Saturday, August 29, 2009

Barley Tea

While in Michigan I've been enjoying a wonderful Japanese restaurant called the Sushi Den. It's new in town and caters very well to both displaced Japanese natives and local Americans alike. Their prices are affordable compared to other authentic Japanese cuisine restaurants, and the food is both delicious and very Japanese.

If you eat in you are offered a choice between water or tea. The hot tea is a standard Japanese variety - green, I believe. However, there is also a cold variety. We learned that it is a barley tea, something very popular in Japan (and other nationalities, too). It had a rich, roasted flavor on par with a good coffee. It was so delicious.

I had never had barley tea before, nor did I even know such a thing existed. Before leaving we found some in tea bags at a local oriental market and brought some home. For more information there is a Wikipedia article on it.

Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Today we commemorate how raging rulers and unbelievers conspired together to sever the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, but only accomplished the completion of that bridge's span by sending the greatest of prophets on ahead of his Lord to prepare His way even in Hades. Great is the Lord's mercy in His suffering prophets, of whom the world is not worthy. Greater still is the Lord Himself, who is our Mercy, Life, and Salvation.

Do you remember when Sts. James and John wanted to be the ones seated at Christ's right and left hand in His kingdom? And our Lord said that it was not for Him to choose, but those places have been prepared already for others. I don't know if there is an official teaching on this one, but when I think of that passage this icon comes to mind:

Icon courtesy of An appropriate festal icon is located at the Antiochian site.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Modern Sayings: Elder Paisios

The following is a quote from a book entitled, "Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit" from Protecting Veil Press. It is like a modern version of the Desert Fathers, with the main difference being that the featured monks and their sayings lived within the past 100 years or so. The first quote is what is generating my post.

Theology is the word of God comprehended by pure, humble, and spiritually reborn souls. It is not the beautiful words of the mind which are formed with philological artistry and are expressed with the juridicial or worldly spirit. Created words can't speak to man's soul, just as a beautiful statue is not able to speak, unless the audience is very worldly and is satisfied simply by beautiful words. Theology that is taught as a [worldly] science usually examines things historically and consequently understands things externally. Because patristic asceticism and inner experience are absent, this theology is full of doubts and questions. With his mind man is not able to comprehend the divine energies unless he first struggles ascetically to live these energies, so that the grace of God might work within him. -- Elder Paisios, pp. 140-141

The Elder's description of theology as beautiful words is how I approached it before my conversion. I'm still enamored by theology as beautiful words. I think that it was when I began lamely to pursue faith ascetically that the genuineness of Orthodoxy became clear in the face of what I then subscribed to, though it still took time for me to realize this.

This second quote is amusing to me (and helpful), because it comes from one who obviously lives in our modern context, as opposed to the more famous Desert Fathers from antiquity.

There are no people more blessed than those who have made contact with the "heavenly television station" and who are piously connected to God. In the same way, no people are more wretched than those who have cut contact with God and wander, dizzy, around the world, flipping through the world's many television stations so as to forget, if only for a short time, the anguish of the derailment of their lives. -- Elder Paisios, p. 136

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ann Arbor is Fun

My family and I spent the past couple weeks in Michigan with my family. We've tried to spend as much time as possible with them this summer for many reasons, one of which is to try to makeup for being absent for over four years (for which my grandfather - entirely without malice - says I can never do). Going up to Michigan gives us an opportunity to do things we used to do before seminary, and to share some favorite things with our kids.

One thing we have come to enjoy is going to the Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor. When I was a kid we went nearly every year in elementary school as a class field trip. We've been there before as a family, but we've never managed to catch a planetarium show. The first time we were there the planetarium was being renovated. Another time we were there during the week, when planetarium shows were only on weekends. This time, though, we were lucky; there were shows on weekdays, and we got in. There were us and another family in the small planetarium space (which I remembered being so much bigger when I was a kid). The young man running the show invited questions, which we were happy to bombard him with. He did very well, proving himself knowledgeable about many related things.

While we waited for the planetarium show, we toured the rest of the museum's exhibits. The second floor featured dinosaur bones and prehistoric fossils and model exhibits.

I can see how the mammoths got their name.

The third floor featured exhibits on Michigan wildlife. The fourth floor featured model exhibits of native American life and examples of various crystal and rock formations. Also featured were pictures from the Hubble space telescope.

Afterwards we crossed the Diag and got a bite to eat at a local pizza place. The pizza was a bit bigger than we expected...

... but not big enough to stop our appetites.

