Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fr. James' Two Cents on Archbishop DMITRI

Archbishop DMITRI was helpful to me in first gaining an understanding of Orthodox Christianity.  When I was going through my missionary training course, preparing to go win the Serbs to Jesus ( :-) ), I naturally read as much as the library at our missionary training center had (which wasn't much).  But one thing they did have was a brief "Introduction to Orthodoxy" pamphlet that His Eminence had written.  I remember making a copy of the entire pamphlet and marking things I didn't agree with.  Later, when I was beginning to move toward Orthodoxy, I reread the pamphlet (with my marks still in it).  The second time I read it, I didn't disagree with anything....

+DMITRI's commentaries on the Parables and Miracles of Christ and of the epistle to the Hebrews and the Sermon on the Mount have also been a big help to me in preparing Bible studies over the last few years.

In 2003, when I was still a layman, I traveled to Dallas one weekend with Dn. Meletios Marx (also a layman at the time) to visit St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas.  Fortunately for us, Archbishop DMITRI was there.  It was the first time I had seen a non-Antiochian Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, and only about the second time I had seen any Hierarchical.  I was impressed.

After the service, during coffee hour, Vladika was sitting in the fellowship hall, totally surrounded by people who wanted to talk with him (as I'm sure was always the case when he was there).  Mel and I waited for the crowd to disperse a bit so that we could have a chance to meet the Archbishop.  The crowd did not comply, and it was getting to be time for us go; we had a fairly long trip ahead of us.  Mel suggested that we just go, and he started toward the door.  But I simply couldn't leave without meeting +DMITRI and receiving his blessing.  So I just (probably pretty rudely) marched right up to him and stood in front of him (he was seated with people all around him) until he looked up at me.  I introduced myself, told him how much his writings had helped me, and asked for his blessing. 

He would have been justified in sending me away, or at least saying "wait a minute"... but he didn't. He interrupted the conversation he was having, thanked me for coming to the church and for introducing myself and gave me his blessing.  I went away blessed indeed by this kind and accommodating archpastor of Christ's Church.

This morning, I listened to an interview with Fr. Stephen Freeman on the AFR podcast "Ancient Faith Presents".  The interview was about Archbishop DMITRI's life and legacy.  I had already known that he was a remarkable man, but as it turned out, I didn't know the half.  Did you know that +DMITRI was fluent in Japanese and that he had served in World War 2 as a translator on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur? He was also fluent in Spanish and highly involved in ministry to both Mexican citizens and Latinos in the United States.  But you would never have known all this from being around this humble and unassuming man of God.

To listen to the interview yourself, click here.

May his memory be eternal!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Memory Eternal! Archbishop Dmitri (OCA) Has Reposed

You can read the official notice here on the OCA website.

I don't have too much to add, but I will say that I had the pleasure of meeting Archbishop Dmitri in the Spring of 2008. It was when I was concluding my protestant ministry, preparing to move to Orthodoxy, and his Eminence made a hierarchical visit to Holy Cross in the Greensboro, NC area.

His love of God and the parishioners was evident in all that he did during that visit. He took time to visit with my wife and me and encouraged us in our transition.

Please remember Vladyka in your prayers. May his memory be eternal!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Out of the Mouth of Babes #1 - by Clint

This was when Becky was almost 2 years old, and our only child

A few years ago, my daughter Becky was taking music lessons from a very distinguished instructor. Now, to be honest, Becky is REALLY good at the piano. I don't mean your regular old "my kid is talented" kind of good, but REALLY good. Honest.

So when we would go to the lessons, I would sit in the other room, reading a book, while she had her lesson. I guess she was about 8 years old when I overheard the following exchange:

TEACHER: So Becky, what do you want to be when you grow up?

BECKY: A mommy.

TEACHER (with some surprise in her voice): No, I mean, what job do you want to have? What career?

BECKY: A mommy.

The instructor was hoping for "composer", as she later told me. She tried to argue with my 8 year old daughter, to convince her that she needed some other type of career in order to be fulfilled. I just set my book down, smiled, and listened to Becky adamantly stick to her guns - she just wanted to be a mommy. After we left that day, I hugged her and told her that she had made a good choice and that I was proud of her.

And I would love to take the credit for her choice (which she still clings to, even today). However, the reason that Becky knew what she wanted to be was because she saw a great mommy (my wife, Debbie) in action every day. She knew how much her mother meant (and means) to her and her brothers. She aspired to be just as important to her own kids some day.

As I look at that conversation, and my daughter's goal, I interpret it to be validation of what a great mother my wife is. She spends the vast majority of her time caring, teaching, healing, praying, and loving her children (and her often childlike husband).

Debbie and all our children on our recent vacation

I am not saying that mothers shouldn't have a "career." Each family has a different situation and circumstances, and I would never presume to judge someone for making a different choice than we have made. I do know that my stay-at-home wife makes our world work. I see it in my kids every day. I see it in my own life, every day.

