My Heart’s in My Back Pocket

I can’t believe how backwards I got it.

Last week at Parish Council meeting we made final plans for the parish annual meeting (held yesterday after church). We talked about strategies for getting people to attend the meeting and pay attention to what was going on. Within minutes somebody took off on a rant about how annual meeting is central to the life of our church. It’s scandalous that people don’t care about this most important event. Pretty soon we were all joining in as we disparaged people who didn’t get involved.

Sometime between Parish Council meeting and Sunday morning it dawned on me that this is ridiculous. We don’t have annual meetings, with constitutional procedures carefully followed so the meeting is legitimate and in order, because God wants us to have annual meetings; we do it because we’re incorporated and the Attorney General wants us to have an annual meeting.

On a scale of importance (not necessarily in precise order) we have

  • Sunday morning Divine Liturgy
  • Festal Divine Liturgies
  • The weekly cycle of corporate prayer (vespers, matins, etc)
  • Our personal prayer and devotional rule
  • Fellowship with other Christians
  • Giving alms
  • Telling others about Jesus Christ and his glorious kingdom
  • Making sure the church steps are free of ice and snow so that people can get into services without breaking a leg
  • Making sure our neighbor’s steps are free of ice and snow, because it’s the right thing to do
  • Etc.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.
  • … and then somewhere down here on the list …
  • Holding our annual parish meeting so that the corporation is in order

Sunday morning came. Maybe a dozen people were there for matins. We did have a relatively good crowd for Divine Liturgy, but it was all pretty ordinary – maybe the cynical observer might have called it half-hearted.

Then following a coffee and Danish brunch, we held our annual meeting where we discussed (not God, not how we ought to live in the world, not the ineffable glories of the Divine Light) money intensely and sometimes vehemently for well over an hour.

… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (btw, Jesus said this in one of his more famous sermons.)

Forgive us Lord for our misplaced values.

Memory Eternal, Richard John Neuhaus

Richard John Neuhaus died last week from complications of cancer. I will stop short of calling him a great man because that’s not my place. I never knew him, only shook his hand on one occasion and heard him speak at two events. But his legacy within American Christianity is profound beyond words. He was the founding editor of First Things journal, and though I haven’t read First Things for several years, it had a profound effect on the direction of my life. His tireless work to bring Christianity into the “public square” (a phrase that will forever be associated with him) has had a profound impact on American Christianity.

I know some Orthodox converts, both laity and priests, who are embarrassed by their Protestant heritage. I know many Orthodox people (the blogosphere seems full of them) who hold Protestantism in contempt. But thank God that Fr. Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor who converted to the Roman Catholic Church and eventually became a priest, was not among that lot.

First Things, from the beginning, was an ecumenical journal that took the faith of Christians, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, historic Protestant, or Evangelical, seriously. In contrast, he never took either liberal culture or popular culture more seriously than it deserved. As anyone who has casually read his journal knows, he was fond of referring to the New York Times as “our parochial little local newspaper.” As a result of the pioneering work of Fr. Neuhaus and his journal, other endeavors of serious ecumenical work sprung up. Among my favorites is the journal founded by Patrick Henry Reardon and Terry Mattingly called Touchstone.

It was on the Touchstone blog that I ran across this quote from Fr. Neuhaus, as quoted by J. Bottum (the current editor of First Things:

When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers through my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of ‘justification by faith alone,’ although I will thank God that that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misundertood doctrine was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways…these and all other gifts I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.

Dysmas, by the way, is the name of the thief on the cross: “And the thief said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'” (Luke 23: 42-43)

Fr. John Neuhaus, may your memory be eternal.

What Is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?

I recently heard Psalm 8 at a church service. (This, by the way, is not uncommon; Psalm 8 is chanted a lot in the various services.) And as typically happens, a single phrase jumped out at me: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, the son of man, that thou dost care for him?”

I know why that phrase jumps out at me (and if you are or were ever a Protestant, it probably jumps out at you also): That verse was the touchstone the Christian anthropological principle in my education through Bible College and two different seminaries. Just as John 3:16 is “soteriology in a word” for Protestantism, so Psalm 8:4 is the Protestant “anthropology in a word.”

Being a touchstone of my education and upbringing, when I hear that phrase, “what is man …” my thoughts frequently wander from the prayer at hand to the whole landscape of Christian anthropology, soteriology, and theology in general.

How would one describe that landscape?

Roman Catholic theology is metaphysical; it is very interested in “substances” or “essences” and how they inter-relate. As a result, it views the world from the perspective of natural law, or the idea that there is both an order and a morality (to use a rather imprecise term) built into creation itself.

