dad served for 12 years as senior military instructor in the Marine Corps Junior ROTC at Pasadena High School in Pasadena, Texas. During this time, he imparted self-discipline and leadership to countless young people, many of whom have gone on to serve in the military, in law enforcement, and in other fields.

All told, my father served his country for 38 years: 26 years on active duty and 12 teaching ROTC.

Dad was never a religious man. He seldom attended church, but he believed in God and practiced Christian ethics. He taught me right from wrong, as well as the value of clean living, hard work and self-discipline. As anyone who knows me and who knew my father will tell you, I am undoubtedly my father's son (even our physical resemblance is uncanny, according to many). I earnestly hope and pray that I will one day see my father again in heaven.

As Christians, our primarily allegiance must be to the Kingdom of God, with Christ our only King. And yet, I believe that it is not inappropriate for us to be thankful for the earthly nation in which we live. This is especially true for those of us who live in America. Although the United States of America is a nation with many flaws, it is still by far (in my humble opinion, at least), the best place in the world to live. It certainly offers the most freedom to practice one's religion, at least as far as I am aware. It is a great place to be an Orthodox Christian, and I feel that it offers unlimited potential for the growth of the Orthodox Church.

All the freedoms that we enjoy, however, would not be possible if not for the sacrifices of millions who have served in our armed forces, fighting to protect them (and us). Well over a million of them paid the supreme sacrifice to guard our freedoms. Today, take a moment to thank God for the sacrifices of these fine men and women and to pray for their souls, that God might have mercy on them. Pray also that God may bless this nation and help us to have the wisdom to not allow our freedoms to be taken away, so that, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, "these dead shall not have died in vain ...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

May the Lord bless you all!

Here, by the way, is a photo of Dad's tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

This Crazy World #1

WORLD magazine is an outstanding bi-weekly news magazine that is written from the (evangelical) Christian perspective. I really enjoy reading it, since I can get major world news without the liberal spin employed by Time, Newsweek, et. al. Especially enjoyable are the regular features on things that Christians are doing all over the world to make the world a better place. WORLD does not often talk about the Orthodox Church, but when it does, it almost always does so in a positive light, such as in the recent article about Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

My favorite section of WORLD is "The Buzz: Quick Takes." This section features short articles about ironic or just flat-out crazy things that happen around the world. Beginning today, I am going to share with you the ones that I find the most interesting and/or humorous. Here are three from the most recent issue. Note: all articles are copyright 2008 by World Magazine, inc. I will put the text of the article in quotation marks, and my commentary will follow.

Cruel and Unusual Diet?
"An Arkansas inmate might want to delay his lawsuit against Benton County until there is more discernable proof--or at least less evidence for the defense. Broderick Lloyed Laswell filed a lawsuit against the county saying its jailhouse menu was leading him to starvation. Despite his claim, the man jailed for a fatal stabbing and beating currently weighs over 300 pounds. But Laswell says the jail's 3000-calorie-a-day meals aren't enought, claiming he weighed over 400 pounds when he got into the jail eight months ago. 'On several occasions I have started to do some exercising and my vision went blurry and I felt like I was going to pass out.' Laswell wrote in his lawsuit. 'About an hour after each meal my stomach starts to hurt and growl. I feel hungry again.'"
Boy, I feel sorry for him! Don't you? Perhaps we should each send him a box of Twinkies to help him survive this horrible punishment!

Adding to Scripture
"When talking about the environment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, likes to add in a spiritual twist: 'The Bible tells us in the the Old Testament. "To minister to the needs of God's creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us."' It's a nice sounding line, but it's not in the Bible. Nor does it really paraphrase any other passage, says Claude Mariottini, professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. 'It is not in the Bible. There is nothing that even approximates that.'"
There is an old joke, not always true, but often so, that says, "How do you know when a politician is lying? Check to see if his/her lips are moving!" So what should we think when they start trying to quote Scripture from memory? I wonder what translation Madame Speaker was reading? Perhaps it is the TNIV (see below)!

The Translation Nobody Wanted
Most of you who are either Protestants or converts to Orthodoxy from a Protestant tradition are at least somewhat familiar with the New International Version (NIV), the most popular modern translation of the Bible. For years, this was the only translation I read. English-speaking Orthodox Christians do not normally use it, because it is often unreliable and biased toward Protestant interpretations, particularly in the New Testament (This topic is too involved to go into further in this post. Perhaps later I will do another post on Bible translations.)

Zondervan press, the publisher that produced the NIV, recently came out with a modified version of the NIV, called Today's New International Version (TNIV). It is very similar to the original (Yesterday's?) NIV, except that it uses "gender-inclusive language" (Sound of the Church Lady saying, "Now isn't that special?!?"). This was, of course, a big gamble, since most readers of the NIV are conservative Evangelicals, who are not really big on "gender-inclusive language" (and rightly so). As WORLD asks, "Would evangelical readers and churches go for the neutered version or not?"

Well, it turns out that "Sales have been slow in Christian bookstores that cater to the evangelical base. 'We...are not content with the current level of awareness and adoption,' Zondervan's Paul Caminetti told Christian Retailing. Booksellers interviewed by the magazine characterized TNIV sales as 'very little' and 'pretty unimpressive.' One retailer told the magazine, 'We hardly even stock that version any longer, having sent most of them back and declining to bring in most of the newer ones presented simply based on past sales history of the translation.""

As the great philosopher Gomer Pyle used to say, "Well surprise, surprise!!"

