I Am the Best Second Place There Ever Was! (and other irritations)

There’s a Bible Study at my new place of employment. At the Bible Study I heard a testimonial by Wayne Huizenga Jr. that is part of a series called “I Am Second” (Jesus being first, if you hadn’t figured that out). The testimonial was very good and I have no doubt that Huizenga is completely sincere, but the testimonial dredged up some very old baggage that resulted in me being “irritated” by the process rather than being “blessed” by the testimony.

The baggage that irritates me is our tendency toward hero worship. The “I Am Second” project tells the story of people who put Christ first in their life. Among those people are Jeff Fisher, coach of the St. Louis Rams, Sean Lowe, the Bachelor #17, Ethan Hallmark, a 13 year old cancer survivor and internet celebrity, hiphop artist Lecrae, soccer legend Kaká​, and Stephen Baldwin, movie star in hits such as the remade Oceans franchise, The Usual Suspects, etc.

My dismay is not with any one of these people. In fact I have great admiration for those I am acquainted with. Kaká, for instance, plays soccer with such joy and humility – never losing his cool over a missed call or an undeserved card – that I find myself watching Orlando City FC matches just to watch him and the aura of Christ-like joy that he exudes. (And this was before I even knew he was a Christian!) My dismay rather has to do with the metanarrative of the “I Am Second” project.

When I scroll through the list of participants I realize that I want to watch them, not because they are “Second to Christ,” but because they are A-listers, Alpha Dogs, or Firsts in their field. The narrative may be “I am second.” The meta-narrative is “We care because they are actually first.” If the site was filled with stories of Joe who works at hardware store, Janet, who was in an accident and will spend the rest of her life in a half-way house for the disabled, and Jennifer, who will never make much of her life (by our societal standards) because she’s bipolar and shuffles through life with starts and stops, I wouldn’t bother listening to their stories because they’re nobodies (again, by our societal standards).

Later in the morning it occurred to me that I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon. The same thing that irritates me about contemporary Christian hero admiration is the same thing that irritates me about how we celebrate the saints in the Orthodox and Catholic communions. It is the general consensus among people who think about these things that there are utterly amazing saints who lived and worked in the world that no one has ever heard of. The saints we do celebrate were usually rich, famous, or otherwise well known for their deeds. The rest of saints (do I dare say the real saints?) are lost to us in the forgetfulness of disinterest. In fact there is a saint whose story makes this exact point.

A young man who nobody particularly liked (because he was socially awkward and ugly) died in one of the world wars. He was unceremoniously buried by the enemy. Several years later his family had the opportunity to move the body to the family plot in the church cemetery. When they dug up his remains his body had not corrupted (the sine qua non of recognizing sainthood in the Orthodox Church) and the fragrance of roses came from the grave. God was telling them that he was a true saint. As people began to reflect on his life, all the signs of a life transformed by Christ were there, but he was socially awkward and ugly, so nobody took notice, until the evidence was forced upon them at his reburial.

That is typical of true sanctification in Christ. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

But in spite of that fundamental principal, we continue to be attracted to the wise, the famous, the rich. It’s in our sin-deformed DNA.

Furthermore, this is the way the Church has always been. I need to quit being so irritated by it and instead embrace the amazing transformation in the lives of the saints we do celebrate and people, such as the “I Am Second,” All Stars who are living examples of what Christ can do. And then I need to thank God that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The most amazing and transformative work that God has done remains completely invisible to us. Our eyes are attracted to earthly greatness, so God works in the lives of the great, when their hearts are open to him, so that we can be reminded of all the lives that God transformed that we never noticed because our focus is in the wrong place. That is yet another example of the mercy of God bending to our weaknesses. Thanks be to God.

God’s Saints and the Church’s Saints

A significant event in the Orthodox Church occurred last weekend. Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich (d. 1940) was glorified as a saint. He is the first saint recognized by the Orthodox Church who was born in the United States. (In San Francisco in 1863, if you’re curious.) He will be known as St. Sebastian of Jackson. Jackson is southeast of Sacramento in the heart of gold mining area, where much of his early ministry occurred.

