Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Stop passing the offering plate

Another blog I frquently read has a tongue-in-cheek diatribe about maybe getting rid of the time honored practice of passing the collection plate during church services. The blogger remarked that doing this every Sunday robs it of how offering our own gifts, meager as they are, like the woman who offered only two mites compared to the lofty sums of gold paid by the wealthy, is a reflection of our love for God. Now, he went on further to say that other "every Sunday" acts like the recitation of the Lord's prayer, a sermon, reading the Scriptures, etc. should also go because if those acts are present every Sunday, they will become "less special." Needless to say, the person who wrote this is NOT an Orthodox.

But, why not stop the practice of passing around the plate? In my parish, only on Sunday Divine Liturgies are the collection plates passed. This is never done at Vespers or on weekday Liturgies or services. And that may be due to the fact that there are few people there in the first place. Still, why not stop this entirely? The collection plate is always passed at my church during the singing of "Axion os estin" (It is truly right). Granted that this hymn is well known and is sung at more than the Divine Liturgy, but how many people are distracted by opening their wallets or purses to find some money to put in there? And how many more people are distracted by wondering when the plate will get to their location? They are not focusing on the words of the hymn, which invariably sums up our Incarnational Theology that God is With Us, but focusing on the money we give to the church.

My question: If this practice were to stop altogether, would people then forget to contribute their pledges and tithes? If it wouldn't, then why continue with it? It's a needless distraction.

I'm probably going to be in the minority on this one and I'm not trying to disparage giving back to our Lord, but why must it be done in a way which not only takes away our attention from the Divine Liturgy, but also could encourage people to judge others (look at that person; he didn't put money in the tray. Sinner!). I'm going to bring this up at the next voters meeting and see how much traction this will gain. I'm sure it will be laughed at or just dismissed, but I've always believed in lost causes!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Just Divorced

Sorry for the confusing title, but I am not just divorced; it has more to do with the picture I posted which a friend of mine took. Heck, I am still in that zone of "just married."

It is still one of those "traditional" things that married couples, having immediately taken their nuptial vows, immediately speed away in a car with the motto "Just married." People are supposed to see that and honk with approval or give the newly weds a thumbs up or something. I'm grateful that my wife and I decided not to go for that tradition. However, the people who opt to do such a thing probably only do so because they are happy and want everyone to share in their happiness. There is nothing wrong with that but that wasn't for me.

The picture, which a friend of mine posted on her facebook page, shows a car with a "just divorced" slogan painted with various decorations. Now, I do not know the person who put this up on the car (it may well not have been one of the divorcees, but maybe a friend who thought it funny), but why would one exult in something which is not a good thing? Divorce may be necessary, but necessary does not always equal good. I'm thankful the Orthodox Church has not gone the way of the legalistic Roman Catholic Church and prohibited divorce for any reason. But, even in the Orthodox Church, a divorced man or woman is excommunicated for a brief time and repents because even if one party was not really "at fault" for what happened, marriage is a two way street and, hence, both are responsible.

This form of exultation in divorce may be novel but the fact is many celebrate divorce with "divorce showers" and parties. Many consider it to be the "best thing that ever happened to them." I remember when I was a pawn broker for a brief time. If a woman or a man wanted to sell engagement rings and/or wedding bands, I would always ask why. The point of the question wasn't to be nosy or get into their personal business, but if I was taking stolen merchandise, both the store and I could be in big trouble. My probing questions would almost always ascertain the reason for selling was due to divorce and they didn't need the rings anymore. As a form of habit, I would always say "I'm sorry." And they would almost always reply the same way that it was "the best thing that happened to them." After hearing that so many times, I asked myself if they also thought of their marriages as "the best thing that ever happened to them."

We live in a society that is increasingly celebrating bad things. We have contests to see who can eat the much and reward them. We have records for how long your fingernails are. This is not news, but promoting and celebrating divorce in the same way we promote marriage is a far cry from celebrating who can eat the most pies in 10 minutes! Everyone has their own scheme for hitting the snooze button on their 15 minutes of fame.

I have no brilliant insights as to how to curb these trends. And I don't think that if other confessions of Christianity start to regard and treat marriage as a a sacrament will the epidemic of divorce cease. I don't know the statistics but I don't believe that the rate of divorce among Orthodox Christians is any higher or lower than that of Evangelicals, mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics or even among Americans as a whole, regardless of religious conviction or confession.