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Gospel of John Film

“Daddy, can we watch the Jesus movie together tonight?”

These words, spoken recently by my nearly seven-year-old daughter Beth, melted my heart like wax. It gives any father great joy when a child wants to do something with him. But it gives a Christian father a double portion of joy when the child asks to do something that is spiritually fulfilling. Needless to say, Beth and I watched part of the movie that night and have done so more than once since then.

The “Jesus movie” that we watched is not The Passion of the Christ. For all of its flaws, I believe that this much-criticized film can provide a powerful spiritual experience for all Christians, particularly during Lent. That it contains historical inaccuracies is indisputable; more important, however, is the total accuracy of the two major points of the movie: First, that Jesus paid a great price to redeem us from our sin, and second, that His death was not the end of the story.

Still, because of the graphic violence depicted, The Passion is not appropriate for children who have not at least reached the teen years.

Most Orthodox Christians with whom I have discussed film depictions of the life of Christ have a common favorite “Jesus movie”: Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. This is definitely a fine film (really a miniseries), and it is among the most historically accurate and biblically faithful of all the “Jesus movies.” My family and I watch the first hour or so every Advent. Still, Jesus of Nazareth is not my favorite “Jesus movie.”

My favorite “Jesus film” is one that few Orthodox Christians have ever heard of. It is The Gospel of John. The Gospel of John film was produced by Visual Bible International, an evangelical organization that produces word-for-word dramatic productions of biblical books. Visual Bible’s first two productions, Matthew and Acts, both were released straight to VHS and DVD. John, however, was briefly shown in theaters in the fall of 2003 and released on DVD the following year.

The Gospel of John film features beautiful set design. Its script is simply the Good News translation of St. John’s gospel, word for word. Most of the acting is very good. Henry Ian Cusick (now a star of the ABC television series Lost) gives an outstanding performance as Jesus. In fact, he is my favorite “movie Jesus” of all time (although I also loved Jim Caviezel in The Passion too). The music is beautiful, even breathtaking at times. Some of it sounds like the Byzantine second tone.

Also nice is the narration, which is done by Christopher Plummer. When he speaks, I can almost hear him singing “Edelweiss.” But I digress…

Since all the dialogue is straight from the biblical text (abeit a rather loose paraphrase of it), there are very few inaccuracies in the movie. Still, one glaring one is worthy of mention: as is often the case in popular myth, Mary Magdalene is portayed as having been a prostitute before encountering Jesus. There is, of course, no dialogue stating this directly, since the Bible never says that she was once a prostitute. Instead, Mary is shown in the beginning as being part of a crowd listening to Jesus, and she is dressed like a prostitute in this scene. Throughout the movie, her clothing becomes less and less gaudy and she wears increasingly less makeup, until she finally looks like the pious woman to whom Jesus appears after the Resurrection.

Despite this and a few other flaws, I believe that every Christian home should have a copy of this beautiful film. Watching it is a great way for your children to become familiar with the major stories from St. John’s gospel, even if the long discourses lose them. The full version of the film runs over three hours and will have to be watched in installments by most people. Also available is an edited two-hour version, which is included in the DVD package. When the movie was first released on DVD in early 2004, it cost $40. Being a John fanatic, I, of course, coughed up the full amount.

Now, however, the cost is only about $10 at . I heartily recommend that you purchase this wonderful teaching tool as soon as possible and watch it with your children (or with your spouse or with a friend or even by yourself) ASAP. You will be blessed if you do.

The Gospel of John film on DVD: $40 (at least it was for me!)

Watching the film with your 6-year-old: Priceless!

And here is a picture of my "movie buddy":

Have any of you seen the movie? If so, let me know what you thought of it. In the mean time, here is the first 9-10 minutes of the film:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Biblical Lifestyle?

I came across the following blurb in Touchstone magazine, a quirky but excellent magazine written by a combination of Orthodox, traditional Roman Catholic, and conservative Protestant Christians.

“We prayed and prayed and prayed about it and God put it in our hearts to practice the Biblical lifestyle,” a Louisiana woman, representing a reportedly growing number of Evangelical polygamists, told Columbia News Service. A leader of the movement claims that there are 50,000 Christian polygamists and credits the Internet with bringing together isolated people looking for “sister wives.”
Touchstone doesn’t give the exact link to the source of this story, but after quite some time, I tracked it down. The couple who “prayed and prayed” also said, according the original story, that they are "born-again Christians who made the decision to practice polygamy after closely studying the Bible.”

Polygamy is the biblical lifestyle? Only if you ignore the first two chapters of Genesis and the entire New Testament!

This is a perfect illustration of why the Orthodox Church does not believe in Sola Scriptura, and why the Bible must be interpreted in the light of Holy Tradition if it is to be properly understood.

Another lesson from this story: sometimes when we think God is “putting something in our hearts,” it may actually someone quite different who is the source of our thoughts. As St. John writes, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). See the Philokalia, volume 1, for more information.

Click here for the full story, which I found on Columbia’s website.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Marvelously Saved"

I am still on the mailing list of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the seminary from which I received my Master of Divinity degree. It is interesting that they always address me as "Father James Early," even though Baptists do not believe in calling any minister "Father." Here is the text of the letter. I thought you might get a kick out of it.

Dear Prayer Partner,

Salim Nabih presented an unusual request. Although he was a priest in one of the Orthodox churches, he had felt in his heart that he wanted to study at an evangelical institution. Someone had recommended Southwestern Seminary to him and now he wanted to study although he had no means of doing so. Normally, of course, we require that any student seeking admission give evidence of having had a conversion experience and that he hold membership in a local Baptist church, which would give him an endorsement. Furthermore, our scholarship monies are available only for those students.

