Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fasting...for Protestants?

In recent weeks and months, I have noticed a lot of chatter among friends of mine who are Protestant, specifically Lutheran, about the fasting and how this practice of the church should be incorporated into the spiritual lives of these Christians. My boss at work, a Baptist, said that she was going through the 21 day Fast of Daniel. So, what's the deal? Why is fasting, usually immediately condemned by the Protestants as an activity that is done to "earn salvation" becoming more and more embraced by them, both laity and clergy, as a spiritual discipline? There seems to be a number of books recently published by Protestants that have set off a firestorm of inquiry. I wonder, why now? What has happened now to prompt this discussion?

Before I consider the answer to the last question, I should perhaps detail my own perspective when it comes to fasting when I grew up Lutheran.

I knew that modern day Lutheranism was not the Lutheranism that even Luther would be shocked to find. The liturgy, in most places, has been scrapped for emotionally pleasing, theologically thin worship and practice. As a history buff, I always was curious about the early church and especially its praxis. The more I read, the more I found that the religion I grew up with had so divorced itself from its history and tradition that its raison d'etre was to be anything that the Roman Catholics weren't. But this raison d'etre wasn't monolithic, far from it. There were essentially two groups who were antithetically opposed. On the one hand, for one group, there was a great rise in Biblical fundamentalism as opposed to the view by another gourp that Scripture should be looked at organically, casting off what was relevant to one culture vs. another. One group remained "high church" while the other remained "low church." These two groups are best represented, at least here in the states by the ELCA and the LCMS. Jaroslav Pelikan, the great editor of Luther's works who became an Orthodox Christian toward the end of his life, once observed that the ELCA was becoming Methodist and the LCMS was becoming Baptist. But, both groups, despite their differences were unified by one thing: they weren't Catholic. Fasting was a Catholic thing so there was no way a Lutheran should ever do the same. I must say that such a way of thinking is being challenged on both sides, but that's a discussion for a different time.

As to fasting, I wondered why Lutherans shouldn't abstain from meat like the Catholics did on Friday. After all, wasn't Christ crucified on Friday? He gave up His own life, is it that unreasonable that I should give up chicken or red meat? Apparently, it was. I also remember that it was encouraged that Catholics fast during the Triduum, the three Holy Days of Maunday Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I remember that I asked my mother if I could do this and I was told no. In her defense, I think she was more concerned about my health than worrying about being stolen away by "Catholic thinking." But once I was out of the house, I found that I could not do it since I had no anchor. No pastor would counsel me on this and found no benefits about this. When I pointed to passages in the Confessions, I was met by the typical response that such things were fine back in the 16th century, but not for us modern and enlightened Americans (no, that's not exactly what they said, but you get the picture). But if one were to examine the Lutheran Confessions, one can find several passages where fasting is specifically mentioned and even lauded.

However, it should be observed that even in the Lutheran Confessions, fasting is not condemned but there is the usual caveat. In the Augsburg Confession, we read:
Therefore, we do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions which prescribe certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service.

The wording, like many typical passages of the Augsburg Confession, indicates that fasting is good, but advises the faithful that they don't hold to any rule because that amounts to legalism and the "earning" of salvation. Now, in fairness to the authors of the Augsburg Confession, I'm sure they readily observed, back in the 16th century, a great many of faithful people who were fasting to win points with God, whether the cause was borne from guilt or shame or whatever and that there needed to be a corrective. But holding to a rule is not being legalistic. Why extol the spiritual benefits of such a practice if it is only practiced "when one wants to?" Such is the great peril of the Lutheran position: it is grounded in individuality (a precursor to our own Western sense of individual liberty) to the point that one becomes the sole arbiter as to what is spiritually beneficial. And if there is no difference, spiritually speaking, between fasting and not fasting, why not just jettison the practice all together? It's an untenable position. You can't say that x and the -x amount to the same thing. Do prayer and no prayer amount to the same spiritual benefits? If our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ said that the faith to move mountains comes from prayer and fasting, then surely prayer alone is not enough and fasting alone is not enough, but they should both be incorporated.

