Tortoise Christians

One of the most powerful witnesses to Orthodox Faith is the witness of the saints. When a person discovers that golden chain of spiritual experience and wisdom reaching across the centuries from the Apostles to our own time it can be an epiphany. For Americans it can also be treacherous. Why? Because we grow up in a society designed by and for consumption. Everything about our daily experience of the world, from economic policy to the chicken sandwich, is marinated in the principles of consumer psychology and behavior. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of being influenced by these assumptions. Like department store music they hum along unobtrusively in the background of our daily life. But they do represent a serious challenge for converts to Orthodox Christianity. How so?

When Americans convert to Orthodoxy we are conditioned to think of the change as a sort of purchase. Thinking this way, we remain at the center of our own spiritual narrative. Our new-found faith becomes a means – a set of tools or techniques – by which to advance that narrative and the saints become catalogue models stoking the fires of our self-centered spiritual ambitions. Left unchecked this way of thinking leads inevitably to disappointment and desertion. When a person discovers that their shiny new Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver the promised spiritual awesomeness in 10 easy lessons he or she simply moves on to something else and the real, transformative power of the faith of the Saints is left undiscovered.

What can we do about this?  We certainly cannot change our society and, for the most part, we cannot change our own consumer way of being, at least not right away. But we can recognize it and intentionally adjust our behavior to account for this deficiency. What we need is humility and one way of acquiring it is to become Tortoise Christians. What is this beast? A Tortoise Christian is a distance runner. He may not win any awards for style or speed but he is in it for the long haul. A Tortoise Christian has a habit of daily faithfulness that undermines the negative influence of his own spiritual ambition. He says his prayers, watches his thoughts and words, does his work honorably, and goes to church. This should be us! It can be us! And if we do this, we will still be in the race long after the rabbits have forgotten where they were going.

Brass Tacks

This morning I have been reading a longish article on the epistemology of Michael Polyani, a renowned 20th century scientist and philosopher. I enjoy philosophy a lot. I find it stimulating, and this article was no exception. But I confess I also had a motivation for reading other than intellectual and spiritual gain. I was avoiding something. In fairness, the thing I was avoiding wasn’t one of my responsibilities except in the sense that John Donne would understand what constitutes my responsibility:

No man is an island. Every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. 

What I was avoiding was the latest update from a family who’s 5 year old son is dying of cancer. I was avoiding it because I find it hard to function for the rest of a day when I must face this kind of grief whether in person as the priest of a community or virtually through the vast network of acquaintances Facebook provides. When it comes to suffering children I don’t do detached very well. That’s probably a flaw in my pastoral skills but I’m sure it’s not the only one. Anyway, I finally faced my weakness and read what I did not want to read; contemplated what I did not want to think about. What I am left with is this truth that we who are Christians are expected to keep with us at all times. We live in a beautiful wreck of a world; a paradise with monsters in it. All the sweetness of life is mixed with bitterness. Nothing here lasts. This is the brass tacks, the most basic thing. We can escape into pleasure, or thought, or work, in order to forget but the wheels of time and entropy will grind on and we will be grist in the gears. It is only when we face this reality that we can become Christian. It isn’t until we realize that the universe, taken as its own frame of reference, is a meaningless, comfortless place, that hope in a Christian God becomes possible.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive…

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Gal. 3:27-28

Who is the Orthodox Church for? Is it Greek for Greeks? Is it Syrian for Syrians or Russian for Russians? This question is raised frequently in the Orthodox blogosphere. Usually as part of a skreed against phyletism which, for those not familiar, is a belief that some particular ethnicity or race within the Church is superior to the others. While phyletism is an ongoing problem in some parts of the Orthodox world despite having been formally condemned, it is mostly a non-issue in America. However, another form of discrimination emanates from within the Orthodox churches here in America and it’s exactly the kind you’d expect to find in the land of prosperity: for the sake of convenience let’s call it “economic phyletism.”

2009 study by the Pew Forum (in easy-to-read graphic form here) revealed that Orthodox Christians are, on the whole, the most affluent Christians in America. According to the data, 41% of Orthodox Christians reported an income of $75,000 or greater; a higher percentage than any other Christian group. While only 20% reported an income of less than $30,000; a smaller percentage than any other Christian group. In other words, Orthodoxy in America has more wealth and less poverty than any other Christian church. This ought to be grist for many questions. The one I’d like to tackle today is, why? Why is Orthodoxy a disproportionately affluent phenomenon here in the United States?

