Sunday, February 22, 2015

This video PROVES that you need not dumb down Liturgy for kids

Growing up in a Lutheran Church, one of the (many) things I could never wrap my mind around was the need for a special sermon for the young people present in the congregation.  More often than not, it seemed to be an excuse for kids to go up, holding hands with a sibling and for the congregation to go "aww" about how cute these kids are especially when they gave outrageous responses to the Pastor's questions as if we were watching "Kids say the darndest things!"  Usually this children's message was a paraphrased version of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings which would then be dialed up for the adults after the children were dismissed.  And again, there would be "ooing" and "awwing" as the kids went back to their pews.  (Disclaimer:  As a parent now, I probably should excuse the fawning over the kids going up.  They can be pretty darn cute as they do that).

In tandem with the children's message, which, I admit, I often derisively called the "babies' message" was the need to involve the young of the congregation with the worship and the liturgy.  So, there were moves to make sure that things were hip and trendy such as making a "worship ensemble" with drums, guitar, bass and lyrics that would make most pop artists blush. Sometimes, "special services" were created by the youth group with skits and up-tempo music.  I remember once that I committed a piece to this, but it was a four part arrangement for the words "Kyrie Eleison."  I also remember that there were some, especially among the adults, who balked at the addition of this saying that it wasn't keeping with the spirit of what they were trying to do.  I probably wouldn't have minded these things so much, but it always took place in the church itself.  I did not think that was the proper venue to perform plays.

Furthermore, I recall so many instances when, as a member of one of the youth groups, that we were encouraged to go to various "Christian Rock Concerts" so that we could learn more about our faith.  I remember going on camping trips (which were generally quite fun) and while getting there being subject to listen to Christian contemporary artists.  At this time in my life, I would listen to nothing but classical music and I failed to understand (and still do) how these CC artists could rival the artistry, the talent and the religiosity of someone like J.S. Bach! 

My church was not exceptional. I think every church, mainline Protestant or even Roman Catholic was doing something along those lines.  Everything had to be hip, trendy, cool or people won't come or want to come, especially kids.  And those kids had to be there or else it would die.

I'd like you to watch this video.  HT:  Pastor Peters at Pastoral Meanderings.  In it, you see two Russian youths who are around five or six years old essentially "playing at Liturgy."  They are recreating parts of what you may find at the Vigil.  They are censing (Notice what their "Censer" is made from), reading from a "Gospel" book and chanting Alleluia.  They are placing the holy oil on their mother's forehead all while she is chanting a Slavonic Hymn (don't know which one, though I recognize the melody and the other is the Troparion "O Lord, save Thy People"), they are kissing the hands of the "priest."  They are blessing with their hands in the correct posture, blessing with the "Gospel book", placing it reverently upon their "altar".  Notice even the "vestments" they designed and how they remove their hats (I don't know what the Russian version is called) at the appropriate times.  Simply, this is fantastic.  These kids were definitely paying attention.  Kudos should also go to their mother who probably took them to the vigils and the Divine Liturgy.  Kids do get it.  And if they start out that young, then they're probably going to be less likely to want to rid themselves of it. 

Thus, you church growth people out there, even in the Orthodox world, do not need to pander to the lowest common denominator.  Kids can and do get it. It doesn't need to be made simple or paraphrased for them.  Hold on to what you do and let the kids imitate them.  So, watch below and be amazed.  And, yes, it's even cute, too!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Uniform for Church?

I teach at a private school where the students are required to wear uniforms.  On Monday and Wednesday through Friday, young men may wear khaki pants (or shorts, weather providing) and a green polo shirt or anything else as long as it has the name of the school.  Young women may wear khakis, but are more encouraged to wear plaid skirts with a polo shirt or anything else with the name of the school. On Tuesdays, all students wear their formal uniforms which, for guys, are gray pants, button down white shirt and tie with a navy blazer.  Ladies are required to wear skirts, a white shirt with a navy blazer, and knee high socks.   Most of our school population observe these rules consistently. 