But, for some reason, I could not get the request from Salim out of my heart. Finally, I communicated with him and told him to come and that we would admit him as a special student. He could study here, and I would get a scholarship commitment for him. All of this came together without any promise of the future.

Salim has graduated now and, in fact, went on to get a PhD in a prestigious European university. The other day hecame back to see me. He wanted to express his appreciation for the assistance the seminary had given him and to tell me that when he came, even though he was an Orthodox priest, he had never come to know the Lord. However, through chapel services at Southwestern he had realized his need of Christ and had been marvelously saved. He was especially grateful for this and told me that after much prayer he was leaving the priesthood and becoming a member of a Baptist church. God has a wonderful future for Salim.

While I have not used his real name for his protection, I wanted you to know Salim’s story because people like you have made this possible. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is not only engaged in general education of the next generation of pastors and missionaries, but also in seeing God change the lives of people on campus and literally to the ends of the earth. This is the kind of investment that many are making in our students.

Unfortunately the cost for our students is rising on a daily basis...
And then he goes on for several sentences to hit me up for a contribution. He concludes...

Until He Comes,

Paige Patterson

P.S. Please let us know the next time you visit our campus. Dorothy and I would love to greet you personally.

So basically, what Dr. Patterson is telling me is, "We need some money from you to keep fulfilling our mission. And here is a great example of what we do: we persuaded an Orthodox priest to "get saved" (actually, I forgot; he didn't just "get saved," but was "marvelously saved!") and even to leave his Church and become a Baptist! Isn't that great?" I find it more than a little odd to send this testimony to an Orthodox priest!

Of course, I know that this is a form letter that went out to thousands of people, and that Dr. Patterson has no idea that the letter went to an (probably more than one) Orthodox priest. Still, I thought it both ironic and humorous. The thought has crossed my mind that I may indeed visit Paige and Dorothy one day and tell them exactly what I think of this letter and what they did with "Salim."

I could say much more about this letter and what it implies, but I would be more interested in hearing your thoughts. So, what are your thoughts? Post a comment and let me know!

Friday, May 16, 2008


A little over a year ago, I posted an article in which I argue in favor of listening to Contemporary Christian Music. Click here if you would like to read or re-read the article. Some Orthodox thinkers believe that Orthodox Christians should not listen to this music, because almost none of the artists are Orthodox. I must respectfully disagree.

Recently, I re-discovered a band that I frequently listened to in my missionary days, the Newsboys (link). Their music is upbeat, energetic, sometimes whimsical, and a lot of fun. And it always carries a positive message. Everyone in my family enjoys their music, and I commend them to you.

Here is one of their latest videos. Post a comment and let me know what you think of it!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sola Scriptura

If you know anything about Protestant theology, you know that one of the most fundamental principles of that theology is Sola Scriptura, the idea that the Bible is the only completely trustworthy source of authority for Christian life and doctrine. Before I began studying Orthodoxy, I held tenaciously to Sola Scriptura (“Sola” for short), as do nearly all committed evangelicals. However, when I began to actually listen to arguments against Sola, rather than just dismissing them a priori, I found that they made sense. I was surprised at how quickly and completely I found myself abandoning Sola.

A few months ago, I was doing research on Scripture and Tradition for my upcoming book From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium, as well as for another book that I may or may not write in the future. In doing this, I re-read four of the books that had helped me along in my journey to Orthodoxy. Each of these books had an excellent chapter or two on Sola. All of the authors do a very good job of presenting one or two aspects of the argument against Sola, but none of them really covered the issue completely, at least in my opinion.

This is not intended to be a criticism of these books; after all, none of them are intended to provide a complete exposition of the Orthodox arguments against Sola. Each of the authors had a multitude of topics to discuss, and relatively little space in which to discuss them. Still, I wanted to have something more complete. So, I decided to write my own pamphlet on Sola.

After I had taken a good deal of notes, but before I actually began to write my pamphlet, I found something that made it unnecessary to continue my new project. I found an outstanding pamphlet on Sola that I had somehow missed when I had first began studying Orthodoxy. The pamphlet is 47 pages in length, and it is the best treatment of Sola that I have ever read. It is entitled Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox Analysis of the Cornerstone of Reformation Theology, and it is authored by my brother priest Fr. John Whiteford. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In my opinion, every Orthodox Christian in North America should get a copy of this pamphlet and study it, so that they can defend the Orthodox position on Scripture and Tradition against the objections of our evangelical friends, family, and colleagues. We should also keep an extra copy or two to loan to them.

