Monday, January 24, 2011

I suppose it was inevitable....

This evening, I posted what must be my 20th or 30th Facebook post related to the Orthodox Church, after having announced our conversion and Chrismation on that very forum nearly 2 months ago. A Lutheran e-friend who didn't get the memo responded and pointedly corrected my comment about enjoying the service for the Feast of St. Gregory the Theologian by kindly informing me today was St. Timothy's feast day. When I mentioned that St. Gregory is in fact the correct feast on the Eastern calendar, he asked why we were on the Eastern calendar. When I told him we had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and indicated we were Chrismated at the Nativity, this was the response:

"That's too bad. I'm going to unfriend you. Vows are serious to me."

He did, too. He didn't even hang around long enough to read my response. C'est la vie.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I don't really get upset if anyone wants to unfriend me for whatever reason. I've never even met this particular person, so it's not like a childhood friend deciding to never speak to me again. But really? "Vows are serious to me?" This is your hill to die on?

Making a vow....
Let's examine that for a minute. Leaving aside the quite obvious fact that this man's church was begun by a man who violated his own vow of celibacy by getting married to a nun (who, obviously, was also violating her own vow of celibacy with his encouragement), there is another irony here. When I converted to the Lutheran confession, having been Southern Baptist all my life, no one said squat about vows, commitment, promises made to honor God. No one questioned my conversion then. No one wondered if I was committing some grievous sin against my prior promises to God and man then. To be fair, none of the people who were actually there have accused me of breaking my vows now -- that accusation belongs solely to my former e-friend. Further, since this person is a convert to Lutheranism himself (from his Facebook profile -- "formerly a NonDenominational Pentecostal-YWAMer"), I can only assume he has a bit of a double standard when it comes to vows.

The implication, of course, is that by supposedly breaking my confirmation vow, I have lied. If that's how my actions must be viewed, I can live with that. I certainly have worse sins to confess. But before I concede the point and brand myself a liar, lets examine briefly what those vows were.

At my confirmation in the Lutheran Church, I confessed the Apostles Creed. I was asked "Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?" I responded "yes....." and recited the First Article. "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son?" "Yes...." Second Article. "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?" "Yes...." Third Article. "Do you intend to hold steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?" "I do so intend with the help of God." I was asked whether I held the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, confessed the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as expressed in the Book of Concord and held the same to be faithful and true, and I responded "I do." I was asked if I desired to become a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and I responded "I do."

Then I was asked if I intend faithfully to conform all my life to the divine Word, to be faithful in the use of God's Word and Sacraments, and in faith, word and action to remain true to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even to death. I said "I do."

So here is where the rubber meets the road. When convinced, as I am, that the Lutheran confession is not the fullness of the Faith of Christ, when convinced that the true Church is found in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and when my conscience is bound that "remaining true to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even to death" means becoming Orthodox, what am I to do? I have not renounced the Apostles Creed. I have not renounced the Word nor the Sacraments. So exactly which portion of these vows have I broken? Answer: only that portion which binds me to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Which brings us to the real question: to whom was this vow given and to whom is fidelity owed?

I was asked at my confirmation whether I confessed the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as taught in the Small Catechism and the Book of Concord. I responded "I do" because I did. I don't anymore. I have been convinced otherwise. And lets be clear -- this is not the same as breaking the "I do" of a marriage vow, because the portion of the vow in question is not directed to God, but to a particular understanding of God. Just as my marriage vows are given to my wife and not my best man or groomsman or even the Pastor, my confirmation vow is given to God, not the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Am I keeping that vow by remaining in a confession I no longer share fully, that I now believe does not fully express His Church? Would I be keeping it by refusing to unite myself to what I now believe is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church merely to avoid stepping on someone's feelings? Should I have remained Lutheran and believed and spoken as if I were Eastern Orthodox? Or should I have just remained Lutheran and lied to everyone about what I believe?

More to the point, by leaving the Lutheran confession and becoming Orthodox, have I somehow disunited myself from Him Who received the promise? If the marriage vow is the parallel here (and I think it is), to whom did I promise myself at my confirmation? I fully understand my former "friend" considers his tradition to be equal to the pure and Holy Word of God, but you know what? So does everyone else. If I determine that is not the case, to whom should I remain faithful? To whom is my fidelity owed? The guy to whom I made no vow, but who nevertheless feels jilted because I disagree with his view of the Christian Faith, or the One to Whom the vow was made?

Martin Luther and Katharina Von Bora
Given these questions, lets take another look at Luther. Did he not take his vows seriously? Does Luther get the same flippant condemnation I received because he married a nun, vows be damned? Or did Luther honestly believe his word was given to a higher authority than the people who criticized him for violating his celibacy vow? Which raises the question - to whom did Luther give his vow? Notably, it was not to Rome, despite the fact his ordination vows required him to be obedient to Rome (another vow he quite obviously broke when he was asked to recant his writings and refused to do so). I contend Luther, bound as he was by his conscience, had no choice but to break these vows. To remain celibate when convinced marriage of priests is an honorable and holy estate sanctioned by the Church Catholic and the Holy Scriptures would make Luther a hypocrite and a liar. To remain faithful to the Bishop of Rome when asked to recant what Luther thought was a clear and accurate exposition of the Word of God would make him, in his own eyes, a heretic. Since Luther's vow was made to God, and since Luther remained in the clergy, he could either break the vows of celibacy and obedience or be truly unfauthful to God by pretending to believe something he thought was contrary to God's Word and Christ's Church. Since my former e-friend is a Lutheran, I'm guessing he would agree with those sentiments. So why is Luther's vow-breaking honorable and mine abhorrent?