This, of course, is the rich soil from which the Renaissance grew and flowered, followed by things like the scientific method, and modern cultural sensibilities.

While Roman Catholic theology is metaphysical, Evangelical theology is soteriological. It worries less about how things work and more about how individuals get saved. As a result it is rather disinterested in questions of “substance” or “essence” and knotty problems like natural law but very keen on just how the process of salvation works (a primary difference between the Lutheran, Reformed, and Wesleyan traditions, for instance) and just when it all happens (that is, the end times question).

But the Christian East took a rather different course. John Behr (who teaches at St. Vladimir’s Seminary), following the lead of contemporary theologians like Panayiotis Nellas and Georgios Matzaridis and older theologians like Gregory Palamas, claims that Orthodox theology is really a question of anthropology, and the anthropological center found in the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

And this brings me back to Psalm 8:4 and the, “What is man …?” question. As I said at the beginning, when I hear that verse, it sort of breaks out and announces itself to me as the touchstone of Christian anthropology. This reaction is a product of my training. But this is an unnatural reading of the verse. What vs. 4 is actually saying with a rhetorical flourish is, “man is utterly insignificant in the cosmic realm.” To quote vss 3-4: “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?”

And the psalmist didn’t know the half of it. As we’ve explored farther and farther into the vast, cold emptiness of the depths of space, in comparison a human being is utterly insignificant.

The wonder the psalmist expresses is that God pays attention to such insignificance. And this gets to the heart of Eastern Orthodox sensibility. The Orthodox world doesn’t worry much about metaphysics nor about defining precisely who’s in and who’s out of that little salvation club. It rather focuses almost exclusively on relationship and one’s faithfulness to that relationship

The significance of man cannot be found in humanity itself nor in creation, but rather in man’s relationship to God, and more precisely in God’s chosen relationship to man, which is, as the psalmist observes, quite astounding.

What is man? We humans are an insignificant crumb in the backwaters of creation that God has imbued with cosmic and eternal importance.

In other words, what we are is defined by the fact that we are loved.

Bring the Troops Home

Even three years ago,  the following story would be unthinkable in the U.S.

“The Five Minute Forecast,” a daily news digest put out by the same folks that produced the recent award winning documentary I.O.U.S.A., cites a report in the Phoenix Business Journal that the U.S. Army War College is testing scenarios for use of American military troops to quell unrest brought about unrest brought about by the ever worsening economic crisis. The Army believes “economic collapse, terrorism and loss of legal order,” says the Phoenix Business Journal, citing the USAWC, “are among possible domestic shocks that might require military action within the U.S.”

As The Five observes, it brings a whole new meaning to the cry, “Bring the troops home.”

On the Difference between Hawks and Eagles

The distinction between eagles and hawks always seemed a bit arbitrary to me. An eagle is a big hawk, right?

This morning, driving into to town, I saw a bird flying in a northward direction. It definitely wasn’t a raven, but it wasn’t a hawk either, its shape and way the wings moved while flying was just a bit wrong.

I slowed down to take a closer look … Turns out it was a bald eagle. Because of the hazy sky I couldn’t see the white head and tail until I slowed the car down and looked closely. But it wasn’t the white head and tail that caught my attention, it was the slightly different shape and the rather un-hawk-like way it flew.

I guess those guys who write the bird books know what they’re talking about after all.

A Twelfth Night Fantasy

If you listen to Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox internet radio station), read various Orthodox blogs, or attend our parish during the months of December and early January, you quickly realize that the nearly universal Orthodox party line is that for poor, benighted American Christianity (other than Orthodoxy), Christmas is but a single day. The month prior is filled with gluttony; the day itself is an orgy of excess, and all this is followed by emptiness, because such a focus on feeding the passions always ends badly.

Fortunately, in contrast to poor, benighted American Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy offers the proper balance of fasting and feasting in this season straddling the dark, cold days of midwinter. Christmas in the Orthodox world is a season, not a day. Since the celebration is preceded by preparation, this celebration is fulfilling instead of empty, uplifting instead of depressing.

Thank God for the Orthodox. If it weren’t for their presence offering a wee bit of sanity in this season, poor, benighted American Christianity would probably explode with pre-Christmas gluttony or implode with post-Christmas depression.

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As I post this essay we are only hours away from Twelfth Night, a primarily English Christian tradition which stretches back into Middle and Olde English history and tradition. The festivities associated with Twelfth Night actually stretch back into pre-Christian times, but like many Christian celebrations, Christians recognized a fundamental truth in the ancient cultural celebration and adopted and adapted it as a proper Christian celebration.