However, on certain days of the year, there are out-of-uniform days.  This may extend to only the kids in one particular grade as a reward or to the entire school prior to the winter holiday during their final exams or during homecoming week.  Every time there is an out-of-uniform day, there is an obvious decline in learning and in discipline in general.

My wife teaches at a public school; I did so as well.  We have both pondered the effects if a uniform policy were instituted at a public school like at the one she teaches.  I suggest that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.  The two in particular "pros" are 1) teachers would not have to be forced into awkward positions to reprimand students for not dressing according to the established guidelines (I can attest that as a guy teacher trying to tell a young lady that the spaghetti strap strings are inappropriate or that her shirt is cut too low that too much of her cleavage is exposed or that her shorts are too short, such is really awkward and some women will even go so far as to suggest that you're some sort of pervert for even noticing) and 2) students will not be able to "bully" anyone who doesn't wear the "right" clothes.  Will that also lead to increased student learning?  I don't know, but I think that it should be tried before it is written off as ineffective.

Let's apply this standard to church and what we should wear.  Does God care?  I would like to think that our coming to church and worshiping and praying are more important to him than our choice of attire, but we have to remember that what goes on at church is a communal activity.  Throughout St. Paul's epistles, he exhorts his readers to not be stumbling blocks (Greek skandalon) to others  by keeping the  fasts or not, for example.  Should a uniform policy be adopted by any church as a way to prevent others from stumbling during church?

In a sense the church already has such a policy.  Priests are vested particularly to reflect their office before God as are deacons as are the taper bearers as are the chanters and readers.  Why for them and not for the laity?  The uniforms are signs of the work that the persons wearing them are doing.  What is the job of the laity?  Like everyone else, it is to pray.  Should they not be marked out in a way to indicate that?   I know that an Orthodox Christian would balk if he saw his priest during the Divine Liturgy in anything besides his vestments. 

There are many arguments which I will not rehash here as to why more formal attire should  not necessarily be expected of parishioners.  I would just say that if we take such care to choose our clothing for concerts, parties, receptions, business meetings, lounging around the house, working in the yard, etc., why would we not put the same thought into what we wear in the House of the Lord?  Would more praying be accomplished if all men wore at least khakis and a polo shirt and women wore dresses?  Would there be more reverence and less talking from the parishioners if men wore suits and women wore nice hats?  I don't believe there is any way to measure this.  Anything that may change may well have to be measured against the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As Orthodox Christians we are taught that everything in the Church is more than a mental activity. Our prayer life is more than a mental activity.  That's why we kiss icons, we cense the Church, we taste of the Body and Blood of Christ, we bow, we prostrate, we make the sign of the Cross.  Our Church's praxis is not one of Gnostic dualism, but where the body and soul come together in worship of God.  Shouldn't that also include the manner of our dress that is humble, not gaudy, and shows respect rather than receive attention?  And if we chose our clothes in such a manner would that not also translate to how we approach God in prayer while in His holy place?

I only have questions, no answers.  I seriously doubt my parish or any other parish for that matter would willingly let me do a study on that, as they should.  But if we emphasize comfort too much, how long before people start showing up in sweatpants or bathrobes with slippers on?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Giving them the funeral they want

In our modern culture, weddings are tailor made for every couple, for every time of year, for every destination, for every kind of circumstance, etc.  Weddings can be big or small; fancy or informal; catered or pot-lock; private or public; for love or for show, etc.  In fact, pretty much everything exists in this way.  Our way of life has become living Burger King's mantra:  Have it your way.  Except for maybe your funeral.

I came across this article the other day from America:  The National Catholic Review.  The article is written, as you might expect, from a Catholic perspective. The author is a nun who laments that fewer and fewer Catholic funeral masses (i.e. Requiems) are being given for funerals.  Some of this has to do with the fact that the Catholic Church in America is losing members.  Some of this has to do with the fact that the services provided for by Funeral Homes are more convenient, less restrictive and more inviting of giving eulogies than what is currently allowed for in Masses for the Dead.  Some of this also has to do with a sense of shame.  Why have a funeral in a church when only a few people will show up?  But, another reason, and one that is really quite disturbing is that the children, who are often left to plan these sort of things, often plan the funerals as if they were the ones who were deceased and more for their benefit.

