Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brains or Brawn -- by Clint

I have spent the vast majority of my adulthood with my nose in a book. Honestly. I am not really even exaggerating. As an English teacher, I have to pass on knowledge of hyberbole, which is basically serious exaggeration to make a point. But the reality is that I am reading books all the time. I have books in my office, in the living room, near the bed, in the car – I even carry one in my pocket at all times. I love to read.

Of course, my love of reading is not just because of the pleasure that is derived. I also appreciate the enhancement I receive intellectually. I like to learn new things. I like to be corrected if my prior understanding was mistaken. These things are important to me.

One of the reasons that I am always working diligently to learn and develop intellectually is because of my heritage. My previous religious group is BIG on “head knowledge.” Actions are only important as they relate to knowledge. Whether one’s baptism is “acceptable” or not depends upon what that person “knew” or “understood” at the time of baptism. If they did not do it for the “right reasons” then they must rebaptized for the correct ones.

In fact, their entire religious experience is focused upon the advancement of knowledge, both individually and collectively. As children, we were taught the “correct” method of interpreting scriptures so that we could “defend the faith” when the time came. Many stories were told of times that these “facts” saved the day in a debate.

The problem was that little emphasis was made on true Christian living. Oh sure, there were admonitions to “do the right thing” and “live the Christian life.” But those encouragements were really short on substance. I mean, did living right matter if you didn’t do it for the right reasons? Was there really a connection between the two?

But imagine my surprise, when I encountered Orthodoxy, and not everyone was walking around quoting Acts 2:38 (that is a biggie in my former group). Occasionally, even priests might not be able to recall off the top of their heads where certain scriptures were to be found. The “book” knowledge was less than I was used to. I admit, it took me aback a little.

As I got to know each of these people, however, (even the priests) I came to see their wonderful Christian spirit and lifestyle. They might not have swelled heads, but they have swelled hearts – full of love and Godly devotion.

This made me wonder: what was really important? Did it matter if I knew who all the kings of ancient Judah and Israel were, in order, and who they were married to? What if I didn’t have the lineage of Christ committed to memory? What if I didn’t know that Methuselah lived to be 969 and was the son of Enoch, who at age 365 was taken to be with God?

But what if I did know each of those things, but didn’t have a Christian attitude and physical devotion? Did the knowledge help me? No, not really. But even if I don’t have that knowledge, but I do have the Christian Spirit, things are moving in the right direction.

It reminds me of the Roman Catholic devotional classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, where a simple man became the encouragement to Bishops and generations of Christians over the past four centuries. Who can remember the bishops of that day? Few, but many can remember Brother Lawrence.
St. Stephen the Proto-martyr

So, why do I bring this up? I have been accepted into the St. Stephen’s Program with the Antiochian Archdiocese. I have no idea if it will lead to ordination at some point in the future, though I admit that I hope it does. However, whether it does or not, it will give me opportunities to learn and work out my “brain.” What I must remember to do is to work out my “brawn” – that other part of living the Christian life, where I actually DO it. As St. Paul tells the Philippians in Philippians 2:12-13: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We must work out our salvation. Work it out. Not just study it and read about it. Work it out.

Pray for me that I will remember to do that with my daily prayers. Pray to St. Juvenaly that he will continue to intercede for me. Pray for my family as they deal with my extra time devoted to studies. Most of all, pray for our Orthodox Church worldwide. For one thing I have learned: none of us are in this alone. We are neither saved alone, nor lost alone. We are all part of one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.


Fr. James Early said...

Outstanding post, Clint. It has been a great relief to me as an Orthodox priest to know that the people in my parish will not look down on me if I can't always quote chapter and verse, or if I can't rattle off exact facts that are often just Bible trivia.

Obviously, it is important that we know the Scriptures well. But, as you point out, we should know them in order to put them into practice, rather than to show off our knowledge.

As always, you will be in my prayers.

s-p said...

Clint, I did St. Stephen's about 10 years ago and loved it. I too hoped it would lead to ordination. After about 8 years I figured out I didn't really want to be ordained...and I thank God I wasn't even though a lot of people tried to make it happen. It was all a mixture of a lot of stuff, convert zeal being a main ingredient, and ultimately even though I agonized for years that doors closed left and right on me, that it was by God's grace it didn't happen. Take it slowly, brother. God's will will be manifest in ways you cannot imagine.

John said...

Great post, Clint. You are absolutely correct about the overwhelming emphasis on “head knowledge” in your/my previous religious group. The highest praise was reserved for those who could “spout Scripture,” as they say. Myself, I was never very good at that type of memorization.

The question you raise reminds me of an incident from my travels in the summer of 2007. I was hiking the Ilhara River Valley of Cappadocia in central Turkey. Cave churches, some dating back 1200 to 1300 years, were carved out of the porous rock high above the river. Seemingly, these churches and monastic cells had been abandoned long before the expulsion of the remaining local Christian population in 1923. The murals within had been defaced by Muslim vandalism through the centuries. And yet, much of the iconography was still intact and visible. It was a thrilling adventure to be able to climb up the rocks to these churches and discover the treasures within. My guide and friend, Turan, was surprisingly knowledgeable about the scenes depicted, considering that he is a Muslim. We were usually in agreement, though I recall discussing whether one icon depicting a saint and 2 lions was St. Ignatius (as I contended) or the Prophet Daniel, as he thought. Another icon depicted those who we Orthodox refer to as The Three Holy Youths. In my former religious group, we always referred to them by name, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Back on the trail, Turan and I discussed the scenes depicted. I was having a senior moment and could remember the names of two of them, but for some reason couldn’t pull up “Shadrach” from my memory. The day was long and packed with small adventures and revelations. That night I emailed back home to report on the day, and in so doing asked the name of the third youth (this to a member of my extended in-laws, as my wife doesn’t do email.) Much later, after I had been home a while, I discovered that my inquiry was the occasion for much derision at my expense. They found it incredible that here I was, a former elder in the “Lord’s Church” and I couldn’t remember the names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego! No doubt it was accompanied by much eye-rolling and head-wagging, and used as an example of what happens to someone when they leave “the church” and become Orthodox—as they see it “following the traditions of man.” In my view, they had missed the whole point, not seeing the forest for the trees. As you ask, “what was really important?”

I will pray for you and your family as you embark on your new course of study.

Clint said...

Thanks for the kind words everyone. I certainly don't have any timeframe in mind for ordination (or lack thereof). If God wants to open the door for me to serve as Deacon or Priest, then I am willing to serve Him that way. If He would prefer to keep me as a layman, I am cool with that too.

John, I admit that there have been a couple of times that I have seen a priest "fumble" an answer when trying to recall a verse or something along those lines and I was disappointed. I had envisioned an Orthodox Priest as being someone who was REALLY close to God and when a priest couldn't recall a simple verse that I have known since I was a child, I was ashamed for him.

However, I finally realized that I was holding the priests to a standard that they didn't intend to be held to, as well as being totally beside the point. They WERE very close to God. In fact, they hold the body and blood of Jesus each week. So they don't know that Romans 16:16 says that the Churches of Christ salute you (I always here the old AC/DC song - "For those about to rock" when I hear that verse). Who cares? They know God, not every word in the bible. They can look the verse up, but it is hard to "look up" living well.

Oh, I guess I should state that I know quite a few Orthodox priests across the world and am not referring to any one of them in my description above.