So while this post is really about what a great mother my wife is, I realized it in a new and more meaningful way by listening to what my young daughter said to someone else, when she didn't realize I was listening. That also caused me to open my ears more often, and listen to what my children say, and try to see if I can learn from them. I realize that they are kids, and the majority of what they say indicates their youth and immaturity. But once in awhile, I hear gold. And I treasure it.

Occasionally, I will post something that my kids have said over the years that has meant a lot to me, and I hope you find it worth reading.

Friday, August 19, 2011

God's Law, Part 3 - by Clint

This is the third and final installment in this series. You can read part one here, and part two here.

This is further explained in Galatians 5:24-25, where St. Paul points out that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Even more clearly, a few verses earlier, he claims that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). Here he juxtaposes the Old Testament Law, which lead to a curse, and points to the Law of Christ, which is based on love of God and man. Those who are belonging to Christ, walking according to his Law of love, are no longer under the curse of sin. As already mentioned in Galatians 6:2, the point is that we can live the Law of Christ by loving one another, based upon our love of God. This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament message, such as we read in 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” It is when walking in the permanent Law of Christ that we truly have fellowship both with God and man.

Ultimately, we see that the Old Testament Law is holy, yet had a particular purpose – to show what is holy and right, leading to the fulfillment of holiness, Christ Jesus. As St. Paul teaches in Galatians, it served as a tutor, but now that Christ has come, that purpose has been fulfilled. However, the truth inherent in that Old Testament Law is still valid, and is bodily presented in Christ. Those who are baptized into Christ:
…were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. (Romans 6:3-9)

Christians now follow Christ, living according to his eternal Law of the Spirit of Life. The Old Testament law was one manifestation of that greater Law. This final and perfect manifestation, embodied in Christ himself, is the standard that Christians are bound to follow. We do that by loving God and loving our fellow man. We avoid conceit and damaging actions to others, and focus on bearing burdens, caring for one another, and thus fulfill that eternal Law of Christ.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

God's Law, Part 2 - by Clint

This is the second installment. Part one can be read here.

The Old Testament Law had been set in place to guide the Israelites in how to live in God’s will. Yet they had failed to do so. This continued the historical pattern from Adam down through the ages; mankind is sinful. This point is addressed in Romans 2:12-15, where St. Paul states:

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

As Fr. Tarazi points out, though the Jews had the Law, they continued to fall short of God’s expectations. The Gentiles could live righteously, according to their consciences, but in reality that never happens. Mankind, universally, fails. Therefore, God determined that “the same law would be written this time indelibly on men’s hearts (Jer 31:31-34), with the Isaianic proviso that it would be shared with the nations”. His statements in Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians all highlight this reality. The Jews have the Old Testament Law, yet fall short. The Gentiles may well have a “law toward Christ,” but also fall short.

So we see a shift in the understanding of what the Law is, in the writing of St. Paul. What was originally equated with the written words of the Law of Moses, contained in the Old Testament, would now be understood to be the Law of Christ, written on the hearts of God’s people. To make this clear, rather than having two Laws, physical for Jews and spiritual for Gentiles, St. Paul teaches that the same spiritual understanding is valid for both groups. They are united into one people-group, “bound by the law of the new covenant written on their hearts. This is consistent with the words of Christ: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). So we see that St. Paul is not being inconsistent, but is truly focusing upon the fact that the Law is one based upon love for God and man, in agreement with the very words and teachings of Christ.

Therein lies the basis of St. Paul’s teaching. In Galatians 6:2, we see the exhortation to bear one another’s burdens, in order to “fulfill the Law of Christ.” The connection with his teachings concerning the internal Law, written on hearts and minds, is evident. Even those who do not know the minutia of the Law of Moses can recognize what loving a neighbor is in any given situation. Furthermore, the commandment to love one another (evidenced by bearing burdens in this passage), is “the only law governing the Messiah’s community. Fr. Tarazi goes on to say that St. Paul most likely created the term “Law of Christ” specifically for the situation he was addressing in this letter. However, that does not mean that it was “new” in any real sense. We have already seen that the Old Testament prophets, and Christ himself, had stated that this internal, spiritual law was what the Mosaic Law “hung on.”

St. Paul elaborates on this further in Romans 8:2, where he shows that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” The Law of the Old Testament is spiritual, but it is given to carnal men. St. Paul points out that humanity falls victim to its carnal nature. The new manner of writing the law on hearts and minds creates a “new man” via baptism, allowing man the ability to actually keep the law. It is this Law of Christ that truly gives freedom and the opportunity to be in union with God. The Old Testament Law had merely served to show how far one had fallen short. In Galatians 4:3-5, we read: “… we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In that case, the Law “was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25).

Christ is the focus here. Therein lies the seeming contradiction, as well as the actual resolution of that potential problem. The Old Testament Law is holy and good, though mankind is sinful. The Law’s purpose was to guide God’s people to Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of that Law. St. Paul exclaims, “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). This statement is in reaction to the question of who can free him (and anyone) from sin and death, the consequence of relying upon perfect adherence to the Old Testament Law. Trying to rely upon the proper keeping of the OT Law will only result in failure, as history has proven. But to rely upon the fulfillment of the OT Law, Jesus Christ, is to know freedom and life. The physical law of the Old Testament is transformed into “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus [which] has made [mankind] free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Update from James Hargrave in Tanzania

Dear friends,

Sisi tuliona utukufu wake kwa macho yetu wenyewe.
We were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
- 2 Peter 1:16

Greetings from Mwanza, where I have returned after several weeks in the hills of rural Muleba District in Kagera Region. In the three weeks leading up to the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, more than one hundred Orthodox Christian young people from the Muleba countryside gathered at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in the hamlet of Ibale for our annual Archdiocesan youth seminar.

It was my joy to participate in preparation for the seminar, as well as to assist in hosting the Finnish Orthodox Mission/ OCMC Team which taught Christian education during the ten days leading up to the Feast of the Transfiguration. The Archdiocese of Mwanza works very hard to integrate foreign visitors into our ongoing projects, and it was a delight for me to be together with this Team as they settled right into sharing their lives with local youth in a fairly rustic and difficult setting. The sacrificial love that they brought with them, and their willingness to lay aside their own cultural baggage and learn to see the world through Tanzanian eyes, was of special encouragement to me. In a future email, I hope to tell you more about the Team Members.

Caring for 100+ young people and a dozen foreigners in rural Tanzania for three weeks is no joke. Our local infrastructure consisted of: one church, one house, one creek, and plenty of rolling hillside. So we chopped down hundreds of eucalyptus trees to make tent poles, constructed huge tents for classrooms and for sleeping, brought in mattresses and water tanks and a towering truckload of firewood. Every day, between or after classes, the young people took turns walking to the creek and hauling water- in buckets on their head- back to camp to refill the water tanks. With no refrigeration, I ended up going grocery shopping almost daily- each day, the market is in a different hamlet, and you never know what you're going to get. Once we found some really amazing catfish (long as your arm), and that was a treat.

God provides, and both the youth and the visitors stayed in good spirits despite various difficulties. Nearly every night we danced for hours to drums, singing songs that had been composed especially for the event. Until the moon got too bright, the Milky Way was visible overhead so clear that it might have been daytime clouds. And now the young people are back in their homes, teaching others the things that they learned about Christ, about themselves, and about their faith.

What's next? Plans. Reports. Budgets. We're starting to prep for something brand-new- a series of rural clinics in Mwanza Region which will be staffed by an OCMC Health Care Team in October. I look forward to receiving the Team, along with fellow OCMC Missionaries here in Western Tanzania, and to caring for them while they are with us.

It is good to be here. It was a special refreshment to be with the youth and our foreign guests up in the hills, to catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and to return to the daily routine of life as an eyewitness of that majesty. May it be borne also in your hearts.

Thank you for your prayers. They are felt, and their effect is plain. Thank you for your friendship, for your encouragement, and for your consistent and generous financial support. I am here because of you.

Stay in touch!

By your prayers in Christ,

James Hargrave

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

God's Law, Part 1 - by Clint

This is part 1 of this series.

St. Paul intended to present the Gospel to his Gentile readers, following the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets. In a spirit of fatherly instruction, he equated the Gospel with the “Law of God’s Spirit through his Christ”. According to Fr. Paul Tarazi, it was St. Paul’s intention to have his letters read in conjunction with the Old Testament scriptures. It is evident that he held the Old Testament, including the Law in high regard. In fact, he stated plainly that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (NKJV; Romans 7:12). He further contended that the Gospel was the answer to the Old Testament promise from God. Yet, in the very same scriptural passages where the Law is extolled, we see that “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10), and that “The law is not based on faith” (Galatians 3:12). St. Paul goes so far as to say that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13). This presents the student of scripture with a seeming conundrum: The law is holy, righteous and good, yet is a curse, not founded on faith. How can these two apparently polar-opposite opinions be reconciled? There is no argument that God gave the Law in the Old Testament, but was it intended to be permanent? Jesus had stated: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5: 17-18). Yet we read in Galatians 3 and 4 that the Law “was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Galatians 3:19). The word “until” would appear to indicate that the Law was temporary. In that same chapter, the Apostle tells his readers that they (and all Christians) are the children of promise. So how can we understand and decipher this apparent contradiction?

