Thursday, March 26, 2009
About this time every year, I embark on my annual ritual of propagating oakleaf hydrangeas. Back in the mid 1990s, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast at the Monteagle Assembly, perched on the edge of the Cumberland plateau in south-central Tennessee. This hidden enclave's turn-of-the-century neighborhoods caught my attention, to be sure. But I was more interested in the profusion of oakleaf hydrangeas in full bloom. To this Texas boy, I had not seen anything so beautiful, and I determined that I would introduce them back home--for they are not native here. I started with two from a mail-order nursery. Later, I found a retired gentleman in the area who had started selling cuttings at yearly garden sale. I was his best customer for a few years. Now I take my own cuttings, having 45 plants in my own yard, as well as pushing them on friends, family and neighbors. Someone walking down our street would not know that these lush, exotic shrubs were not native to this area. They have taken root here in the redland soil of East Texas.
The concept of "taking root" is what leads me to the current topic. The status and future of Orthodoxy in America is a favorite subject of conversation among Ortho-bloggers, with opinions running the gamut from wild-eyed optimism to gloomy defeatism. I like to think I fall squarely in the middle, a clear-eyed realist who hopes for the best but is not surprised at the worst....but then I am self-deluded in other areas, as well.
Among American Orthodox, if you are susceptible to being twisted into knots over machinations at the top, or jurisdictional squabbles, or intra-jurisdictional infighting, then there are certainly developments out there to view with alarm. The OCA has come through a rough patch, much better positioned going forward, but not out of the woods just yet. The Antiochians are currently undergoing their own turmoil, the full ramifications of which, I am afraid, have not yet come to pass. And then, if that wasn't enough, the Ecumenical Patriarch's representative just lobbed a theological grenade into the midst of American Orthodoxy--during Great Lent, no less. But there will be no links, here, for that stuff is easy enough to find if you are seeking it. It is not that these things don't concern me. They do. But it is like fretting about the budget deficit, there is little enough you and I can do about it, and in the meantime, life goes on. We never really "solve" anything, but we do muddle through, somehow. By focusing on these larger concerns, if we are not careful, we may miss the real news here. In my view, this is the formerly hothouse flower of American Orthodoxy beginning to take root in American soil, and--slowly--taking on an indigenous nature. Admittedly, we are still well under the radar screen. Our numbers are small, and will probably remain so. But Orthodoxy is patient, and takes a long view of things. The Church is digging in for the long haul. Evangelism is on-going. The webs of connectedness between far-flung parishes, missions and monasteries are in place. I can't speak for other parts of the country, but it seems that the South is one of the most receptive regions of the country. Several bloggers I follow (religiously, in fact) have commented recently on the course of Orthodoxy in the South.
The Ochlophobist reports in from Memphis, here, with some observations on parish life in that city.
I attend a parish now where there are a number of folks who are quite community minded, and make deliberate efforts to foster community life in the parish. This oftentimes works in our parish. But I am not inclined to think that it works when it works because of convert zeal, or former Protestant paradigms, or such things. I think it happens to sometimes work in our parish because of two things: we have some key parish members who are perfect icons of Southern hospitality, and, we have a pastor who is holy, who loves people, and exudes that love in a particular manner that encourages folks to be inclined to look after each other. With regard to Southern hospitality there is a quality to it that helps with community life. For all of the eccentric and, frankly, annoying qualities of Southerners, when they take you in, they take you in like you are family, and they tend toward familial styles of loyalty. Thus if you are the weird uncle or the screw-up cousin, you still have a place at the table. They might judge you, they might speak to you in a condescending manner, they might gossip about you like there is no tomorrow, but once you are "in," they will always welcome you, your place at the table will always be assumed to be constantly assured, and they will stand beside you in your trials. If there is one quality that I love about Southerners, Delta Southerners anyway, it is that they generally do not look away from suffering in the manner of Midwesterners who tend to change the subject when suffering comes up, or to desire to quickly provide an "answer" to the suffering. But I digress. With regard to holy priests I don't know how this relates to community exactly. I will use my usual cop-out and suggest that perhaps some priests simply have a charism - communities build around them because a particular grace is present in the life of that priest.