Apparently, much of the interest in the subject of fasting can be traced back to a Scott McKnight book entitled Fasting. I have not read it but it has made waves in Lutheran and other Protestant circles. You can find out more information about it here. From what I've read about the author, he is an Anabaptist which puts him in the school of the radical reformers of Zwingli. There are some other books to on fasting including Fasting: Opening the door to a deeper, more intimate, more powerful relationship with God by Jentezen Franklin. I've not read this book either so if anyone has specific insights beyond what the reviewers on can tell me, please post them here. Based on the editorial review on, it looks like it's a book that would appeal to the Joel Osteen crowd.

Now, to address my question as to why fasting is becoming a such a hot topic outside of Orthodox and even Roman Catholic circles. Could it be rooted in the fact that the mainstream Protestant denominations are dying? I'm very serious about this. Recent statistics, even those published by those same Protestant denominations, all indicate that the number of people who are registered faithful members are dwindling? The ELCA, once 10 million strong is now under 5 million in the course of 30 years. Many of the people leaving such churches are not just heading to another Protestant body, but are either leaving the Protestants all together for atheism/agnosticism/do-what-you-feel-like Christianity or for the traditional religions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the only Christian confession in the Americas that is growing. Even the Baptists are dwindling in numbers. Those people who have left Protestantism for the Orthodoxy or Catholicism do so because they grow tired of a generic form of Christianity which plays to people's feelings and does little to shepherd a fundamental ontological change. Protestantism now has become more a bastion of entertainment for Sundays then a lifestyle that prescribes repentance. And now, many people have finally caught on and they are leaving the Protestants in droves to seek out the churches which actually demand repentance and change and have spiritual disciplines to effect such repentance. Not only are these people craving disciplines like fasting, they crave the Liturgy, the Church Fathers, the traditional hymns and not the anthropocentric nature of worship in most of America's Protestant Churches.

Thus, and again I haven't read either one of the books mentioned above, could this movement be inspired, conscious or not, to keep people from swimming the Tiber or the Bosphorus? Could the authors be thinking, "We're not Orthodox, but you don't have to be Orthodox to fast so please don't leave us?" What's next? More books by Protestants on the importance and practice of confession or the Divine Liturgy or on the Church Fathers? Now, maybe I'm going out on a ledge here with such a "conspiracy theory" but it's not unreasonable to think that the leaving of many Protestants for Rome or Constantinople because of the spiritual depths they have is connected by the publishing and discussion of church practices particularly esteemed by those two bodies. Just a guess.

Why we SHOULDN'T worry about who's there and who's not

Omaha got hit with yet another snow storm, this time dumping about 6-9" in the metro area. The storm started last night at around 4:00 and lasted into the early morning hours. Fortunately, by the time I got up to leave for church, the snow had ceased, the sun was shining and the roads were not in really bad shape. You know I have to give credit where credit is due and the men and women who operate the snow snowploughs around here have been doing excellent work these past few weeks!

Last night at Great Vespers, there were only four of us besides the priest (2 of us being chanters). This morning, only about six or seven got to Orthros prior to the Great Doxology and then when the last person arrived, we had about 25 or so parishioners. That's not bad on a Sunday when you consider that most area churches had canceled all or some of their Sunday services and a great many people just decided not to risk the roads when the snow had only stopped a few hours earlier.

Nonetheless, it is very hard to NOT take a headcount of who is there and who is not. Even when weather conditions were optimal, I cannot recall the last time 10 people (besides chanters and the priest) were present at Great Vespers or Orthros prior to the start of the Divine Liturgy. It just never happens anymore and I'm sure that is just due to the fact that many people who have been Orthodox their whole lives were never taught by their parents or priests that Vespers and Orthros were just as integral to their spiritual lives as the Liturgy, the Eucharist and even their own private prayers. Others simply don't come because Saturday is social time and Sunday morning is the only time they can sleep in. I used to care about this a great deal. Now, I don't.

Why the change? Because the church is never empty. Yes, we miss our brother and sister parishioners when they are absent, but even when they are absent, the church is even more full. Too many people worry that more people in the pews automatically translates to greater praise of God. I can assure you that one solitary monk on Athos probably puts more effort into his daily worship and prayer than many of us do for our entire lifetimes! But God is still worshiped and the appropriate honour due Him is given even if done by a quarter of our normal attendance. Because the bodiless powers, i.e. angels are always singing the praises of God. Such is their nature. Such is their job. They sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" 4-7-365. We should be reassured that no matter how many of our fellow Christians are absent from the church that day, the angels will worship with us.