I do know this though. Marriage is sacrifice of a spouse to the other for the sake of Christ. It is a martyrdom of sorts, which is why the Orthodox sing hymns of the martyrs and why St. Stephen the Protomartyr is invoked at the dismissal. Though divorce may be necessary for abuse, infidelity, and other breaches of trust, divorce is turning inward towards oneself. I-thou is replaced with I, me, mine (apologies to George Harrison). Love is replaced with indifference. But, of course, there is remedy for such inward turning--repentance through Christ our Lord.

Let us rejoice in only what is good. Marriage is right and honorable and blessed and good. Christ Himself was a celebrant of marriage during his earthly travails. It was at the Marriage of Simon the Zealot at Cana where Christ performed His first sign or miracle, the changing of the water into wine. Divorce may be necessary, but never good and never worthy to be praised as such.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Cross above all shows God's love for His creation

Today, September 14 (Revised Julian), the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. We began to celebrate this feast starting this past Sunday with the very familiar Gospel reading of John 3:16 and continues for the next week. In all the hymns sung at the Vesperal Liturgy last night (which I grant I am not a fan of), one theme permeated everything: God's Love for His Creation. Yes, there are other themes there such as the Cross being the weapon which deceived the great deceiver, i.e. Satan and how that Cross trampled down death and how it lifts us from the curse and the wages of our sins. But those lessons are only given weight from the foundation of God's love.

When Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross is not the same as why Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross? Yes, we do it when the Holy Trinity is invoked but it also confesses St. Cyril's very famous Theopaschite formula, that "God died on the Cross." The actions on the cross were not just completed by Christ but was an act of love within the Trinity and given to the cosmos, the Trinity's creation. The Trinity is unified as an act of love and actions that spring from the Trinity are realities of that love which binds. We make the sign of the cross because we know and confess that God loves us. We also wear crosses around our necks to proclaim that very same message.

Also, look at the iconography of the crucifixion. Notice how Christ is not hanging as if he lacks the strength as is common in Roman Catholic and Protestant art. In Eastern iconography, it appears that Christ is holding up the Cross, that it can only stand because he allows it to stand. Also notice how Christ's arms are stretched across the beam as if he is trying to embrace us or that He loves us this much.

But when the cross is reduced to a mere weapon of torture or the cross is only examined through the lens of penal satisfaction and atonement, then the focus ceases to be on God's love for man, but on man's guilt over his own sins. Yes, each man needs to be repentant of his own sins but not to the point where man fails to see any worth in himself. God certainly found worth in us or else he would not have saved us through Crucifixion and death, let alone even created us! I wonder sometimes that those who are in the various Western traditions only wear the cross around their neck for the same reason the mariner from Coleridge's poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" wore the dead albatross around his neck: to remind them of their crimes and guilt? Such an anthropocentric mindset has no room for the compassion and mercy of God.

There are those who say, mainly Lutherans, that the Orthodox do not follow the Way of the Cross. I'm not going to get into how utterly nonsensical that charge is, but if the Way of the Cross or the Theology of the Cross is to be forever focused on ourselves, our shortcomings, our guilt and not as what God has done for us, then that's the Way of Man.

So, let us cast off our despondency and rejoice in the Cross and rejoice in our God's mercy and compassion for His Creation. For He did not will that His Creation should perish and is not pleased in the perdition of men but that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. Will all be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth? Sadly, no, but our Lord still desires it and did so with the very sacrifice of Himself on that hill in Jerusalem in 33 A.D.

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy rulers (people) victory against the barbarians (enemies) and by the power of Thy Cross, preserving Thine estate.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Never forget

May their memories be eternal! May their souls dwell with the righteous in a place of refreshment where there is no longer any sorrow, evil or pain.

Worship of God is not just with your mind.

Worship requires your very whole self. Read further here from Abbot Tryphon.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interfaith Worship on the Rise since 9/11

Ever since 9/11, whose tenth anniversary is coming up in but a few short days, the number and frequency of interfaith worship has increased significantly. You can read the article from ENI here. What I express here is only my personal opinion and may be construed as most uncharitable. My apologies if you feel this way.

Let me start with a supposition: Interfaith worship can be dangerous. First, let me be very clear about what I mean by interfaith. I am not talking about Chrisians of one confession praying with another (though I will admit and expound upon, at a later time, that such is fraught with a number of traps) but I am talking about christians praying with Buddhists or Moslems with Hindus or animists with Shintos, etc. Now, whatever Shintos, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Taoists, animists, etc. pray and with whom is their own business and I'm more than content to let them do as they please. But for christians, especially Orthodox Christians, to pray with members of other religious faiths is dangerous.

