Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Orthodox Church-A Visual Presentation

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thoughts on the 34th Anniversary of Roe v Wade

The All-Holy God is the fountain of life. Life belongs to him. His love provides life to all living organisms and especially to man, whom He created in His own image and likeness. We live and exist because of the overflowing love of God. As in this sacred overflowing love of God which is life, every person has a right which cannot be taken away. The Son and Word of God became human, was crucified and was resurrected so that all "may have life and abundantly they may have" (John 10:10). God's gift of life is inviolable and murder is forbidden by the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Tradition of the Church (Holy Fathers, Synods and Canons). He who takes away life opposes the work of the Life-giving Lord and joins with the devil, who "was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44).

Bishop Joseph of Arianzos
(These words are written on the back of the Icon on the left)

This week marks the 34th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade, that had the practical effect of legalizing abortion in the United States. In the past several weeks, Christians on both sides of the issue have gathered in prayer either to celebrate or to condemn current U.S. policy on abortion. Whatever one may think about the morality, consequences or politics of abortion, it is clearly an issue that has divided Christians.

From my point of view, the key issue concerning abortion is not whether the unborn child is in fact a human being; to the best of my knowledge, no one denies the humanity of the child. The real question is why do women choose abortion? What makes abortion a regrettable, but nevertheless tenable, option for so many women?

Psychological studies that have examined the motivation of women seeking abortions report that often women have abortion because they are afraid of losing an important relationship (usually the baby's father or her own family) if she carries the baby to term. The concern is more than simply a matter of censure; if the woman carries the baby to term she fears (rightly or wrongly) that a significant relationship will be destroyed. In effect, one primary factor in abortion is how strong the bond is between the woman and family and friends. In situations where the woman's relationship to the community is fragile, abortion is relatively common; if that relationship is strong and thus not easily ruptured, abortion is relatively rare.

Because American religious leaders are divided about the politics and morality of abortion, we often fail to address the more basic issue of the fragile relationship between people that seems to be increasingly the norm in our culture. Our acrimonious debates about abortion prevent us from speaking with one voice to a culture that is increasingly willing to see human relationships, even important relationships that we would assume to be lifelong, as disposable.

There are very few voices, religious or secular, that speak to the schism that exists between person and community in our culture. In leaving unexamined and unchallenged this schism, we pass over in silence one of the chief factors that makes abortion a tenable option for so many women. As long as we view our commitments to the people and communities that make up our lives as simply one more form of consumer goods to take off the shelf, to be used and discarded, abortion will continue to be a social problem in American culture.

Roe vs. Wade did nothing to address the underlying social, psychological, and yes, spiritual pathologies that make abortion a realistic (if regrettable) option for too many women. Is a woman really better off when abortion is seen as the only way for her to preserve a relationship with the child's father, or her family or her (legitimate) economic and career hopes? Can we, as men and women of faith in a just and loving God, really say that abortion is a legitimate, not to mention, God-pleasing, solution to the fear of isolation and poverty that comes with so many unplanned pregnancies? How can God be pleased when we sacrifice one life, one relation-ship, in order to preserve another?

And yet, on the other hand, how exactly does a picture of an aborted fetus, or cries of “Murderer!” or “Don't kill your baby!” help allay the twin fears of isolation and rejection that so often motivate a woman's decision to have an abortion? Can we as men and women of faith in a gentle and compassionate God really say that our rhetoric and behavior are compatible with the God we profess? Do we really believe that God is pleased when, whatever our intention and however noble the goal, we intimidate those who are already afraid?

The Apostle Paul says that Christians are co-workers with Christ for the salvation of the world (see 2 Corinthians 6:1). Within the tradition of the Orthodox Church, this idea of being co-workers or co-laborers with Christ is a touchstone of our personal and communal spiritual life. And it is also a basic principle in our witness to the world around us. If God, so our thinking goes, graciously allows us to work together with Him for both our own salvation and for the salvation of the world, how can we do less in our relationships with one another? From an Orthodox point of view, one of the most effective witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our willingness to work together with others, to share in their lives and struggles, even as Christ shares in our lives and struggles.