Here is an excerpt from Fr. John’s fine introduction:

Protestants in search of theological sanity, of true worship, and of the ancient Christian Faith are practically beating on the doors of the Orthodox Church. They are no longer satisfied with the contradictions and faddishness of contemporary Protestant America. But when we Orthodox open the door to these inquirers, we must be prepared: these people have questions! Many of these inquirers are Protestant ministers, or are among the better-informed laymen. They are sincere seekers of Truth, but they have much to unlearn and it will require informed Orthodox Christians to help them work through these issues. Orthodox Christians must understand Protestants’ basic assumptions, but even more importantly, they must know what they believe themselves…

Essentially all Protestant denominations believe that they rightly understand the Bible. And though they may disagree on what the Bible says, they generally do agree on how one is to interpret the Bible: on one’s own, apart from Church Tradition. If one can come to understand this belief, why it is wrong, and how one is rightly to approach the Holy Scriptures, then one can engage any Protestant of any denomination in a discussion of Orthodox Christianity with understanding (pp. 5-7).
Amen! Fr. John goes on to explain in detail exactly what Sola Scriptura means, and the manifold reasons why the Orthodox Church does not subscribe to it. By reading Fr. John’s pamphlet, you will become better informed, and I am confident that you will also be blessed. I know that I was!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Too Gentle, Too Kind

I don't read very many blogs, but one that I read every day is Glory to God in All Things, by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an OCA priest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My blog wants to be just like "Glory to God" when it grows up!
Fr. Stephen posts beautiful and challenging reflections on an almost-daily basis. His May 12 post is especially good, and I strongly encourage you to read it. It is a reflection on St. Seraphim's teachings on kindness and gentleness (the latter of which is especially lacking in my life).

The picture above is of Fr. Stephen (in "civvies") and his wife.

Click here to read the reflection. Enjoy!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Top Ten Podcasts

Okay -- as promised, here are my ten favorite podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, “Letterman style:” (I never miss any of these)

10. Glory to God, by Fr. Stephen Freeman. This podcast is normally 10-15 minutes long and contains insightful commentary on various aspects of Orthodox theology. Fr. Stephen, the pastor of an OCA church in Tennessee, also authors an excellent and very popular blog site called “Glory to God in All Things.” He posts daily, and I try to read the blog every day.

9. Close to Home, by Molly Sabourin. Normally less than 10 minutes long, this podcast emphasizes the difficulty of living an Orthodox life in a non-Orthodox country, especially when you have four small children. Stay-at-home Orthodox moms will find this podcast especially helpful, but there is something for everyone. Close to Home is based on a blog with the same name.

8. Our Life in Christ, by Steve Robinson and Bill Gould. This podcast features two very well-read former evangelical converts to Orthodoxy who mainly discuss the basics of the Orthodox faith, particularly those that contrast with Protestant doctrines. Our Life is aimed primarily toward Protestants exploring Orthodoxy, but it is valuable for any Orthodox Christian seeking a deeper knowledge of their faith. Each program normally lasts about an hour and features breaks during which some beautiful Orthodox music (choral and chant) is played.

7. Orthodixie, by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt. The program description says it all: “Homespun wit and wisdom from the Orthodox South.” Fr. Joseph, a personal friend of mine who serves here in Houston, will make you grin (and occasionally laugh out loud). But he always has a serious point that we all need to hear. Normally lasts about 15 minutes. Be sure to also check out his blog.

6. Simply Orthodox, by Dr. Brad Nassif. In the Orthodox Church, it can be easy to get overly caught up in rules and rubrics, while neglecting the essence of the faith: our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Dr. Nassif helps remind us to keep the Gospel central in our Orthodox faith. Normally lasts about 10-15 minutes.

5. Speaking the Truth in Love, by Fr. Thomas Hopko. Hey, it’s Fr. Hopko! Need I say more? In case I do, Fr. Hopko is the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and one of the most popular Orthodox authors and speakers in the world. Anything he says is worth listening to. Lasts anywhere from 15-45 minutes.

4. The Path, by Fr. Thomas Soroka. Daily readings from the Lectionary of the Orthodox Church, with commentary from the Church Fathers and from Fr. Thomas himself. Listening to this podcast is a great way to start your day. It is also a great way to increase your knowledge of the Scriptures, especially if you find yourself with little time to read them. Lasts about 10-15 minutes.

3. Faith and Philosophy, by Dr. Clark Carlton. Carlton, the author of The Faith series by Regina Orthodox Press, discusses current and theological issues from the Orthodox perspective, with an emphasis on contrasting the Orthodox position with that of evangelical Protestants. His four-part series on the afterlife is especially good. Lasts about 10-15 minutes.

2. Pilgrims from Paradise by Matthew Gallatin. Matthew’s primary purpose is apologetic; that is, he defends the Orthodox teaching on issues including salvation, confession, icons, the Church, and others against evangelical criticisms. He also demonstrates how Orthodoxy is firmly grounded in Scripture and history. His series on Virtual Righteousness, Confession, and Lust are must-hears! Lasts 15-25 minutes.

And now, the number one podcast! Drum roll, please.......

1. Search the Scriptures, by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou. When I left the Baptist church for Orthodoxy, I did not leave behind my love for the Scriptures. Unfortunately, I have found that contemporary verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible from the Orthodox viewpoint is hard to find. Dr. Constantinou solves that problem, providing (as the show’s title indicates) “practical Bible study for busy people.” The author is an adjunct professor of Scripture at the University of San Diego, a former professor at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary, and the wife of a priest. I firmly believe that every Orthodox Christian should listen to this podcast.

Honorable Mention: The Saint of the Day (daily readings from the lives of the saints - would that they were a little longer!); The Illumined Heart (interviews with Orthodox priests, scholars, and other leaders on crucial topics); Let Us Attend (Sunday’s Gospel, told for children), and Readings from Under the Grapevine (readings from a variety of Orthodox books for children); My kids love the latter two podcasts; we listen to them together.