The reason not so much is because these different religions have a different theism but also their anthropology is significantly different as well. For instance, orthodox christianity (notice, small-o orthodoxy here) contends that man is in a corrupt state because of sin whose humanity can only be realized, recovered and saved through faith in the person and salvaic actions of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Triune God (now there are some variations on a theme with that and differences of emphasis within Christianity as a whole). But, contrast this with various other religious beliefs which do not even have a name or concept for sin but also no mediator between God and man and man is left to his own devices and morality to achieve its "salvation" however that is defined. Where and what is the common ground? How can there be interfaith worship of God when both the starting line and finishing line are not the same. They may converge at one point or some points along the way, but that convergence is infrequent and often inconsequential and all religions do not converge at the same point. Several may, but not all.

Interfaith services seek to impose the idea that all religions are the same, just different expressions. Now, again, whatever faith works for another person is fine by me but I know the truth as it has been revealed. What these services promote is the idea of union. Now how can anyone be against union? Isn't that a good thing? Yes, when union or unity occurs on all levels. Unity cannot be accomplished on a surface agreement of a few tenets. Many confuse unity with toleration; they are not one and the same.

But, isn't tolerance a good thing? Of course it is, but why should the avenue for tolerance of others' religions and religious beliefs be only done in the context of an interfaith worship service? There are plenty of other ways of encouraging interfaith dialogue and understanding and tolerance without having to incorporate worship into it.

For an Orthodox Christian, reading the canons about interfaith prayer and worship indicate a very clear answer. Both are forbidden. For example, you may read If any clergymen, or laymen, enter a synagogue of Jews, or of heretics, to pray, let him be both deposed and excommunicated (Canon LXV of the Holy Apostles) or One must not join in prayer with heretics or schismatics (Canon XXXIII of Laodicia). But those canons are not legal sanctions but are principles. They SHOULD NOT be used as an excuse to justify an isolationism or hatred of those who are not Orthodox Christians nor should they be used as a metaphorical 2x4 against anyone who may participate in an interfaith service. The Church is catholic (notice, small "c" catholic), that is, it is meant for everyone, though everyone may not want or desire to be joined to it. There is no black and white answer to this issue, but we should be very cautious, especially in this ecumenical age of ours which holds that every belief and idea is of equal value, not one superior to another, to believe that interfaith services are not potentially harmful.

Prayer is worship and it is communion with God. Christ Himself prayed much during His earthly sojourn. Prayer is an act of love which binds the lover and beloved. Such is why the Trinity is described as a communion of love between its three hypostases or persons. Prayer seeks not only to unite us with the divine but seeks to unite the community. An Orthodox Christian praying the same prayer as a Hindu or Jew or Moslem or Buddhist or Taoist or whomever elevates that heterodox prayer. Though we should be tolerant and forgiving, we should not be engaged in actions which elevate heterodoxy or heresy to the same level as orthodoxy (again, small "o" orthodoxy).

As a corollary, a person of another Christian confession, asked me for some Orthodox prayers he could use in his personal prayer life. I asked him if he wished to become Orthodox. He said no but he just liked to incorporate other confessions' prayers into his own life. I asked him what confession he professed and he said that he was Baptist. Why would you want to pray as an Orthodox if you don't want to be Orthodox, I asked. He had no answer. This is the pitfall. Whatever confession works for you, then you should worship God or Allah or whomever with all your might and your body and your soul. But if you seek to combine prayers, rituals, traditions, dogmas of different confessions, then you are nothing but hopelessly adrift upon a sea of endless theological (and anthropological) possibilities with no anchor or sight of land. This is the danger. The Orthodox Church is a praying church. The prayers which have been handed down from the Scriptures, the Liturgies,the offices, the writings of the Fathers are without measure of theological depth and profound truths. Why do those prayers require supplementation from the Buddhist or the Jew?

Orthodox Christians should err on the side of caution and not be active participants in these interfaith services. We should not pray with them, but absolutely and constantly pray for them.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to support your priest

In this competitive world of ours, everything is up for comparisons. From our kids doing well in sports or in academics, to our respective sports teams, everything seems to be built upon competition. We even rank our jobs and vocations against others. I would like to think that one is no better than the other, that all are useful and necessary. We could spend hours of debate as to which profession is most demanding, most rewarding, most beneficial and it would be, in the end, a waste of time. I think a great many people, if so inclined to rank the professions, would probably proffer the usual suspects: doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, entrepreneurs. But, what about the parish priest or pastor?

I'm not a priest and I don't plan on being one. For those of us converts to the faith, recent and not so recent, there is this sense of "clinginess" since it is often a priest who brought us into the faith. As such, parishioners try to make the priest their own. I can only imagine what kind of life, outside of Liturgies, baptisms, weddings, catechism classes, parish council meetings, confessions, other meetings, the priest lives. Since I cannot provide that information, maybe this will.