Sadly, it seems that as men and women of faith, we are all too ready, whatever our views of abortion, to take our cues from partisan politics. When we do this, we lose the notion of co-laboring with God and neighbor and unintentionally foster the very social, psychological and spiritual factors that make abortion such a common event in our society. Possibly, what is even more tragic is that we often seem all too willing to sacrifice our obligation to co-labor with God and neighbor to maintain the correct views on abortion. And when having the right views on abortion becomes more important then co-laboring with others, haven't we betrayed ourselves and our own vocation to bear witness to the God in whom we believe?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Personal, Passionate Relationships

Bernadette over at Intentional Disciples writes:

After reading the magazine article, the NYT articles on the Ark of Salvation church and Pentecostalism and the various posts here, it seems to me that the critical issues in determining whether one responds to Jesus and the Holy Spirit in a Catholic context or in a Evangelical or Pentecostal setting are (1) does the person have an encounter with the person of Jesus, as both human (someone who cares about what's happening to them) and divine (someone who can do something about what is happening to them), and (2) do they encounter and develop a relationship with someone who they know is 100% human but operating with divine power, in the Spirit, with a charism operative.

I think that the distinction she draws, in addition to be a wonderful expression of the Council of Chalcedon (in Christ there are two natures, human and divine, "without division or separation, without confusion or admixture" united in one Person) is right on the mark pastorally. Too often in our preaching in the Orthodox Church we fail to communicate the fact that Jesus actually cares about us not simply as God, but also as a human being.

That God forgives me and blesses me is certainly a good thing--but it is no big thing for God to do this as God. Yes, to draw an analogy, Bill Gates is generous, but it is the widow's mite that Jesus praises. So too with God. For the Uncreated to pour out grace on a creature is no big deal--but for the Creator to become a creature, for God to make Himself poor for our sake, that is extraordinary.

God in Jesus Christ loves and understand us not simply as God from all eternity, but as a man among men. God in Jesus Christ knows us, loves us, blesses us, forgives us, dies and rises for us in His humanity, which is to say, as one of us. How many Orthodox Christians understand that Jesus loves us not simply as God, but as our fellow human being? Far too few I fear.

So thank you Bernadette, you have remind me of an important, and often overlooked, truth.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, January 14, 2007

God-Pleasing Evangelism

For Christians it is certainly easier, and frankly more comforting, to assume that people do not accept the Gospel because of their own pride, indifference, or lack of faith. And while in some cases this may be true, it is an explanation which too easily allows those of us who are Christians to avoid our own responsibility for how we present the Gospel.

This incomprehensible divine respect for human freedom lies at the center of the Gospel. Think for a moment about the Christ's conception. God doesn't manipulate the Virgin Mary or (worse still to imagine) force himself on her. No, God sends the Archangel Gabriel, his best man if you will, to invite Mary to receive Christ into her life, into her body. And once the invitation has been extended, God waits for her consent. It is as if God, the angels and the whole creation hold their collective breath and wait in silent expectation for the consent of this young girl. Then, from the depth of her heart, freely and without reservations, Mary consents to God's invitation and sings out: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) There was on God's part no force, no manipulation or coercion, He simply made an offer with respect and consideration for Mary's freedom and dignity.

God-pleasing, to say nothing of effective, evangelism begins with an imitation of the respect God extends to each human person. If we are to be faithful imitators of Christ, we must avoid any violation of human freedom and dignity. “We must avoid,” as Evdokimov tells us, “any compelling proof (that) violates human conscience (and) changes faith into mere knowledge.”