One other note: As many of you know, there is another Orthodox internet radio network, the Orthodox Christian Network. They also have two internet stations, The Ark, and The Rudder, and they produce several excellent talk programs. The most popular of these, Come Receive the Light, is available each week as a podcast. It features brief interviews with various Orthodox leaders (sort of like The Illumined Heart on AFR, but shorter). I listen to it regularly, and you won’t go wrong if you do too.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ancient Faith Radio

To no great surprise on my part, many of you who read my last post had already figured out the solution to the problem that I described in my last post. The problem was, “How can I use my time in the car and my time at my job (when I am often doing relatively mindless computer work) wisely by listening to quality Orthodox teaching, but without spending hundreds of dollars buying tapes or CD’s and going through the hassle of sending off for them?

The answer, which I discovered to my great joy in February of this year, is podcasts, particularly the podcasts produced by Ancient Faith Radio. Now some of you may be wondering, “Exactly what IS a podcast?” A podcast is a brief (usually 5-30 minutes, but sometimes longer) program that is recorded by a particular author or speaker and then put on the internet, from which anyone can download and listen to it. They are intended primarily to be listened to on an Ipod (hence the name; the word “podcast” derives from “Ipod” and “broadcast”) or another MP3 player.

Contrary to popular belief, however, you do not have to have an Ipod to listen to a podcast. All you need to do is to download Apple’s iTunes software, which is totally free. Then, you can “subscribe” to one or more podcasts, which means that when a particular podcast has a new episode posted to the internet, your computer will automatically download it as soon as you are logged onto the internet and run iTunes. It’s really a great system. And best of all, they are totally free! (Note: It is also possible to listen to podcasts on other applications besides iTunes, but I recommend iTunes, mainly for its simplicity).

You can listen to podcasts on your computer while you are doing something else, you can transfer them to your Ipod and listen to them there, or you can burn one or more of them to a CD and listen to them on a regular CD player. So you can see that they are very versatile.

Now, I will quit pretending to be a tech expert, and I will put in a plug for Ancient Faith Radio (AFR for short). AFR is a ministry that has two separate internet radio stations: Ancient Faith Talk, on which are played many of the podcasts and occasional special programs, and Ancient Faith Music, which features Orthodox liturgical and extra-liturgical music. I seldom listen to these stations, for the simple reason that any internet site with streaming audio is blocked where I work. So, my AFR listening is limited almost exclusively to the podcasts.

AFR features a great variety of podcasts, some theological and/or biblical, some humorous, some with interviews, and so on. You won’t go wrong by listening to any of them. I have listened to almost every one they have ever produced. There are so many, that picking onne to listen to can be overwhelming at first. But to help you get started, I am going to list my ten favorite ones. Tomorrow (or the next day), I will post that list.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Profitable Listening

For the first several years after I began driving, I listened to nothing but music in the car. Like most young people, I had no interest in listening to anyone talk about anything, unless it was someone announcing the name of the next song.

A couple of years after I graduated from college, however, I began to have an unquenchable thirst for learning. While I still enjoyed listening to music, I found that I wanted to spend my time in the car more profitably. I wanted to learn things, to broaden my education; because of this, I began to occasionally listen to books on tape. Still, books on tape in those days were (at least to my knowledge) not widely available, and I didn’t have much time to go searching for them. Because of this, I turned to another source of learning: talk radio.

While in seminary, I listened to a great deal of talk radio, in two major forms. First, I listened to a great deal of preaching and other Christian talk programs, such as Focus on the Family. Gradually, however, I found myself less and less interested in listening to preachers and more interested in politics (shame on me, but that’s just what happened!). Before long, I found myself regularly listening to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, and other talk show hosts while I was in the car and while I was at work.

During our five years of mission service, Jennifer and I weren’t able to listen to much of anything. Occasionally, someone would send us tapes of great preachers, and we would enjoy them. After we returned home from the mission field, with conversion to Orthodoxy as our goal, I no longer had any interest in listening to evangelical preachers. So, I turned back to talk radio. I resumed listening to Rush, while adding Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and several local hosts to my “playlist.”

Before long, however, I grew weary of talk radio. I began to tire of the shrill tone and the constant repetition of the same old arguments (even if I agreed with them most of the time). The negative tone of the shows began to grate on me. I found that listening to talk radio often raised my blood pressure and put me in a foul mood. And it was certainly not contributing to my spiritual growth. In fact, it may have been doing just the opposite. I longed to hear great preaching and spiritual teaching. But where could I find it?

Enter Orthodox Christian Cassettes. This fine mom-and-pop business, based in Arkansas, produces tapes and CD’s of sermons and lectures by many of the world’s greatest Orthodox speakers and teachers. They both sell and lend out their tapes and CD’s. I borrowed many tapes from them (still no CD player in the car at the time!), but I started feeling guilty that I wasn’t sending them any money. I assuaged my guilt by buying a few of the tapes. Unfortunately, I eventually had to stop, because the tapes and CD’s are not cheap; a whole lecture series can cost up to $60 or more. This is quite a bit to spend, especially if you may only listen to the tapes once or twice (and if you are living on a teacher's salary!).

Then, I discovered that our local library has a large selection of lecture series and audiobooks on tape and CD. I went through dozens of these, and I learned a great deal. Again, I soon found that although these tapes and CD’s were very interesting, they did not help me to grow spiritually. I longed to be able to spend the enormous amount of time that I spend in my car growing close to God, but without having to pay a lot of money to be able to do so.

(By the way, in case you are wondering: Yes, I do spend some of my time on the road in prayer. But I still have so much to learn that I need the teaching tapes).