Ann Arbor is a fun place. I hear it's one of the best places in the country to live, if not the very best.

Film Review: Hana and Alice

I mostly post on theological topics, but I do have other interests - really!. One is things Japanese. I am interested in Japanese culture, language, and film.

Recently I viewed a 2004 movie called Hana and Alice by director and writer Shunji Iwai. On the surface this film seems quirky: Hana, a teenage girl, schemes to trick a boy she secretly likes into thinking he has amnesia. While following him around Hana observes him colliding with a door and stumbling to the ground unconscious. When he awakens there is a girl he doesn't know - Hana - crouched over him in concern. She immediately takes advantage of the situation, insisting that they are in a relationship together, and that he has forgotten how he professed his love for her. As the tale unfolds she brings her best friend, Alice, into the plot as the boy's ex-girlfriend, whom he also has supposedly forgotten all about. As the facade progresses, though, the boy begins to fall for Alice, which provides a challenge to the girls' friendship, not to mention the confused boy. While initially off-beat, the story grows beyond its simple hook to tell of the personal challenges of two teenage girls grappling with their need to be loved, and one teenage boy who must decide if he will engage his own life and relationships or not.

The Story

The director begins by establishing the tight friendship between Hana and Alice, and at the same time Hana's infatuation with an exceedingly dull and bookish young boy who just happens to be named Miyomoto Musashi. The first third of the film focuses on Hana and her efforts to convince Miyomoto that he has forgotten all about his professed love for her - which he never professed, of course. I've seen picnic tables with more personality than this Miyomoto boy, but throughout the movie it becomes clear that this dullness is both intentional and integral to the character.

Once I was convinced that this film was solely an exhibit of quirkiness, the story shifts. The director, Iwai-san, chose to focus on each girl seperately, bringing their two stories together in the end. He spends time with each girl's story, rather than the quick back and forth sequencing between the two that happens in American cinema. Eventually it became clear that this film is not so much about a shy girl's scheming as it was a character study of three people: Hana, who tries to gain love through control and manipulation; Alice, who seems like someone who has everything going for her, but in truth has no one in her life who shows her love; and Miyomoto, who does not participate personally in his relationships, but sits passively by as other people lead him by the nose.

I enjoyed Hana's character development, which really doesn't come to a head until the end of the film. Throughout the film she continues to dig herself deeper and deeper, spinning more and more webs to convince Miyomoto that they have a real relationship. Of course in the end he figures out the lie and Hana is faced with the very thing she hoped to avoid by manipulating poor Miyomoto in the first place: the possibility of rejection.

Alice's story didn't come into play until later in the movie, but it is equally as strong as Hana's if not more. Alice is a pretty girl who "gets discovered" by a talent agency while walking on the street. As she tries out at auditions, though, she clearly lacks confidence in herself. As her story unfolds the viewer finds that her parents keep themselves emotionally at distance from Alice. Though her actions on screen seem to scream, "I love you, so please love me!" her parents each are too preoccupied with themselves to do anything more than go through the motions with her. When Alice joins in Hana's scheme as Miyomoto's supposed ex-girlfriend, she easily falls into the the role, making up things for him to "remember," weaving a very convincing tale that catches up both of them in feelings for each other.

Miyomoto's character development, like Hana's, comes to fruition at the end of the film, when he confronts Hana about her deception (having inadvertantly confirmed his doubts from a mistake in one of Alice's "memories"). Finally taking control over his life and feelings he must decide what to do about Hana and Alice. Having made his decision for or against each of the girls at the end of the film, what follows his decisions is left open, because the choice belongs to Miyomoto, as it should have from the beginning.

Further Comments

The director, Shunji Iwai, does a wonderful job creating his own story world and drawing the viewer into it. Not only does he direct and write the story, but he is the producer and the author of the music, too. It was originally shot as a series of short films, but was later changed into a full-length film. The acting is well done, too, with Yû Aoi (Alice) winning the Japanese Professional Movie Award for best actress. It is set in modern-day Japan. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles, which helps certain uniquely Japanese mannerisms and vocal expressions shine forth. At one point Hana begs Alice's pardon, using a characteristicly Japanese form of apology involving a deep bow, folded hands with arms extended before the lowered head, and the shortened plea of "Gomen!" In another scene two models mock Alice by pulling down on their lower eyelid and sticking out their tongues. This is the sort of stuff I enjoy seeing as one interested in things Japanese. The movie is a pleasant example of modern Japan as experienced by teenagers. I enjoyed the dynamic of entering high school, Japanese diet, and much of the nuances that belong to Japanese society as they showed forth in Iwai-san's film. It's a nice change from samurai flicks and Japanese classics I usually watch.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Catechetical Quote: St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Church

The following quote is from St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Lecture XVIII, On the Words, And in One Holy Catholic Church, and in the Resurrection of the Flesh, and the Life Everlasting. His catechetical instruction here resonates with me. He describes what I came to see and believe about the Orthodox Church. I never could have found the words to describe it, though.