Anyone who has been to a traditional Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead or Requiem knows that it is not centered around the person's life.  The homily given by the priest might touch on that, but it is not a personal affair.  The Mass is celebrated to reaffirm that the great mercy of God has triumphed over the evil of the Devil and made powerless death.  All will rise to receive judgment and many will enter into the abodes of the blessed.  But the Mass also stresses why all of this needed to happen, namely the sin of humanity.  Quite frankly, in our culture, sin has been replaced by a hierarchy of choices, some of which are better than others, but, ultimately, to be evaluated by the person himself.  For a lot of younger people burying their parents, this is precisely what they do not want to hear so they plan something more palatable for themselves and give themselves a sneak preview of what kind of funeral they want when their time comes.

I think that a dead person's wishes should be honored and respected.  If they want a traditional Catholic mass, they should get it and the children should not override those desires.  If the deceased wants his ashes scattered with a small ceremony, fine.  I agree with the author that the Requiem Mass is the way to go and that it is absolutely imperative that the funeral should be planned along with making any will or testament.  To force any kind of ceremony because the child has a problem with what the parents believed is disrespectful and does not honor the parent.  Here's an example.

The current head of the Episcopal Church in the USA is Katherine Jefferts-Schori.  To  call her a liberal is the understatement of the year.  She has undermined the Episcopal teaching on about every subject so much that numerous Episcopalians have either split off and formed their own dioceses or left the Episcopal Church altogether.  Jefferts-Schori has also decided that the limited resources of the Episcopal Church are best spent by suing breakaway dioceses, defrocking clergy who uphold traditional orthodoxy within the Episcopal Church, and confiscating property. 

Her mother converted to Orthodoxy later in life and died in the Church.  Jefferts-Schori planned an Episcopal memorial service with her even though her mother had made it clear to her priest that she wanted an Orthodox funeral.  Not only was this desire not granted by Ms. Jefferts-Schori, but the priest of her mother was also barred from attending and not even allowed to offer Orthodox prayers at the ceremony. This is nothing but pettiness, but since it is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church here in America, it's par for the course.

The daughter should be ashamed.  But it's not just children of dead parents who have behaved poorly in this matter, but also parents when they unfortunately must prepare funerals for deceased children.  This example strikes very close to home.

Ten years ago, my best friend and a young woman whom I cared for dearly, tragically died by killing herself.  It was very hard for me to go to the visitation and to the funeral, too.  My friend was an agnostic if not an atheist (I don't think she knew for sure).  Her parents were very committed evangelical Christians.  It was no secret that the parents and she were at odds over the religious issue.  The funeral that was planned for her was one that would normally be given to an Evangelical Christian with Christian praise hymns and readings that I know she wouldn't have approved of.  I talked about this afterwards with other friends of hers and we agreed that the service we saw was not what she would have wanted.  I don't intend to be rude in saying this, but, in a way, I wondered if that was the parents getting in the last word in the religion argument.  I believe the parents should have honored her wishes, whatever they were.

I know that when I die, I want to depart from this earth according to the Byzantine Rite. I want the whole thing chanted in Greek, no women chanters in the most glorious Byzantine melodies.  That's what I want. I've been to enough Orthodox funerals to know that when we sing this Rite, we are praying reverently that the person's soul be saved by our merciful God. I don't want it any other way.

Should we force Orthodox funerals on those who have fallen away simply because that's what the living want?  Should we force small chapel services at the funeral home with lots of eulogies because that, again, is what the living want?  I say no.  Give them the funeral they want and respect their wishes.  If no wishes are left behind, then those who are planning the funeral shouldn't interpret that as a sign to do whatever they want because they want it.  To the living, plan your funeral now so it can be honored.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankfulness is faithfulness

It is Thanksgiving Day. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I know that it is customary for many families who share a meal together on this day to go around the table and say what they are thankful for.  It is a good custom, to be sure, but if we were really honest with ourselves, the sheer number of thanks for all the blessings, good fortunes, etc. that we each enjoy would fill up quite a lot of time to the point that the meal would never be eaten at least not before it's cold.

