Sunday, January 26, 2014

Made Beautiful by the Gospel

"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." [St. Mark 1:14-15 RSVCE]

There was a master craftsman who was on a journey. In his travels he came upon a pot in a city. This pot was filthy. Not only was it covered with dirt and other stains, but it was also being used as a chamber pot. Yet this master craftsman immediately recognized that it was no ordinary pot. Sure enough, upon examining it he discovered that this pot was made of precious metal, though it had been dented and abused terribly. It had undoubtedly once belonged in a king's palace. The craftsman inquired after the pot, and purchased it from its owners. He cleansed the pot with clean water, and he took it to his workshop. There he carefully removed the stains, hammered out the dents, and restored the pot to its original shape. He polished the metal - which was precious silver and gold - set it with jewels, and restored to it the great beauty and love by which it was first made. At last he brought it to his king and presented it as a gift. And the king accepted the gift with joy.

We know that our Lord Jesus is also a master craftsman. Not only did He learn this skill from His foster-father St. Joseph, but He is the Son of God through whom the Father made all things that exist. When He says, "Repent, and believe in the gospel," it is as if He is saying each of us is like this poor abused pot, but now since He is here we can be cleansed and restored and brought to the King, His Father and ours.

But unlike the pot in this story, we have a part to play. The craftsman in the story does not say anything to the pot - because it is just a pot - but the Lord Jesus says to us, "Repent, and believe in the gospel." To repent means that the mind of the world outside the Church can no longer be our mind. There must be a break, and there must be a willingness on our part to do the breaking as often as it must be done. We must gain the mind of Christ, and this can only happen if believe the gospel.

The gospel of the Lord Jesus must become our new mind, because it is His mind, and it is the beating-heart of the kingdom of God. So that means we should know the gospels in our Bible! Some of us are great with sports statistics and some with movie quotes, because these have touched our hearts and brought us joy. The gospels in our Bible are greater than those things, and what they contain will outlast the memory of every movie or sporting event there ever will be. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of Christ in the gospels will never pass away.

It is amazing that what St. Mark records next is how our Lord Christ calls His first Apostles. And who do you think He calls? He calls Simon, who is St. Peter, which is where St. Mark is traditionally believed to have gotten most of his knowledge for the gospel he wrote. Who else does Christ call? St. Andrew, St. James, and ... St. John, who himself wrote the fourth gospel. So you see that already in the beginning of our Lord's ministry on earth He was taking care to provide witnesses that would tell you everything, so that you - like them - might trade in the mind this spiritually-blind world gives you for the mind of Christ, so that you could believe the gospel and live in the gospel, so that you might be saved from this perverse and wicked generation.

And so this is how our Lord Jesus begins His ministry on earth as a teacher and prophet. He says to us all that we need new minds and hearts, and new deeds and lives, which He is happy to give us. But again, we are not lifeless pots; we are human beings made in the image of God. It is up to us whether we will undergo the scrubbing necessary to remove a worldly mindset, and the heat and pounding required to hammer out the dents that come from falling into sins. But how can we ever become polished and shining if we don't! Kings don't like garbage cans at their banquet tables, so out of love for our heavenly King we should each take care to place ourselves into the hands of our master craftsman, our Lord Jesus, and be recast according to the mold of His gospel. Let us become vessels of love and generosity and goodness while we are in this world, because in the next world there will be no garbage cans at the King's banquet table, but only those made beautiful by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Image taken from a product for sale at

Friday, January 17, 2014

Preserve Us Against the Evils in the World

Pictured left is Michaelangelo's The Torment of St. Anthony (1487-9). It depicts the saint's trials against demonic forces in the wilderness.

O our venerable and God-bearing Father Anthony! We believe that you have great boldness in prayer standing before the throne of the Holy Trinity, and the All-Merciful Lord always hears you, His faithful servant. Wherefore, we humbly fall down before you with compunction, Saint of God: never cease to intercede for us to the Lord, Who is worshiped and glorified in the Trinity, that He may look mercifully on us and not let us perish in our sins, but would raise the fallen and give correction to the evil and wretched lives, averting our future transgressions, and forgive all faults committed in word or thought from our birth to the present hour. O ascetic of virtue, seeing the infirmity and sorrow of the present times, do not cease to entreat Christ God to not withdraw from us His loving-kindness, but to preserve us from worldly temptations, devil’s snares, and fleshly desires, so that we may receive all necessary for this temporary life, deliverance from affliction and tribulation, and unyielding patience to the end. Implore that we may lead the rest of our lives in peace and repentance and to pass from earth to heaven escaping tribulations, demons of the air, and eternal torments, and be worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom with you and all the saints that pleased our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor, and worship, together with His Father without beginning and His All-Holy, Good and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gone But Not Forgotten