We must understand that St. Paul was not truly contradicting Christ, though he was accused of doing so. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if he is teaching a “new” gospel, contrary to that which had previously been taught, then he should be accursed. He was accused of trying to be a “man-pleaser,” but he rejected that epithet, and proclaimed that he was truly teaching the Gospel of Christ. These false accusations were most likely based upon St. Paul’s decision to have St. Timothy circumcised, thereby following the written Law, though he had declared it to be a “curse.” However, he provides sufficient reasons to understand why he performed these types of actions, maintaining consistency between his teachings and actions. This is best described in his statement that

I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law. (1 Corinthians 9:19-21).

To be continued...

Monday, August 15, 2011

James Hargrave - Unexpected Encounter

OK, this picture isn't from the actual story in the post, but it DOES come from the Orthodox Church of Tanzania. You can visit their website here.

The following is an excerpt from a recent email from James Hargrave, one of our OCMC missionaries in Tanzania, who is hosting several (read dozens) foreign short-term mission workers this summer. In this excerpt, we read how God works to bring His people together...

Yesterday, we took the Finnish Orthodox Mission/ OCMC Team on their excursion, using a local tour company. The first part of the tour was a hike up a mountain. High up on the mountain the guide took a wrong turning, and we ended up on a small coffee and banana farm. We asked the farmer for directions, and he guided us back onto our path. As we were leaving, he asked who were all these foreigners, traipsing through his orchards. We told him who we were, and he said, "Oh, I'm Orthodox!"

His name is Apolinario, and he has been a catechist for 17 years. Apolinario was baptized in 1977 by Father Sosthenes Kiyonga, one of the early missionary priests who evangelized much of this area. Prior to baptism, Apolinario had not been part of any church- he was brought to Christ by Father Kiyonga. He invited the Team into his house to meet his wife Maria as well as some of their children and grandchildren, and then led us in a short prayer service.

You can't plan a thing like this. You can't organize or buy it with any amount of money. For the Team to share, at this moment, in the life of an African Orthodox Christian peasant family on a footpath high up on a mountain, was a gift from God. It could only have come through your prayers and through the prayers of others.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Internet is a Tool - by Clint

image taken from here

I own two regular old hammers. One is a little larger than the other, but both would be considered "normal." I use the bigger one for larger jobs, such as construction. The smaller one gets used for little things like hanging icons or pictures. Both are tools. When used for what they are designed, they are useful. Hopefully, I won't try to use them to cut things (that is what pocketknives are for), nor install glass or anything else for what they are no intended.

I recognize the hammer for what it is. It is useful to bang stuff, especially nails. If I start thinking that a hammer would be a good screwdriver or putty knife, then I am using it incorrectly.

Ultimately, whether a hammer is used properly or not is determined by the user. It is the one who wields the tool that determines if it will be used properly or not.

So what does that have to do with the internet? Well, the internet is a tool, just like the hammer. The internet allows us to communicate with people from all over the world. It allows us to have more knowledge at our fingertips than we could possibly use or digest.

And I think that is where the danger of misusing the internet comes in.

When I first started investigating Orthdoxy, I lived in eastern Europe, where my English-speaking resources were fairly limited. I had a few opportunities to speak with clergy in Estonia, but not very often. I could order books from online retailers, but how could I know which books to order?

In this situation, the internet served me well. I was able to order many good books (along with a few stinkers), because of online reviews. I was able to speak regularly with clergy from the US (especially Fr. Joseph Huneycutt, who ironically is now the pastor at my parish). So I was able to learn about Orthodoxy and make the decision that I needed to be Orthodox.

On the flip side, many use the internet to cause trouble within Orthodoxy (and elsewhere). I will not provide links to such sites, as I don't want to spread their propaganda. But suffice it to say, these people cause heart ache and division within the body of Christ. That is sad, to say the least.

So I have heard some say that we shouldn't trust the internet; we should avoid it. I don't think that is the case. The internet itself isn't bad. It is just a tool, like my hammer. It is the one using the internet that determines if it is being used properly.

So how can we be discerning internet surfers? Admittedly, this can be tricky. There are some sites that served good purposes in the past, but have transformed into more problematic sites. Some have always been poorly conceived. The only real advice that I can give is that we should look at the spirit of the site.

Does the site exist to encourage, uplift, and edify? Does it build up the body of Christ? If so, then it is probably fine, for the most part.

Does it tear people down? Does it cause dissent? If so, then it should probably be avoided.

I realize this is a black and white distinction and most places probably fall somewhere in the gray area. That is one of the reasons that we are given our shepherds in the faith. If we have a question, then we should ask our priest.

I know that there are several sites that I used to enjoy, but now avoid. I no longer visit those pages, because I no longer can do so in good conscience. I feel a sense of loss, because I had come to "know" some of the people from those sites. Yet I know that I am better off avoiding them, as they were not uplifting.

Just remember: a tool is to be used for what it is designed. It is not intrinsically good or bad.