Finally, I found the solution to my problem. What is it? Check back tomorrow, and you will find out!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Update #2 on Jarrod and Helen

Thank you all for your prayers for my colleague Helen's son Jarrod. Jarrod has continued to improve. He is no longer in danger of dying, but he still has a long recovery ahead. Here, in Helen's own words, is a more detailed update on his situation:

Dear All,

I went to see Jarrod last Wednesday, he is awake, hugged me and we both had a good cry. I told him how wonderful he looked (he has lost 25 lbs and is very thin). He is in RML, a rehab hospital that specializes on getting people off the trach. The physical therapist is working with him to get him up but his heart rate was too high. The doctor started feeding him water through his feeding tube and his heart rate began to drop to a more acceptable level.

His brothers flew in Friday morning and we were able to have a “family reunion”. Jarrod is depressed and confused as to what has happened. His brothers and I were excited and smiling; we told him what happened on March 15th and how close he came to death. We told him we were smiling because he is alive and on the road back. I told him God had plans for him and his healing was answered prayer of many, many people who prayed for him.

His brothers stayed with him at night so Cindy [Fr. James' note: this is Jarrod's wife. They were just married a few months ago] could take some rest time. I asked Jarrod what was the last thing he remembered and he said, being unable to breathe and in pain that he asked the doctors to knock him out. It will take some time for him to fully understand what happened these last 43 days.

The plan now is to get him out of RML and into an intense physical therapy rehab hospital called Marion Joy. It’s located about 15 minutes from Downers Grove in Wheaton, Ill. The doctors don’t want him flying home until he can walk. My prayer is he will be coming home by Memorial Day. Please continue to pray for his total recovery.

I am sending pictures of our miracle boy, he is eating by mouth but his food must be tinted with blue food coloring to make sure nothing is going into the trach or lungs. The reason for his blue teeth! I told him he could audition for the Blue Men Show!

God bless,

You can see in Helen's note how deep her faith in God is, and as a a result, what good spirits she is in despite all the hardship that both her son and she have been through. Please continue to keep Jarrod, Helen, Cindy, and the rest of the family in your prayers.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Jesus in a Box

Like many converts to Orthodoxy, I am a little crazy about icons. I absolutely love them. Within a year or so of our return to the U. S. from the mission field, Jennifer and I had purchased about a dozen of them. Now, seven years later, we have about forty, and they are distributed all throughout our home. Over the last year or so, Jennifer and I have collected the entire “Twelve Great Feasts of the Church” series written by the late Greek iconographer Photios Kontoglou, available from Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Massachusetts. This series also includes about six other icons that depict events in the life of Christ not considered one of the “twelve” (the great feasts). Among these are four Paschal icons – Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection (of which there are two). By the way, in case you are wondering why Pascha does not count as one of the twelve great feasts, it is because Pascha is the Feast of Feasts; it stands above the twelve.

We have a tradition in the Early household: We keep all fifteen of the festal icons (the 12 feasts plus three of the Paschals) on one wall in our bedroom, save one. We place the icon whose feast is currently being celebrated in a special place on the wall near our dining table. You might call it the “featured icon” or “current feast” display (kind of like the “now playing” display that they used to have in record stores). For example, the icon currently displayed is that of the Resurrection. It will stay up until the Feast of the Ascension, when it will give way to that feast’s icon, which in turn will be replaced on Pentecost Day. This has proved to be a great teaching tool to use with our children, as well as a way to remind all of us what time of the Church year it is.

About a week ago, I was doing a little cleaning in my bedroom, and Christine, my three-year-old, came in. All of a sudden, she started shouting “Jesus is in a box! Jesus is in a box!” I had no idea what she was talking about. When I turned to see what all the fuss was about, I saw that she was pointing to the “Extreme Humility” icon, which depicts Jesus’ burial (see above). This icon shows the dead body of our Lord Jesus being lowered into what looks like nothing more than a plain box. The box, of course, symbolizes Jesus’ tomb. As is true with all Orthodox icons, the point of this icon is not to show a realistic depiction of Jesus’ burial. Of course, we all know that Jesus was buried in tomb carved out of the side of a hill, not a box! The point, rather is to show (as the icon’s title says it) the extreme humility of Christ, who

being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, NKJV)

It was humbling enough for Jesus just to leave his exalted place in heaven and to come down to this sin-scarred planet. But he did even more than that: he allowed himself to be mocked, beaten, scourged and put to death by the one of the cruelest methods ever designed by man. No one forced him to do this. But he did it anyway, out of his great humility and his great love for us.

The wonderful thing about this, the thing that makes Jesus’ going into the “box” something more than a great tragedy, is what happened next, according to Christine. After she had directed my attention to Jesus in the box, she said with a big smile, “But he didn’t STAY in the box!” (Not bad for a little squirt, eh?) And this fact is what we began celebrating last Sunday, and what we continue to celebrate. Indeed, the fact that Jesus did not stay in the “box” is the reason for our hope; it is the reason that there even IS a faith called Christianity.

If I may paraphrase the angel at the tomb, “He is no longer in the ‘box;’ He is risen!”

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

By the way, here is a picture of the budding theologian, taken a few months ago on her third birthday.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Agape Vespers

For those of you who are not Orthodox Christians, allow me to explain a custom that we Orthodox have. When it is time for us to celebrate Pascha (our name for Easter), we just can't wait until Sunday morning. So we start Saturday evening, sometime between 10 PM and 12 AM, depending on the parish. The service is usually over by 1 or 1:30 AM.