I have added a new blog to the list called "The Morning Offering" by Abbot Tryphon, a Russian Orthodox Priest and Monk. In one of his recent posts, reprinted below, Abbot Tryphon talks about the incredible daily demands put on a priest and how those demands can really take a toll. He also stresses the need for parishioners to understand these demands and not be hasty in judgment but supportive for everything that the priest does. Much of this was extremely informative. I hope it is such for you.

Parish priests feel pressures that are found in no other profession. The type of man that generally is drawn to the holy priesthood is one who has a heart for serving others.

Bishops and priests are often expected to do far more than is humanly possible. Bishops, as fathers to their people, are expected to be superhuman. Judged if they are not.

Over the years I've heard terrible stories of parish priests having to cancel vacations at the last minute because of sudden deaths in their parishes, requiring them to cancel airline tickets, leaving both they and their families without the much needed time away. One priest told me how his young son had been looking forward to a camping trip and cried when his dad had to tell him they couldn't go, because an important family in the parish requested that only he could do the funeral, rejecting having another priest step in.

Countless priests have to put in long hours, missing dinner with their families because of wedding rehearsals, hospital calls, counseling sessions. The average priest gets Monday off, yet is expected to forgo his only day off if someone needs to see him, or a parish council decides to have a meeting that evening. They demand their priest be available whenever they need him, regardless of the time of day, or the needs of his family.

One priest told me about having performed a baptism of a child for a family that rarely came to church, only to have them walk out immediately following the service, leaving him to mop up the spilled water, while they and their friends ran off to celebrate at a restaurant. He was given such a pitiful stipend for his services that he just dropped it in the poor box. They didn't even invite him to join them at the restaurant. He said he wouldn't have had the time to join them, but the invitation to do so would have been nice.

Most clergy receive a very small salary and are expected by their parishioners to be happy with what they have. The stipend is thus very important to the priest, yet I know of countless clergy who travel many miles from their rectory, bless the home and receive nothing for their services (the normal stipend for extra services like this is one hundred dollars).

Like all children, priest's kids need time with their father. Normal jobs allow dads to leave their job at work, giving themselves plenty of time to meet the needs of their children, but not in the case of clergy. Being on call 24/7, the families of priests often have to forgo planned meals, outings and family affairs because of the demands of their people. Most priests have such a strong desire to be in service, they simply can't say no.

The children of priests, as well as their wives, also must suffer the undo scrutiny of the parishioners, expected, as they are, to be perfect. Given all this, is it any wonder the children of priests often wouldn't think of becoming priests themselves? Please, whatever you do, don't criticize your priest in front of his family. How often I've heard priest's wives and children lament having to put up with attacks on their husbands/fathers by people who don't think he's doing enough! People airing their grievances at parish meetings, with the children and wives having to hear it all.

I share all this with my readers because most of you are unaware just how difficult a job your priest has and how much is demanded of his time. Most of you love your priests but are just unaware that he rarely gets his own needs met. I remember one priest in Detroit, would lived in substandard housing, while all his parishioners lived in nice homes. No one made any effort to make sure their priest (single in his case) was living in medium income housing, somewhere in the middle of all his people (the norm for most protestant churches).

How can a priest take care of the education of his children when his salary is at the poverty line? One horror story I remember hearing was of a priest who's parish council gave him an increase in salary that put him just over the line so he'd no longer qualify for food stamps, since this made the parish look bad. The priest and his family ended up with less, rather than more!

All of the above could be said for bishops as well. We really need to start taking care of our bishops, making sure they have adequate compensation, days off for restoration of soul and proper rest, and a whole lot less criticism from their people.

Love your priests and bishops, just as they love you. Give them support. Show them you care by sending them a little gift on their names day, or emailing them on occasion, letting them know you care about them. Tell them when you've liked their homily, invite they and their families to dinner on occasion. Let them know you care. Remember your bishop and priest with a thoughtful little gift, or a check, on Christmas and Pascha. Let them know you care about them. Make sure the parish council knows you think your priest should receive a proper salary. You'd be shocked at the average income of most protestant clergy compared to what most Orthodox priests receive.

The life of your priest can be greatly extended if you don't allow him to work himself to death. Make sure he does take at least one day off. Tell him to turn off his cell phone on those days. Call the rectory before knocking at the door. You have no idea how many priests evenings with their families are derailed with a knock at the door.

I'm sharing all of this with you because I know your priest will not. He loves you and he loves Christ whom he serves. Make him pace himself and you'll have him around to baptize your grandchildren. Don't expect him to be perfect. Most importantly, pray for your bishops and your priests. Honor and love them, and refrain from judging them.

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon