Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Orthodox View of Death (Part Two)

Nathan Hoppe, OCMC missionary to Albania and professor at Holy Resurrection Seminary in St. Vlash, Albania, with his two children Tristan and Katherine

As most of you have no doubt read by now, OCMC missionary to Albania Lynette Hoppe was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. After a heroic struggle with her cancer, Lynette reposed in the Lord in August of 2006. During this time, she kept a journal, excerpts of which have recently been published in the outstanding and inspiring book Lynette’s Hope (copyright 2008 Conciliar Press; click here for my review of the book). Lynette’s Hope also contains reflections and remembrances of Lynette by many of her friends and loved ones. Perhaps none of the reflections are quite as profound as those of her husband Nathan.

Thankfully, few of us experience the loss of our spouse to a long, agonizing battle with a fatal disease. Because Nathan Hoppe did, his view of death is not abstract or theoretical, but personal. Nathan, a professor at the Holy Resurrection of Christ Orthodox seminary in St. Vlash, Albania, penned a great summary of the contrast between the way most of the world sees death and the Orthodox view of what I call “The Great Separator.” Here I will quote his thoughts in full. The passage is rather lengthy (at least for a blog), but it is well worth the read.

In walking with [Lynette] through her final days into the arms of death, I confronted death in a personal way which allowed me to experience its power and terror. It is a fearful thing that ripped away the life which vivified my dear wife and left her a dead body growing cold and eventually falling into decay. Death is a tragedy and a betrayal of the life which God intended. Death is truly our greatest enemy…

I have noticed several different responses to death over the past year. Many dear people search for the right words to say and express many things which are kind and beautiful, but I have noticed that their responses often fall into three categories. First, there is the emotional response to death, which points to desperation and despair. Death is the end of everything and an unexplained tragedy which provokes inconsolable grief, uncontrolled wailing, anger and alienation.

I describe the second response as secular. It accepts death as a natural part of life. Many books on grieving fall into this category. They explain death as a natural part of the life cycle. Seeds are planted, they grow, they age, and they die. Animals are born, they mature, they grow old, and they die. These books point to the normal cycle of life and say that we must simply accept death as a part of that cycle. People are born, they grow up, they grow old, and they die. Our loved ones grow old and die, and we will grow old and die. The sooner we accept this fact, the easier it will be on all of us. There is no inherent meaning to life or death, and the sooner we accept the fact of death, the less we will allow the fear of it to spoil the fun of life. [Fr. James’ note: This seems to be the dominant view in today’s Western world, and unfortunately, it has been bought hook, line, and sinker by many Christians]

Finally, I saw the pseudo-religious approach to death. This view says that life in this fallen world is essentially evil, and we should gladly embrace death because it liberates us from this evil. Our real life begins after death. Life in this world only prepares us for the next life; thus death is not a tragedy, but a gift. [Fr. James' note: There is a sense in which, death is a gift, but this is not the main way that the Orthodox Church looks at it]

Although we may see elements of truth in all of these responses, I’ve realized that none of them are truly Christian. As Christians, we do not despair in the face of death, nor do we accept it as a normal part of life, nor do we embrace it as something good. Death is essentially abnormal. It is the destruction of what God intended. It is our great enemy, with which we must never make peace. The fact that we can be at peace in the face of death does not mean that we have made peace with it. We find peace with death because God has proven victorious over it. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This is the Christian approach.

Indeed. What a great summary! Tomorrow, I will post some of Fr. Thomas Hopko's reflections on the subject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Orthodox View of Death (Part One)

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas

The last enemy to be destroyed is death – 1 Cor. 15:26

Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Why is this? It’s not just because my hairline is receding and my belly advancing. It’s not just because of the many new gray hairs that make their debut on my head each day. It’s not just because every time I do a hard workout at the gym, the next day my arms and legs feel like they are about to fall off. It’s not even just because many of the Church Fathers tell us to keep our inevitable appointment with death always on our mind (although this is the best reason yet listed). Why then, you ask (indeed, my wife and oldest daughter think it’s just weird), has death been in my thoughts so much lately?

It all started back in February, when I was preparing for my adult Sunday School lesson. We had been studying the Gospel of St. John, and the time had come to look at the raising of Lazarus. Influenced both by the excellent commentary on St. John’s Gospel by Fr. Lawrence Farley and also by a lecture on tape by Fr. Thomas Hopko that I had heard several years earlier, I came to the conclusion that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb more from anger at death itself than from compassion for Mary and Martha (although the latter was certainly a part of the reason He wept). Click here to read my recent article on this subject.

In exploring the question of why Jesus wept even though He knew that He was about to raise Lazarus, and in proposing an answer, I decided to explore the broader question of the Orthodox view of death (but not life after death, which is another question altogether—Here I mean how we should look at death). I taught my class that contrary to what many people today believe, the Orthodox view of death is that it is above all else an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). We should not look upon it positively, but should rather, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I suggested that in general we should fight it rather than embrace it.

When one of the members of the class asked me what I meant by “fight it,” I gave an answer that I later realized was very inadequate. Because of this, I resolved then and there to write about the subject in my blog. Since then, many other things have happened to make me think even more about death:

Memorial Day (my father was a WW2 vet who passed away four years ago). Click here to read my tribute to him.

The anniversary of my father’s death (June 2).

Father’s day, which made me think even more about my father, his tragic death, and the legacy that I want to leave behind for my children.

My reading of the excellent book Lynette’s Hope, about the life and witness of Lynette Hoppe, an Orthodox missionary to Albania who died of cancer two years ago.

Last but not least, I finally got around to reading the book The Inner Kingdom, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Guess what the second chapter is about? You guessed it…the Orthodox view of death!

Unfortunately, between my job at the school district (in which the busiest time of year is April-June), my ministry at St. Joseph’s and other parishes, trying to spend time with my wife and kids, and helping around the house, I just haven’t been able to find the time and the energy to write. Now, some five months after I first began thinking about this issue, I have finally found a little time to sit down and actually write something about this important topic.

After this introductory post, I plan to write four posts in which I summarize the Orthodox view of death as expressed in the writings of three contemporary Orthodox writers and teachers: Nathan Hoppe (seminary professor, missionary, and wife of Lynette Hoppe of blessed memory), Fr. Thomas Hopko, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. In addition, I will offer some reflections based on the Orthodox funeral service itself. I pray that this short series will be profitable for you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How to Finish the Race (Part 2)

St. Timothy, the recipient of the epistle on which this sermon is based. This is the second half of the sermon. Scroll down to yesterday's post if you haven't read part one yet.