Now, you will have to excuse me. I have another icon to hang.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Review: Chosen by God

“…whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him…”

“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

“…the kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force…”

For nearly two thousand years, serious students of the Bible have struggled with the meaning of these and other difficult sayings of Jesus. Present-day Orthodox Christians who seek to understand such challenging words have traditionally been faced with a dilemma. They can attempt to wade through the teachings of the Church Fathers, which are solidly Orthodox but often hard to read and written for a different time and culture than today. Or, they can read a modern commentary by a Protestant or Roman Catholic scholar, which are often readable but seldom reflect the mind of the Orthodox tradition. Serious, in-depth biblical commentary by modern Orthodox scholars is extremely rare.

Until now, that is.

Orthodox biblical scholar Daniel Fanous has done us a great service by publishing Taught by God: Making Sense of the Difficult Sayings of Jesus (Orthodox Research Institute, 2010). In this work, Fanous tackles fifteen of Jesus’ most difficult sayings. In doing so, he is not afraid to consult the best of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and even Jewish scholarship. But his interpretations are informed primarily by the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Most importantly, Fanous grounds his understanding of Jesus’ sayings in their Galilean and Aramaic context of Jesus’ words, knowledge of which is critical to arriving at a valid interpretation. His conclusions are solidly Orthodox while at the same time faithful to the original cultural and linguistic setting of the New Testament and also relevant to our own time.

The bibliography of this book is an impressive thirteen pages in length and contains enough titles to fill the library of a fairly large house. But what struck me most about Taught by God is its readability. As someone who has struggled through many a dry, boring biblical commentary, I can assure you that you will not get bored-not even close-reading this one. Fanous’ writing style is crisp and concise, sometimes even eloquent. As a sample, I will leave you with the final sentences on Fanous’ Chrysostomesque reflection on Jesus’ saying “the Father is greater than I”:

It is in this which the disciples are to rejoice. It is only because the Father is greater, that humanity is to break forth in joy. Humanity is to rejoice for One of their own, who is less than the Father, has returned to His glory, and in doing so has glorified humanity. Humanity is to rejoice, for now its King will be enthroned. Humanity is to rejoice, for in seeing the One who is sent, it has seen the Greater who sends Him. Humanity is to rejoice, for it has come face to face with the Living God who previously declared: “no man shall see Me, and live.” Humanity is to rejoice for through Jesus it still lives.
My sincere hope is that Dr. Fanous will produce more volumes like Taught by God, discussing more of Jesus’ difficult sayings, and then those of St. Paul and the other Apostles.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Another Missionary Conversion Story

Taken from here.

Priest fills church’s void after test of faith

Despite its odd location in a small commercial center next to a bar on Ninth Street, the St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Church isn’t out of the ordinary.

On Sundays, 35 to 50 people cram into the makeshift church to worship. Afterward, the congregation shares a meal.

They value community outreach, preparing food once a month for the LINK community kitchen.

It’s a tight-knit community. Many of the adults are close friends, and their children have grown up together.

Perhaps those bonds kept the church together during the last five years, when they did not have a full-time priest.

Out-of-town priests helped fill the void, but members said there was a noticeable difference. The church only held communion twice a month, and the community lacked the structure and leadership their own priest provided.

Nini Negash, a church member, used to drive an hour to Kansas City to attend a different church.

She doesn’t make that trip anymore. Joshua Lollar recently became the parish’s leader, eight years after he almost walked away from Christianity altogether.

Lollar grew up in a devout evangelical Christian home and was an active member of his church’s youth group.

Lollar remained faithful while attending Kansas State University. He described his college years as an “intense spiritual experience.”

“I didn’t really do any of the college rebellion stuff,” he said. “I was a pretty quiet kid.”

Instead of partying, he built a relationship with his future wife. Although he realized he wanted to become a pastor after a brief stint studying premedicine, he said he never honestly evaluated his faith.

“I was probably nervous about what would happen if I pushed too hard,” he said.

A mission trip to Ethiopia after graduation revealed the limitations of his world view, he said.

The poverty shocked him. He described the Sheraton Hotel — with a luxurious swimming pool, swank restaurants and rich tourists — in the midst of the impoverished city of Addis Ababa. He said the religion he was practicing didn’t fully embrace the Gospel’s critique of this inequality, and that bothered him.

He was also disillusioned with the “colonial” feeling of his work. Ethiopia has a rich Orthodox Christian tradition, yet he said many missionaries discounted it as a lesser form of Christianity.

“I just felt kind of ridiculous being the missionary over there,” he said. “I was like, ‘I need to learn from you all, not even about Christianity, but about living and being a human.’”

He left Ethiopia, unsure of Christianity. He came to Kansas University to study religion and philosophy, hoping to find truth in the process.

“Once everything fell apart going to Ethiopia, I think I was ready to be honest, ready to be open and ready to be taught.”