It is amazing what you can find on the Internet. I was reading a new chapter in the updated version of the text required for the class I teach, when I discovered something kind of fun, or funny. The textbook made the point that photos you share online can often be found through search engines - the point being that nothing on the Internet is really private at all but public. So I decided to see if some of my photos that are posted on Facebook with privacy restrictions would show up. They did not, but something did that I did not expect. Aside from pictures on my blog I saw this:

This might have been an image I used once, or it might be one created to look like it came from my blog, but it caught my eye because I don't have images with this title on the Internet. Where on the Internet was this stored, and what else would be there? Did someone not update their links even after all this time? (For those that don't know or forgot, this blog was once called "Dropping the Ball" when I was a Lutheran, mainly because I was deeply concerned that the Lutheran Church or churches were not preserving the faith from the Apostles and apostolic age. I changed the name to "Catching the Ball" when my family and I converted to the Orthodox Christian faith, because this Church manifestly has maintained the faith from the Apostles and the apostolic age.)

I found it on Scott Diekman's "Stand Firm" blog in a post entitled "Remember When... #1." You can read the post yourself. In short, though, some fun was made at my expense for becoming an Orthodox Christian. It made me laugh, not because it was funny, but because it somehow seemed memorable to Scott after all this time (three years at the time of the post, five years now). Of course it should be memorable, because when a Lutheran pastor makes the difficult walk away from what his friends, family, and comrades tenaciously, even vociferously declare to be true for all time for all people in order to embrace something that is other than that, it is a startling testimony against all their own hopes and dreams and may even defy comprehension. But beyond its incomprehensibility the uncomfortable truth remains: someone at the heart of Lutheranism has witnessed against it, and he has staked his life on it.

I am not writing this to bash, decry, or shake my fist at Lutheranism. Mr. Diekman's post made me laugh, because it made me reminisce and caused me to reflect. Having come to the Eastern Orthodox Church I've come to something far greater than the East (especially since the West is alive and well here, too). I've gained freedom, perspective, and stability in the Church. Surprisingly I've satisfied my searching and wrestling, or at least I've removed what did not satisfy. I tend to feel like a soldier that has fought long in war, but now has to adapt to civilian life. There's no one to fight with anymore, nothing to "fix," nothing to reform - other than myself. That's not a pleasant prospect, but it is the only "reformation" that Christ has bequeathed to us, and it is what taking up the cross daily means.

What Is Different, What Has Remained the Same

I think I moved to a foreign country.

I attend an Antiochian Orthodox Church. That means it breathes Byzantine air, sings Byzantine tunes, phrases its hymns and prayers in long Greek-like run-on sentences, and it generally feels like I've wandered into a strange new planet. There is no German or Latin (except at Agape Vespers, and I'm the one reading it), but there is Greek and Russian and Romanian and Arabic. The potlucks have hummus instead of ham balls (btw, I love hummus), but there's still coffee (and it's even strong enough for me). But beyond the ethnic and cultural differences there is the Mass, in Byzantine style, but it is the Mass. The bloodless sacrifice is offered, which I think is all I ever wanted since I figured out what it was as a Lutheran (and I had a hard time at that). The cross and resurrection and Christ's ceaseless intercession in the Most Holy Place not made by human hands for our sins is present every Sunday. That is to say, our very atonement sits at center stage every week, wherein we taste for ourselves how Christ fills all in all.

So I would say I have gained consistency between my lex credendi and my lex orandi. What is new, though, is that I have very little to do with making sure that happens, except to fulfill my role as a Subdeacon in the Liturgy - but even in that sense this consistency between faith and practice goes on independently of me. I make nothing happen. Something greater than me is going on, as it should be.

I'm not a pastor anymore.

Some of my friends that converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy were Lutheran pastors, and a couple have been made priests in the Orthodox Church. I have not. It has been enough to renounce my vows made at ordination in the Lutheran Church so I could be free to live according to the Gospel of Christ. I say it is enough, because I sincerely liked the Lutheran Church. I liked being a pastor, and I love the people I shepherded as a servant of Christ. I enjoyed the Lutheran Mass in my parishes, and I enjoyed catechizing youth and new converts. I am deeply attached to my Lutheran family, friends, and colleagues (even the ones that don't speak to me anymore). Sometimes, though, the head has to rule the heart. It was enough to gain the freedom of Orthodoxy; I need nothing more for myself. I still am satisfied with what I carry with me from before my conversion, even the parts that I no longer have.

By the design of God I am a Subdeacon, which in Orthodoxy is a degree in the priesthood. It is among what is called the minor orders (so I am a Mr. not a Rev.). I get to use my experience and background today in the Church in a way that helps other people in a liturgical setting. I get to be close to the altar, and when the Bishop is present close to the Bishop. That is God's grace, and I thank Him for it. I don't think I desire to be a Deacon or a Priest - and since I'm happily married I never have to worry about being a Bishop! - so this is a change I live with. It is also a change for people that used to know me as "Pastor." Now I'm just Ben, and that's fine. I still carry the past with me, but now it lives hidden in an expatriated future. That might be what some would call 'the price' or 'the cost,' but I think it is more accurate to say it is the fulfillment and redemption and transfiguration of all that my time as a pastor was truly about. I can't make the world Orthodox. I certainly can't make Lutheranism or other Lutherans Orthodox. But I can be Orthodox, and at least *in me* heal Lutheranism in a way it could not heal itself through its history of reformation. I'd like to think that other Lutheran converts may feel the same way.

I still like reading the same books.

I still read about Western rite liturgy. I love it. I love the Western Mass, and I'm blessed to be able to serve at Holy Incarnation when I visit - though I don't get to visit as often as I wish. I still sometimes read Luther - and I enjoy it more, probably because I do not feel the tremendous pressure to make him palatable when he is not. I can see him for who he is: a product of his times who felt quite justified in bucking the authority of the medieval papacy for his own reading of the Church and her Scriptures. The Book of Concord is sometimes still fun to read, because now I am no longer obligated to harmonize it with the mark of catholicity it misses. Instead I can revisit once deeply held assumptions in its pages and muse upon their source and outcome, their value and the extent (or limit) of their vision. All of these things are still part of me, but now I have room in my life to continue on the road that began with them - out of the mindset of 16th century Wittenberg and into those places and times where there is comparative consistency, catholicity, and unity. I have not arrived so much as I have been granted the freedom to embark on the journey.

I still like Orthodox theological books (of course), but I no longer have a Lutheranism upon which to bring them to bear. So again that leaves me with the primary Christian task of bringing them to bear on myself, or using them to help me appreciate more deeply the Church all around me. (Btw, to all those Lutherans back in the day that enjoyed what I wrote about the condition of Lutheranism and the LCMS and the Ablaze! movement - like Mr. Diekman, who featured some of my writings on his own blog - it all came from the Orthodox Church.)

I'm still squeamish about Rome.

I have never wanted to be a Roman Catholic. I still don't. But in coming to Orthodoxy I have come to see that Rome is not what Lutheranism makes it out to be. The Western rite in Orthodoxy draws upon the liturgical tradition of Rome to a large extent. My first instinct whenever I do something new-to-me in the Western rite is to mentally flinch because of Rome-a-phobia. Every time that mental flinching has proved silly once I actually saw what was really going on. The rosary, for instance, is a really nice thing. I am conditioned against Rome (and so are a lot of Orthodox laity and clergy for their own reasons), but I would liken my experience of Rome-a-phobia to brainwashing, unintentional as it may be. And it takes time to undo brainwashing.

I still like going back to the seminary.

Let me tell you that I have surprised a few people by having the audacity to show up at my old Alma mater in Fort Wayne. Maybe given everything I've said above it does not seem so strange. I still love the campus, and I love the library. I don't go to chapel or anything, but I do go to the library. I especially like to run into old friends there, like anyone would.

In the end I don't think I've exchanged one world for another. I have not stifled my former identity to become someone new, or forgotten myself in order to gain a new Byzantine styled self. I have had to have patience, though, as I got to know (and get to know) what is new-to-me or foreign, but never at the expense of what is right and good and true. In time my personal cosmos has enlarged, if anything. And I am better off for it.