Having compared the Christian life to that of a soldier, St. Paul now returns to his all-time favorite metaphor for the life in Christ: the athlete. He tells Timothy: “if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” If you have watched the news at all over the last year or so, you have seen this principle illustrated over and over again. A winner of the Tour de France was stripped of his title because he used illegal substances to enhance his performance. An Olympic medal-winning sprinter not only lost her medals, but she also went to jail! And two of the greatest baseball players of all time, one the all-time home run king and the other one of the two or three greatest pitchers in history, now are tarnished because they seem to also have used steroids. Truly, if you don’t play by the rules, you don’t get the prize.

As Christians, we too must play by the rules if we are to win the prize of salvation. But what are the rules? The answer to this question is simple—the rules are the commandments of Christ and his body, the Church. Often we Orthodox Christians are criticized for putting too much emphasis on rules and good works. There is certainly a danger that we can fall into the trap of legalism, of overemphasizing rules and commandments, as did the Pharisees. Ultimately, we will achieve salvation only if we “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourself.” Salvation comes by knowing God through faith. But, as St. John write in his first epistle, “He who says, “I know Him, and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). And the Lord Jesus himself said “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me” (John 14:21). And so, we “play by the rules” not because we are trying to work our way to heaven or earn eternal life, but because we love Jesus. And if we are not willing to play by the rules; for example, if we are unwilling to pray, fast, go to Church, read the Bible, give to the needy, be kind to others, and so on, then neither should we expect to finish the race.

Finally, St. Paul compares the Christian life to the work of a farmer, telling Timothy that “the hard working farmer must be the first to partake of the crops.” The “crops” that St. Paul is referring to are none other than the fruits and rewards of eternal life. But just as a farmer will have no yield if he doesn’t work, so we will not be saved if we do not work. As St. James famously wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). St. Paul commanded the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Think back to the farmer. The farmer must work very hard in order to produce a crop. But there are obviously some things that he cannot do. He relies on God to provide favorable weather and nutrients in the soil—without these, there will be no crop, regardless of how hard he has worked. The same is true with the race of the Christian life. We do not run it, indeed we cannot run it, in our own strength. We rely on God the Holy Spirit in us to provide us the strength. We see this in the very next verse in Philippians, “for it is God who works in you to will and to do for his good pleasure.” Without God, we cannot finish the race. But he will not run it for us; we must still run.

So, my brothers and sisters and Christ, let us take St Paul’s words to St. Timothy to heart. Let us endure hardship like a good soldier, praising and thanking God in spite of our difficulties. Let us not become entangled with the world, but remain steadfastly loyal to God above all else. Let us play by the rules; that is, keep the commandments of Christ and the Church, not thinking we can somehow get around them. And let us work hard, doing our best, while letting God do the rest. As St. Paul did, let us “forget what is behind and reach forward to those things which are ahead…” and “press toward the goal for the prize” which is eternal life.

Monday, July 28, 2008

How to Finish the Race (Part 1)

St. Panteleimon, the main saint commemorated on July 27. Below is the first half of the sermon I preached on that day (i. e. yesterday). The sermon has nothing to do with the saint's life (other than the fact that he exemplifies one who endured hardship like a good soldier), but his life is well worth reading about. Click here to read St. Panteleimon's biography (from the OCA website).

How to Finish the Race
1 Timothy 2:1-10

Christians who are sports fans like me love St. Paul’s epistles, not least of all because they contain so many analogies from athletics. St. Paul often compares the Christian life to an athletic contest, most frequently a race. And he constantly urges us to “run in such a way as to win [the prize]” (1 Cor. 9:24). As St. Paul points out in First Corinthians, in a regular race, only one person can win first prize. Fortunately, this is not true in the “race” of the Christian life. Thanks be to God, to “win” this most important of all races, all we have to do is keep running and finish the race. Everyone who finishes is a winner. But just how can we finish the race? In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul gives his disciple Timothy four things to do to finish the race of the Christian life and thus receive the price of eternal life. He does this by way of three analogies: the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer.

But before he goes into depth about the life of a soldier, St. Paul urges St. Timothy to “endure hardship.” “As surely as sparks fly upward, man is born to trouble,”. we read in the book of Job (5:7). It is often said that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. To this I would add a third: trouble. Hardship. All of us have this in common: we WILL experience hardship. We cannot stop it. But what we CAN do is to control what we DO about it. When we face struggles, trials, and difficult situations, do we whine and complain? Do we despair? Do we say, “why me?” Do we, as Job’s wife urged him to do, “Curse God and die?” (Job 2:9). Or do we endure the hardship like a good soldier? Do we tell God, “I don’t understand why this is happening, but I believe that you are allowing this to happen for my ultimate good. I don’t like this situation, but I still believe that you are good, and I love you and will trust in you!”

St. James urges us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (Jas 1:2-3). And St. Paul told the Romans “We glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). So let us with thanksgiving accept the trials that come upon us, not because they are fun to go through, but because of the effect they will have on our character, if we do not give in to despair and doubt.

St. Paul then elaborates on his comparison of a Christian to a soldier. He tells Timothy, “No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier.” In this day and age, any positive talk about the military is very unpopular among some folks. I remember back when I was in seminary, some Christian denominations were removing hymn such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” from their hymnbook. And yet, the image of the Christian life as a battle, in which we are soldiers, is common in the Scriptures. We are called to “fight the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) and to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). This is why the Orthodox Church refers to those of us who are still on earth as the “Church Militant.”

But in order to successfully fight the battle to the end, we must, as St. Paul says, not become entangled with the affairs of this world. We must detach ourselves from the world. This does not mean that we all have to flee the world and become monks. It means merely that we must not let the things that we own own us! We must keep them at arm’s length and be willing and able to let them go if and when we are required to do so. In the classic work on the spiritual life The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus makes “detachment from the world” the first two steps. He writes, “If you truly love God and long to reach the kingdom that is to come…then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, for possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed for anything of earth.” All of these things, even those that are good things, must be secondary to our devotion to God and our salvation, if we are to please him who enlisted us as soldiers.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Direction of This Blog

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. -- Ecclesiastes 12:12

As those of you who read a lot of blogs know, there are many, many of them out there. To paraphrase the author of Ecclesiastes, of the making of many blogs there is no end. Even if we narrow it down to blogs written by Orthodox writers, there is still a great variety of types of blogs. This is (in general) a good thing.

In my thinking, Orthodox bloggers can be classified in two main ways. First, we can classify them by how often they post. Some post daily or nearly daily, some post every few days, some post weekly or so, and some post only every great once in a while.

Another way of classifying Orthodox bloggers is by what topics they write on. Roughly speaking, most blogs either specify in discussing news items (mainly Church news) or theological or devotional topics.

A third classifier is whether the bloggers mainly write their own material, or whether they mainly cut, paste, and link.

My favorite blogs are those in which the author mainly writes his or her own material, which cover theological and devotional (particularly devotional) topics, and which post often. The one blog (at least among those that I am aware of) that best meets all three of these criteria is Glory to God in All Things, by Fr. Stephen Freeman. You’ve heard me say this ad nauseam, but I’ll say it one more time: Glory to God is in my opinion the best Orthodox blog that there is. I think every Orthodox Christian should read it daily. Koinonia, by Fr. Gregory Jensen, is also an excellent one that I try to read daily. It meets all three of my criteria for (if you will) "blog excellence."

When I first started this blog last March, my intention was that it would be primarily devotional, and that I would post something at least every other day, if not every day. Many people at my parish who had attended my adult Sunday School class (or had wanted to, but could not for one reason or another) asked me if I could post my Bible study notes on the Internet. So, I resolved to do just that. This blog, then, was to be something like “Fr. James’ reflections on the Scriptures."

However, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time know, it took a very different turn very early on. Although I did post a few devotional reflections, I soon felt led to begin writing about my pilgrimage to Orthodoxy. What I thought might take 8-10 posts ended up taking 30! This process took five months. Then I felt led (compelled? Driven?) to put these 30 posts together, expand them a little, and make them into a book. Again, this took much more time and effort to complete than I had originally planned for, and the blog went on hold for a while. About six months later, I was able to resume the blog.

Since resuming the blog, I have found myself not able to find the time to write very many original reflections, especially over the last couple of months. Now that I am off work for a little while, I am hoping to return to my original goal of devoting the blog primarily to the study of the Scriptures and the Fathers. I will still occasionally post news items of interest (such as my series on “This Crazy WORLD”), but my heart’s desire is to help those of you who read this (and myself too!) to better understand and love the foundational documents of the Orthodox faith.

Please pray that I will be able to do this. I know that it can only happen with a lot of help from God. This coming year, my wife will be working full time for the first time since 1993, and she will be taking two night classes. Not only that, but it will be Audrey’s senior year, and my work at the school district will be busier than ever. Needless to say, things will be crazy!

Again, your prayers will be appreciated. Also, if there are any topics that you would like me to discuss, please let me know, and I’ll try to oblige. Over the next few days, I am planning to discuss the Orthodox view of death (Stephen Covey would be proud – I’m beginning with the end in mind!).

May the Lord bless you all.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lordy, Lordy, NOW Look Who's Forty!

My best friend in the whole world, posing with her birthday cake. It was a German chocolate cake, which she made from scratch. She does this because her homemade cakes are much better than cakes from a mix and WAY better than 90% of bakery cakes. This was the best German chocolate cake I have ever had!

Every year, for about 4 months and a few days, I am older than my wife Jennifer. Then, every July 24, she catches up to me. As you all know, I turned 40 last March. Now Jennifer has caught up to me once again and has hit the big 4 - 0.

I can't say enough good things about this wonderful lady. For 18 years now, she has put up with me and blessed my life in more ways than I can count. Last year, I wrote a tribute to her. I am going to re-print it here. For those of you who have already read it, I apologize for the repetition.

A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.
She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed; he is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all."
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
(Proverbs 31:10-20)

On this date forty years ago, a beautiful person was born into this world--my wife, Jennifer. She is truly the best wife in the world. Now, some of you men who are reading this may disagree, but we will just have to agree to disagree!

Few men are blessed to have a woman that comes anywhere close to the ideal wife described in the 31st chapter of Proverbs. I thank God that I have been so blessed for 18 years. My wife has worn a variety of hats over the years: wife to me, mother to four children, homemaker, missionary, full-time student, Sunday School teacher, and occasionally, breadwinner (I am probably leaving some out!). She has done all of these jobs exceptionally well.

Most importantly, she truly loves the Lord Jesus and her family. Jennifer has been a full-time stay-at-home mom for most of our years together. This summer, however, she has been working toward her Masters' and has been incredibly busy. Since I have had most of July off, I stepped in and took over most of her household chores. Yes, I have been “Mr. Mom” for most of the summer! In doing so, I gained a new appreciation for all that she has had to do over the years. Now I know from experience that being a stay-at-home mom and homemaker is one of the hardest, perhaps THE hardest, career paths that one can follow!

She has followed me through thick and thin, through good times and some very hard times. She married an engineer, but soon had a Baptist preacher, then a missionary, then, finally, an Orthodox priest! She has followed me halfway around the world and back. She is truly a “wife of noble character,” and every day I “arise and call her blessed…and praise her.” May God grant her many years, and may he also grant me many more years with her.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Turn an Evangelical Protestant into an Orthodox Christian in Four Easy Steps

Clark Carlton, philosophy professor and author of the outstanding four-part introductory series on Orthodoxy published by Regina Orthodox Press

Of course, the title of this post is written totally tongue-in-cheek. I realize that no one will convert to the Orthodox faith unless the Holy Spirit first draws him or her.

Still, I am often asked, “What would be a good book to give to my friend /coworker /son /daughter /parent /cousin (etc.) who is asking me about Orthodoxy?” On other occasions, I have been asked, “I have read such and such book; what should I read next?”

Of course, many other priests’, writers,’ and thinkers’ recommendations would be somewhat (or perhaps totally) different from mine. Still, I thought that the reader might be interested in knowing the books that I personally recommend to evangelical inquirers, and the order in which I recommend that they read them. For more information on the books, see the previous two posts.

Step One: Becoming Orthodox, by Fr. Peter Gillquist
Step Two: Thirsting for God, by Matthew Gallatin
Step Three: The Way, by Clark Carlton
Step Four: Common Ground, by Fr. Jordan Bajis

In addition to the above steps, I would urge an inquirer to read through the Orthodox Study Bible (especially the New Testament), carefully reading the study notes and the explanatory articles that are sprinkled throughout the text.

For those who do not much care for reading, I recommend An Eastern Orthodox Response to Evangelical Claims by Fr. Paul O’Callaghan and the series of topical pamphlets published by Conciliar Press, especially the titles that I recommended in my last post

What about Roman Catholics?