I believe the answer to this question rests largely in history. Unlike most of the rest of the Orthodox world, Orthodox Christianity came to America primarily by means of immigrants hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. As is common among immigrants, many of these families struggled mightily to overcome hostility, language barriers, and unfamiliarity in order to make a life for themselves here. Not surprisingly, this often led to successive waves of achievement. The children of immigrants worked harder than many of their peers and climbed higher on the socio-economic ladder than their parents, and their children often did the same. The result of this effort to thrive in a new home was a greater than average valuation of success and concentration of wealth in Orthodox Christian communities. Since people naturally gravitate to what they find familiar and comfortable this concentration of success has given birth to a culture of affluence in the Church. I believe this, at least partly, accounts for the low percentage of Orthodox at the bottom of the economic food chain. And I believe it is a problem. What do I mean by a culture of affluence and why is it a problem?

I would identify a culture of affluence by two markers. The first is discretionary income. A culture of affluence is one in which discretionary income, often significant amounts of it, is necessary to participate. The second characteristic is the mimicking of already existing affluent behaviors. Examples would include the importance of being seen in fashionable clothing, expensive dinner meetings, self-congratulatory awards ceremonies, and costly gala banquets. The Orthodox Church has all these things in spades. You don’t have to look far to find announcements like this, Bishop X will be here on Sunday to consecrate our new church. There will be a gala banquet at the Downtown Hilton immediately following. Tickets are $50. Or, We will be celebrating our centennial anniversary next year. Tickets to the banquet are $100. Sometimes the prices go higher. Other areas where the need for discretionary capital is likely to show up are youth or young adult outings, mens group activities, women’s group activities, and pretty much every other category of activity that is done as church aside from the services themselves. These costs associated with participation in the life of the community along with the lavish and self-referential nature of many of the communities activities are characteristic behaviors of the upper classes.

Why do I think this is a problem? First let me clarify: I am not suggesting that wealth is a problem or that wealthy people are a problem. Those blessed with wealth have often been, in turn, a blessing to the Church. What is a problem, a genuine danger to the integrity of the Orthodox Church, is the cancerous growth of division in the parish community. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has threatened the Church. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul has this to say:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. – I Cor. 11:20-22 (emphasis mine) 

It ought to be obvious to anyone who has experienced or known someone at the bottom of the economy that $50 for dinner with the bishop, $25 per child for youth activities, or $15 for lunch with the men’s group is often competing with new shoes, an oil change, or is simply an impossibility by itself. Yet this is how we operate throughout vast swathes of the Orthodox world. The services are free, more or less, but there’s a significant cost be being “part of the community.” We shouldn’t be surprised then that there aren’t many poor people in our churches. In a “pay-to-play” parish economy those without the ability to play aren’t likely to bother joining up. One significant consequence of this reality is that it virtually guarantees continued exclusion of minority communities that are not affluent such as African American and Latino communities. If we wanted to amend St. Paul’s words to the Galatians above we might say that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, [there is neither rich nor poor]; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet among us there certainly is a distinction between rich and poor. To quote St. Paul a third time, “my brethren, these things ought not to be.” For too long, we Orthodox have drunk from the waters of American aspiration and a culture of affluence has infected our Church and closed our faith to many who most desperately need the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Every February my Facebook page will be covered up with pictures of Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory standing alongside Martin Luther King Jr.. Many Orthdox are justly proud of his witness and share his convictions. In general, we Orthodox in America are quick to decry racism and bigotry of all sorts and we honor the Gospel when we do so. But whenever and wherever we permit a culture of affluence to develop in our communities we betray that same Gospel.  The Church must not be divided on account of money! Our standard of behavior is embodied in the example of the Apostles, the Saints and Christ himself who demonstrated the love of God through humility, simplicity, and selflessness. If we are Christians we must see to it that the quality of our communal life is not defined by income, color, or anything other than Christ-like love.