On Twelfth Night, a peasant and/or fool was crowned king for the evening while the nobility and royalty became mere peasants. All sorts of shenanigans ensue and the peasantry has a great time at the expense of the nobility. The world is turned upside down for this one merry night and everyone glimpses how the world might be before everything reverts to its “proper” order the next morning. In this celebration Christians recognized a picture of God’s upside down Kingdom in which “the first shall be last and the last first.” Thus Twelfth Night became a quasi-Christian celebration of the peasant class that brought Christmas to a close by focusing on the radical hope of the Kingdom.

And so in the spirit of Twelfth Night, in this essay we will turn everything on its head and pretend, for just an evening, that Protestantism actually understands something of the activities of God, and in turn, that it is Orthodoxy that is poor and benighted in its confidence that it has a corner on the truth.

In the spirit of Twelfth Night we will imagine that Protestantism isn’t precisely the same thing as secular American consumer culture in general. We will pretend that Christmas isn’t just a day but a feast that is a dozen days long, and we will purport that Christmas doesn’t end until the evening of Jan 5 and the morning of Jan 6, twelve days after the festivities began on the evening of Christmas (Dec. 24) and the following morning (Dec. 25). (Remember, in Hebrew and Christian sensibility – something even poor, benighted Protestants are aware of, at least in our Twelfth Night fantasy – each day begins in the evening, not the morning.)

What sorts of mythical things might exist in such world? How about a whimsical song called The Twelve Days of Christmas? In this mythical world we will pretend that the “twelve days” to which the song refers are the same twelve days (Dec. 25 to Jan 6) that make up the Eastern Orthodox Christmas feast and that there really is a sensibility in the West that Christmas is a season and not a single day.

Or we could concoct some other mythical Christmas songs written by western Christians that refer to the celebrations that are part of “Christmastide” (that celebration of Christmas that stretches all the way to Epiphany): Maybe a song about Good King Wenceslas who did kindly deeds on the Feast of Stephen (Dec. 26 on the Western calendar). Of course the Feast of St. Stephen is the origins of Boxing Day in the British Commonwealth countries. Traditionally gifts were given to friends and relatives on Dec. 25 and to the less fortunate on the Feast of Stephen, Dec. 26. In the modern secular world Boxing Day is merely a bank holiday, but for Christians it’s a day specifically set aside to give alms in honor of the birth of Christ. (At least that might be the case in our mythical upside down world.)

Or how about a haunting carol to celebrate the Feast of Holy Innocents sung by a distraught mother to her beloved child who she knows will be slaughtered by evil King Herod? This Christmastide feast is dated Dec. 26 and is observed on the first Sunday after Christmas Day. We could call this mythical carol, The Coventry Carol. As the third verse says, “Herod the King, in his raging, / Charged he hath this day; / His men of might, in his own sight, / All children young to slay.”

And of course, there are also the magi. They figure prominently in the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings. But they are also central characters in the West’s Epiphany celebration. Christmas begins with the birth of Jesus and it ends with his revelation to the whole world as the King of Kings. And this grand revelation is embodied by the magi who come searching for the king born in Bethlehem.

And Protestants (as well as Catholics) even manage to stretch the Christmas celebration a bit past the twelve days by continuing the celebration with a post-feast Epiphany event on the first Sunday after Epiphany when they celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. While technically not part of the Christmas celebration, it has Christmas overtones and most definitely extends the central Epiphany theme that Jesus, the Son of God, is being revealed publicly to the world. In other words, in this mythical Twelfth Night world, the twelve day Christmastide feast is so rich that it can’t be contained in twelve days and spills out into the Sunday following Epiphany.

Furthermore, in this world, it isn’t the Protestant Church that is so benighted (an idea the Orthodox folks seem to revel in), it is rather the agnostic or atheistic secular culture that treats Christmas as a consumerist one day orgy. American Christians do their best to counteract the consumerism of culture, but since most churches don’t have multi-million dollar ad budgets, the Protestant message of Christmas is heard primarily inside Protestant churches and not on American media. So it’s not surprising that if the Orthodox Church has become a bit self-absorbed in its own superiority and correctness, it didn’t notice American Christians weren’t saying precisely the same thing as secular American media.

But of course we all know that the possibility of Orthodoxy being self-absorbed and almost completely ignorant of the larger Christian world is just silly. It’s just a Twelfth Night story and tomorrow we’ll return to the real world where the Orthodox Church embodies all the answers perfectly and the Protestant church …

… well, the Protestant church clearly understands nothing because they’re a poor and benighted religion.