Now then let me finish what still remains to be said for the Article, “In one Holy Catholic Church,” on which, though one might say many things, we will speak but briefly.

23. It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Catechetical Quote: St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Remedy for Idolatry

This selection from St. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures (Lecture VI) focuses on God the Father (and glorified with Him the Son and the Holy Spirit together), and then segways into the issue of heresy. Reading this I think of two things. One is St. Paul's introduction to Romans. The other is Christ's work in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which contrasts wonderfully against Adam's fall.
11. Whence came the polytheistic error of the Greeks? God has no body: whence then the adulteries alleged among those who are by them called gods? I say nothing of the transformations of Zeus into a swan: I am ashamed to speak of his transformations into a bull: for bellowings are unworthy of a god. The god of the Greeks has been found an adulterer, yet are they not ashamed: for if he is an adulterer let him not be called a god. They tell also of deaths of their gods. Seest thou from how great a height and how low they have fallen? Was it without reason then that the Son of God came down from heaven? or was it that He might heal so great a wound? Was it without reason that the Son came? or was it in order that the Father might be acknowledged? Thou hast learned what moved the Only-begotten to come down from the throne at God’s right hand. The Father was despised, the Son must needs correct the error: for He Through Whom All Things Were Made must bring them all as offerings to the Lord of all. The wound must be healed: for what could be worse than this disease, that a stone should be worshipped instead of God?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Catechetical Quote: St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Purpose of Catechesis

St. Cyril's writings were recommended to me some time ago as a good place to begin in my inquiry into Orthodoxy. Reading him again at this point in my journey is really interesting. I found his opening words here in his Fourth Lecture: On Ten Points of Doctrine to be beautifully written. I never used to get why the dichotomy was between true doctrine and good works, but now that's not such a mystery, nor is it offensive.
1. Vice mimics virtue, and the tares strive to be thought wheat, growing like the wheat in appearance, but being detected by good judges from the taste. The devil also transfigures himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. xi. 14.); not that he may reascend to where he was, for having made his heart hard as an anvil (Job xli. 24.), he has henceforth a will that cannot repent; but in order that he may envelope those who are living an Angelic life in a mist of blindness, and a pestilent condition of unbelief. Many wolves are going about in sheeps’ clothing (Matt. vii. 15.), their clothing being that of sheep, not so their claws and teeth: but clad in their soft skin, and deceiving the innocent by their appearance, they shed upon them from their fangs the destructive poison of ungodliness. We have need therefore of divine grace, and of a sober mind, and of eyes that see, lest from eating tares as wheat we suffer harm from ignorance, and lest from taking the wolf to be a sheep we become his prey, and from supposing the destroying Devil to be a beneficent Angel we be devoured: for, as the Scripture saith, he goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. v. 8.). This is the cause of the Church’s admonitions, the cause of the present instructions, and of the lessons which are read.

2. For the method of godliness consists of these two things, pious doctrines, and virtuous practice: and neither are the doctrines acceptable to God apart from good works, nor does God accept the works which are not perfected with pious doctrines. For what profit is it, to know well the doctrines concerning God, and yet to be a vile fornicator? And again, what profit is it, to be nobly temperate, and an impious blasphemer? A most precious possession therefore is the knowledge of doctrines: also there is need of a wakeful soul, since there are many that make spoil through philosophy and vain deceit (Col. ii. 8.). The Greeks on the one hand draw men away by their smooth tongue, for honey droppeth from a harlot’s lips (Prov. v. 3.): whereas they of the Circumcision deceive those who come to them by means of the Divine Scriptures, which they miserably misinterpret though studying them from childhood to old age (Is. xlvi. 3.), and growing old in ignorance. But the children of heretics, by their good words and smooth tongue, deceive the hearts of the innocent (Rom. xvi. 17.), disguising with the name of Christ as it were with honey the poisoned arrows of their impious doctrines: concerning all of whom together the Lord saith, Take heed lest any man mislead you (Matt. xxiv. 4.). This is the reason for the teaching of the Creed and for expositions upon it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Catechetical Quote: St. Cyril of Jerusalem on Faith

From St. Cyril of Jerusalem, "Catechetical Lectures," Lecture V: On Faith. I have not included most of the footnotes, which I find a bit helpful. The whole article is fantastic, but it would be too much to reproduce in full here.