Mud That Suffers

Man is earth that suffers… – Epistle of Barnabas 6:9

Christianity has not fared well in the cultural marketplace in recent years. There are many reasons for this. One of them, in my opinion, is that the Church – and here I use that word in a very broad sense to include all who bear the name Christian – has condemned the habits of the world while secretly (well, obviously not that secretly) embodying many of them itself.  Well publicized sex scandals, financial scandals, avarice, pettiness, superficiality, and abuses of all kinds, have, for many, sunk the name Christian in mud. I couldn’t be happier about this. Why you ask? Because until you know what you are you cannot become anything else.

In the story of the Garden of Eden the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit God had forbidden by arguing that if she eats the fruit she will become immortal like God. She and Adam are persuaded by this argument and attempt to take for themselves, by their own power and will, what God would have freely given them in due time – a share in His own immortal life. We see the same attitude at the Tower of Babel. The people decide to build a tower to heaven, ostensibly either to make it their home by squatters rights or by conquest. Their actions are rooted in the false, satanic belief that they have power to rival God’s. Instances like these – of mortals trying to assume for themselves divine life and power – could be multiplied. Even in the New Testament Jesus’ disciples suggest calling down fire from heaven on Samaritans who would not receive Jesus. (Lk 9:51-55) For which Jesus himself rebukes them.

These grasping attempts at power are all rooted in the same dark impulse: pride. Pride is the original sin into which all the others – selfishness, vanity, greed, lust, etc., – are bundled. In essence pride is simply the conviction that my worth, importance, and even life itself, emanates from within and belongs to me. It is pride that says My ministry will save the Church or I deserve respect and obedience. It is pride that causes a man to hide his own sins while condemning the same in others. And it is pride that refuses the mercy of humiliation. As long as that pride is lodged within us we can never be sons and daughters of God and co-inheritors with Christ of His Kingdom. It is only when we know what we truly are – mud that suffers – that God can begin to make us into something more. True transformation always begins by rejecting the impulses brought on by pride. To begin anywhere else is simply creating a mask for the ego. But masks are inherently false. Masking pride with other virtues won’t make you a child of God any more than masking your breath with gum will make you not drunk. We must live in the Light as it says in the Gospel of John and that Light is Jesus Christ who humbled himself, even to death on the cross, for our sakes. Embrace the lowliness of mud and let God breathe life into you.

Lent = Life

This is not a new article but it predates this blog. I post it below in honor of the Feast of the Cross.

And [Jesus] said to them all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

In the verse above Jesus gives us, in broad strokes, the shape of Christian life. Any person who intends to be a Christian must follow this path: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. It sounds difficult doesn’t it; denial, crosses, following someone else instead of charting your own course. It certainly doesn’t seem like a recipe for the joie de vivre each of us hopes for. And yet the Church, indeed Christ Himself, insists on this way. Why? Is it because being a Christian is supposed to make you miserable? It may sometimes seem that way, but no. As it turns out self-denial, cross-bearing, and following is a recipe for joy. If this seems strange to us it is because we are addicted to poisonous ways of thinking and acting that deaden our spirit and keep us from being truly awake and alive in this life. Just as a person addicted to heroin can’t believe that he will be happier without the drug we can’t believe that virtue will be more enjoyable and life giving than our small vices. This leaves us at war with ourselves because what we really want deep down is to have joy and peace but that deep desire is smothered by our habituation to the easy comfort of ordinary sins. The path Jesus lays out for us is designed to flush the toxin of pleasurable but meaningless sin from our system so that we can become truly, fully, alive; sharing in the boundless energy of God’s holy Light, human in the fullest sense of the word. What does this look like in everyday life? Through Great Lent the Church shows us by demonstration.

Deny yourself: During the first week of Lent we sing the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete in which we remind ourselves that we have not kept ourselves clothed in the garment of Light which originally clothed Adam and Eve and which we receive at our baptism. Instead of cherishing this gift of grace we have torn up our wedding garment and cast it aside by indulging sinful passions such as over-eating/drinking, lustful thoughts or actions, pride, greed, jealousy, bitterness, and gossip. Because this is the situation in which we find ourselves we must learn not to be ruled by sinful or excessive appetites of the mind and body before we can “come after” Christ. We do this by denying ourselves the privilege of rich foods, being extra mindful of our words, and giving ourselves to prayer with prostrations that deny us physical comfort.