Over the last week I have listened to a couple of synopses of his life and he was certainly a remarkable man. But without diminishing his remarkable ministry, I am a bit cynical about the circumstances. The U.S. can claim a certain degree of credit to several saints. There is Peter the Aleut, who was martyred before Alaska was sold to the U.S., so while North American, he is not considered American. There is also John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco (a Russian) and Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn (a Syrian). Bishop Tikhon also spent several years in Alaska and California before returning to Russia to become Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sebastian also served the same congregation in Minneapolis that St Alexis (Toth) served. The thing that struck me in the stories I heard this weekend is that all these guys (except Peter the Aleut, who died earlier) knew each other.

If you remember your American history, the first wave of immigration to North America was almost exclusively northern European and African (if you consider the slaves immigrants). The immigration from Eastern Europe and the Levant did not begin until the mid 1800s. These four American saints (John, Raphael, Alexis, and now Sebastian) were all involved in the formation of the first Orthodox parishes in the United States for these new immigrants.

My cynicism has to do with the fact that I suspect that in three of the four cases, their canonization has less to do with them and their ministry and more to do with the establishment of an Orthodox presence in North America. (John Maximovitch is the exception.) This is especially true of St. Alexis, a Byzantine Catholic who changed jurisdictions to the Orthodox Church. His claim to fame is less about miracles and transfiguration and more about the fact that he led as many as 20,000 Byzantine Catholics out of the Roman Catholic jurisdiction into an Orthodox jurisdiction. In short, that is a jurisdictional sainthood rather than a missionary sainthood.

But as soon as I say this out loud, I must quickly add that I believe there is nothing wrong with their sainthood. Sainthood, in the Orthodox Church, is an odd sort of thing after all. In the Roman Catholic church saints are “canonized,” implying that the Church itself has some sort of authority over these people’s spiritual status. Glorification in the Orthodox Church is a far more pragmatic or functional matter of recognition rather than the highly juridical process in the Roman Catholic church.

“Saint” is a complicated word with two distinct meanings. On the one hand, every Christian is properly thought of as a saint. This is the New Testament usage of the term. Saints are synonymous with church members in the New Testament, with the exception of the Apocalypse where it seems sainthood begins to take on a more technical meaning closely associated with martyrdom.

Thomas Hopko once said that when push comes to shove we don’t actually know who will be in heaven. (His point, by the way, was that there will no doubt be some people that we find to be utterly unsavory that will be in heaven because God’s grace is different than our sensibilities of goodness.) Hopko continued saying that God, salvation, and the human heart are all ineffable and to make absolute judgments about these things can get us into some serious trouble. But that being said, there are certain people whose transformation (or transfiguration, if you will) while still living on this earth was so advanced that it is obvious and unarguable that we will find them in heaven when we die and go there ourselves. These are the people that the Orthodox Church theoretically recognize as saints and glorify because of their obvious union with God while still living on earth.

That is a sentiment that I can embrace because it is far closer to what we actually see in the New Testament than many of our popular assumptions about saints. But I also believe it is a naive sentiment. Recognized Orthodox saints don’t just come along randomly; they are closely associated with very significant times and events in the Orthodox Church. The recognized saints are very good for the party line of the Orthodox Church, and that should surprise no one.

Take the newly glorified St. Sebastian as an example. For the last few decades there is an ongoing struggle figure out how American Orthodoxy fits into world Orthodoxy. The old world still wants to run the show while many American Orthodox are seeking more autonomy in church life. It is no accident that in this time period we begin recognizing and glorifying saints whose ministry was in America, and now with Sebastian, were actually born in America. Conversely, it is no surprise that the Serbian Orthodox Church was quick to send its high powered leadership (because Sebastian was an ethnic Serb and actually died in Serbia) to horn in on take part in the liturgies and activities surrounding his glorification. It was reported that in the speeches the Serbs even tried to make the case that Sebastian was a gift of the Serbs to the Americans (completely ignoring the fact that he was born in northern California and spent his ministry here until  he asked the American church to send him to Serbia to help a church in need). There is a dead-serious political game going on having to do with who gets jurisdictional control over North America, and the newly minted St. Sebastian of Jackson is a pawn in this worldwide chess match.