For Roman Catholic inquirers, I recommend the following books:

Step One: Orthodoxy and Catholicism: What Are the Differences? by Fr. Ted Pulcini
Step Two: Popes and Patriarchs by Michael Whelton
Step Three: The Truth by Clark Carlton
Step Four: Common Ground

I pray that this list and the previous two will prove helpful to you. May the Lord bless you all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Orthodox Books for Beginners

Matthew Gallatin, author of the oustanding introduction to Orthodoxy Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, and the host of the "Pilgrims from Paradise" podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

As promised, here is part two of my list of recommended introductory books about Orthodoxy. The books on this list are works that I did not read until after I became Orthodox, but I found them all helpful in my "rookie season" of Orthodoxy.

Carlton, Clark, The Faith. Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 1997. Used in catechumen classes in Orthodox parishes around the country, this book is an outstanding, easy to read overview of the Orthodox faith.

Carlton, Clark, The Life. Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 1997. A must read for all evangelical Protestants, especially those who struggle with the Orthodox theology of salvation. In this book, Carlton argues persuasively against Sola Fide and “once saved always saved,” among other things.

Carlton, Clark, The Truth. Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 1999. This is the equivalent of The Way for Roman Catholics. Protestants would do well to read it too, particularly Chapter Three, which is the best argument against the “Satisfaction” theory of atonement taken granted by most Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

Coniaris, Fr. Anthony, Introducing the Orthodox Church. Mineapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1982. Just what it says—an outstanding overview of all aspects of Orthodoxy, covering more topics that The Orthodox Church, but going into less detail.

Elder Cleopa of Romania, The Truth of Our Faith. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000. Written by the saintly abbot (now with the Lord) of a monastery in Romania, this book is similar to Fr. O’Callaghan’s pamphlet (see below), but less broad and more deep. This would be especially helpful for evangelicals from a Reformed or Calvinistic background.

Gallatin, Matthew, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002. This book was not published until after my family and I were Chrismated, but we still found it helpful in confirming the truth of our new faith. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough to evangelical inquirers. It is a kinder, gentler version of The Way that covers more topics, albeit in less depth than Carlton’s books.

Gillquist, Fr. Peter, ed. Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992. A series of gripping stories about how a wide variety of Protestant ministers, from high church Anglican to “holy roller” Pentecostal, found their way to Orthodoxy.

Mathewes-Green, Frederica, At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. Mathewes-Green, a prolific writer, popular speaker and wife of an Orthodox priest, combines vignettes about life in her parish, Orthodoxy in general, and living the life of an Orthodox Christian in the world.

Nieuwsma, Virginia, ed. Our Heart’s True Home. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1996. Similar to Coming Home, but written by and primarily for women.

O’Callaghan, Fr. Paul. An Eastern Orthodox Response to Evangelical Claims. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1984. Fr. Paul lists several common questions that evangelicals ask about Orthodoxy and answers them briefly but persuasively.

Pulcini, Fr. Theodore, Orthodoxy and Catholicism: What are the Differences? Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1995. This is my favorite work on Orthodoxy vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism, written in a completely irenic tone by a former Roman Catholic who is now an Orthodox priest and scholar. This would be a great resource to give to a Roman Catholic friend, and it has the added bonus of being very brief (25 pages).

Ware, Timothy (Metropolitan Kallistos), The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995. The companion volume to The Orthodox Church, this work provides a brief introduction to the Church's theology.

Whelton, Thomas, Popes and Patriarchs: An Orthodox Perspective on Roman Catholic Claims. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2006. This is a well-reasoned, recently published discussion of the issues that separate Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. Whelton also wrote a similar but more extensive book entitled Two Paths (Regina Orthodox Press) in 1998.

Whiteford, Fr. John, Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox Analysis of the Cornerstone of Reformation Theology. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1996. This is the most thorough treatment of the many problems with Sola Scriptura that I have ever read. I wish all evangelical Protestants would read it!

In addition to these books, Conciliar Press publishes a set of short (15-30 page) pamphlets on various beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Church that differ from those of Protestants. The ones that I found the most instrumental in convincing me of the truth of Orthodoxy include Finding the New Testament Church, by Fr. Jon Braun, Scripture and Tradition, by Raymond (Fr. Thomas) Zell, Which Came First, the Church or the New Testament?, by Fr. James Bernstein, How to Read Your Bible, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Entering God’s Kingdom and Finishing the Race (both on the Orthodox concept of salvation), by Fr. Peter Gillquist, and Heavenly Worship, by Fr. Richard Ballew. Also, Conciliar Press has just published a pamphlet called Infant Baptism, by Fr. John Hainsworth, which would be especially helpful for Baptists and other evangelicals that believe that only adults and older children should be baptized. Conciliar offers a total of 31 of these pamphlets, and all of them are excellent. Visit for more information.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Orthodox Books for Beginners

Fr. Peter Gillquist, the man who ruined my career as a Baptist missionary (and I thank God he did!)

This is the second part of a four-part series on good Orthodox books to read. Last time, I quoted Fr. Stephen Freeman's list of the books that had been most influential in his life. As I mentioned, all of the books on his list are pretty advanced and would probably be a bit much for people who are inquirers into Orthodoxy, catechumens, or are Orthodox but in their "rookie season."

So, over the next few days I will give an excerpt from my upcoming book From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium. This first list consists of the books that I found most helpful in seeing the Orthodox viewpoint on Scripture and theology vis-a-vis the evangelical Protestant view. If a book is not on this list, it doesn't necessarily mean that it would not be helpful, only that either it hadn't come out at the time or that I was simply unaware of it.

Bajis, Fr. Jordan, Common Ground: An Introduction to Orthodox Christianity for the American Christian. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1991. This is a scholarly, well-researched, and persuasive book. It was particularly helpful in winning me over to the Orthodox position on infant baptism and on the authoritative nature of Holy Tradition, but it also has excellent chapters on salvation and Sola Scriptura.

Carlton, Clark, The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church. Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 1997. As I mentioned in the text, reading this book put the nail in the coffin of my being an evangelical. This is a very persuasive book, particularly regarding Sola Scriptura vs. Tradition and the structure and style of Orthodox worship. One caveat: this book is not for the thin-skinned! It should probably not be the first book that an evangelical reads about Orthodoxy, unless he or she is already on the path to conversion.

Gillquist, Fr. Peter, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, revised edition. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992. This is the book that started me on my pilgrimage to Orthodoxy. It is very well-written and inspiring story that reads like a novel in places. This is the first book that I give to evangelical friends who are curious about Orthodoxy. It is persuasive yet irenic in tone, and it is simply a great and inspiring story.

The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993. An essential read for all Orthodox Christians and for all non-Orthodox Christians who desire to understand the Orthodox understanding of Scripture. [Fr. James' note: When I wrote this, the complete OSB had not yet been published. Of course, now I recommend the full Bible]

Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, The Ante Nicene Fathers, Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, fourth printing. Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 2004. This is part of the magisterial series that includes English translations of the Pre-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers. Translated by leading Anglican scholars of the nineteenth century, the translation is generally reliable, even if the notes are often not.