The lessons about Orthodox Christianity he had started in Ethiopia continued in Lawrence. The religion resonated with him, and he converted two years after his trip to Africa.

“I certainly needed discipline, and desired a deeper practice and desired a more serious and reverent way of worshipping,” he said.

He left Lawrence to continue his spiritual journey, attending a seminary in New York and earning a doctorate in theology at Notre Dame. In June, he became ordained and returned to Lawrence with his wife and four children.

Church members said they already have noticed the benefits of a full-time priest, such as having communion three times a week.

Chris Rathnel, a church member and a childhood friend of Lollar, was with him for a large part of Lollar’s journey. They both traveled to Ethiopia, and they became interested in the Orthodox church.

“It’s a gift to be able to see someone develop that way,” he said.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fellowship, the Forgotten Component - by Clint

When I was a protestant missionary, we focused on two major things:

1. Present a viable and uplifting worship service each Sunday.

2. Provide multiple opportunities for fellowship, meaning times that people could come together for enjoyable gatherings.

Of course, there were other things that we did that supplemented those two goals, such as language acquisition, cultural studies, etc. But those two things were what we really wanted to do. In my opinion, we were pretty successful with the second goal, but not so successful with the first.

So it is not surprising that one of the first things that drew me to Orthodoxy was the beautiful and meaningful worship at the Divine Liturgy. I had been missing that sort of experience.

I have spent the past few years absorbing worship, yet I think I have sometimes neglected the fellowship that is also an important part of the Christian experience. That is too bad, because, we are all in this together. We shouldn't let our Sunday worship at the liturgy to be the only time we spend time together.

My family was blessed to spend some time with Fr. James, Kh. Jennifer, and their children yesterday. And to make it even better, Bob and Charlene Kinsey were also there. Charlene is a beloved sister in Christ that Debbie and I (and the kids) have gotten to know during our time at St. Joseph's. But it was wonderful to spend some time getting to know her, and her husband, even better.

Like always, I probably talked too much. But we had a fantastic afternoon, eating, talking, laughing, and enjoying one another's company. By the time we all parted ways, ready to head to our own homes (and allowing Fr. James and Kh. Jennifer's home a chance to recover from the visit), I know that Debbie and I were improved in some way. I suppose it was just being able to spend some time in the presence of other Christians.

That is something that many of us, in our busy lives, forget to do. It is a shame. We should all do it more often. As I mentioned before, we are all in this together. We are saved together. We should spend more time with one another, at every opportunity.

So to Fr. James, Kh. Jennifer, Courtney, Beth, Christine, Bob, Charlene (and even the Early's dogs!) - Thank you! I had a wonderful time and I look forward to the next chance to spend time with you. I will try to listen more next time, and talk a little less, but I know that I will enjoy it and be better for it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Apophatic Theology, Part 3 - by Clint

This is the final installment of this discussion. You can read part one here and part two here. I have included a Works Cited list at the end.

Ultimately, total intellectual ignorance is necessary for Christians to enter into communion with God, because He is incomprehensible with our mental faculties. It is only by acknowledging this reality that we are able to enter into union with Him and thereby come to truly know Him. Our comprehension ceases and we understand what we cannot understand (ibid 149). Since the true theologian is the one who has purity in prayer, and purity in prayer is only found in a state of silence, and since a state of silence implies an “arrest of thought,” we can conclude that we must be intellectually “thoughtless” in order to achieve this state of silence and finally come to know God (Orthodox Theology 13). Apophatic theology leads us to “total ignorance. All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that is” (Mystical Theology 25). It is only by unknowing that one may come to know that which beyond knowing. By setting aside all that is known, one can finally draw near to that which cannot be known. If this absolute ignorance is missing, then one cannot hope to attain to God (ibid 25). Apophatic theology culminates in “a kind of apprehension by supreme ignorance in Him who cannot be an object of knowledge” (Image and Likeness 13). God is ontologically independent of all creation and is therefore transcendent of all human knowledge. Only in our ignorance can we know Him.

Apophatic theology is not about gaining new information or elaborating upon abstract concepts. Instead, this theology leads to union between God and man. It requires man to set aside his intellectual pursuits and desire to wrestle with mental constructs, and to empty himself of such things. Total ignorance on the part of man is necessary, because God is beyond human knowledge. God is transcendent and beyond any created thing. He is infinite, and therefore nothing finite can truly comprehend Him. Yet, in His love for mankind, he has bestowed grace on those who have faith in Him and look to His revelation of Himself, through His Son in the Holy Spirit to allow them to enter into union and communion with Him, which is theosis, and where one can finally come to know God. Intellectual pursuits are ineffectual, but faithful adherence to His revelation produces the desired result. By genuinely contemplating this revelation, participating in His divine nature, one is inwardly purified, ultimately reaching a deified state, where God is known. In that place, we know as we are known.