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Of course the story of American Christianity is not quite as easy to define as in our “Twelfth Night Myth.” Evangelical Christianity, in the name of being anti-liturgical, has largely thrown out all religious observance except Sunday service. It treats Christmas as a family day instead of a religious observance (as George observed in his response to the Sonnet for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

This lack of sensibility about “holy time” also leads to a tendency to view the church calendar in functional and programmatic terms. It my observation that the most significant evangelical holidays are Memorial Day and Labor Day, which mark the span of the program year. The Sundays after Memorial Day are “Summer Schedule” and often involve a time change in the service. While “Program Year Time” marks time with Church School, committee meeting nights, activity nights, and monthly schedules, “Summer Time” is marked by picnics and summer camp schedules.

But historic Protestantism, while deeply influenced by “program time,” does have a sense of “holy time” or sanctified time observed as a sanctified community in the sanctified space. There is an ebb and flow to liturgical time. The two major feasts (Easter and Christmas) are both observed with a season of preparation (Advent and Lent) and a season of celebration (the fifty days of Easter and the twelve days of Christmas).

It is also true that Protestantism was once quite leery of the excesses of Medieval Roman Catholicism. The Reformers who came after John Calvin (especially the Scottish Reformation) initially tried to rid the church of all such observance because they suspected it was rooted in superstition. (That was their view of Medieval Roman Catholicism, after all.) But within a generation or two they discovered that such outward forms were indeed rooted in the divine incarnation and not human superstition. The sense of holy time observed in the holy place by a holy people doing holy things was once again embraced as an integral part of the faith. In spite of their anti-liturgical history, the Scottish Kirk is now one of the most liturgical Protestant churches around.

A cursory overview of the all the Protestant service books in North America, whether Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, Church of Canada, or UCC, and certainly Episcopal, show that Protestantism inherently understands the flow of liturgical time, of fasts and feasts, and the importance of seasons rather than just single days. (As a matter of historical fact, I personally learned about the church year and church rites including the fasting/feasting cycles, vestments, candles, incense, and bodily prayer from a Baptist professor while attending a Baptist seminary.)

The well-meaning Orthodox Christian might observe that the majority of American Christians don’t belong to these denominations, but rather to independent Evangelical groups which, as noted above, mostly throw out religious observance for privatized faith buttressed by weekly trips to the lecture hall. Therefore the critique that opened this essay does, for all practical purposes, apply to the whole of American Christianity in general, because “in general,” Americans tend to be Evangelicals with a privatized faith.

But self-serving Christianity with bad theology and faulty practice has too often been the historical populist norm even in the authentically Orthodox world. Consider the time around the First Ecumenical Council and following when the majority of people who claimed to be Christian were in fact Arian and not authentically Christian at all. Fashionable religion dressed up in Christian terms and styles (in contrast to authentic Christianity) has always been more popular than the real thing. Even Jesus and the New Testament warn us of this.

But no religion should be judged by how it is practiced by the nominal adherent, it should rather be judged by its own internal criteria. And by its own internal criteria, historic Protestantism practices Christmas in much the same manner as Orthodoxy, with a twelve day celebration preceded by a season of preparation.

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Don’t misunderstand my rant against Orthodoxy. I do believe that the Orthodox Church is the historic Christian Church that can trace its life back to Jesus and the twelve apostles (and back to Old Testament Hebrew faith and practice for that matter). I also believe that only in the Orthodox Church can one find the fullness of the faith. But this is far different than saying (1) that the Orthodox Church is perfect and (2) that this implies that Orthodoxy is completely correct while everything else is completely wrong.

As to the first point, the Orthodox Church has missed the mark on so many levels it’s amazing it has survived. The apostles managed to muck everything up seemingly beyond repair before Jesus was even in the tomb. They abandoned him completely in a terrified state. Peter denied him. When Mark was nearly caught by the authorities he ran off naked rather than be associated with Christ (Mk 14:51f). As a result of this massive failure it was the women (second class people, almost non-persons in that society) who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection first and who were the first evangelists.

After Pentecost, when the church as we know it finally got under way, the Apostles themselves managed to muck it up to the extent that they had to call a council to straighten out the problems. A few years later two of the churches Paul helped found (Corinth and Galatia) had managed to screw things up so completely almost immediately that they received fiery letters from Paul trying to hold things together until an emissary could get there to straighten out the mess.

In this sense the contemporary Orthodox Church is like every Protestant church I have ever been acquainted with, and, if I read history correctly, every church, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, that has ever existed. But there is a huge difference between a church that puts everything into practice correctly and a church that has been given the gift of the fullness of the Gospel. The Orthodox Church is the latter, while one could search a lifetime and never find a perfect church of the former sort.