I was thinking about making a list of all of the things I am thankful for.  I took a walk this cold evening, just going over in my head the number of things I have that I should be thankful, but take for granted.  It was a long list and I don't have the time to write it. Instead, I was thinking of this story from the Gospel of Luke.  We all know the story about how ten lepers were cleansed by Jesus.  In case you don't here's the text:

Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. 12 Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. 13 And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
14 So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.
15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.
17 So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18 Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
I admit that I don't know the text of the miracle by heart so when I read it in preparation for this post, I was struck by a few things.  First, the lepers are not close to Jesus, but afar off.   This just shows how scorned lepers were.  People who were infected with leprosy were told to keep far off from them lest they be infected, too.  Add to that a belief among many ancient peoples who thought that being struck by disease was in direct correlation to your worth or value as a person.  The text doesn't indicate whether Jesus saw AND approached them, but merely saw them. 

And he didn't heal them right away, but said instead for them to show themselves to the priests.  And they went.  To be given a clean bill of health by the priests so that you could reenter the temple worship and society itself required the priests to go over the entire body of the leper to ensure there was no trace of the disease anymore.  To ensure you were cured was as humiliating as having the disease itself.  Nonetheless, all ten of them go.  But it is only AS they go, that they are healed from their infirmity.  And we know the rest of the story: only one returns to give thanks.

Christ says to the one leper who comes back and gives thanks as saying that his faith made him well.   We have no indication that the other nine lepers who were cured as they went to the priests were reinfected because they did not give thanks and I doubt they would have been.  But the faithfulness of the one also reflected thankfulness.  We can argue ad nauseam as to whether faith precedes thankfulness just as the old Mediaeval philosophers debated whether faith preceded understanding or understanding preceded faith.  Here, in this story, it is apparent that thankfulness and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin.  It is not simply enough to have faith, but to demonstrate that faith in thanksgiving to God. 

I'm sure many would argue that one can still be thankful and have no faith in God.  I would agree, but for the Christian, the two simply must accompany one another.  If we are thankful, we must have faith; if we are faithful, we must give thanks.  And not only should we be thankful, but we should do so joyfully.  A Christian should always be joyful even if it seems that joy is the farthest thing from us. 

So, rather than make a list to share with those who would wish to read it of all the things I am thankful for, I would simply implore that all who are thankful on this do so faithfully and do so consistently. It's easy and natural to turn to God in times of distress and unhappines. It's easy and natural as well to simply go about our daily lives without being thankful.  But if we are not being thankful, then we are being faithful?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Back up and running

I was unable to log into my account about three weeks ago and so I just assumed that it had been compromised.  In fact, I read that same night that a Russian mob had stolen over 1 billion (that's right, billion) passwords from websites all over the world.  I just assumed that I was one of these statistics but wasn't concerned because it's an old email address.  Well, lo and behold, I was able to get back in this evening and immediately changed my password.  So, for the time being, I'm back on line. 

Several comments have not been published and I apologize for that; I will get to those in due time.  School is starting up again so I'm going to write probably even less than I am now, but if the spirit moves me, I'm sure I can come up with something. 

Thanks for continuing to read my nonsense!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Marriage and death: Reflections on three years

In our popular culture, we tend to joke about how marriage and funerals are one and the same thing.  Ha, ha, ha. Very funny.  But, as is the case with most humor, there is a truth that these two seemingly disparate milestones in life may be connected after all in a way that is not so much funny, but ironic.