Sparks, Fr. Jack, ed., The Apostolic Fathers. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1978. A more recent and readable translation than The Ante-Nicene Fathers, translated by twentieth-century non-Orthodox scholars, with introductions and notes by Sparks, an Orthodox priest who converted to Orthodoxy in the late 1970’s.

Ware, Timothy (Metropolitan Kallistos), The Orthodox Church, fourth edition. London: Penguin Books, 1997. Perhaps the most widely read and best-selling English language book on Orthodoxy, this book is generally recognized as the standard introduction to the Orthodox faith. Unlike the works by Bajis, Carlton, and Gillquist, this work does not seek to persuade the reader of the superiority of Orthodoxy to other Christian traditions, but simply presents a solid and highly readable overview of Orthodox history and doctrine.

More recommendations tomorrow...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Father Stephen's Recommended Books

Recently on Fr. Stephen Freeman's soul-profiting blog Glory to God For All Things (which I cannot get enough of), someone posted a comment asking him to list the 10 Orthodox books that had best helped him to grow closer to Christ and to develop an Orthodox mindset. I then posted another comment eagerly seconding that motion. Fr. Stephen obliged. I will quote his response in full, because I think it deserves your consideration (and this saves you the trouble of moving over to his site, although this is always a good thing to do anyway!). Here it is (in italics), after which I will add a few comments:

It is always difficult to say what has most influenced you when it comes to books. My Orthodox reading began when I was in college and has thus spanned some 35 years or more. I’ve read much outside of Orthodoxy, very little of which I would recommend. But in response to several requests, I’ll give this short annotated list:

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky. This was the first Orthodox writing I ever read, and not one I would recommend for light or easy reading. I was fascinated to learn that it was also the first Orthodox read for Igumen Jonah Paffhausen. But it opened my eyes to the Orthodox understanding of the reality of God and the necessity of our unmediated union with Him.

On the Incarnation of the Word, St. Athanasius. This is simply a must read for those who want to look at Eastern Orthodox thought of the 4th century versus the developments that would later take place in the West. My auto mechanic father picked it up and read it once when he was vacationing with us and pronounced, “That’s the best book I ever read!” High praise.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, Archimandrite Sophrony. A modern saint and Orthodox writer whom all would do well to know.

Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, Fr. John Meyendorff. If you want to know your way through the Councils, this is your guide.

Being as Communion, Met. John Zizioulas. I found this book to be life-changing. It’s hard reading, but it turns many things on their head, and makes sense of the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity. [Fr. James' note: Clark Carlton (PhD in philosophy), in his excellent book The Way, famously wrote that he had to read the first chapter of this book three times before he understood it. And Dr. Carlton is no slouch!]

For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann. This little book is one of the great treasures of our time.

Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon. Not an Orthodox book for very typical Hauerwas who was certainly influential in my life.

The Theology of the Icon, Ouspensky. Still one of the best introductions to icons. To understand the icon is to understand Orthodox Theology.

Orthodox Spirituality, Dumitru Staniloae, balanced and thorough approach to Orthodox ascetical understanding.

The Enlargement of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacchaeus. Disciple of the Elder Sophrony, I can’t seem to stop reading this book.

I realize that ten is not enough. I did not include any lives of the saints (the list would have been twice as long). And I did not include Scripture.

Interestingly enough, I had only read two of these books, both during my St. Stephen's studies. Unfortunately, I read them a little too quickly, and I remember nothing from either one. I am definitely going to reread them. Then I'll tackle the other eight one at a time.

One other note: These books range from pretty deep to extremely deep. If you are a beginner to Orthodoxy (inquirer, catechumen, or in your first year or two after becoming Orthodox), you might not find these to be the best things to read right now. If you would like, let me know, and I will give you my own recommended list of books for beginners.

Finally, note that while reading is certainly helpful and can be soul-profiting, it is not everything. I strongly suggest that you click here to read Fr. Stephen's thoughts on this issue.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Book Publication Delayed

Just a quick note to let you know that the publication date for my forthcoming book From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium (Regina Orthodox Press) has been pushed back to next January.

Also, my friend and fellow blogger Steve Robinson just published a great post on his blog Pithless Thoughts. Steve writes:

I think it was Dave Barry who said something like, if you want to really know someone just watch how they treat waiters and waitresses. It doesn't matter if the waiters are good or bad, there is a dynamic of human interaction between diner and waiter that reveals the true character of someone.

This is a cheap and easy personality test. If you are dating someone, if you want to know what a potential employee/employer is like, if you want to REALLY know your boss or even your priest (or any spiritual relation), take them to a decent restaurant when it is fairly busy. Then just watch them interact with the wait staff.

Click here for the rest of the article (which I HIGHLY recommend):

May the Lord bless you.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Checkmates and Knockout punches

( Image courtesy of AP)

Being the chess fan that I am, I couldn't resist posting this fascinating article that I just saw on Yahoo!

BERLIN - Nikolay Sazhin almost knocked out his opponent with a blow to the chin in the second round. But he had to take the queen to win the match.

In front of 1,000 cheering fans one recent Saturday night, Sazhin moved his bishop to go in for the kill and won the world championship of chess boxing, a weird hybrid sport that combines as many as five rounds of pugilism with a game of chess.

The combatants switch back and forth between boxing and chess — repeatedly putting their gloves on and taking them off, so that they can move the pieces around the board without clumsily knocking them over — in a sort of brains-and-brawn biathlon.

"It's the No. 1 thinking game and the No. 1 fighting game," said Iepe Rubingh, the sport's 32-year-old founder.

Rubingh's inspiration was "Cold Equator," a 1992 French comic book in which two heavyweight boxers beat each other's brains out for 12 rounds and then play a 45-hour game of chess.

"That's not functional. So I thought about how it could work," Rubingh said.

In his version, a chessboard is brought into the ring on a table and the combatants play four minutes, after which the board is wheeled off very carefully so that the pieces don't fall over. Then the fighters put on the gloves and trade punches for a round, after which the board is brought back. The pattern is repeated over and over. The chess game can last up to 24 minutes.

Click here to read the rest of the story. Personally, I think I'll stick to regular chess. Anyone out there care to take me on in an online game?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Couples' Retreat!

Many of you who read this do not live anywhere near Texas, but for those who do, I thought I would announce an upcoming retreat that I am organizing, and which will be led by my friend and brother priest, the blessed Fr. Joseph Huneycutt. Here is the information. If any of you are planning to come, let me know.