10. For the name of Faith is in the form of speech one, but has two distinct senses. For there is one kind of faith, the dogmatic, involving an assent of the soul on some particular point: and it is profitable to the soul, as the Lord saith: He that heareth My words, and believeth Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and cometh not into judgment (John v. 24.): and again, He that believeth in the Son is not judged, but hath passed from death unto life (John iii. 18; v. 24.). Oh the great loving-kindness of God! For the righteous were many years in pleasing Him: but what they succeeded in gaining by many years of well-pleasing, this Jesus now bestows on thee in a single hour. For if thou shalt believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that God raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved, and shalt be transported into Paradise by Him who brought in thither the robber. And doubt not whether it is possible; for He who on this sacred Golgotha saved the robber after one single hour of belief, the same shall save thee also on thy believing (Luke xxiii. 43).

11. But there is a second kind of faith, which is bestowed by Christ as a gift of grace. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit: to another faith, by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing (1 Cor. xii. 8, 9.). This faith then which is given of grace from the Spirit is not merely doctrinal, but also worketh things above man’s power. For whosoever hath this faith, shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove (Mark xi. 23.). For whenever any one shall say this in faith, believing that it cometh to pass, and shall not doubt in his heart, then receiveth he the grace.

And of this faith it is said, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed (Matt. xvii. 20.). For just as the grain of mustard seed is small in size, but fiery in its operation, and though sown in a small space has a circle of great branches, and when grown up is able even to shelter the fowls (Matt. xiii. 32.); so, likewise, faith in the swiftest moment works the greatest effects in the soul. For, when enlightened by faith, the soul hath visions of God, and as far as is possible beholds God, and ranges round the bounds of the universe, and before the end of this world already beholds the Judgment, and the payment of the promised rewards. Have thou therefore that faith in Him which cometh from thine own self, that thou mayest also receive from Him that faith which worketh things above man.

Learning from Fr. Stephen

I like Fr. Stephen's writings, but this one seemed especially good. He comments on the blessed role of icons in Holy Orthodoxy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Proper Distinction of Man

I was perusing St. John of Damascus' "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" the other day and I read this:

Chapter X.—Concerning Faith.

Moreover, faith is twofold. For faith cometh by hearing (Rom. x. 17). For by hearing the divine Scriptures we believe in the teaching of the Holy Spirit. The same is perfected by all the things enjoined by Christ, believing in work, cultivating piety, and doing the commands of Him Who restored us. For he that believeth not according to the tradition of the Catholic Church, or who hath intercourse with the devil through strange works, is an unbeliever.

But again, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb. xi. 1), or undoubting and unambiguous hope alike of what God hath promised us and of the good issue of our prayers. The first, therefore, belongs to our will, while the second is of the gifts of the Spirit.

Further, observe that by baptism we cut (περιτεμνόμεθα, circumcise) off all the covering which we have worn since birth, that is to say, sin, and become spiritual Israelites and God’s people.

There's a lot in there worth mentioning, but what resonates with me personally at this point in my catechetical journey is that St. John of Damascus describes faith in a twofold manner: what belongs to our will and what is of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

When I was a Lutheran, and especially in my seminary education, the first aspect – which St. John locates within the natural capability of man’s will even after the fall – was understood to be a gift of the Holy Spirit. In Lutheran theology man is incapable of believing or coming to faith on his own, because his nature – while still a good creation of God – is totally corrupted with sin. Or to put it more succinctly, the will of each individual is a direct aspect of human nature. Thus in Lutheranism the will is in bondage after the fall. Typical ways of explaining this or defending this to those who didn’t quite get it were, “How can one who is dead in sins believe?” or “Our wills are turned hostile against God (because our natures are sinful), so how can we possibly believe unless God converts our wills from unbelief to belief?”

I don’t wish to brow-beat the Lutherans with their own theology here, but to relate my own personal history and a hurdle for me in converting to Orthodoxy. Grasping how the Orthodox could talk about man’s free will before conversion baffled me, because I thought Scripture was so clear on this issue. (I didn’t realize how much of Scripture I was seeing through a uniquely Augustinian lense.)

