Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Item: This Day in History

On June 22, 1941, the forces of the Axis powers, led by the German Wehrmacht, invaded the Soviet Union, their erstwhile trading partners, with whom a non-aggression pact had been less than two years earlier. The treaty had divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and, with the swift victory of the Germans against Poland, secured Germany’s eastern frontier against attack, making possible the “blitzkrieg” in the west that led to the fall of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. The fighting in this theater, which ended May 9, 1945, was unbelievably savage. More people fought and died on the Eastern Front than in all other theaters of World War II combined. Of the estimated 70 million killed in World War II, some 30 million, including civilians and those in the death camps of Nazi Germany, were killed on this front alone.

Other Events on this Day:

  1. 1633: Galileo is forced to recant his belief that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the center of the solar system.

  2. 1848: The “June Days” uprising begins in Paris, France.

  3. 1898: U.S. Marines land in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

  4. 1969: The Cuyahoga River catches fire, due to oil pollution in the river.

  5. 1976: Canada abolishes the death penalty.

  6. 2009: The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) meets in Texas as it seeks to organize individuals, parishes, and dioceses who withdrew from the Episcopal Church over moral issues, and to be recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

This last entry is one that I have watched from the fringes, although I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t know a lot about what has been happening since we left the Episcopal Church for the Orthodox Church in November, 1995. There are at least three groups that I’ve heard of that withdrew from the Episcopal Church, plus one other body that withdrew back in the 19th century: the ACNA; the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA; the oldest of the 20th century groups, which was organizing itself during the last few years of our time in the Episcopal Church); the churches of the Southern Cone (if they have an acronym, I haven’t seen it!), who have aligned themselves with a number of the bishops and archbishops of dioceses in Africa; and the Reformed Episcopal Church, the group who left in 1873 in order to preserve its Protestant and evangelical beliefs in the face of the rising Anglo-Catholicism of the “Oxford Movement.” I have good friends and classmates who are caught up in what is taking place. One remains in the Episcopal Church; one has left it for one of the other groups (I’ve forgotten which); and some are in the diocese in which I served before resigning to be baptized and chrismated. Although there are a goodly number of priests and deacons who left the Episcopal Church for the Orthodox Church, I wish more would come our way.

Item: You Aren’t Serious – Are You?

The Church of England – the “mother ship” of the Anglican Communion – now has alternative worship services that feature disc jockeys, music by the Irish band, U2, video clips from YouTube, and offers prayers for Google, Walmart, and other large corporations, according to a report at the Telegraph.com website. The aim of this program, called, “Fresh Expressions,” is to reach young people who are otherwise uninterested in the church, boosting church attendance with what the article describes as “more relevant and exciting services.” Comment: Really? Of course, these are also the folks who have given the C of E “rave” services and other “relevant and exciting” programs. More than anything, this trend is disturbing to me; and I cannot fathom why those whom I know, and know of, who are fighting the good fight in defense of the Faith once delivered to the saints, and are involved with, or, at least, watching to see what happens to ACNA, want to be in communion with an Archbishop of Canterbury whose office is responsible for programs of this type…

Item: The UK Bureaucracy Allows No “Conscientious Objectors” for Same-Sex Marriages

Theresa Davies, who began working for the Islington Council 18 years ago as a receptionist, and who, over time, earned promotions to the position of registrar, was offered the choice of either being demoted to an entry-level position as a receptionist, or be fired, because she has religious objections to performing ceremonies for same-sex civil partnerships, according to a report at the Telegraph.com website. Apparently, while some councils allow those who object to shift the performance of these ceremonies to colleagues who do not share these objections, Islington has adopted a policy that all employees will perform these ceremonies. Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said, "It is fine for people to hold opinions but you can't use views to discriminate against other people.”

Repeat after me: “It can’t happen here…”

Item: Why Didn’t I Think of this Strategy for Boosting Church Attendance?

The Telegraph.com website has been a great source for news that is both amusing (in a bizarre sort of way) and disturbing (in a very real and troubling way). Here’s the latest: Church Blesses Fathers with Beer website. That’s right: In an “alternative” blessing for Father’s Day, bottles of beer were given to the men in attendance at the Father’s Day services at St. Stephen’s Church in Barbourne, Worcester. The program has the support of the Right Reverend John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester.. The program drew objections from those working to help those whose lives have been negatively affected by alcohol, but these had no impact. The bottle of beer were given to fathers by the children of the congregation. Bishop Inge had this to say about the program: “Jesus created a lot more wine at a point in the party when some thought that there had already been enough drinking. He was all in favor of partying. We give wine away every Sunday, so giving away beer could be said to going down-market a bit, but it's an attempt to speak of God's generosity.” Comment: Saying that our Lord was “all in favor of partying” because of the miracle at the wedding in Cana? Equating the wine in the chalice that has been blessed to be the Blood of Christ with a bottle of beer? C’mon, y’all in the ACNA/AMiA/REC spectrum! Is that really the Church with whom y’all want to be in communion?