Take up your cross: The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross marks the halfway point in our Lenten journey. For the first half of Lent the words of our hymns and prayers speak often about our sinfulness and the urgency of repentance. From the Feast of the Cross forward we will begin to focus on Christ’s life and work here on earth. This is by design. Once we have tamed the unruly and sinful habits of mind and body that prevent our spirit from reaching out to God we can turn our eyes to Christ and learn to imitate His way of life. When we study Christ’s life an important thing for us to notice is not the miracles He performed but that He always conformed His own will to the will of the Father. Not once did Jesus make a choice that deviated from His Father’s will. The cross of Christ was the molding of his own human will to the will of the Father and what He had to bear as a consequence of that choice. So it is in our life. The cross is not the consequence of past sinful choices, or physical/emotional impairment. The cross is our decision to bend our own will to conform to the will of God and whatever we must bear, for good or ill, as a result of our decision. Fine you say, but how do I conform my own will to the will of God? How do I know what God’s will is for my life? The prophet Micah tells us: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”(Micah 6:8) Jesus says much the same thing in the parable of the last judgment (sheep and goats Matthew 25) which we read in preparation for Great Lent. Live with integrity. Be merciful. Stay close to the Church and work out your salvation in fear and trembling.

Follow Me: Once we have shed the burden of unruly desires and urges and taken up our cross then we are able to follow Christ. This is Holy Week and Pascha. During Holy Week we remember the suffering of our Lord, his betrayal, crucifixion, and death. We too must go to through suffering and death, there is no way around it, but having imitated Christ in His obedience to the Father we cannot be held captive by death. We pass through death to new life: Pascha! Because Christ broke the power of sin and death we are not slaves to those evil forces and they cannot prevent us from having full, perfect, and everlasting joy. We are free!

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself take up his cross and follow me.” Through the ministrations of Great Lent the Church is trying to give us the strength and guidance we need to say “yes” to Christ’s invitation to come after Him. Ultimately the Church is trying to lead us to the joy of the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven but along the way we taste of that goodness and we share in that Kingdom which is prepared for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Walking Backwards to Paradise

We have now begun our Lenten journey. All the fasting advice one could possibly use has been given and it’s time to practice what we’ve learned. But it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on what is going on behind the mechanism of fasting. What, in other words, does fasting do?

On Saturday we baptized my youngest son. One of the prayers in the service asks that God will take the child from being a creature of the body and make him/her a creature of the spirit. The prayer is not suggesting that the spirit (or soul) is good and the body is bad. On the contrary, our bodies are God-given. The prayer is pointing out that there is a problem in the way our body and our spirit relate to each other. In essence the problem is this; we are the opposite of the way we are made to be. The soul is the primary faculty by which we experience God and communicate with Him and so is supposed to rule over the body and guide it in a way that is pleasing to God. However, our experience is that our bodies are often in charge instead. We act in ways that are intended to satisfy our physical desires – more sleep, more food, more sex, more sitting – and our soul remains neglected. In such a state it is not surprising that God often seems distant and hard to know; our knower isn’t working properly and we aren’t even trying to fix it. But how do you fix it? How do you awaken the soul, reestablish communication with God, and put your whole self back in good order? This is where fasting, and asceticism more generally, come in.

We cannot simply stop being the way we are. The soul cannot be compelled to rouse itself or the body to humble itself simply by will. We have become creatures of the body and so it is with our bodies that we will have to begin. When the Church gives us a fasting rule it is imposing on us a mode of life that recalls, at least in form, the way we were in Paradise before the fall. We are being asked to embrace an order that is God-given but none-the-less foreign to our fallen experience so that in the silence created by the body’s abdication of the throne of our life the soul can begin to hear again the still, small voice of God calling to it. In this way we learn to recognize the voice of the Master which is necessary if we are going to be sheep in His pasture. But what if there isn’t any silence? What if there’s just the noise of our body grousing about these unpleasant strictures? Even in this there is hope for the soul. By resisting order and clinging to disorder we expose it to the light and are better able to see ourselves how far we have fallen. This becomes an opportunity for increased humility and repentance. Either way, fasting becomes an instrument by which God helps us to repent and, hopefully, to restore in us the form He gave us in the beginning; inviting us again to the gates of Paradise which were shut against us so long ago, only to find them open and our Savior beckoning us to come and walk with Him in the cool of the day.