Works Cited

Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos. The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition. Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1993. Print.

Lossky, Vladimir. In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974. Print.

---. Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978. Print.

---. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976. Print.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Apophatic Theology, part 2 - by Clint

Metropolitan Hierotheos

This is the second installment. You can read part one here.

The aforementioned contemplation does not imply a mere theology of ecstasy, but a transformation, which is “essentially a communion with the living God” (Mystical Theology 42). Rather than deal with abstracts, it contemplates those realities that are not understandable. The contemplation focuses upon the revelation of God, with the dogma of the Trinity as the high point. To reach the point of true contemplation, in all its fullness, we must reach the goal of divinization, or perfect communion with God, which is achieved only by asceticism: purification, illumination, and finally deification (Hierotheos 160). This contemplation manifests a working faith, where faith adheres “to a presence with confers certitude, in such a way that certitude, here, is first” (Orthodox Theology 14,16). As the Christian is indwelled by the Holy Spirit, he is able to adapt his thought to revelation and to have access to all knowledge, though this knowledge must be actuated by theology, yet outside of contemplative faith, theology makes no sense (ibid 17). This faith, through contemplation, “makes the intelligence bear fruit through an altogether new ontological relationship with God” (ibid 18).

Just as St. James said that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), so this contemplative faith bears fruit through inward purification. Apophatic theology requires the involvement of the whole man and leads to a new man. The mystical union with God implies a progress, not in intellectual knowledge, but in that actual union, or communion, with God, as one is deified (Mystical Theology 38-39). This is not a way of agnosticism or total emptiness, for God is personal (ibid 43). “The divine nature is like a sea of essence, indeterminate and without bounds, which spreads far and wide beyond all notion of time or of nature” and Christians are united with that nature and become partakers of it (Mystical Theology 36; 2 Peter 1:4). Thereby we see that some sort of inner transformation must take place in order for us to become partakers of that nature. As Metropolitan Hierotheos stated:

The knowledge of the soul is granted when man ceases giving great importance to reason and is engaged in the implementation of the commandments of Christ. Fasting, prayer, charity, the reading of the holy Scriptures, the acquisition of virtues, the fight and struggle against passions are all a result of this knowledge…Spiritual knowledge is the state of spiritual theoria, when one sees invisibly and hears inaudibly and comprehends incomprehensibly the glory of God. (149)

This inner purification reaches its apex when one is deified by the grace of God. “Man sees God through theosis…[which is] his union and communion with God (ibid 152).

to be continued...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Apophatic Theology - by Clint

Vladimir Lossky - Great Orthodox Theologian

This is part one of this series. Normally, I leave out in-text citations from these blog posts. However, due to the density of this topic, I am going to leave them in this time. On the final installment, I will include a Works Cited page. This is my first major "struggle" with Lossky, so forgive my limited insight. However, I think it is a great topic, and I hope you learn from, and enjoy, this series.

Orthodox Christians strive to know God, yet in a way vastly different than western theology. Orthodoxy practices apophatic theology, or a theology of ignorance, where intellectual exercise is eschewed and a state of silence, or purity of prayer, is pursued (Lossky, Orthodox Theology, 13). “Human nature must undergo a change; it must be more and more transfigured by grace in the way of sanctification” (Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 18). This apophatic theology is a way in which the Christian opens his thought to a reality that goes beyond thought, a type of contemplation that is eschatological, utilizing the language of the “world which is coming” (Orthodox Theology 15). This form of theology is a personal relationship with God, a sort of reciprocity or communion. “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (NKJV; Hebrews 11:3). It is through faith that we are able to truly “think” about God. Not with our intellect, but by grace through faith, as an “ontological relationship between God and man” (Orthodox Theology 16).

As such, apophatic theology does not lead to human knowledge, based upon mental abilities or scholastic experience. Rather, it is an assimilation of “an unfathomable mystery…[looking] for a profound change, an inner transformation of the spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically” (Mystical Theology 8). This theology actually transcends knowledge, because God is transcendent, and it aspires to union with God, or theosis. That is the ultimate purpose of apophatic theology. Head knowledge is unhelpful, and even counter-productive, as intellectual concepts can become idols, distracting from true worship and union with God (Mystical Theology 33). Instead, one must begin with faith, trusting in God’s revelation of himself, and seek communion with Him. God is revealed through His Son by the Holy Spirit, and we must endeavor to be joined together with Him in contemplative silence. Human understanding is not capable of grasping knowledge of God, so we must move beyond the limits of our understanding and embrace our ignorance of the reality of God (Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, 13).