It took me a very long time to come to grips with this. Sometimes, I felt that this excuse existed to let us off the hook for not doing a better job of bringing more people into the church who could be there on any given Sunday. But, it we are to really examine what worship is and what it isn't, the more doesn't equal the better. We have a lot of passive worshipers and I'm not talking about the ones who don't/can't sing (they pray mentally). I'm talking about the ones who come only to see friends and talk during a great part of the service. Usually, it's days like this that weed them out. But even with the absence of our choir and the absence of a great many people, there can be no doubt that what took place at church this morning was the worship of God in purity and in truth with a great many of the heavenly host to help out.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You KNOW you've been married...

if you were married in an Orthodox Church! Such were the words spoken by a friend of mine when we were at the reception following the wedding of two friends of mine who granted me the honour of chanting the ceremony. Hopefully, my mediocrity as a chanter for the ceremony will not in any way spoil their life together! Preserve them, O Lord!

My friend's words have echoed with me for the past several days. I have chanted many Orthodox weddings and one of the nice things about the Orthodox wedding service is that there is little to no variance. Sure, some people might have some "incidental music" played before the ceremony begins and some afterward, but unlike non-Orthodox weddings which seem to be tailor-made by each couple reflecting their own likes and preferences, the Orthodox service stays the same and is chanted without instrumental accompaniment. The only difference for this particular wedding was that two penitential prayers were substituted for the prayer which invokes the Old Testament exemplars of marriage and prays that the couple be as fruitful and as faithful. The reason for this substitution is that the couple that was married was entering into their second union, thus prayers for fertility and such were omitted.

Despite the variability in this particular wedding, all Orthodox weddings have the same content. We pray, as a community, that their union be fruitful (unlike in Western confessions which treat childbirth not as a pillar of marriage but as an elective that one can opt out of), that they be faithful, that they submit to each other (the epistle reading is from Ephesians not from 1 Corinthians 13, which, in my opinion is so overused), that they die to each other for the sake of Christ as martyrs to Christ (that is why there are many hymns sung in honour of the martyrs; and as martyrs receive crowns of glory, so is the couple crowned, and, above all, that Christ is the center and unwavering focus of their marriage. The Gospel reading is from Christ's miracle at the Wedding of Cana (an icon of this event is a traditional gift) and as Christ transforms the water into wine, into something different, Christ also transforms the couple into one flesh, fulfilling God's covenant to Adam once Eve was formed from his rib.

Every action at the wedding ceremony is done in the name of the trinity, whether it is the betrothal or the crowning. Whenever we invoke the martyrs or the apostles or any of the saints, it is always done in the context that their lives and even their marriages were lived by confessing the Consubstantial Trinity! As the Trinity exists as a perfect example of lover and loved thus we pray such occurs for the newly wedded couple.

Now, I'm not saying that those Christians who were married in a non-Orthodox wedding were married in a non-Christian ceremony. However, all too often, the songs and the blessings are more centered on that the bride and groom be happy in their life together. Vows are written by the couple, which often have some humor. Stories, often funny ones, are told about how the couple met. There is much talk of love (hence the reading from 1 Corinthians 13), but little talk of love as far as what Christ says about love, which is total self-denial and that it is truly expressed by even giving up your very life for the sake of your friends. In short, such weddings as I have seen emphasize the couple and their "special day" as the focus rather than Christ. If that works for you, more power to you.

We lament that our society, by large, has made marriage into a convenience or a mere legal contrivance which can be entered into and left at one's discretion. At this time of year when we lament that Christ has been taken out of Christ-mas, should we not also lament that Christ has been taken out of marriage or just given some lip-service? Orthodox laity go through divorce but the statistics also do share that the Orthodox go through divorce much less than the Protestant or Catholic communities of the United States. I don't think a mere change of ceremony is the remedy just as I don't believe that every Christian using St. John Chrysostom's Liturgy every Sunday will make better Christians. But if the marriage ceremony where Christ is the center and the celebrant of the wedding is the starting line, then perhaps it is more likely that the couple will finish together both in this life and in the age to come.

Many years to Eric and Suzie!