Then, the next afternoon, we have a delightful service called Agape (i.e. Love) Vespers. This is a somewhat scaled-down Vespers service with one added feature that I just love. At Agape Vespers, the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 20, verses 19-31, is read in as many languages as possible. At St. Anthony the Great in Spring, the parish where I have frequently been filling in lately, we had a total of seven languages, including the two I read (English and Serbian) At my home parish, St. Joseph, they had even more languages. Thankfully, my oldest daughter Audrey's boyfriend Jeffrey made a video of the Gospel readings. I thought that I would include that video here for anyone interested in watching it. The video is a little "bumpy" at times, but most of the time it is pretty stable.

The first reader in this video is our pastor Fr. Matthew MacKay, who chants about a third of the passage in English. Then, the same portion is read in Arabic, Latin, Romanian, Spanish, German, Greek, Italian, and French. After this, the two remaining sections of the Gospel are read in succession. By the way, the beautiful girl in the brown shirt is Audrey. She reads Latin very well, if I do say so myself. Turn up your sound and enjoy! Christ is Risen!

Agape Vespers from Fr. James Early on Vimeo.

Thomas Sunday (part 2)

Part Two:
The Appearance to Thomas

Now we turn to the climax of the story. As the Scripture tells us, Thomas was not present the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples. Exactly why, we have no idea, nor is it important. What is significant is that when Thomas returned and the disciples told him about Jesus’ visit, he did not believe them. Now when you think about Thomas, what do you think about? Admit it—you probably think primarily about his doubt in this story. It is a shame that most people, when they think about Thomas, remember him primarily as “Doubting Thomas.” We need to adjust our negative impression about Thomas for three reasons.

First, to think of Thomas primarily as the famous doubter is like remembering Abraham Lincoln for the many elections that he lost, for remembering Babe Ruth for being the batter with the all-time most strikeouts, for remembering Nolan Ryan for having walked the most batters in history. This one episode of doubt in Thomas’ life is greatly overshadowed by his great courage and his loyalty to Jesus. One Scripture that is not often quoted is John 11:16. In this passage, Jesus is preparing to go and raise Lazarus from the dead. In doing so, he had to return to the province of Judea, where the Jewish authorities were waiting to arrest him. When the other disciples heard Jesus say, “Let us go to Judea again,” they said “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone you, and are you going again?” Thomas, on the other hand, said “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” (John 11:7-8,16). Also, Thomas’ missionary career after Pentecost, which we will examine later, also proves his great courage and dedication to Christ.

A second reason why we should not fault Thomas for his doubt is that his reaction was perfectly normal. Thomas was undoubtedly still in a state of shock from the tragedy of the crucifixion, and he did not find it easy to think of its consequences as being annulled. Indeed, who had ever heard of someone who had been so brutally executed coming back to life?

A third thing that we should keep in mind before judging Thomas is that sometimes in the spiritual life, doubt is not such a bad thing. A certain degree of doubt can lead us to a deeper faith. As Fr. Anthony Coniaris writes, “Faith rarely comes without questioning and doubt. In fact, it usually comes through questioning and doubt. As one great saint said, ‘The soul makes its greatest progress when it travels in the dark, not knowing the way.’”

Fr. Coniaris goes on to say, “We need a faith like Thomas’—a faith that allows us to express our honest doubts to God and yet compels us to remain in companionship with the disciples just as Thomas, though skeptical, was still with them ‘eight days later’ when Jesus appeared to them. As He appeared to Thomas, Jesus will appear to us through His word or through a providential happening in our lives to strengthen us in our faith.”[1] There is nothing wrong with honestly expressing our doubts to God when we have them. But we must not allow our doubts to take over and to drive a wedge between us and God. We must always counterbalance our doubts with the assurance that God exists, that he loves us, and that he knows what is best for us, no matter what may happen to us.

After eight more days, Jesus again appeared to the disciples in the same room, and this time Thomas was with them. Instead of rebuking or condemning Thomas, Jesus invited him to look closely at his pierced hands and to place his hands in his side. By doing this, Jesus proved to Thomas that he was no ghost, but that he was truly the Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. Immediately, Thomas’s doubt disappeared. He did not even need to touch Jesus. He immediately cried out, “My Lord and my God!” In saying this, Thomas expressed more faith in Christ’s divinity than had anyone before him, for this is the first time in Scripture that anyone called Jesus “God.” Mere men do not rise from the dead in this way. From now on, Thomas and the other disciples knew that Jesus could only be properly addressed in the language of adoring worship.

Then Jesus pronounced a blessing on all who would believe after Jesus ascended into heaven. Not everyone who had seen the miraculous works of Jesus had believed in him. The disciples, including Thomas, believed because they saw. But as Jesus said, “blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” For this is what faith is, to receive things not seen. As St Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). St. John Chrysostom, preaching 1600 years ago, spoke these words, which are as true today as they were then: “When therefore anyone in the present day [should] say, ‘I would that I had lived in those times, and had seen Christ working miracles,’ let them reflect that ‘Blessed are they who have not see, and have yet believe.’” Great is the reward of the apostles and those who witnessed Jesus’ works and believed; greater still is the reward of those who have not seen and yet believe.

Finally, let us examine the life and ministry of St. Thomas after the Day of Pentecost. Church tradition tells us that he traveled east to preach the gospel to the Parthians and the people who lived in modern-day India. He preached the gospel in the region of Mylapur, near modern-day Madras. He succeeded in converting the king of that area, a man named Gundaphoras, to Christianity. He then continued southward, winning converts as far south as the island that is today called Sri Lanka. Later, he returned to the mainland, and there he ran afoul of many of the local residents and was executed by being pierced by a spear. Although he was not successful in winning the whole nation to Christ, his influence is still felt to this day. In India there is a both a mountain and an ancient church named after Thomas. To this day, a great number of Indian Christian men bear the name of Thomas.