Even as I write these words I can hear the objections: Christ proclaimed the Kingdom of God with power and authority, with signs and wonders, with miraculous cures and deliverance from demons! While not wishing to deny God's miracles, or the need for Christian preaching, I think we too easily forget that, relative to what he could have done as God, the All-Powerful Creator of Heaven and Earth, Christ did very little. As Evdokimov reminds us: “God limits his almighty power, encloses himself in the silence of his suffering love, withdraws all signs, suspends every miracle, casts a shadow over the brightness of his face.”

Sometimes we forget, or maybe we've never really heard or understood, that God redeems us not by being God Almighty in Heaven, but becoming a man in Galilee.

n Christ, God enters into human experience and transforms it from within. If we take seriously the Incarnation, we understand that we are redeemed by an act of divine empathy by our great high priest, who has "compassion on our infirmities as one tempted in all things as we are, but without sin." (see Hebrews 4:15)

In Jesus Christ, God sees as we see, he lives as we live, and, to quote Evdokimov again, “it is to the humility and empathy of God, of God emptying himself (on the cross) that faith essentially responds. God can do anything -- except compel us to love him. Often Christians, in our zeal to proclaim the Gospel, forget that God doesn't force us, but woos us.” It is our humble and sincere love that draws people, through us, to Christ Jesus our Lord. Christians must proclaim the Gospel; evangelism is essential to our commitment to Jesus Christ. But if we wish to be faithful to Christ's command to us, if we wish to proclaim the Gospel with power and authority, it might be better if we do so softly, gently and with regard for human freedom and dignity.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Creation, Creativity and Humility

An interesting observation from Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman's blog God in a Shrinking Universe. In his reflection on the systematic theological work of Panneberg, Hagman writes:

It is my firm belief that to be a Christian involves cultivating one's creativity. We believe in a God who created heaven and earth out of the ouk on. Divine creativity, according to Christian doctrine, is not about systemizing pre-existent ideas, it is bringing into being that which previously was not.

Obviously, as creations we cannot create ex nihilo, but we are still called to be the likeness of God. Creativity is what we are called to.

The gnostic notion of creation is stable. It is perfect (and thus evil, even the gnostic recognized that). This is not the case of the Christian notion. Even when God creates the result is not perfect, but it is good. God's creation has this element of insecurity in it, something that makes it alive. Maybe this is a way of understanding evil - it has to be to make creation able to move. (I know, this is metaphysics, don't use this in counseling...) Anyway, this, too is the case of human creativity - its goal is not to make something perfect, it is to make something that is alive.
What immediately comes to mind for me in Hagman's comments is that theological creativity is not a matter so much of doing something new for newness sake. Instead we are called to bringing life to something that is dead. Or maybe I should say we are called by Christ to enliven modes of speaking about the Christian faith that have grown stale and dull. How much, for example, of today passes for theology and theological scholarship is not only intellectually rigorous and challenging, but able to lift the heart and mind to God in prayer and contemplation?

A lively theology, because it aims at being "good" and even "beautiful" rather than "perfect," is "easy to criticize." This is inescapably the case if, in imitation of God, our theological scholarship--and really any scholarship worthy of the name Christian--has the same open-end quality that God gives to His creation. Again, Hagman's point is well taken, creation is not "perfect," but "good," and even "very good." As a result "God's creation has this element of insecurity in it." But it is creations' " very insecurity that makes it alive."

As creatures we cannot be alive without also being dynamic. God has created us to be ever changing, ever growing not only relative to the creation and ourselves and , but above all in our relationship with Him. If there is one word that does not describe a healthy relationship with Christ it is static. While Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and forever," I am not. To dismiss the changeability of the human as a defect, or worse a consequence of sin, shows a profound lack of gratitude to my Creator.

We are not God, but human beings; we are not Infinite, but finite; we are not Eternal, but temporal. And it is the latter qualities (qualities that a gnostic theology would dismiss) that make it possible for us to grow in holiness, to grow in love, and the knowledge of the truth.

Christian scholarship rightly understood is dynamic and life-giving. Yes this means a certain degree of insecurity, but it is the insecurity that is our lot as sinners in rebellion from our Creator. To flee that insecurity and take refugee in a static theological system--no matter how doctrinally orthodox--is no solution.