Item: Persecution and Martyrdom: The Future is the Present

According to a report by the Orthodox Christian Advocacy Institute (OCAI), some 176,000 Christians will be martyred this year; and the number is projected to increase to 210,000 martyred every year by 2025. This does NOT include those who are tortured, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted for their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The OCAI reports that the worst offenders, according to the U.S. Department of State, are China and Saudi Arabia; followed by Turkey, and the situation in Kosovo. The last two affect Orthodox Christians directly. For example, in Turkey, there were approximately 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians living in Turkey in 1923. Today, it is estimated that there are fewer than 2,500. In Kosovo, since the United States helped establish this region of Serbia as an independent state, the efforts to erase twelve centuries of Orthodoxy have been unrelenting. In the last ten years, 1,000 Christians have been killed, 250,000 forced from their homes, and 150 churches and monasteries have been destroyed – all under the watchful eye of 16,000 NATO “peacekeepers.” Each of the countries named in the OCAI report receive U.S. aid that reaches into the billions of dollars.

The author of the article asks three questions of the Christians living in the United States:
How do citizens, in a country that generally identifies itself as being Christian, reconcile the fact that their democratically elected government is facilitating the eradication of Christianity elsewhere? Why are they not protesting on behalf of their fellow Christians around the world? Why are they not demanding change in US Foreign Policy?
If we don’t act to speak out against the abuse and murder of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who will?

Item: Orthodoxy in America: Get a Grip…

Head on over to the blogsite of the American Orthodox Institute (AOI) and read the article, The Perplexing Problem of Obtaining an Accurate Census of Orthodox Faithful Living in America. Be sure to scroll down and look at the table with the number of parishes and people for each of the jurisdictions listed there. For ROCOR, it’s 128 parishes; while the Patriarchal parishes in the US add another 33. The largest group is the GOA, with 525 parishes; followed by the OCA, with 456 parishes. Also be sure to read through the analysis and insights offered in the report. We’ve got a lot of work to do, campers, before the Lord returns…

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Monday, June 22, 2009

In the Image and Likeness of God

The following video -- just a bit under a minute and a half -- shows an understanding of the Orthodox teaching on icons; and is a powerful call to action.

I need to keep this in mind the next time I'm driving... Isn't it amazing how easily we can get caught up in ourselves? Isn't it amazing how easily we can reduce others to being less important by what we think and do and say?

We also need to keep in mind that, while the word, "Orthodox" means, "right belief," the Orthodox teaching on "right belief" carries with it the charge of acting rightly (orthopraxis). All too often, it seems, that this "right practice" becomes a concern about whether or not we (or those around us in church) are appropriately attired, or are making the bows and prostrations and the sign of the Cross at the right times during the service, or have read all 27 ingredients on the boxed or canned or frozen food we're planning to buy, and putting it back because ingredient #25 of 27 is sodium caseinate, and so it is not "lenten"; the list can go on for quite some time. This is not at all to suggest that we should not be careful, and do our best to do these things. But we seem to think that God will judge us on how well we kept these types of rules, when the reality is set before us in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and also the point of this video: "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me." (Matt. 25:40)

FOCUS -- Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve -- can be found on the web, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Capital Punishment

For many years now, I have been, to use a label, “pro-life.” By that, I mean that I consider that an abortion is the unnecessary taking of an innocent human life. I will concede that there are sometimes circumstances in which this action is necessary, although extremely rare; and, given that so much of what we believe and do as Orthodox Christians comes out of the interplay of the tensions between the theoretical norm and the pastoral realities of life, I can live with that small exception to the rule that all life is sacred.

Running concurrently with my pro-life position has been a position in support of capital punishment. I have cited, as a basis for this position, the numerous instances in the Bible in which capital punishment is mandated. Of course, when I said, “Bible,” I was being, to a certain extent, disingenuous. The more correct statement would be, examples from the Old Testament of the Bible. Sitting here at my desk today, with thoughts prompted by an article in Christianity Today, it occurs to me that the instances of capital punishment that come to mind from the New Testament – the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the stoning of St. Stephen the Protomartyr – were not examples that support the modern-day arguments in favor of capital punishment. These do not negate the Old Testament directives; but we should be willing to consider the change in circumstances that is in operation now that we do not live under the Law, but under grace in this, the New Testament era.

This brings us to the case of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a medical doctor who was the director of one of only three clinics in the United States where abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy were performed . He was shot and killed while he was serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. In an article entitled, After George Tiller’s Death, Ted Olsen considers the implications of this on the on-going debate about abortion in the United States today. In the article, he quotes Professor Robert P. George of the Princeton University School of Law, who said, among other things, “Every human life is precious. George Tiller's life was precious.” Olsen also quotes Paige Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, as saying, “The murder is not wrong because it hurts the pro-life movement. It's wrong because it's wrong.”