Fr. Stephen Freeman has recently posted a number of articles pertaining to Orthodoxy in the South. The first, here, is a tribute to the pivotal--no, essential--role that Archbishop Dmitri has played in Southern evangelism. Next, he writes of "Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South," here. This is a great favorite of mine, as it include Fr. Paul Yerger's talk on Flannery O'Connor, and particularly her story, Parker's Back. I tend to go on a bit about this author. (Not everyone "gets" Flannery O'Connor, not even all Southerners. My theory is that these people must believe that Southerners are normal people like everyone else. As a fan of Dr. Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture, I know that just underneath the thin veneer of hospitality, politeness and sweet tea lurks murder, mayhem and madness. Those that think likewise "get" Flannery O'Connor.) Fr. Stephen pulls it all together, here, in "Southern Orthodoxy: Personal Reflections." Finally, he notes the growth of monasticism , not just in the South, but in America as a whole. In my view, this development is essential, and with it we acquire a permanence that we would not otherwise have. This is also fresh on my mind, having recently visited Holy Archangels Monastery in central Texas, and also being aware of plans for the establishment of a convent in East Texas. Again, this is a very. good. thing.
And finally, just today I stumbled across what has to be my new favorite blog: Manhole Music Tea Room: Redneck Asceticism, with the coolest header picture. Any blog with a picture of "Parker's Back" (credit--America: National Catholic Weekly)in the header is a site I will be frequenting regularly. The blogger, who writes under the name Suleyman, chronicles his journey into Orthodoxy, by way of North Carolina. His posts are some of the best I've read anywhere, a veritable compendium of what it means to be Orthodox in the South.
In A Southern Orthodoxy, he observes:
First, I say southern culture because in my mind it is not only more germane to Orthodoxy than generic "American" culture, but I also happen to inhabit it and study it. Second, the very fact that Orthodoxy comes to us in a myriad of ethnic styles should give us heart, simply because Orthodoxy has changed wherever it has gone. Not in terms of theology, but in terms of its style. Let me be clear: I don't want Orthodoxy to make accommodations. There is no intent on my part to make Orthodoxy subject to the leveling impulse of the West. On the contrary, I intend to illustrate that the South is in many ways already almost Orthodox in its cultural leanings.
In The Building Committee, Suleyman addresses what an indigenous Orthodox temple in the American South could look like.
Suleyman's records his first Lenten Service in Parker's Back.
Antebellum Southerners on Orthodoxy is an eye-opening look at the ignorance, prejudice and presuppositions of our Southern forebears. I am surprised to find that they had any opinion at all on Eastern Christianity.
I saved the best for last--Suleyman's Men in Funny Hats. While working at a local Books A Million Store (a Southern Barnes and Noble), he engages in conversation with a black lady of the Pentecostal persuasion. And right there in the aisles of BAM, she lays hands on him and attempts to exorcise Orthodoxy out of him. Maybe this sort of thing happens outside the South, but I doubt it.
The woman confronts him about not speaking in tongues. "Then how do you know if you have the Holy Spirit?" she asks.
How do we know anything? How do we know God exists and that He created all things? How do we know that Jesus Christ is His only begotten Son? Except apprehend it by faith? When people say things like "How do you know if you have the Holy Spirit?" or "How do you know if you're saved?" it upsets me. Because it's a preoccupation with salvation, with the signs of election, than with what really matters, and that is loving God. A believer should not be asking him/herself such things, but rather they must love God, love their neighbor, pray without ceasing, repent, rejoice, and give thanks. But most of all give thanks for the gift of salvation....I honestly didn't know how to react initially, but as the evening went on and I thought about her words they only further confirmed me in my decision to convert to Orthodoxy. I thought, what could possibly deter me from the True Faith, from the Church, in which is Life? "Unadorned worship," is no worship at all. Worship is rich and elemental; gold, smoke, fire, water, bread, wine. To me the very notion of not being baptized into the Church was foreign. For all of my life of being brought up Christian, I had Christ, but in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church I have seen Him. I have come to the fullness of Him. I thought about the words that are sung after communion every Sunday: "We have seen the True Light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, we have found the True Faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us!" How do we know if we have the Holy Spirit? We eat the flesh and drink blood of Jesus Christ. I have come to the point on my journey where I think, why would anyone not want to be part of this?Perhaps only those who do not understand, or who have yet to "come and see." I wonder to what extent the ignorance of this woman with regards to the Orthodox Church - who I believe is a very sincere believer, and most certainly a much better Christian than I - is general among southern evangelicals?