We should rather take up in faith the task of reflecting on reality. If this is done in a faith-filled manner it will demand of us the humility of a creature in the face of his Creator. Humility, as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, is a matter of "holding. . . ourselves lightly and yet ready for an infinity of unmerited triumphs." The world, and this includes "Christian" scholars, holds humility in contempt. For all its sophistication and valuing of success and practicality, the world (and "Christian" scholarship) cannot understand that
Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice. Humility is so successful that it is mistaken for pride. It is mistaken for it all the more easily because it generally goes with a certain simple love of splendour which amounts to vanity. Humility will always, by preference, go clad in scarlet and gold; pride is that which refuses to let gold and scarlet impress it or please it too much. In a word, the failure of this virtue actually lies in its success; it is too successful as an investment to be believed in as a virtue. Humility is not merely too good for this world; it is too practical for this world; I had almost said it is too worldly for this world.
The lively scholarship that Christians are called to engage in is nothing more or less than a life of intellectual humility. Again Chesterton:
It will indeed be difficult, in the present condition of current thought about such things as pride and humility, to answer the query of how a man can be humble who does such big things and such bold things. For the only answer is the answer which I gave at the beginning of this essay. It is the humble man who does the big things. It is the humble man who does the bold things. It is the humble man who has the sensational sights vouchsafed to him, and this for three obvious reasons: first, that he strains his eyes more than any other men to see them; second, that he is more overwhelmed and uplifted with them when they come; third, that he records them more exactly and sincerely and with less adulteration from his more commonplace and more conceited everyday self. Adventures are to those to whom they are most unexpected--that is, most romantic. Adventures are to the shy: in this sense adventures are to the unadventurous.
Life is so much more than we deserve. But again as Chesterton observes, the "truth is that there are no things for which men will make such herculean efforts as the things of which they know they are unworthy." After all there "never was a man in love who did not declare that, if he strained every nerve to breaking, he was going to have his desire. And there never was a man in love who did not declare also that he ought not to have it. The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Is this Your Jesus?

With much thanks to Andy at Think Christian:

For too many of us Jesus comes and brings not a word of liberation and new life, but petty condemnation. While the video does a good job of poking fun at some typical Evangelical Christian misconceptions about Jesus the insight is just as applicable to Orthodox Christians.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, January 08, 2007

Faith that Overcomes the World

In a speech given in London (June 2, 2005) Fr. Raniero Cantalamess, OFM Cap, Preacher to the Papal Household said that Christianity is first and foremost about the Person of Jesus Christ. If we forget this, if he says we make doctrine and moral obligations primary and Jesus secondary, we distort the Gospel. He continues by observing that :

In connection with this [tendency to make tradition primary and Jesus secondary], a serious pastoral problem now exists. Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the traditional Churches and especially the Catholic Church are) sometimes find themselves at a disadvantage, owing to their very wealth and complexity of doctrine and institutions, when dealing with a society that has in large degree lost its Christian faith and that consequently needs to start again at the beginning, that is to say, by rediscovering Jesus Christ.

Friar Raniero's observation is as applicable to the situation of the Orthodox Church as they are to his own Roman Catholic Church. For too many Orthodox Christians, the Gospel is not about a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, but (at best) a matter of being faithful to the tradition or of being faithful to one own cultural inheritance. In the worse cases, the Gospel in met with indifference and even hostility, as something that gets in the way of life instead of the Gospel being the Way of Life.