This weekend I found an article in my inbox from the Omaha World Herald about a couple who decided to celebrate their wedding in the chapel of Omaha's largest cemetery.    I'm happy that I read the article in full because just reading the headline I seriously thought something was very wrong.  Anyway, the couple decided to marry in this cemetery's chapel for a variety of reason. The bride is from Krygyzstan and in her culture, according to the article, there is a strong attachment between the living and the spirits of the deceased.  For the groom, some of his ancestors are buried there and he wanted them to be counted as witnesses to his nuptials.  OK, suum cuique

When I read the article, I thought about my own wedding as the anniversary approaches tomorrow.  Three years ago I was joined to my wife.  No vows were recited.  No cheesy pop songs proclaiming endless love were played.  No loud, thunderous applause.  When we were joined together through the crowning ceremony, the chanters chanted the hymns to the martyrs, not just one or two martyrs, but calling to mind all of them.  These martyrs, or witnesses, gave their entire life to Christ for Christ.  Rather than live without Christ, they chose death.  And they have been crowned with glory because of this.

In the Orthodox wedding ceremony, the hymns of the martyrs are sung because marriage is supposed to be a death:  death to one's own desires, one's own passions, one's own self.  As the Martyrs died for Christ for His sake, so the husband is to die for the sake of his wife and vice-versa.  This death, just like the death of Christ, is a paradox.  Christ's death brought about life through His Resurrection.  Similarly, the death of each spouse in a marriage is to bring about a greater life in Christ for both partners. 

Three years in, I realize I have a lot of dying to do.  I have not given up my own individual self entirely for my wife who has blessed me further by giving me a happy, healthy little boy.  I have not loved her as Christ loved the Church. I have not sacrificed myself for her.  The list goes on.   Marriage is part of the spiritual life just as worship, receiving the sacraments, praying, etc.  I know that it will take a long time, if I ever accomplish it at all, to love my wife to the point so selflessly to the point that I have died to myself.  

Saying to my wife, "I love you" is not and should not be just some platitude to say before I kiss her good night or when I see her after a long day at work.   It should be spoken as a prayer to Christ that I am hers for the sake of our Lord.  Maybe tomorrow, on our anniversary, we should go to the cemetery for a few minutes to more vividly remind myself about what marriage is, but I think we'll just go out to dinner instead.

Happy anniversary, my dear wife.  I love you.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Denied Communion Because You're Gay? How About a Different Angle of Examination

There is no shortage, either in the news media or in blogosphere, of stories of someone (mainly a Roman Catholic) who is denied communion for certain reasons, mainly by holding or supporting politically contrary views to established Roman Catholic dogma with regards to e.g. gay marriage and gay rights, abortion.  Generally, this information comes out in the form of an editorial of some supposedly "devout, super-Catholic who has gone to mass an overwhelming 8 times" [/sarcasm] who openly disagrees with his/her Church's teachings but feels that because he/she is a "good person" the Eucharist should not be denied him. Well, this same phenomenon has now happened to the Orthodox Communion.

In an editorial printed by the Washington Post, Gregory Pappas, writes that he was denied communion because he was gay.  This, of course, naturally set off a whirlwind of comments, both on the WaPo site and also in the Orthodox blogosphere in general.  A rebuttal was posted by famed Orthodox columnist Rod Dreher which also inspired a whirlwind of comments, both in support of Mr. Pappas and in support of Mr. Dreher.

Enough has been said about whether homosexuality per se is sinful and whether that constitutes being barred from the Holy Mysteries or whether only the acting upon homosexual impulses is the criterion for barring someone.  Even more has been said about how the Church is supposedly hypocritical because it has changed on other issues, so why not this one?  (Small digression:  Mr. Pappas says that the Church never allowed divorce.  That is patently false.  Divorce and remarriage have been consistently allowed by the Church, but one can never marry more than three times in the Church and divorce is always, ALWAYS accompanied by a period of exclusion from the mysteries for repentance.  Don't believe me?  Read about the Moechian controversy in the eighth century[that's right, 1100 years ago] when the Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine VI, demanded a fourth marriage!)

The issue that has not been examined or, rather, the person who has not been asked for his position is the priest of the church where Mr. Pappas was supposedly denied his communion.  Probably, he's not been asked because of his position and that would undermine the relationship between priest and pentient/layman.  Just as likely is that his priest has been asked because he would not want to do anything even hinting of a betrayal of the trust and confidentiality between priest and penitent. (Small digression #2:  Interesting how penitnet/layman side of that agreement is always greeted with praise when he breaks the seal, but if a priest does it, he's hounded [and should be, but really this standard needs to go both ways).