Monday, March 23, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
In so doing, I stumbled across this by Turkish recording artist and heartthrob Mahsun Kirmizigul. I am not exactly sure what to make of it. The concert appears to be some sort of Can't-We-All-Just-Get-Along affair, with a large crescent, cross and star of David dangling over the stage. But what really got my attention were the dignitaries in attendance. Prime Minister Gul and wife sat with a gaggle of Turkish officials. But right next to them was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew himself. And next to him was a clutch of Syriac and/or Armenian clergy. A Sufi religious leader was thrown in for good measure. If Jewish leaders were in attendance, they were not front and center. None of them looked particularly comfortable to be thrown together in this manner. The first stanza goes as follows:
You get the drift. I am not making light of this, for it is a good thing. These are noble sentiments, and another example of Turkey's maturation. But I guess my point is this: the EP and other clergy (and even the Sufi) can go home after the concert. The Turkish government officials need to stick around, however, and listen to the song a few more times. Maybe the message will sink in.
So, check it out. There are English subtitles for those whose Turkish is a bit rusty.
[Update: Soon after I posted this, I noticed that Fr. Jonathan Tobias and Ochlophobist had posted on the same article, here and here. Both are excellent. If pressed for time, read theirs and skip mine.]
James links to an interesting article in his "Obligatory Evangelical Collapse Post," found here. At least several weeks have passed since I last had an OECP, so I thought I would link as well. The article in question is a recent Christian Science Monitor story here by Michael Spencer, an evangelical who posts on the popular Internetmonk.com. The expanded version can be found in 3 parts, here, with 238 comments (and counting) that only confirm Spencer's thesis. In short, he foresees the coming collapse of evangelical Christianity amidst the rise of the post-Christian West. He notes several factors as reasons:
1. Evangelicals have identified...with the culture war and with political conservatism.
2. Evangelicals have failed to pass on to...young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught.
3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.
4. Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.
5. The confrontation between cultural secularism and the faith at the core of evangelical efforts to "do good" is rapidly approaching.
6. Even in areas where Evangelicals imagine themselves strong...we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.
7. The money will dry up.
Spencer doesn't see this as a bad thing, necessarily, noting that much of evangelicalism doesn't need a bailout, but a funeral. And he is skeptical that anything will ever "shake lose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ," concluding that "American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success. "
Spencer sees the trend as benefitting the Catholic and Orthodox communions. Perhaps, but we should not take too much comfort from that. In his post, James notes that "if the future is as bleak as iMonk makes it out to be for evangelicals, well we should all be worried - or in faith NOT be worried."
That is exactly the point. The coming years will not be easy ones for Christian disciples of whatever stripe. Of all people, Orthodox believers should not be surprised by this. The deficiency I always detected in popular American evangelicalism--long before I ever entertained the notion of Orthodoxy--was that it was such a creature of the modern, contemporary world. There was nothing transcendent about it. It patently did not have the legs for the long haul. On the other hand, a church that has survived Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks and Bolsheviks can certainly steel itself for what lies ahead, that "rough beast, its time come round at last."
Of course, the reformation impulse never dies and many evangelicals recognize the disease, if not the cure. Alan Jacobs, over at First Things, reviews 3 new works: The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren and New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Jacobs describes these authors as a third generation of evangelicals who are seeking to appropriate some traditional Christian practices. To Halter and Smay this is the "incarnational community" (or "church" to the rest of us), to McLaren it is "missional" living, and Wilson-Hargrove seeks a "new monasticism." And while Jacobs characterizes the movement as both "deeply historical and vibrantly contemporary" (yes, God forbid we ever be anything other than vibrantly contemporary), he finds little of value in the books.
On Halter and Smay:
Their chapter on the history of the Church since the fourth century is called “The 1,700-Year Wedgie.” That neatly captures the book’s tone and its level of intellectual seriousness. If we can call this an argument, it’s a familiar one. From Luther’s time to our own, every generation of Protestants produces people who rise up to proclaim that the Church lost its way within decades of Jesus’ death, leaving the true gospel forgotten and unproclaimed until . . . well, us.
It has the same fondness for sweeping historical generalizations and for charts that are just cleaned-up PowerPoint slides. He tells a lot of stories, some of them about fishing. (All these books may set out prescriptions for changing the world, but one verity they never question is the absolute necessity of having at least one-third of their text taken up by folksy anecdotes.) He has a fondness for sage statements that don’t add up to anything discernible.
...set the bar for monasticism as low as Wilson-Hartgrove sets it and you might as well call a Christian college dormitory a monastic institution. Frugality, fidelity, and consistency are very good things, maybe even essential things, but they aren’t the same things as poverty, chastity, and obedience.
He pinpoints the flaw in their approaches, finding that these books and the general movement they represent constitute an attempt to borrow or transfer charisma: Ancient and monastic traditions of piety embody a community-building power and a devotional richness that these folks want to appropriate—but not at the cost of embracing either the doctrine or the authority of the Catholic Church or any other church....A key assumption of all these books is that the beliefs and practices of other traditions that we like are detachable and transferable: It’s a buffet, not a home-cooked meal.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Let the Little Children Come Unto Me....
Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that in order to see the Kingdom of God, we have to become like little children, for the Kingdom is theirs. If you've been able to listen to the hymns we've been singing today for Jamie, it's clear that as a little child, he is truly in a blessed place, and in a blessed state, right now. As one innocent and undefiled, as soon as his precious little soul left his body, he was instantly in the paradise of the Kingdom of Heaven with Jesus and all the choirs of angels and all the saints. We have had to wait in our sorrow for this day, to lay his body to rest. But he has not been waiting. He has already been dwelling in glory – the glory of being in the presence of our sweetest Jesus in paradise. We might wonder what it means to go to paradise as a baby. Does he stay a baby forever? How does that affect the way he knows God? We usually associate knowledge with maturity, and wisdom with age. Yet the Psalmist says that God makes the infants wise. We think that to know God we've got to be able to read, and think, to systematize our well reasoned beliefs, and speak with sophistication. Jamie is a little child. These things were not yet part of his life. We mourn all that he didn't get to do, to see, to say, to know. But we cannot mourn about whether he knew or now knows the Living God. That much is certain. We baptized him at St. Barbara's, and he was chrismated, receiving the Holy Spirit, and he received every Sunday the Holy Mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood, not because we thought that someday he might know Jesus Christ. We did those things because Jamie belonged to Jesus already, and already he knew God in an ineffable way, in a manner too deep for words. Our relationship with God doesn't depend on the age or development of our brain. It depends on Him, our God, who formed us in the womb, Who knows and loves us perfectly, and Who knows the mysterious and painful path each of us must take. Jamie was just beginning to walk. But what is walking when in an instant he races to paradise – what is running when he can fly in the blessed realm. Jamie wasn't speaking full words and sentences. But what is speech, when the language of the Kingdom is silence? What is knowledge, and thoughts, and feelings, when in stillness he gazes beyond time into the Face of the Ancient of Days, and beholds in His eyes a perfect communion of love, and in an instant he knows and understands all that really matters. He dwells now with the God Who Is. Our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And in Christ the veil separating us is much thinner than we would believe.
If we find ourselves asking why this happened, then we must face the only real answer God gives us: His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross, despised and rejected of men, giving His life for the Life of the world. God never explains away our pain, our sorrow, our suffering. He never dismisses them with “reasons”. He enters into our pain and suffering, and bids us follow. Deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow me. This is the mysterious life of the Christian. This is the Way that seems foolish to the world. What we seek now, in this life, is not the end of our mourning. We should mourn. What we seek is the transformation of our mourning by the Grace of His Cross, where sorrow and joy coexist in us as they did in His Holy Mother, our Theotokos and Panagia, who in silent weeping watched her own son die that we may live – who let Him go His own painful route, so that He could do what He was sent by His Father to do. Our task after this shocking and tragic accident is to live each day by grace, to seek the face of our Lord in and through our suffering, for that is the only place He will be found. And to come to that place, at the foot of His cross, and in the bright and never ending Light of His resurrection, where the radiance of His joy and peace wells up through our sorrow singing Alleluia, and in humility and love we know that all is well.
To see the Kingdom of God, we must become children. Jamie is not less in the Kingdom of Heaven for being a child – he is infinitely more. We will miss him. We will mourn him. Let us also take comfort that, in him, as one pure and innocent, we have a new intercessor in the heavenly places, one who took each one of us whose faces, and voices, and touch he knew, kept in his heart and mind, to his God and our God; to the God who is with him, and the God Who is with us.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Let me tell you about Jamie. He, his parents, uncle and older brother are members of our parish. When people speak of a certain family as being the “backbone” of a congregation, they are talking about people like Jamie’s family. His dad is my son’s godfather, and I am Jamie’s uncle’s godfather. Jamie was simply the sweetest, most charming child I have ever known. He was always happy, with a ready smile for everybody. For some reason, he took to me (most children do not) and was content for me to hold him. But then, Jamie loved everybody. He liked to play with my beard and try and poke his finger in my mouth. Jamie particularly loved the icons in our church. I would walk him around to each one and he would point to them, one by one. He never tired of it.