Adam & Eve and Other Married Couples
A Day Retreat for Orthodox Christian Couples
Led by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt

August 16, 2008

St Joseph Orthodox Church
10644 Hammerly Blvd
Houston, TX 77043


9:00 am – Gathering, Snack & Introductions

9:15 am – Marriage Workshop

11:15 am – Break

11:30 am – Akathist to the Theotokos


1:00 pm – Holy Scripture & Marriage

1:45 – Break

2:00 – The Church Fathers & Marriage

2:45 – Break (time for reflection, fellowship and/or confession)

3:15 – Debriefing, Q & A

4:00 pm – Concluding Prayers, end of Retreat

Cost: $40 per couple before August 1; $60 per couple if postmarked after August 1.

For more information, contact Fr. James Early at: fatherjames7 at yahoo dot com.

Monday, July 14, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #5

Highlights from the "Quick Takes" feature in the July 12/19, 2008 issue of WORLD magazine.

Dead to rights

Better dead than Dobrescu? That's what villagers in a remote Romanian town have said. Small-time Romanian politician Georghe Dobrescu knew unseating popular Voinesti Mayor Neculai Ivascu would be a difficult task. Under Ivascu's rule for more than two decades, townspeople in the northeastern Romanian town had grown accustomed to the incumbent. How entrenched was Ivascu? Even as the sitting mayor died of liver failure just as voting began, Ivascu's corpse still garnered 23 more votes than Dobrescu. "I know he died, but I don't want change," one townsperson told Romanian television. The local elections board declared Dobrescu the winner by default, though Ivascu supporters are contesting the decision.
-- That must be the ultimate in humiliation: losing an election to a dead man!

Skilled sailor

Most folks wouldn't pay attention to one woman's plan of sailing solo around the British Isles. But something about Hilary Lister is different. The 36-year-old Canterbury woman is a quadriplegic and can only move her head, eyes, and mouth. Using just puffs and sips into a straw, Lister can navigate her 20-foot vessel specially adapted to her disability. "It is the ultimate freedom for me," she told the Telegraph. "I get out on to the water and suddenly my physical inabilities no longer matter."
-- Inspiring; sort of like the story of Team Hoyt.

Weed out

Big hopes for citizens of Fairhope, Calif., turned to paranoia as city officials finally cracked open a city safe that had been sealed since 1971. City fathers advertised the safe's opening at the new Fairhope Museum of History, hoping to find old city records or other interesting Fairhope artifacts. Instead, when the locksmith finally cracked the case, onlookers were perplexed to find the safe filled with decades-old marijuana. What officials later learned: The safe had last been used by police to store evidence for drug cases.
-- I'm not sure what to say about this, other than it's pretty funny.

Heavy load
Newborns Sean William Maynard (10 pounds, 14 ounces) and Abigail Rose Maynard (12 lbs, 3 oz.) of Winston-Salem, N.C., may not break the record, but don't tell their mother that. Born June 20 to Joey and Erin Maynard, the twins tipped the scales at a combined 23 pounds and 1 ounce—4 pounds, 11 ounces shy of the record-setting hefty twins born in Arkansas in 1927.
-- So, can any of you moms out there top that?

Kingly sum

Burger King's newest whopper doesn't just bear a big patty, but a huge price tag, too. Selling for nearly $200, the hoity-toity burger debuted in select London stores for customers with enough in the back pocket to loosen their belts. Burger King'smundanely named "The Burger" comes with a Wagyu beef patty imported from Japan, white truffles, premium slices of ham, Himalayan rock salt, and champagne-soaked onion rings. To help squelch the possible guilt of a $200 burger, the fast-food chain promises to donate the roughly $120 profit for each sandwich sold to children's charities in London.
-- This is proof of the truth of P. T. Barnum's famous dictum: "A fool and his money are soon parted!"

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Habit of Prayer

Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog Glory to God in All Things is my favorite Orthodox blog. I read it every day, and I recommend that you do so as well. The posts are always very inspiring and helpful, and he posts something nearly every day. His recent post on prayer is especially helpful. Here are the first few paragraphs, just to whet your appetite:

Though created in the image of God - man has fallen far. The image is not demolished, but we have not fulfilled the likeness and we frequently distort the image beyond recognition. Part of the true human life described in Genesis, are the “walks in the Garden” with God. Man and God converse - they share communion with one another. We see the restoration of this in the life of Christ whose constant life of prayer is frequently referenced in the Scripture.

Man makes a return to the Garden when he turns to God in prayer. The essence of all prayer is communion with God. Prayer, even intercessory prayer, is always about communion with God. We do not pray in order to change God’s mind. We do not pray in order to get things. We do not pray in order to make things happen. We pray in order to be in communion with God, Who alone does what He wills, gives what He wills, and governs the universe without advice from anxious men.

As we pray, and the more truly we pray, we unite ourselves to God, and His actions. His will and His gifts become things for which we can give thanks.

Click here to read the rest of this outstanding article. Be sure and read the follow-up article too.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Gospel of Judas

Do you remember late last year when there was a big hullaballoo about the English translation of the Gospel of Judas? This gnostic gospel, translated into English for the first time under the direction of the National Geographic Society, was hailed by many because it (allegedly) shed a new light on Judas. According to this translation of the document, Judas was not such a bad fact, Jesus Himself claimed that Judas really did him a big favor.

Well, it turns out that the whole thing was a set-up. Not long after all the excitement (which was confined to liberal Christians, non-Christians, and anti-Christians) died down, an article, written by a scholar at Rice University (who is no fundamentalist, much less an adherent of traditional Christianity) appeared in the Houston Barnacle. The writer showed definitively that the proverbial emperor had no clothes. I should have shared this with you months ago when it first came out, but I was still working on my book. I was recently reminded of the article when WORLD magazine printed a summary of the article. Here is the complete text of the article, which originally appeared in the New York Times (copyright 2007). Enjoy.

Amid much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

So what does the Gospel of Judas really say? It says that Judas is a specific demon called the “Thirteenth.” In certain Gnostic traditions, this is the given name of the king of demons — an entity known as Ialdabaoth who lives in the 13th realm above the earth. Judas is his human alter ego, his undercover agent in the world. These Gnostics equated Ialdabaoth with the Hebrew Yahweh, whom they saw as a jealous and wrathful deity and an opponent of the supreme God whom Jesus came to earth to reveal.

Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals. Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist.

How could these serious mistakes have been made? Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on? This is the question of the hour, and I do not have a satisfactory answer.