As to the second point about who’s right and who’s wrong, the non-Orthodox churches are inheritors of precisely the same tradition (as expressed in both living tradition and scripture) that the Orthodox Church has. But they have a very different relationship to scripture and tradition than the Orthodox Church (and on this point I will speak only to the Protestant situation and not the Roman Catholic situation, because I have never been Roman Catholic). Rather than taken at face value, scripture and living tradition are sifted through the lens of human rationality and personal conscience.

The Protestant principle is to never trust what the Apostles said (outside the canon of the New Testament), nor the disciples of the apostles, nor the people who knew Jesus, nor the church of the first century, or second century, or third century, etc. The Protestant principle is to not even trust what your teacher, or your seminary professor, or even your pastor says. Rather, an obscure reference to the believers in Berea (or Beroea in some translations) becomes the gold standard for the Protestant Christian’s relationship to any person and even scripture and the living tradition: “For [the Bereans] welcomed [the Apostle Paul’s] message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:10).

In other words, the Bereans were second guessing Paul and going to the scripture to figure it out on their own. And in the Protestant tradition, one learns Christianity and comes to know Jesus Christ by sifting what scripture and people say through one’s own conscience (hopefully led by the Holy Spirit) while reading the Bible on your own. Michael Hyatt (CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the biggest Christian book publisher and biggest Bible publisher in the world) calls this the transformation of the “priesthood of the believer” into the “papacy of the believer.”

Because of the role of conscience and supreme importance of private study and interpretation, the “fullness of the faith” gets sifted and thinned out on the one hand, while on the other hand various strange interpretations come and go. As a result (especially after 500 years of Protestant sifting and winnowing, adding and subtracting) much of the fullness of the faith has been forgotten or rejected.

The historic practices related to the liturgical year (ie, the Twelve Days of Christmas) or the inseparable relationship between fasting and feasting become privatized and therefore optional. While they are still very much a part of normative Protestantism (as distinct from independent Evangelicalism), nearly everything becomes optional in every congregation and for every individual believer. Protestants in general and as a whole recognize this living tradition of practice as an integral part of the faith, but individual Protestant believers can accept any particular practice, or ignore it.

So it is not a surprise that the Orthodox are confused about what Protestants believe. Ask a dozen Protestants about a particular practice and you are likely to get a dozen different answers. If one of those you ask is a Presbyterian pastor, you’ll probably get thirteen or fourteen different answers.

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But there is a certain deeply offensive arrogance about the Orthodox attitude about Christmas and how the Orthodox have it right while other American Christians get it wrong. We have been part of our Orthodox parish for three Christmas seasons now, and in my limited experience the real life struggles of Orthodox Christians are no different than those of the Protestant Christians of every church I served as pastor for the prior twenty-five years. Very few Orthodox Christians I know actually keep the Nativity fast; the cultural pressures to eat, drink, and be merry in the month of December are simply overwhelming, and quite frankly, more interesting.

Similarly, there is a huge mental let down, a sort of depression that follows Christmas Day in the Orthodox Church. The Twelve Days are supposed to be one big feast, but you wouldn’t know it by the visages of the faithful those two Sundays immediately after Christmas. You certainly wouldn’t know it based on church attendance. We are beat up and worn out by the onslaught of life as we know it in the month of December (just like the Protestants and Catholics).

Not only is the Orthodox arrogance toward Protestants this time of year deeply offensive, it’s very dangerous. We Orthodox can easily lull ourselves into thinking that we have all the tools we need and all the answers that need to be given, and this self-satisfied confidence lulls us into thinking we’re okay, that we’re doing fine.

But the real enemy is not the Protestants (the Orthodox would do well to not only read but actually obey Mark 9:38-40), it is secular, consumerist culture. And consumerism is an unbelievably wily and powerful enemy. “Things” are terribly seductive, and when the power of psychologically and sociologically honed advertising aimed at getting us to want “things” is aimed directly at each and every one of us, the dangers are very real and the stakes are unbelievably high.

Granted, it’s a lot easier for us Orthodox to compare ourselves to the Protestants. In our eyes we come out of that comparison looking pretty special and superior. But when we put ourselves in the same boat as all the rest of the Christians and compare ourselves to the enemy, it ought to be terribly frightening. As the great Protestant hymn says it, “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”

But if we’d get off our high horse and stop preening before the Protestants and start turning to our only hope, Jesus Christ, we’d find the answer, just as Martin Luther did: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He, Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”

But back to reality. Twelfth Night will end in a few hours and tomorrow morning we’ll return to the status quo. All I ask is that you peasants Protestants pray for us Orthodox. It just may be that during this season we’re too benighted and full of ourselves to recognize our own mortal danger.