Anyway, a clue to solving this issue lay in Christmas. It became clear to me in my study of the significance of Christ’s birth that Christ, by becoming true man, restored man’s nature to what it should be. He was born without sin and thus became what man is supposed to be, which is also what we all are called to become in Him. (Some Lutherans find nothing objectionable about this, and rightly so given the writings of Martin Luther.) So why didn’t Christ just close up shop and call it a job well done at that point? Because He needed to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil so that we might become partakers of that which was born on Christmas – of He who was born of the Virgin. (This was my thinking at the tail end of my time in Lutheranism; I’m not yet prepared to go back and evaluate my past thinking about redemption. I think I’ll stick to one issue for today.)

I had unwittingly stumbled upon a distinction between man’s nature and man’s person. And even then I was still rather blind to this distinction and the great importance it has in theology. Luckily as catechumens we have a good catechist who is in tune with us and our needs. Today we heard in passing about the distinction that exists between man’s unique person and the nature he shares with all mankind (we also heard about this when learning of the Trinity, but I digress). Upon hearing this I made sure to not gloss over it but to focus heavily on it in my typical way: questions.

I quickly came to realize that when I was a Lutheran I located man’s ability to believe squarely in his nature, when in fact it is a function of his unique person. In fact in all my theological training this distinction between nature and person really was never formally hit upon. Perhaps this stems from St. Augustine, who confuses nature and person in man (or so I’m told).

So what? What’s the significance? It is the nature of man that is bound by sin, death, and the devil. It is the nature of man that is held under dominion from within by the Evil One. The unique person, though, is stuck with the impaired nature and is limited by it (which is why my confirmands used to ask why God holds them accountable, when the sinful nature is someone else’s fault). So the person can look at the law of God and say it is good, and desire to carry it out, but because of the limitations of the nature he cannot do this. Even those in the OT Scripture who are called righteous only manage an external righteousness, not the internal+external righteousness that stems from a nature in communion with the Trinity and the person exercising his will in conformity with his godly nature (or we could say his nature enspirited by the Holy Spirit).

If man’s will is a function of his nature and not his person, though, then he can do nothing. He cannot even believe. God must prop him up and change him against his will, or alter the status of his will in some way. From here we can maybe see were the notions of predestination, bondage of the will, and other familiar Protestant doctrines come into play. Maybe, too, by juxtaposing the distinction of nature and person against the blurring of the same as happens in the Augustinian/Protestant traditions, we can see why Protestants sometimes accuse the Orthodox of having a weaker view on sin. It isn’t a weaker view on sin, but a more thorough grasp on the creation of man in the image of God.

Getting back to the main thought: if the will (and with it the ability to believe) is located in each of our unique persons (Ben, Emily, etc.), then what St. John of Damascus says about believing and the will rings true indeed. A person can at best desire what is good, but his (or her) fallen nature limits the abilities and wills of the person. But when the nature is freed and redeemed from bondage to sin, death, and the devil by communion with Christ, the new beginning and rejuvenation of our nature, then the inner bondage is released and in its place is the freedom of the Spirit, in which the person is called to walk and grown and to attain the full measure of Christ in one’s person. Now the will can desire, but the Spirit is the One who both teaches the will and gives Energy to the desires of the will in so far as those desires conform to the desires of the Spirit.

I am very thankful for our catechesis. I enjoy the deep conversations we have with our priest. Our topic tonight was over justification, but I promised him I would not post his notes on the Internet (which I certainly haven’t!). He should have them published. But this topic, and what I’ve related here, is a combination of conversation arising from my own questions and my own internal attempts to grasp the Orthodox experience around me. I don’t claim to be a master of this knowledge, but I do claim that this is significant for me.

From where does this distinction between nature and person in man arise? The Holy Trinity, in whose image we are made, and in Christ whose image we are called back to. But that is a topic for another time (and maybe another person? Only God knows…).