Admittedly, the society had a tough task: restoring an old gospel that was lying in a box of its own crumbs. It had been looted from an Egyptian tomb in the 1970s and languished on the underground antiquities market for decades, even spending time in someone’s freezer. So it is truly incredible that the society could resurrect any part of it, let alone piece together about 85 percent of it.

That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text.

Another difficulty is that when National Geographic published its transcription, the facsimiles of the original manuscript it made public were reduced by 56 percent, making them fairly useless for academic work. Without life-size copies, we are the blind leading the blind. The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong.

To avoid this, the Society of Biblical Literature passed a resolution in 1991 holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business. It’s a shame that National Geographic, and its group of scholars, did not follow this sensible injunction.

I have wondered why so many scholars and writers have been inspired by the National Geographic version of the Gospel of Judas. I think it may stem from an understandable desire to reform the relationship between Jews and Christians. Judas is a frightening character. For Christians, he is the one who had it all and yet betrayed God to his death for a few coins. For Jews, he is the man whose story was used by Christians to persecute them for centuries. Although we should continue to work toward a reconciliation of this ancient schism, manufacturing a hero Judas is not the answer.

The author, April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, is the author of The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says.

In the end, of course, it matters not a whit to true Christians what this fanciful "Gospel" says. What this story illustrates is the lengths to which some people will go to try to discredit traditional Christianity.

Monday, July 7, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #4

Highlights from the "Quick Takes" section from the June 28/July 5, 2008 issue of WORLD magazine. This issue had several fascinating stories, and I encourage you to click here to read more. All articles are copyright 2008, WORLD magazine.

Send in the Clown

A pair of Sacramento, Calif., thieves found nothing to laugh at when their attempted robbery was held up by a rodeo clown wielding a fake pistol. Kevin Powers was putting on his chaps and makeup for his clown job at the rodeo when he noticed two men prowling around his yard on June 1. Police say Hector Zavala and Lorenzo Cerecer were trying to steal Powers' only mode of transportation: his bicycle. Thinking quickly, and desperate to save his ride, Powers, in full clown regalia, grabbed his fake .44 magnum and confronted the men, jumping in front of their vehicle and acting out a Clint Eastwood-type routine. A neighbor called police.

Well, at least he didn't shoot them!

Block Art

Combining art, plastic toys, and civic improvement, one Italian artist has taken to the streets of a small village outside of Rome to fix the town's stone walls in an unusual way. Jan Vormann helped lead a team of artists and enthusiasts to patch gaps and holes in the village's walls with brightly-colored Lego construction toys. The Italian art group "20 Eventi" filled in the walls of Bocchignano, and hopes to complete similar projects in three other Italian villages.

I have four girls that would love to help out!

Serving in Style

Think U.S. prisons are too comfy for inmates? Consider the square cell of Genilson Lins da Silva, a Brazilian inmate locked away for robbery and murder. During a drug trafficking sting, police raided da Silva's cell, confiscating a refrigerator, a plasma television, exercise equipment, two .38 caliber pistols, and Brazilian cash worth about $173,000. Prison officials say da Silva will serve out the rest of his 28-year sentence without the creature comforts.

I want to know how he sneaked the plasma TV in!

Now, THIS one is truly amazing. If it were in a movie, all of us would shake our head and say "That's ridiculous!" But it's true!

No Time Lost

After 67 years, Teddy Bacon and his fine gold watch have been reunited—and both are still ticking along strong. Bacon watched his watch slip into the waters off of Gibraltar in 1941 while he threw a line from the HMS Repulse to the shore. Divers could not find the British lieutenant's watch at the time and he considered it lost. In 2007 workers dredging the harbor discovered the watch amid masses of silt. And, because Bacon also left an entry in the harbormaster's logbook with a description of the watch in 1941, workers knew whom to send it to. After traveling from previous address to previous address, Bacon's watch finally found him earlier this year. "Now I wear it every day and it keeps perfect time, even after all those years in the water," Bacon told the Daily Mail. "It is absolutely excellent and I consider it a long-lost friend."

Can you believe that?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Independence Day

As you might imagine, I intended to write this yesterday, but we had a crazy and busy day (like I'm sure most of you did), and I was too bushed at the end of the day. So here it is, one day late.

To the extent that I even HAVE grown up, I grew up during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Back then, the Soviet Union was still going strong--or so it appeared at least. Before the collapse of Communism in Europe, it was still fashionable in this country for those of a non-conformist temperament to call themselves Socialists or even Communists. This is especially true among young people who either did not know about or did not care about the way Communist states treated their citizens who did not tote the party line.

At the high school I attended, students would often ask each other things like, "You're not a Communist, are you?" or even "What type of government do you believe in?" Anyone who indicated anything but 100% pure American patriotism was viewed as (at best) suspect, even barely human.

Nowadays, if someone were to ask me what type of government I believe in, I would say "Monarchy." By this I do not mean that I want a human king to rule over me. Instead, I mean that my loyalty is first and foremost to Christ the King and to His Kingdom than to any human government. I suppose that I could also say that I believe in theocracy -- not the type that exists in nations like Iran, nor the type that many on the Religious Right are accused of wanting to put in place (though in reality, almost none of them really want this--but that is another issue altogether). I simply pledge my primarily allegiance to Christ my King and my God.
This is why I don't get terribly excited about the Fourth of July. I seldom take part in any of the festivities, and flag waving is not for me. I don't get misty-eyed when patriotic songs are sung (in fact, I don't even care for most of them).

Does this mean that I am anti-American? Far from it! I love my country; I just don't give it my primary allegiance. I agree with Benjamin Franklin, who wisely said that democracy is the second-worst form of government on earth. The worst, he said, is all the rest.

I acknowledge that there are many, many problems in this country. Some of them will probably never be solved. Some things that our country has done bring great shame and embarrassment to me (Roe v. Wade being a prime example). What's more, it seems to be moving in the wrong direction, morally as well as otherwise. Still, there is no country in the world where I would rather live. There is no place where people enjoy more religous liberty and more freedom of speech (which is essential to religious liberty).
I am thankful to live in a country where I can freely practice the Orthodox faith. And I am thankful to the many millions of men and women, including my own father, who have sacrificed to establish and to preserve this freedom.

The USA is far from perfect. In spite of this, may God bless America! Happy (belated) Independence Day!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Team Hoyt

Greetings to you all. First of all, if you have not yet read the story in my previous post, or watched the video, please do the following two things: 1. Grab a hankie or a couple of kleenexes. 2. Read the article and watch the video.

Are you done? Great. Now, I want you to see the story behind the story. Here is an interview with "Team Hoyt," the father and son team that are featured in the other video. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Can Do All Things

I am not easily impressed.

