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.

Fog, Phanourius, and Faith

Fog, fog, fog. In the years we’ve lived in Siouxland I’ve never experienced fog quite like this. It’s lasted, on and off, for nearly a week. That much fog gets a person thinking.

We live in a river valley, which means high humidity. Since this isn’t an arid climate, the humidity is always present, even when it’s low. In other words, there’s always significant water in the air. The difference is sometimes it’s invisible and sometimes it’s visible in the form of fog.

The other day my brain was as foggy as the air, and I left my church keys in the church. I called the priest so we could meet and he could let me in. When I went up to where the Treasurer’s desk is, I didn’t immediately find the keys. The treasurer’s desk is in a public room, so things get shuffled around in there. I started re-shuffling things to see if the keys were underneath anything. Eventually I spotted them hanging from the locking file cabinet (right where I had left them). After announcing I had found them, the priest in turn announced he had just offered up a prayer to St. Phanourius. It had never occurred to me to ask St. Phanourius, but on the way home I thanked him for his help.

Since most of my readers aren’t Orthodox, a word of explanation is in order.

St. Phanourius, in the Orthodox tradition, is the go-to guy in this situation. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website (which has an excellent “saints” section) describes it, “The faithful pray to Saint Phanourius especially to help them recover things that have been lost, and because he has answered their prayers so often, the custom has arisen of baking a Phaneropita (“Phanourius-Cake”) as a thanks-offering.”

Since most of my readers aren’t Orthodox, that no doubt sounds weird and … well … magical, I suppose, so a word about American Christianity is in order.

I grew up in the Bible Church. The sociologists that study and categorize the seemingly infinite variety of American Christian experience classify that tradition as either “Rationalist Evangelicalism” or “Rationalist Fundamentalism.” What that means on a practical level is as follows:

We believed in the Bible; we believed in every word of the Bible. (I still do, by the way. Don’t let the past tense fool you. I am formerly a member of the Bible Church, thus the past tense.) Therefore, we believed in miracles, angels, the spirit world, and the reality that Christians who die don’t poof out of existence, but continue to live (ie, saints).

On the other hand, we were children of the Enlightenment, so all of these things (miracles, angels, the spirit world, etc.) were tempered with various interesting explanations. The way this worked out in the Bible Church is that miracles were okay as long as they were quiet, unobtrusive, and polite. (Television-style faith healing antics that might embarrass our sensibilities were not allowed.) Angels were affirmed in a vague and somewhat non-specific way, and saints were carefully packed away in heaven when their bodies were packed away under the earth. Both (the saints and the bodies) were expected to stay where they belong until the day of resurrection (that being, the Rapture, if you were a Pre-tribulational Premillenialist, or the general resurrection if you were a post-tribulational Premillenialist or an Amillenialist.

You see, we may have been a bit uncomfortable with miracles, angels, the spirit world, the reality of life after death, etc., but being children of the Enlightenment, we had fabulous explanations (which were fabulously complicated) for why we believed exactly how we believed.

The Orthodox, on the other hand, have been amazingly resilient in the face of the Enlightenment. As a result they still have a lively and active belief in miracles, angels, the spirit world, the reality of life after death, etc. There are even reports of things like bi-location and other phenomenon that are pretty much off the chart of possibility for a child of the Enlightenment. The idea that humans (ie, the physical world) can have interaction with the spirit world is not only an interesting theory that is affirmed in some rational, Bible-believing way, it is a lively part of the Orthodox everyday life and experience.

So let my child-of-the-Enlightenment-rationalist self think critically about the incident with the keys. (Isn’t that what we children of the Enlightenment do so well, after all? Think critically?) Wasn’t the priest’s prayer and my noticing the keys just a coincidence? Maybe … in truth, I don’t know. But quickly explaining away the role of St. Phanourius is not an exercise in rational judgment so much as it is an exercise in unbelief. While the “coincidence” explanation is very tempting to my child-of-the-Enlightenment-rationalist self, my Orthodox self chooses to err on the side of belief if I err at all. So, I went ahead and thanked St. Phanourius.

Which brings me to the fog, fog, fog in Siouxland. Like moisture in the air, saints and angels are always there, and sometimes they’re visible (or maybe I’ll say “discernable”) when the conditions are correct. In fact, at times they are both visible and discernable. There are wonderful stories about angels taking on human form to perform certain tasks. One of my favorite “visible saints” stories is the priest-monk from Mt. Athos who’s been dead for many, many years, but still occasionally celebrates Divine Liturgy at parishes in southwestern Greece. Only after the fact do people figure out that it wasn’t the appointed circuit-priest but rather a mysterious and unknown priest who celebrated the Liturgy.

Not only, when conditions are right, are saints and angels discernable, but their presence changes our perception of the world around us. The spiritual realities, when they are discerned, have the ability to take a drab scene, and turn it into something glorious.

And as our vision is transformed, so are we transformed. To others it may seem that divine reality is clinging to us, spreading forth from us. In truth, that reality is springing forth from us, as we begin to integrate the two realities (physical and spiritual) together that were once bifurcated in the fall.

But most significant is that the spiritual realm needs the physical realm to seek its most perfect expression. Just as moisture in the air remains invisible or ethereal until it comes into contact with a branch or leaf, but then clings and transforms both itself and the tree into something glorious, so the spiritual by itself is rather uninspired (from a human perspective). It’s as the two come together and interact that glorious things happen, and the true beauty of creation redeemed and transformed is revealed.