Today is the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day she died, entered heaven, and when her body was taken into heaven by Christ. As the songs in the Liturgy proclaimed, she was translated into life, because she is the the Mother of Life (Himself). In the freedom of her will she said Yes to God, or as our blessed priest said, she heard the Word and kept it - kept Him. In the freedom of her will she said yes and God entered into the most intimate and mystical communion with her, cleansing her and perfecting her, establishing her as the New Eve (Mother of all the Living) and thus showing us in this divine mystery of the Incarnation what He wills to do for all who will say the Yes of Faith, in daily conversion and ascesis. And today we have set before our eyes in iconography and our ears in the Liturgy of the Church what that faithful Yes to God gets: passing over from death into life - into Life - by the Grace and Mercy of God.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Settling In

When a person changes his religion, as I have, a lot of things change. This includes relationships. I have enjoyed new relationships, most at our new church, St. John Chrysostom in Fort Wayne. Most of my existing relationships have changed, too. This includes parents and in-laws, who are Lutheran. It includes friends who had converted to Orthodoxy before us or Orthodox friends we made along the way. And it includes my friendships with Lutheran pastors. (However, my relationships with relatives who are not Lutheran have remained the same - which is a real comfort amid so much change.)

Along my journey to Orthodoxy one of the critical issues I've been confronted with is 'what is different between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy.' I was personally preoccupied with this question before my conversion. In the end this question allowed me to get enough of a taste of Orthodoxy to allow me to choose and take the plunge (an apt way to refer to it!). But now this question is a sort of personal misery for me. I've moved beyond the obvious but not so deep differences, like praying to the Saints, using icons as more than pretty pictures, the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, the use of Scripture, free will, and the Church. That isn't to say that I do not engage these issues in a personal way anymore, but it is to say that I am engaging them differently. Maybe the best thing I can say about it now is that I am struggling to acquire a level of familiarity and comfortability in Orthodoxy that is comparable to how I felt as a Lutheran. Or maybe I'm just in a hurry to acquire what is known as an "Orthodox mind." I don't know.

What I do know, though, is that my theological interest between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy is not the same anymore. It does no good for me to write theological treatises on how the Orthodox approach so many things differently, like the Trinity, the purpose and destiny of man's creation, what we need to be saved from, what Christ does, how salvation is given and appropriated, and the work of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox do approach these topics differently, even if the differences are only matters of nuance in most cases. But at this point, for me, it does little good to elaborate on them. And that's most likely because I don't yet feel comfortable in my own skin with it all yet! (I am only a catechumen, ha!). But it is also no good for me to take these things up right now, because I would want to do so in order to demonstrate the beauty of Orthodoxy, but I think I lack the right approach. This desire that I have isn't much different from how I felt as a Lutheran toward my parishioners and toward the youth I have been blessed to work with over the past six years. What is different now is that I have converted to Orthodoxy, and I find in her a more intimate relationship - one that surprisingly cleanses me and sets me aright (instead of me using what I know to cleanse and set aright what I find around me).

When a person wants to know what Orthodoxy is, or how it compares to Lutheranism, or wants to understand why or how I could make such a conversion, I don't think it helps for me to go through a list of doctrines. Even the most educated Lutheran grasps and emphasizes different things within Lutheranism, and his or her concerns will be deeply personal. And in Orthodoxy knowledge of doctrine is only introductory. If you were to read the most thorough description of every Orthodox doctrine and come to know how to describe it all in the most understandable way, still this is only an introduction to Orthodoxy. If you want to know what is at the heart of Orthodoxy, then you have to come and see (or personally commit or something along those lines).

But when I was a Lutheran, I wasn't exactly dealing with Orthodoxy at that level. I was gathering knowledge, but my knowledge was incomplete. I was working that knowledge into my already-existing Lutheran matrix, which only energized my search and inquiry. But when I converted, then I no longer had that matrix. I knew something at the heart was different, but I could not really put my finger on it. My ability to function spiritually was tied up until I could begin to resolve that tension (catechesis is a big help here). [Aside: I seem to pick up Orthodoxy on an intuitive level first, but my mind doesn't easily change, working from my Lutheran muscle-memory, which causes me all sorts of hardships when the two don't gel!] But talking about how Orthodoxy revolves around a different matrix than Lutheranism also cannot do anything to help anyone but me - or someone who is trying to discern what that particularly Orthodox matrix is.

So in the end, there are only two things I can do. Since I don't feel like I'm much help to anyone like I wish I were, I pray. Salvation belongs to God, and if anyone is going to approach Orthodoxy (to learn more, to find the Truth, to find answers to questions), then that is ultimately between he (or she) and God. Of course when the result of that inquiry is conversion, then what began as something personal unites you into something much bigger than yourself. Yet the personal part does not vanish, but in that new unity of life in the Holy Spirit the depth of one's personal spiritual experience deepens. One's relationship with the Holy Trinity deepens, which in turns deepens one's relationship with all creation renewed in Christ - saints, angels, animals, and whatever else is part of creation.