Like most of you, I get my fair share of forwarded emails with jokes, inspirational thoughts or stories, and/or prayer requests. Fortunately, I don't get too many. More often than not, I find the jokes to be barely funny (if at all) and the "inspirational" stories to be...well, less than inspirational. I especially hate it when a forwarded email tries to make me feel guilty if I don't forward it on to ten more people. Call me jaded; call me a scrooge--perhaps you would be right.

I have a friend at another parish who likes to forward me links to video clips on YouTube and elsewhere. Unlike the stories and jokes, and chain letters I get from others, the videos are normally pretty good. Even still, they don't normally make that much of an impression on me.

So yesterday, when she sent me a link to another video, I thought, "Well, I had better watch it, just to be nice." (Missy, if you're reading this, please forgive me, and do keep sending the links!) I was in no way prepared for what I saw. It was perhaps the most powerful short video I have ever seen. After watching it, this stoic was in tears! I called Jennifer and said, "You have GOT to watch this!" This time, both of us were in tears. In fact, I cried even more the second time! To say that this video is inspirational would be a gross understatement.

But now I will quit blabbing and set the stage. (Full disclosure: the following intro was in the email I received. I don't know who wrote it, only that it wasn't me. But I will expand it just a bit.)

The story:

A son asked his father, "Dad, will you take part in a marathon with me?" The father who, despite having a heart condition [and never having run a race before --FJE], says "Yes." They went on to complete the marathon together.

Father and son went on to join other marathons, the father always saying "Yes" to his son's request of going through the race together. One day, the son asked his father, "Dad, let's join the Ironman together." To which, his father said "Yes." For those who don't know, Ironman is the toughest triathlon ever. The race encompasses three endurance events of a 2.4 mile (3.86 kilometer), an ocean swim, followed by a 112 mile (180 .2 kilometer) bike ride, and ending with a 26.2 mile (42.195 kilometer) marathon along the coast of the Big Island. [Sounds pretty easy, right? -- FJE] Father and son went on to complete the race together.

This video gives us (at least in my humble opinion) a powerful illustration of God's love for us and the lengths He goes to for us. Now, go grab a hankie or some Kleenexes.

Are you back? Good! Roll film. Enjoy! (The video is only about 4 minutes long)

St. Peter: The Indispensable Man (Part Three)

As promised, here is the third and final part of the sermon that I preached this past Sunday at St. Joseph's.

Jesus’ Promise

Let us now look at Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and on the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Here Jesus reaffirms the new name that he had already given to Simon when they first met. As most of you know, whenever someone in the Bible was given a new name, it meant that a change had occurred, or was about to occur, in the person’s life. And the new name, unlike most of our names today, actually meant something; it signified something about the person’s new character. So Jesus gave Simon the son of Jonah the new name of Kephas in Aramaic or Petros in Greek, both of which mean “Rock.” Jesus looked into the eyes of this very flawed and unstable man and saw a Rock of stability: a fearless preacher, a great leader, a shepherd for the Body of Christ. And God does this for all of us: when he looks at us sinful, flawed people, he sees instead what we can be—the people of God that he wants to make us into. And if we will allow him, God chips off the edges (so to speak) and molds us into his image as a potter does to clay. I thank God for this, because if he can change a sinner like Peter into a rock of stability, then he can do this for you, and he can do it for me.

With apologies to my Roman Catholic friends, I must note in passing that the “rock” on which Jesus built his Church is not Peter himself, but Peter’s confession of faith. The Greek word for Peter’s name, Petros, is masculine, while the word for “rock” is petra, which is feminine; Jesus is using a play on words here. So, as St. Chrysostom and the overwhelming majority of the early Fathers teach, it is the faith, that is, the belief, of Peter and all the apostles that is the foundation of the Church. Without their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, there would be no Church. In another sense, however, the apostles cannot be separated from their faith. Their faith in Christ went down to the depths of their being. And so, as St. Paul affirms, the apostles and prophets themselves became the foundation of the Church—but all of them, not just Peter (Eph. 2:20). And as both St. Peter and St. Paul affirm in their writings, Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone of the Church (Eph. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:5-7).

Another part of Jesus’ promise is that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail” against the Church. The word hades is often mistranslated as “hell.” Hell (Greek gehenna) is the final resting place (or better, resting state) of those who do not believe in Jesus; it will not even exist until after the Second Coming. The Greek word “Hades” is a translation of the Hebrew Sheol, and both terms indicate the general abode of the dead. But since the Resurrection of Christ, Hades is only for those who die in unbelief. Those who fall asleep in the Lord receive a foretaste of being in His presence, rather than being consigned to the dark and joyless Hades.

Often when I hear people teaching on this passage, they understand Jesus to be saying that the phrase “the gates of Hades” is symbolic of Satan and all the demonic forces. And these teachers believe that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” means that despite all his attacks on the Church, Satan will not be able to destroy it. While this is certainly true, this is not what Jesus is teaching here. Think about what gates are used for. Are they used for attacks? I’ve never heard of an attacking army carrying a set of gates as offensive weapons! No, gates are used for defense. Jesus is saying that Hades and death will not be able to prevail--to stand--against OUR attacks. The Church is not called to be on the defense, but the offensive. We are to storm the gates of Hades by taking the message of forgiveness of sin, victory over death, and eternal life to the world. By so doing, we will continually damage Hades by depriving it of potential residents.


And that is exactly what Peter and the other apostles did. Let us spend a few minutes looking at the rest of Peter’s life. After Christ’s ascension, Peter took on the leadership of the apostolic band, and he preached boldly for many years in Jerusalem, as well as healing many people. Eventually he branched out to Samaria, where he led many to Christ. The last time we see him in the New Testament is at the Jerusalem Council in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. He later moved to Antioch, becoming the first bishop of the church in that city. Then he moved on to Rome, where he helped consolidate and organize the Christian believers there into a strong and influential church. In Rome, he was given the top leadership position, becoming the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. During this time, he wrote two powerful epistles, which eventually became part of the New Testament.

During the reign of the emperor Nero, what Jesus had prophesied in John 21 came true: Peter was sentenced to be crucified. After the verdict was passed, Peter asked that he be crucified head down, since (in his words) he was not worthy of dying in the same way that the Lord died. The Romans may have taken his life, but they could not take away the influence that he had on the Church, and that he still has today through his life and ministry. It is nearly impossible to imagine what the Church would be like without St. Peter. Truly, for the Church, he was “the indispensable man.”

(Note: For more thoughts on Ss. Peter and Paul, read the outstanding post by Fr. Gregory Jensen from his blog Koinonia)