So it is that I am cynical about shenanigans related to St Sebastian (as well as Sts. John, Raphael, and Alexis) and saints in general. But I am not cynical about the church or about God. This is, after all, how God works. Jacob tried to cheat his uncle and the Bible recognizes it as a story of God’s divine leadership. Jacob’s sons tried to kill their brother Joseph and Joseph in turn tortured the family with the accusation of Benjamin being a thief, and yet it is this utterly disfunctional group of brothers that become the Patriarchs of Israel. Shocking political maneuvering went into several of the great Ecumenical Councils including the occasional assassination or totally underhanded means to make sure the wrong people could not get to the council. But it is this precise process that God used to establish the truth within the historic church.

God seems perfectly happy to use our human underhandedness and manipulation to further his glory and his plan. Recognized saints are a perfect example. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know the actual works of the hidden saints of Christian history! And yet, God’s actual work is almost always done in a hidden manner, far from the notice of others. This is why we end up celebrating and honoring saints who appear to further a particular agenda in the church: the rest of the saints are so quiet and unassuming in their work, we never notice them. Ah, the mysterious ways of God and the predictability of the humans in the church to horn in on and take credit for that work.

Happy New Year

September 1 is the start of the ecclesiastical year in the Orthodox Church. The liturgical event is Sep 8 (this coming Tuesday), the celebration of the birth of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Even though I’ve been Orthodox for many years, I still approach the Orthodox liturgical year with wonder at the logic of how it works and when it starts and stops. As a result, this essay is from the perspective of a Protestant looking in.

In the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant), liturgical time is marked by two great cycles. The major cycle begins with Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent — and ends with Pentecost. It’s structure is as follows:

  • 40 days of preparation (Lent)
  • The great feast of Easter
  • The festal season that runs 50 days from Easter to Pentecost

The minor cycle begins with Advent and ends with Epiphany:

  • 24 days of preparation (Advent)
  • The feast of Nativity on Dec. 25
  • The festal season that lasts 6 days until Epiphany, which in the West is observed with the Three Mysteries of the arrival of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle at Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.

In summary, there are two great cycles of what might be called Liturgical Time, one approximately 90 days long and the other approximately 30 days long. This leaves about 240 days of what is called Ordinary Time.

There is a wonderful theology that goes along with this. The Greek language has two different concepts for time. Chronos is the sort of time that can be marked with calendars and clocks. One hour follows the next, one day follows the next, one month follows the next. This is Ordinary Time. This is the concept that makes the arc of history possible.

In contrast to this is Kairos. Kairos is time, but it occurs differently. It breaks into chronos unexpectedly. It is time that has depth and fullness. It is, in a sense, divine time. The two great cycles are kairotic in nature, breaking into the Ordinary Time of the chronological calendar.

While this conception is internally consistent and theologically rich, it is fundamentally different than the Eastern Orthodox conception of time. The Orthodox church year is more like an onion. The innermost layer is the three day period of Good Friday (the death of Christ), Holy Saturday (the descent into Hades) and Pascha (the Resurrection of Christ). Enveloping that layer is what could be called the earthly ministry of God, which runs from the conception of Christ (the Annunciation) to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Enveloping this “earthly ministry of God” layer is what I would call the Incarnational layer of salvation. This takes a bit of explanation.

God’s activity on earth is normally clothed in the stuff of creation. The figure of “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is God’s presence and interaction with humans in a human form. At the burning bush, God is embodied in fire. During the Exodus God is embodied as both fire (to illumine) and smoke (to hide). In the life of Christ, the embodiment in the stuff of creation is represented by Mary, Jesus’ mother.