Last week would have been my favorite week of the Orthodox liturgical year. We began with Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday, and this would be followed, of course, by the Great Compline and the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete every night for the rest of the week. I just love these services. For some reason, I didn’t hold Jamie at Monday night’s services. My son John did, however, and I recall smiling and making faces at Jamie from across the room, trying to get him to laugh at me. As we were leaving the churchyard that night, his dad asked me how I liked his new pajamas, and I off-handedly replied that Jamie would be cute even if he were wearing a paper sack, as I got into my car. I received word of his death about mid-morning the next day.
Somehow, we continued with our services through the week, even that Tuesday night. But in looking back, the question is not so much how we did that, but rather, how could we have made it without the services? The familiar chants, such as “Christ is with us,” or our hymn “Oh Lord of hosts be with us, for beside Thee we have no other helper in adversity, Oh Lord of hosts have mercy on us,” took on meaning we could have scarcely imagined before.
For a variety of reasons, the funeral could not begin until the following Sunday. Jamie’s parents were with us for Divine Liturgy that morning. Visitation was from 2-4, and from 6-8 that afternoon, with a Panikhida beginning at 7:30. The crush of people in the first session consisted primarily of non-Orthodox extended family and friends. I am sure many of them wondered about those of us, standing next to the casket, who took turns chanting from the Psalter, as they chattered away about who brought which flowers, in the way Protestants generally do funeral visitations. The last visitation session was decidedly more hushed and Orthodox in flavor, as friends and priests started arriving from Ft. Worth and Houston. This was my first Orthodox funeral. I am used to the beauty of our services, but nothing prepared me for the Panikhida.
With the saints give rest O Christ to the soul of Thy servant where there is neither sickness nor sorrow, and no more sighing, but life everlasting.
Thou along art immortal, Who hast created and fashioned man. For out of the earth were we mortals made, and unto the same earth shall we return again, as thou didst command when Thou didst fashion me, saying unto me: earth thou art, and unto the earth shalt thou return, wither we mortals all shall go, our funeral lamentation making the song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
The next morning, our priest and we pallbearers returned to the funeral home. We processed to the hearse, carrying Jamie’s casket, and then began the 30 minute journey to our church. When we pulled up into the churchyard, we were amazed to see the number of people assembled there. And yet, all of these mourners, largely non-Orthodox, managed to wedge themselves into our small sanctuary. There were easily 125 people in attendance.
The Orthodox do not twist themselves into knots over “why bad things happen to good people.” We do not deny pain and suffering, though we are human, and the swiftness and severity of it sometimes takes our breath away. The Orthodox funeral service reflects this reality. In the sermon, Fr. John reminded us that little Jamie, even at his young age, already knew Christ, he had already received Christ, in the same way that we all must do. The service at the church ended with the Last Kiss. The Orthodox, and those others who wish, process by the casket, venerating the cross, and kissing the deceased on the forehead. I was apprehensive about this, not due to any qualms I had, but rather recognizing my attachment to Jamie. But the Church is wise, and knows what it is doing by having this in the service.
After the service ended, those of us who were going to the burial left from the church fairly quickly. Jamie was to be buried in the cemetery at Holy Archangels Monastery in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio, some 290 miles distant. But this is Texas, and we do that sort of thing here. Some in our church had prepared sack lunches for all making the drive, as we would not have time to stop and eat if we were going to reach the cemetery before sunset.
The topography of the Texas Hill Country differs markedly from our leafy East Texas environs. The land there is rocky and rugged, dotted with gnarly live oaks and cedars. Substitute olive trees for the live oaks, and it could pass for most any Mediterranean setting. The monastery itself never fails to impress, with its exquisite church, and near-completed monastic complex that could easily house 100 monks.
All was quiet save for the wind blowing and the sound of rock doves cooing in the distance. Slowly, the monks strode through the grove and assembled around the grave. The burial service itself was in Greek, and relatively brief. Unlike Protestant funerals where the family is shuffled away before the casket is lowered, we remained huddled around the grave as it slowly descended. Then, we each took took a shovelful of dirt from a wheelbarrow and poured it on the casket. Nothing is denied. Nothing is left undone. We had buried the body of little Jamie.
The monks invited us to a meal at the refectory, and then offered a tour of the church and grounds for those interested. We spent the night at a little tourist court at a neighboring town, and headed back on Tuesday morning. When we arrived home that afternoon, I think we were different people than when the journey began a week earlier. While we would never choose this method, the fact is that our young mission had “jelled” as a true parish. Certainly before we were people who loved God, loved each other, and loved to worship. That is true. But this had thrown us into each other’s lives in a way we could have not imagined. Those of us who accompanied this grieving family through this week know what I am talking about, even though they may find it hard to express in words, as I certainly do.
May his memory be eternal and may he pray for us.