As we reflect upon the life and ministry of St. Thomas, then, let us, like him, not allow the doubts we have to hinder our relationship with Christ and prevent us from obtaining eternal life. Like Thomas, let us be faithful in living and proclaiming the Christian faith, even surrendering our life, if God so wills. And like Thomas, let us continually glorify the risen Christ, saying with him, “My Lord and my God!”

[1] Fr. Anthony Coniaris, This is My Beloved Son; Listen to Him (Minneapolis, Light and Life, 1988), 78.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Thomas Sunday (part 1)

Christ is Risen!

I know it's a little late, but let me first wish you a belated blessed Pascha. I had hoped to have several articles posted since Pascha, but I just haven't been able to find the time. This is what I call a "Double Whammy Week," that is, a week in which I have to prepare both a sermon and a Sunday School lesson. Since I am an assistant priest, I rarely have such weeks. Also, I have had many other things pop up that required my attention.

At any rate, I am going to post the sermon that I will preach this Sunday, the Sunday of St. Thomas (which my pastor affectionally calls "Low Sunday," since so many people seem to stay away on that day). Because it is somewhat lengthy, I will break it into two parts. I hope that you find it helpful. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Reflections on the Sunday of St. Thomas

Part One: The Appearance to the Ten

Today’s Gospel reading opens with a truly sad scene. The disciples had just spent three years of their lives with the man that they believed to be the Messiah, the man anointed by God to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Roman conquerors and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. They had learned so much from Jesus and had grown to love him. They had seen how he loved them, and they had vowed that they would follow him anywhere, even dying for him if it became necessary. Then they had watched helplessly while Jesus had been taken away from them by force. To make things worse, all but one of them had fled for fear of their lives. They had heard of his trial and his hasty and disgraceful execution. In the space of a few days, all their hopes and dreams had been brutally crushed. And they knew that they had been seen with Jesus by thousands of witnesses. If the high priests and the Roman soldiers had seen Jesus as such a threat and had eliminated him, why should they stop at Jesus? Why would they not eliminate his “co-conspirators” as well?

And so, out of fear (and a very legitimate fear at that!), the disciples hid themselves away behind closed doors. The Greek word that is translated “closed” in most English translations implies that the door was also locked. The disciples thought that if they would just lay low for a while, if they would sequester themselves behind locked doors, surely no one would be able to find them. Imagine, then, their surprise and shock when Jesus suddenly stood before them and greeted them! Although two of them, Peter and John, had seen the empty tomb, none of them yet understood about the resurrection. How unnerving it must have been for someone who looked exactly like Jesus, whom they knew to be dead and buried, somehow appear despite the locked doors! What could this be other than a spirit? Seeing is not always believing, and it would have been next to impossible for them to understand that Jesus had risen from the dead. Because of this, the Lord immediately took steps to convince them of his identity and to take away their fear: he showed them his hands and his side. From John, they had heard about how Jesus had been crucified, and also how a Roman soldier had pierced his side with a spear. So, in spite of their amazement, they now knew that this had to be none other than Jesus himself.

And immediately upon seeing this blessed sight, their shock and fear changed to great joy! Fulfilled was Jesus’ prophecy, given to them on the night he was betrayed, that the disciples would have sorrow while the world rejoiced, but that they would see him again and their sorrow be turned to joy. They had not understood Jesus’ words at the time, but now the words were crystal clear. Jesus’ appearing brought them joy, but his words made that joy even greater. For although the disciples knew that they deserved rebuke and blame, they were instead greeted with peace, and not only once but twice. Jesus’ next words demonstrated his love for them still more. He had every right to tell them, “You’re fired! I am going to find myself a new group of followers who will REALLY be loyal to me!” Instead, he did just the opposite: he entrusted them with carrying out his work on earth. He said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus to earth to bring salvation to the world, now Jesus sent the disciples to carry the news of that salvation to the world. That is the kind of love for the disciples and trust in them that Jesus had. In spite of their failings, he entrusted them with his own work. And he does them same for us. When we fail him, he picks us up and says, “Try again, my child. I have not lost my faith in you. Keep fighting the good fight!”

Now if the disciples were to carry out Jesus’ work after he left, they would also have to have his power. So, as the Scripture tells us, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This saying of Jesus has led to a dispute. Some skeptics claim that there is a contradiction here. They would say, “Luke says that the Holy Spirit was given on the Day of Pentecost, but here John says that it was given on the day of the Resurrection.” How is this problem to be resolved? St. John Chrysostom, along with many modern scholars, proposes that this passage and the one in Acts refer to two different gifts of the Spirit to the apostles, each with a specific purpose. The one given at Pentecost was for the spreading of the Gospel through the miraculous gift of speaking in many languages and the working of miracles. This gift, however, was an endowing of the apostles, and therefore the Church, with the power to remit sins. For here Jesus says to them, “those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, but those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” This is why the Orthodox Church has always believed in the need to confess our sins to the Church, or more precisely, to the Church’s leaders. It is not that individual priests and bishops forgive sins, they do not. Only God can actually forgive. But the Lord Jesus gives the leaders of the Church a special gift of communicating God’s forgiveness to his people, just as he did the apostles on the day he rose from the grave.