Commenting on Fr Raniero's words, Fr Mike Fones O.P., in his blog Intentional Discipleship writes that:

In the preaching, catechesis, sacramental preparation, service projects, and community-building events that take place in our parishes, perhaps we've forgotten or obscured the 'primordial nucleus' of the Gospel message that awakens faith. It is the transforming power of a personal relationship with Jesus, made possible by his grace and the hearing of the basic message of the Gospel, that sets hearts on fire with faith and love. It is intentional discipleship that compels people to desire to encounter Christ in the Mass and other sacraments and to rely on that encounter to continue as his disciples. It is intentional discipleship kept alive by a daily reliance on grace that fuels the Catholic Christian's desire to learn more about Christ in the Scriptures, and to seek the teaching of the Church as a guide for daily life. Dare I say it - it is intentional discipleship in our clergy that leads to inspiring, challenging, creative, passionate, orthodox homilies.

While the tradition of the Orthodox Church is profoundly rich, the sad fact is that for the majority of Orthodox Christians here in the U.S. at least, that tradition doesn't make a bit of difference. And while the clergy are often more knowledgeable about the tradition, the tradition, if not a dead letter, is a tool that they often don't know how to use because, like the laity the serve, they have never really been formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As I have had the opportunity over the last 10 years, first in the Pacific Northwest and now in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, to get to know more and more people, Orthodox Christians or not, I have become more convinced then every that there is power in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. This power is a power to transform lives, to lift people out of the effects of sin--both their own and other people's. This power is there for the taking--the grace is there, it isn't lack. What is lack, however, is our freedom.

We rather worry about jurisdictional, hierarchical and clerical prerogatives then the Gospel. We are more concerned with fund raising to build buildings, than evangelism and spiritual direction to build the Church. This has to come to an end now.

Rightly, I think, Fr Mike observes that new programs are not going to work. What is needed is "preaching the heart of the Gospel and inviting people into a lived relationship with Christ." He continues that "Unless we identify our intentional disciples in our midst, support them, hold them up as the norm for Christian living, and give them tools with which to evangelize others, we will continue to see the seed of faith planted in the hearts of baptized Catholics bloom in Evangelical churches."

But for this to work, we must foster trust in all levels of the Church. Trust is the psychological foundation of faith--without a trusting relationship faith simply will not grow. If anything the lack of committed Orthodox Christians (and committed Roman Catholics for that matter) suggests that--for all our rich patrimony--there is a painful absence of trust in the Orthodox (and Catholic) Church (-es).

I have seen the faith of the Orthodox Church overcome the world--what we must now do is allow that same faith to overcome the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, January 05, 2007

Catholic/Orthodox Relations

From my comment at Amy Welborn's blog, "Open Book":

First, I thank everyone for their kind responses.

Yes there are serious theological disagreements that separate Catholics and Orthodox, but (as the posters all suggest) there is also a rather serious lack of grass roots sympathy between the two communities as well. And this lack of sympathy while it my often take the form of Catholic vs. Orthodox is probably at least as much a result of a lack of understanding between Eastern and Western Christians.

Having followed these discussions for a while now (20+ years), I find that unless we can avoid the temptation to point out the injustices one side has committed against the other we get no where.

Fr Elijah's comments are quite sobering. If we continue we continue as we have, we will very soon have lived most of our lives apart from one another and this is not only a sad commentary, it is an offense against Christ.

Speaking only for myself, I do not see much hope of grass roots movement towards reconciliation of Catholics and Orthodox happening in Europe. Humanly speaking, I believe that the best hope for this type of reconciliation is in the United States where Catholics and Orthodox, as well as Eastern and Western Christians, share a common language and culture.

This is not to suggest theological dialog in the US or in Europe shouldn't continue--it certainly should.

As a practical matter though I think that the personal and pastoral relations we need to build are best built in America. Don't underestimate the importance, as TM Lutas's words suggest, that in the US we are physically safe in our pursuit of reconciliation with each other.

I am sorry for the harshness that Catholics have reported in their encounters with Orthodox clergy and laity. Alas we have our bullies. For what it might be worth, I've encounter my own share of Orthodox bullies as well.

After such encounters I find myself tempted to dwell on the offense. But, at least in my more lucid moments, I avoid that temptation (thank God). If for no other reason then my own peace of soul, I find it best to seek out those with whom I can be friends and go from there.