Ms. Cunningham is correct: murder is wrong. The deliberate and intentional killing of unborn children by abortion is wrong; and so is the deliberate and intentional killing of those who perform abortions, and those whose counseling centers direct pregnant women to seek abortions, and those who support the “right” to an abortion. After all, if the response is to lynch physicians who perform late-term abortions, as did Dr. Tiller, why stop there? Why not kill all physicians who perform abortions? And why should those who assist – nurses, anesthesiologists, and so on – be let off the hook for their role in the process? Then, since it takes janitors and clerks and counselors, why not eliminate them as well? And since there are many, many people whose support for abortions creates the political environment that prevents state legislatures from limiting or outlawing abortions altogether, why not erase them from the face of the earth? After that, all we have to do is get rid of those whose silence and indifference kept them from supporting the cause, and everything will be fine – right?

OK, so, I indulged in a bit of hyperbole. So shoot me! Actually, I pondered whether to say that – because the same people who cannot see the flawed reasoning above, who cannot discern that the murder of Dr. Tiller is wrong, may take what I have said (in the ironic voice) as being serious. “Well, you see, officer, Fr. John told me to shoot him…” The vast majority of those in the pro-life movement have not hesitated to say that the murder was a reprehensible event, and that the person who committed this terrible crime needs to be punished to the full extent of the law.

Now, typically, a conviction for the charge of murder carries with it the risk of the death penalty. Here’s one place where the abortion/capital punishment lines cross. Should the murderer of Dr. Tiller, who was, without doubt, responsible for a large number of abortions, and so, in a sense, is guilty of murder… Should Dr. Tiller’s murderer, if found guilty, be put to death?

Is capital punishment – the term we use when the state, presumably after due process of law, puts someone to death – murder? My reason tells me that there are a great many differences between the two; and yet my conscience is tweaked by what Prof. George said: Every human life is precious. And I agree with him: even George Tiller’s life was precious. At some point in such a discussion, someone usually will ask, “Well, was Hitler’s life precious?” While this risks skirting "Godwin’s Law," the question remains; and the answer is, yes, even Hitler’s life was precious, even if it was so only to God. This is not to say that criminals, even in cases of offenses with which the death penalty today is associated, should not be punished. But it is legitimate, even necessary, for Orthodox Christians to consider whether the taking of a human life by the state is desirable.

I think not.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Paper Pulpit: Journey to Orthodoxy; October, 1995

I found the following in a file folder while looking for some notes from my seminary days. It’s from the parish newsletter of the small Episcopal Church in which I was the pastor when I resigned in order to be free to be baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church. I wrote a column called, “The Paper Pulpit”; the issue is dated October, 1995, which means I wrote it in September. Ironically, I resigned at the end of October – the same month in which the column was distributed. It’s clear that I hadn’t yet decided to leave at the time I prepared the article.

“Several weeks ago, a member of the congregation said to me (somewhat energetically), ‘Stop trying to make this an Orthodox Church!’Instead, this person wanted me to focus on making it an Anglican, or Episcopal, Church. My response, when this comment was offered was, ‘I am not trying to make this an ‘Orthodox Church.’ I am trying to teach the truth, as the Church has always known and done.’

“I must be honest with you: this isn’t entirely true. Of course I want this to be an ‘orthodox’ Church. But what does this mean? It means that I want this to be a Church that is both ‘believing rightly’ and ‘worshipping rightly’; holding to the Truth of the Gospel and the Christian life in both belief and practice, despite the pressures of our world and culture. I am certainly trying to make this an ‘orthodox church’ in this sense.

“But that’s not all – there’s more to the story. Certainly, in seeking to teach and practice the truth, I have drawn, as did Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the other English reformers, upon the early fathers of the Church. Their teachings have been incorporated in sermons, in classes, in counseling, and the like. I have also tried to embrace influences from the Eastern Churches: especially in music, in the icons in the church, in my wearing a prayer rope (not only during the liturgy) – even growing a beard. Blame this, if you will, on my experiences with the people and the Church – the Orthodox Church – of Russia.

“Why? It’s not easy to describe. I’ve seen and experienced something there that has given a new depth and power to the Christian faith. There is no doubt in my mind that these people, some of whom have truly suffered in body, mind, and spirit for the Christian faith, have, in their worship experience a marvelous – and life-changing – expression of the Christian faith, with a expression of the Truth that has genuine power.