Apophatic theology is an “ascent towards the source of all manifesting energy” of God (ibid 16). This ascent is accomplished through inner contemplation and purification. It “demands the surmounting and arrest of thought” (Orthodox Theology 13), and is founded upon the Incarnation of the Word, since the immanence of the Incarnation reveals the transcendence of God (ibid 21). St. Clement of Alexandria presents an early form of apophatic theology by focusing upon first, a type of analysis, where one strips away all intelligible concepts of God, then moves into a second phase of throwing oneself upon the majesty of Christ, in order to move through holiness into the abyss, where one can know not “what He is, but what He is not.” He calls this final state “Sanctity,” where God is recognized through His revelation through the Son in the Holy Spirit (Image and Likeness 19-21). However, St. Clement’s apophatic theology is not mystical, and was refined by the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, who taught that Christians must move toward “cessation of speech and all thought, in order to celebrate by silence Him who cannot be known except by unknowing” (ibid 26). God is presented as both Unity and Trinity, yet is wholly unknowable to us as either. Human logic finds this conundrum impossible to solve, yet by faith, in silence, one may truly come to know God and have union with Him, because the “theologian in search of God…[will find that God] transcends the opposition between the transcendent and the immanent, since He is beyond all affirmation and negation” (ibid 29).

To be continued...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ukrainian Christianity through the ages

Taken from here.

In the Hall of Paleontology, troops of schoolchildren and toddlers scurry, skitter and squeal among ancient dinosaur bones and Tyrannosaurus rex fossils.

But tucked away in a corner of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, amid hushed tones and an air of veneration, the glory and grandeur of a great cathedral awaits. Here, under arched ceilings and muted lights, are the finely crafted treasures of nine centuries of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity.

Ornately designed chalices, gospel covers and tabernacles gilded in silver and gold. Intricately embroidered liturgical vestments and altar cloths woven of velvet and golden thread. Icons, painted in deep shades of red, green and blue, and hinting of the rich influences of Byzantine and Western art.

"These are more than paintings. They relate the word of God, so we tried to treat them with reverence," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the museum's curator of anthropology, as he walked through the exhibit, The Glory of Ukraine: Sacred Images From the 11th to the 19th Century.

The bulk of the exhibit's 77 pieces comes from the holdings of the oldest monastery in Ukraine, the Kyiv-Pecherskaya Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. The monastery, whose beginnings can be traced to 1051, is a massive complex that once encompassed cities, towns and villages, and housed an art school that drew students from across Eastern Europe and Russia.

Ravaged during World War II, the monastery was reconstructed and today boasts a collection of more than 70,000 paintings, metalwork, embroidery and icons — religious images depicting saints, angels and holy beings, and sometimes thought to have miraculous powers.

The pieces in the Houston exhibit offer a hint of what might be found in Ukrainian Orthodox churches, which typically contain an iconostasis - or a wall of icons and religious paintings that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Instead of one single painting, an iconostasis would be covered with dozens of icons and religious images, Von Tuerenhout explained.

The baroque quality is also seen in items such as an elaborate tabernacle from 1726, plated in silver and decorated with four scenes from the crucifixion of Christ and the figures of Mary and John the Baptist flanked by angels. Nearby, a 1756 phelonion, or priest's garment, designed with embroidered satin, linen, chenille and silver thread in shades of green and blue, is also a study in baroque workmanship.

The breadth of the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 5, also illustrates the mix of cultural and artistic styles found in Ukrainian iconography. Earlier pieces show the influences of Byzantine artists, and later icons echo the style of Italian Renaissance painters.

In The Annunciation, a mid-18th-century painting depicting the Angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would become the mother of God, Renaissance touches can be found in the style of the figures and in the Italian landscape backdrop.

In a Rococo-influenced icon from the 1760s, a retinue of angels surrounds the archangels Michael and Gabriel, who are clothed in luxuriant shades of red, gold and green. Blinding rays of light emanate from the figure of Christ Emanuel, and a dove above him represents the Holy Spirit. At the top, there is an image of God and a triangular halo symbolizing the Holy Trinity.

Many of the icons, however, are striking in their folk-art simplicity. They don't overwhelm their viewer but instead seem to beckon with open arms.

Two of the most moving items on display are also the oldest: the Mother of God Hodigitri, an icon from 1370, and the Cross of Mark the Cave-Dweller, a bronze encolpion, or reliquary cross, from the 11th century.

Both are damaged by time and turmoil, making their presence all the more remarkable.

The icon, one of the earliest surviving icons in Ukraine, shows the figures of Mary and Jesus, set against a jade background. A gash in the painting, just above Mary's eyes, mars her face. And the cross, which once belonged to a monk charged with burying his fellow monks, is engraved with designs worn away by the passing centuries.
That both icons have been preserved speaks to the larger message of the exhibit: the presence of an abiding faith in the daily life of Ukraine.

"It's one of the elements that make up the identity of Ukraine," Von Tuerenhout said . "These pieces are saying: 'This is us.' "

You can see more here.