The other thing I do is try to relate what was significant for me. There are a variety of such issues. One that I'll share now, which was decisive in my conversion, has to do with the Holy Spirit. After much investigating, much comparing, much doctrinal hand-wringing, I came to realize that both Lutheranism and Orthodoxy made pretty good arguments. Knowledge wasn't going to settle the issue. What convinced me in the end was this: the Orthodox Church, in all that my investigating allowed me to see in her, matched the New Testament Church of the Scriptures in a significantly more profound way than what Lutheranism was capable of offering - even in its most idealistic form(s). Or to put it another way, I saw the Holy Spirit doing in the Orthodox Church what He was doing among the first Christians in the Scriptures (not to mention those Christians living after New Testament times). And as a Lutheran, if I were to stay a Lutheran, I would have to reject what I believed was the proper, natural, and scriptural work of the Holy Spirit.

Did I have all the answers? No. Do I yet? No. I try to remind myself that it took years of study to acquire an ease and familiarity with Lutheranism. To get that back vis a vis Orthodoxy will also take time, though it will likely still not be the same.

Writing this is cathartic for me. Perhaps sometime in the future I might venture to explore some of the more "doctrinal" issues. But it won't be as one who speaks "for" the Orthodox Church or who claims to know all about Orthodoxy. It will be as one who is trying to work out his own limited grasp on things that are limitless and inexhaustible. From what I'm told, that's all anyone can be expected to do. And in my opinion, isn't that the way it should be? If you can't be expected to fully explain your relationship with your spouse or your closest friends, then how can anyone be expected to fully and completely explain the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven and the blessedness of friendship with Christ?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Communicating the Gender Gap

For a post like this I wish I had access to some of my notes, books, and such. Alas, they are boxed in storage. But I do remember enough to get the point across (I hope).

I've gone and embroiled myself in another discussion on the Internet, something I have been trying to avoid, but something my own itching passion for intellectual and theological debate has gotten the better of in me. In this latest debate I was reminded of something from my college days. Men and women generally communicate (and especially debate) differently.

I must be getting old. I actually have a story to tell that relates. I went to a Lutheran college, Concordia Ann Arbor. I took a class on biblical hermeneutics with a wonderful old pastor and professor, Rev. Dr. Jakob Heckert (who is still around, I hear). Our text was Voelz's What Does This Mean, which was also used at the Ft. Wayne Seminary. The class was almost entirely female Lutheran school teachers-in-training. Most of them seemed to despise the class; Voelz was not easy on them. Other than the teacher-ed students there was my now-wife, Emily, my good friend, David, and me. Emily was taking it as an elective, and David and I were taking it as part of the pre-seminary curriculum.

Emily, David, and I enjoyed the class. It wasn't difficult for us. We sat in the front and enjoyed leisurely meanderings off the central topic to related theological topics. This usually upset the ladies behind us - at least the ones who were having a hard time figuring Voelz out. We weren't trying to upset them, but we were just trying to get the most from the class as possible. It's not like tutoring wasn't available for those who needed it. Anyway, I digress.

One day David, I, and our kindly professor found our way to discussing Lutheran beliefs about the Roman Pope. It was germane, but not the strict content of the chapter. Anyway, the discussion hit upon the Lutheran belief that the Roman Pope is the Antichrist. As we talked about this more and more, the ladies behind us became more and more upset. On our part we (the prof, David, and I) were tossing the facts back and forth, the various doctrines of Lutheranism and those sorts of things. For us it was about the facts, the things Lutherans said they believed, and the theological implications.

For the young ladies behind us, soon to be Lutheran school teachers, it was a horrifying discussion. I won't say their were gasps and people fainting left and right, but it didn't seem far from that. The girls were plain offended. They couldn't believe that we would say such things about that nice man, the Pope. After all, they argued, he did so many good things. How could we so casually label him "Antichrist" and all the other things that Lutheran theology says of him?! We were so mean, so rude, so offensive for talking as we were! One poor girl got so upset that she stood up mad as all get out and did just that - she walked out of the class. David and I and the professor looked at each other calmly but surprised and thought the whole scene was rather strange. The emotional outrage seemed so inappropriate.

In my latest foray into Internet debate I noticed some similar trends. There have been gasps of "How rude to show up and say so-and-so is wrong and you're right. You're so offensive, so rude, so not-humble!" and other things of this nature. I can only laugh to myself. It seems so familiar, and in some ways reminds me of my experience in that class (and similar experiences on campus, in other classes, and in other Internet conversations).