“I don’t know what this ‘something’ is. Candles? Icons? Incense? Music? All of these are valuable and essential parts of the liturgy, of the praise and worship of the Lord God. But I suspect there’s more: it is in the hearts of those who gather to worship, with a sense of their being the Body of Christ. Of course, those hearts were shaped both by the suffering endured, and by the liturgy – a reciprocal process of development. But it is this experience, above all, that I have experienced: and that I long to give to you. If the only way for you to receive this blessing is to become Orthodox – then, yes, I want this to be an Orthodox Church. Not because of wanting a ‘label’ – but so that you might experience the majesty, the mystery, the wonder and the glory of the reality of the presence of the living Lord, Jesus Christ. Not because of wanting a certain outward expression or form – but so that each of you might be able to know the Truth, and let the Truth set you free; so that each of you may save your souls, saving others as well.

“Can we do this in the Episcopal Church? In my mind, it is possible – but it is becoming more and more difficult to do so. Certainly, at the national level, the leadership of the Episcopal Church USA has surrendered the Gospel, and has embraced apostasy and heresy, especially in the realm of morals. We no longer know how to proclaim the good news of salvation; and this is, in part, because we have lost the knowledge of sin. At least Adam and Eve, when they became aware, covered their nakedness! Our society is experiencing a growing level of the flaunting of convention; people openly revel in their sins. Not only do they expect us to permit them their sins; they demand the right to practice them where and when they please, with the rights and protection of law! (In fact, they not only expect us to permit them their sins; they expect us to join them.) If we dare to speak of the will of God, the righteousness He requires, and the coming Judgment, we are ignored, ridiculed, reviled, attacked… and heaven forbid that we Christians should offend someone by daring to suggest the need to repent, to confess, and to transform their way of living! Is it any wonder that our culture is sick and depraved, since we are no longer salt and light? We need to be about the task of saving our own souls, dealing with our own sins, fasting and praying to God for forgiveness, and help, and deliverance, and salvation. We need to be at the work of being transformed in the power of the Holy Spirit. This, by itself, can be a powerful witness to the life-changing power of God. But how much support for this endeavor comes from our leaders, from the bishops, priests, and deacons, and from the key leaders of the laity? And yes, for the moment our churches in the Diocese of <…> are safe… but that can change, more quickly than we can imagine.

“What can we do? Fast; pray; live spiritually disciplined lives; give alms for the Church; and do all that must be done to fulfill the ministries entrusted to us by God. We must acquire the Spirit of peace, the Peace of God which passes all understanding. We must live as orthodox Christians… but I’ll have more to say about this in our next newsletter.”

There was no “next newsletter.” At the end of September, 1995, it became clear that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, which had for so long been a bulwark against the agenda to change the faith and practice of the Episcopal Church, had fallen victim to the assault of the spirit of the age, and would approve a proposed canon that would establish the very real possibility that those in the ordained leadership of the Church could be defrocked for continuing to oppose the changes; and that even lay leaders who dared to speak out could be removed from their offices. On October 7, 1995, having met with the diocesan bishop a few days before, I issued my letter of resignation, effective at the end of the month. About five weeks later, we were baptized and chrismated at the parish of St. Herman of Alaska in Sunnyvale, California.

Why bring all this up? It was difficult to read today what I had written in the newsletter and in my letter of resignation. In part, it is difficult because, for those we left behind when we came to the Orthodox Church, things have continued to get worse. I could not help them there; I desire to help some remnant now, if that is possible. I hope these words, this part of my own journey, might be found by someone who can no longer endure what is happening in what was once a bastion of true Christianity, and is searching for a safe harbor. That place of safety is the Orthodox Church. May those who seek to love and serve the Lord be brought to our safe harbor; and may we welcome them as the storm-tossed, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them home.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

An Orthodox Church in America?

I spoke with a long-time friend last night about the meeting that is going to take place soon in Cyprus. It is a meeting of Orthodox hierarchs, called by the Patriarch of Constantinople, to discuss the administration of the churches in the "diaspora." Apparently, none of the hierarchs who are dwelling in the USA at present are going to be in attendance. Among other things, this means that a decision may very well be made about our future by a group of men who do not know us, without any input from us.

Now, I'll be the first to concede that the paragraph above is about 100% of what I know about what's going on at the present time. In other words, quoting the immortal Sgt. Schultz, "I know nothing!" There's plenty enough to do here at the parish level; and there seems to be little point to expending much time or energy about something over which I have no influence or control. Oh, and before someone else mentions it, with regard to the topic: The OCA may be in America, but it is not the Church "of" America, despite what the name says. No disrespect of the OCA, by the way, is intended in my comment here. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the person (and personality) of Met. JONAH, the OCA will be a "player" at some point in what happens here, should the meeting in Cyprus actually set anything in motion.

So what do you think? Is there anything to be afraid of? Anything to prepare for? Is the prospect of coming under the direction and authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch a good thing, or a bad thing – and why?