So it is that Mary the Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer”) is the Ark of the Covenant. Fr Andrew Stephen Damick explains this very well in a sermon given on Sep 8, 2010.

In the Old Testament, to approach the Ark of the Covenant was to approach the Lord God Himself. This was not because God could be contained within a golden box, but rather because God chose that golden box as a place of utmost holiness and divine presence on Earth. There on that Mercy Seat God communed with His people in a powerful, mystical way. And now the Lord has approached us once again, but the locus of His coming to Earth is a human woman.

And just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was carefully constructed and prepared by human hands, so, too, was the new Ark carefully prepared. But instead of the preparation of carpenters and goldsmiths, the preparation of the Virgin Mary was by her quiet and humble obedience to and cooperation with the will of God.

This is why we honor the Virgin Mary, not because we want to elevate her to the status of a goddess and worship her, but because she is the carefully prepared vessel which bore the God of the Universe, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through her came our salvation. Through her came a new life for every human being and the whole world. Through her came union between God and man.

The great historian of theology, Richard Niebuhr, observed in several places that the Western Church always had difficulty fully embracing the incarnation. Thus the most common heresies in the West were and are those that deny the significance of creation as the means of salvation.  Various forms of gnosticism and rationalism that deny the sheer physicality of how God presents himself pop up in the West over and over again.

Since the fourth century in the East, these sorts of anti-incarnational heresies have been relatively insignificant. I would argue that the very structure of how the East conceives of liturgical time, as mystery, enveloped in divine presence, enveloped in the very stuff of creation is a reflection of this radically different sensibility.

In the West where kairos, or divine time, breaks in upon ordinary time or chronos, unexpectedly and as if it is coming from the outside of time and space, there is a natural liturgical tendency to disconnect creation from the work of the Creator.

But in the East, where the Church Years begins with Mary’s birth (Sep 8) and ends with her death (Aug 15), and within that is the earthly ministry of God (Conception of Christ to the coming of the Holy Spirit) and within that is the mystery of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha, what we see first is creation. We see the new Ark of the Covenant. And when we, with fear and trepidation, look inside the carefully prepared Ark (which is the ordinary stuff of creation), we see the presence of God the Creator and the ineffable gift of salvation (or union of our physical beings with God).

So, Happy New Year. And this year, in the words of accidental Australian theologian Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s get physical,” and begin our exploration of the very being of God by exploring the very depths of the creation of which we are a part.

Whatever Happened to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor?

The Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, is addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor. These were essentially John’s congregations. Asia Minor is now part of Turkey and these lands are now overwhelmingly Muslim. None of these churches exist any longer.

In the church in which I grew up and the Bible College I attended there was a great deal of focus on the the Book of Revelation (as the Bible Church tended to refer to it). There was also no small amount of triumphalism in relation to the seven churches of Asia Minor. The party line was that if we are not faithful to Christ we will simply dry up and disappear. God doesn’t like lukewarm churches and lukewarm churches (by implication, the churches of Asia Minor) have all now essentially disappeared.

A month or so ago there was a great deal of press over the Armenian Genocide, in which between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were either murdered or sent off to the desert to starve to death by the Turks in the early 20th century. It is to the great shame of the United States that no American president or official leader has been willing to call this murder of essentially a whole people group a genocide in order to appease the modern state of Turkey.

The Seven Churches of the Apocalypse would have been Armenian churches. Why have the churches of  Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Ephesus, and Smyrna disappeared? It’s not because they simply faded away; they were murdered. They are martyr churches. They are all (with the exception of Ephesus and Smyrna, which were likely Greek churches) Armenian churches.

I am ashamed that when I was in college I held such a superior attitude over the seven churches of Asia Minor because my piddly little denomination (the Bible Church) existed while these congregations had disappeared. Oh that I could be so faithful as these modern day martyrs in the face of torture, death, and starvation in the desert. Thanks be to God for the Armenian saints of the Armenian genocide who witnessed to the faithfulness of Christ to their very end.