Returning to my college days I learned in other classes about something called gender communication. It was taught in these classes that the sexes generally debate and discuss differently. For one thing, women normally don't play Devil's Advocate. In fact the women in the class where this was discussed had never even heard of such a thing. They were shocked to find that men would actually take up an opposing viewpoint that they didn't really believe and argue that point just to learn the issue better from all sides. They were shocked, but the men were like, "What, this is new to you?"

Another issue of difference is a little more subtle. Men tend to focus on the facts and issues, aiming to grow in knowledge or further a point. They can be very blunt. Emotion in these exchanges is often passion associated with the exileration of the discussion. That's not to say men (generally) won't get offended. However, offense tends to come from lack of respect for their ideas or their ability to discuss meaningfully.

Female discussion, though, usually revolves around the idea of closeness and community. The interjection of facts in a discussion is interwoven with the immediate condition of the relationship between the participants. When women talk with each other it would be horrifyingly bad form for one to say to the other, "Your idea is wrong," or, "I think you're wrong and I'm right." That could end a friendship! Women will analyze the facts, but simultaneously analyze the relationship, to make sure no one is getting overly offended or hurt. If it seems that someone might get hurt or offended in the conversation, women will generally find a way to back off, tone it down, or change the subject. Men, though, compartmentalize their emotions and deal with them separately from the pursuit of ideas and knowledge.

What is ascribed to one gender is sometimes exhibited by the other gender, but more or less these trends are identified in the communication and psychology fields as specific gender traits.

So men, be extra kind and considerate when debating with women. Their feelings are on the table with their ideas. And women, be extra tolerant when entering a debate with a man. Men are in it for the thrill of debate; their relationship with you or anyone else is in a different room entirely.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Holy Transfiguration

It's been a long time since I've been able to work up the nerve to post. The Lord Jesus, through His mercy and the prayers of His Mother and His Saints, has been blessing me with some new progress in my recovery. Yet I am still reminded by my doctor, "Rome was not built in a day." True. But also true is that Christ my Lord truly has been merciful to me.

This evening my family and I made the journey to Ft. Wayne for the Vesperal Liturgy of the Holy Transfiguration and the Blessing of Grapes. Normally we go on Saturdays for catechesis and Sundays for Liturgy. I like the Vesperal Liturgy. It's an elision of Vespers and the Eucharistic Liturgy. Plus, I'm getting used to singing the music.

While looking in the bookstore our lead chanter and choir director asked me if I could read a prophesy. Read, yes. Give, no. He showed me what to do. I sometimes get asked to do something when people are scarce. A book I was reading recently explained that males tend to learn better by doing and through apprentice-like relationships. I find this is true for me, so I appreciate opportunities to help out (and I like to help).

Anyway, after the Liturgy our priest blessed the grapes provided by sprinkling them with holy water. These rites and services are always beautiful and speak to the heart of the Faith and Life in Christ's kingdom.

Our priest, Fr. Anthony, had a short sermon on the Transfiguration. It was good. He's very well versed in Orthodox theology (it is evident, plus Bishop MARK gives him high marks), and he gets to the point very well. I had read on the back of our bulletin already how what was revealed outwardly to the disciples was the inner reality of our Lord that had normally been hidden. What was also revealed, though, was Moses and Elijah. But it's not like they showed up and then went away. Christ's transfiguration revealed them, because they are in Him and He in them. It's true that Enoch and angels were not revealed, but that's because the focus here is on Christ's coming exodus to the cross that fulfills the exodus of the OT Jews. But Moses and Elijah are there because they are always there in Christ, as are angels and all now who have been liberated from Hades/Sheol and are with Him. This isn't a recap of the sermon, but just the effect the sermon had on me and my wife. I have trouble remembering good sermons, probably because I'm too busy enjoying them to retain them :-)

We are in the fellowship hall of our new building now. Everyone in the congregation is so happy; it's the fulfillment of a life-long dream for them to construct their own building. Here's a couple pictures.

The church proper doesn't yet have a door or all the windows.

The construction workers aren't too thrilled about the drywall work needed to finish the dome.

The church for now is the fellowship hall. Neat modern chandeliers. The on/off switches aren't hooked up yet, so they have to be switched on from the fuse box.

It was Fr. Anthony's idea to put the crucifix at the center, since "it is the symbol of our salvation." I enjoy being able to see and hear everything going on behind our transparent iconostasis.