Catholic (Latin or Eastern) and Orthodox who can, and want, to work together are I think in the majority. Speaking for the Orthodox side of the conversation, we are often insecure and have not learned how to keep our bullies in check. Maybe it is because are communities are often still very much immigrant communities, but we need help and encouragement in learning how to stand up to the bullies in our midst.

Sadly,we have people who would (for their own self-aggrandizement) stop the work of reconciliation and we need help in respectfully, but effectively, calling these people to repentance or (failing their willingness to repent) moving forward regardless of their complaints.

Finally, as reluctant penitent points out, recent encounters are miraculous. That being the case, I think it is good to be on guard least we fall prey to our old, bad habits of hostility, suspicion and contempt for each other (and thereby Christ and the Gospel).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., I have also posted this on my own blog Koinonia (http://palamas.blogspot.com)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Objections: We Can All Do Better

At Amy Welborn on her blog "Open Book," posted a brief new report about the objects form monks on Mount Athos to the warming relationship between the Churches of Greece and Roman. Click on the link in the title of this post to read the original post as well as the comments that it generated.

While not all of the comments about the Orthodox Church are negative, many are and so I posted the following as a general response to Catholic/Orthodox ecumenical relations on the "grass roots" level:

Yes, to repeat what I said before, there is certainly a less then conciliar attitude among many Orthodox (Greek and otherwise toward Roman Catholics). At the same time, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Roman Church--until very recently--had Latin Rite patriarchs (titular to be sure) for Orthodox Sees such as Constantinople and Antioch. There is still the rather unfriendly gesture of a LATIN patriarch in Jerusalem and the duplication of Eastern rite Patriarchs in such places as Antioch.

So there are some reasons for the hostile attitude on the Greek side of the fence.

Add to this, as TM Lutes alluded to, the hostility that Roman Catholics (clergy and laity) have directed towards Eastern Catholics. Often Eastern Catholics find their traditions either disregarded by Roman Catholics or actively suppressed. For example, the suppression of married clergy here in the US, the innovation of First Holy Communion, the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist, the dismantling of icon screens, the re-confirmation by Latin bishops of Eastern Catholic children chrismated as infants . With this as the example of what reconciliation with Rome has meant, is it any wonder that there is hostility and suspicion of Roman Catholic good intentions among the Orthodox?

In addition, and here I will level some rather direct criticism of the Roman Church, the virtual disappearance of traditional asceticism among Roman Catholics, an impoverished celebration of not only the Eucharist, but of the entire daily cycle (i.e., the Liturgy of the Hours), Holy Communion being passed out like Nico wafers (ever Orthodox priest I know has had at least one encounter with a Catholic eucharistic minister giving, or attempting to give, Holy Communion to an Orthodox Christian hospital patient), the abandonment of the monastic habit, especially by women, in favor of secular attire, and the almost wholesale abandonment of the Catholic tradition by Catholic theology departments, to say nothing of what has happened more generally to higher education especially here in the US. Is it any wonder that many Orthodox Christians do not take Roman Catholicism seriously?

Yes, the monks on Mount Athos have behaved poorly and their criticism reflect an abysmal ignorance of Roman Catholic theology. But I have found the same poverty of theological understand of Eastern theology all too common among Roman Catholic apologists and theologians, to say nothing of bishops and priests.

It is, as one commentator pointed out, a bit of surprise for Roman Catholics to discover that the Orthodox consider them schismatics and heretics. At the same time these same Roman Catholics don't find it at all disturbing to think of the consider of the Orthodox as schismatics and, in refusing to accept the infallibility of the pope, no doubt even heretics.

Yes we are very close--and as we all know, the best fights are with family. But given at least a significant percentage of what I have read here, I do really see much more openness to the East by Roman Catholics then I see among the Orthodox for the Roman Catholics.

At some point, both sides need to stop compare their best to the other side's worst. Until then, until then we are simply wasting our time and (worse) pushing ourselves further and further apart.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory Jensen