What many fail to understand is that it is the priest's job to faithfully distribute the Eucharist to the faithful.  That is an immense responsibility.  At a priest's ordination, the bishop, who celebrates the Liturgy, gives to the priest-to-be in his hand the entire lamb (i.e. that section of the prosphoron bread which is consecrated specifically for the Body of Christ) and he is told, in no uncertain terms, that he will be held responsible at the Last Judgment before Christ's Dread Throne for the faithful distribution of His Body and Blood.  My godfather, who is now a priest, told me about this.  He was shaking, literally just remembering that.  I'm made of weaker stuff and I know that once the bishop did that same thing for me, I'd give him back the Lamb and say "See ya!"  Whoever Mr. Pappas' priest may be and whatever church he serves is irrelevant.  Any priest of the Orthodox Church is entrusted with this awesome responsibility.  To give to anyone the Eucharist, where there is the slightest bit of doubt that it is given to an unrepentant person, is to blaspheme Christ.  Another thing that people who are unfamiliar with the Sacramental Nature of the Church is that the priest does not serve the Eucharist, but serves, in loco Christi, in the place of Christ.  Even though we may see a fellow human being in front of the altar, mystically, he becomes Christ, as we mystically become like the Cherubim (as we sing in the Cherubimic Hymn at every Divine Liturgy).  It is Christ who feeds us, not a human.

Why is no one talking about this angle?  The priest, and by extension, the whole Orthodox Church is made out to be the bad guy and  the bad guy cannot be allowed to have his say.  We cannot and should not ask the priest about this because that would break the priest and penitent bond of trust.  The problem is that many, both Catholics and Orthodox, view the Holy Mysteries (or Sacraments) as something you're entitled to because you're "in" just like you're "in" a country club or other organization.  We forget that this is Christ's Body and Blood, not yours, not the priests' and not the Church's (though the latter two are both responsible for safeguarding it undefiled).  Is there the possibility that this priest is abusing his responsibility?  Absolutely.  But, if this were the case, I'm sure there would be other reports.  Is there a possibility that the priest is not applying the canons equally?  Maybe.

One other thing that troubles me about this whole episode is that Mr. Pappas and his priest must have been in communication before this particular situation happened. It is rare, from my standpoint, that a priest does not give the Eucharist to someone who approaches, but there have been times where I was told by my priest (usually after a confession) to not receive the Eucharist for a period of time.  So, when the distribution to the faithful came, I did not even come forth.  I must ask whether Mr. Pappas knew about his not being able to receive in advance.  If he did, it was WRONG of him to present himself.  Of course, to the media and to nominal Christians, such an act would be applauded and encouraged, because there's no way Mr. Pappas could be in the wrong.

I will end by going off on one quote from his editorial:
I’m no activist. I don’t want to have a “big, fat, Greek gay wedding” in my church. I’m not going to march outside the Archdiocese headquarters. I love it the way it has always been—a place of love and compassion, a community of good, hard working people and an institution that realizes that we’re all broken in one way or another, and the church’s sacraments should be celebrated to heal us and make us whole. Because, while I may not be a biblical scholar, I believe I’m a good person; my Church taught me how to treat my fellow human, how to be compassionate and, more importantly, the difference between right and wrong.
So, he's not an activist and is not going to protest, but he's going to make sure everyone outside of the Church hears about it via the Washington Post?   Yeah, that's not activism at all.  I also love how he determines himself to be a "good person" and so therefore he should get whatever he thinks he deserves.  There's the crux of the issue.  His protest, his editorial, his anger is all rooted in himself, in what he thinks.  Even in the Orthodox Church, the rampant individualism courtesy of the Protestant Reformation, has crept in.  Everything should be in accordance to what I believe.  I am the final arbiter.  I get to decide.  No, you don't.  Christ through His Church does.