At the end of the day, consistency requires us to treat vows into our own tradition the same as vows away from our own tradition. If the person who so indignantly unfriended me takes vows so seriously, he should be consistent and tell all who will listen that they should never convert to the Lutheran confession from another tradition. After all, he wouldn't want to be complicit in someone breaking their vows. Then again, being a convert to Lutheranism himself, maybe not.

I don't mind being "unfriended." I do wish those doing the unfriending would put a half ounce of thought into their reasons for doing so. Kyrie eleison.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Catholicity - finding a silver lining in the cloud of jurisdictionalism

Because I was away on business, I was unable to attend the feast of Saints Athanasius and Cyril at our home parish Monday night.  Instead, I visited St. Paul Greek Orthodox parish in Savannah, where my business had taken me.  It was a wonderful service, and the experience struck me as a good example of the Catholicity of Orthodox Christianity.

One of the true clouds hanging over the Orthodox Church in this country is the scandal of jurisdictionalism.  Put in simple terms, this is the uncanonical situation where various Orthodox jurisdictions will have Bishops in the same City or geographic area.  Canonically, there is supposed to be only one Bishop for each city or geographic area, but in America, we literally have various Orthodox jurisdictions tripping over each other.  In Atlanta alone, there are eighteen Orthodox parishes, but those eighteen parishes are spread over eight separate canonical jurisdictions.  While I wish to state I am not defending jurisdictionalism, it is in part because of jurisdictionalism that I was able to observe the Catholicity of the Church in practice.

Being recent converts, and having never darkened the doors of an Orthodox Church before the late Spring of 2010, Stephanie and I have limited exposure to various jurisdictional and cultural differences in Orthodoxy.  Besides our home parish, we have visited only one other, and that was another Antiochian parish.  Rather than a separate parish in our Archdiocese, St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church was a parish not only from another Archdiocese, but in fact a different Antimension from a different Bishop under a different Archbishop within a different Patriarchate.

I confess I harbored a small amount of anticipation as I entered the Church.  It is a beautiful parish, as the photographs attest, but I am a new convert and I am rather comfortable with the particulars of the Church of Antioch.  Our home parish utilizes familiar translations, almost exclusively uses English in the Liturgy and prayer services, and has the beautiful sing-songy tones that are the hallmark of Arabic Christian liturgy.  Going outside that comfort zone, I did not quite know what to expect.

At St. Paul, the Liturgy was mostly in English, but Father Vasile used more Greek that I am accustomed to.  That's fine -- I actually understand more Greek than I do Arabic (which is to say "next to none" rather than "almost literally none"), so I was able to follow along without too much problem.  The English in use was more modernized -- more "yous and yours" and less "thees and thous."  The homily was at the end of the Liturgy rather than in the middle as I am used to seeing.  Instead of venerating the cross at the end of the Liturgy, the faithful were invited after the homily to receive the antidiron (blessed bread) and receive a blessing from Father Vasile. 

And yet, in the differences, what struck me was the utter sameness.  The Liturgy was different in the particulars, but it was still the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in all its fullness.  The piety was different in the particulars, but the piety was strong and uniquely Orthodox nonetheless.  The Church was laid out differently, but it was still the same iconostasis, the same essential order of icons -- Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, the Theotokos to the left, St. John the Forerunner to Christ's right, the patron Saint of the Church, St. Paul to Mary's left, and so on.  If we were all members of one "American Orthodox Church," under the same Metropolitan or Archbishop, with all parishes in the same geographic area under the same Bishop, it would be difficult to observe how the cultural distinctions not only between parishes, but in fact between Patriarchates, still result in fundamentally the same Church.  So while I grieve over the jurisdictional problem, and pray it is resolved quickly, I have to confess there is great comfort in actually being able to see with my own eyes that regardless of her local peculiarities, the Church remains truly whole, complete, and full. 

I hope my non-Orthodox friends will forgive me this observation, but as I departed St. Paul, a thought occurred to me:  "so this is what it means to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic!"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Justification....

Snow days make you stir crazy.  I spent much of my third one going through some old bookmarks, and one of them was Dan Woodring's conversion story (to Roman Catholicism).  In it, he reminisced about reading Father John Neuhaus' conversion story (also to Roman Catholicism) years ago, and a complaint resonated a bit with me.   Woodring recalled that when he first heard the story, he lamented that Father Neuhaus did not spend enough time talking about justification.

This is a common complaint among Lutherans (Woodring was a Lutheran when he first voiced the complaint), and one I used to frequently voice when I heard conversion stories -- why don't they ever address justification?  After all, it's the chief article of the Christian faith, the article on which the entire Gospel rises or falls!  I recall wondering whether these new converts had just abandoned this important article of faith and didn't want to talk about it.

So it is that I begin this latest post.  I have no intention here to try to espouse an Orthodox understanding of justification, nor to try to write a polemic against a Lutheran understanding of justification.  For one, I'm not so convinced the two traditions are that far apart -- I'll say directly that I have not embraced a doctrine of justification that can fairly be viewed as "salvation by works."  For another, that's just not the purpose of this blog.  For a third, as you will see by reading on, I think it would be impossible to do.  What I would like to talk about, however, is my opinion about why this topic comes up so seldom in conversion stories, particularly to the Orthodox Church.

First, the Orthodox Church doesn't really view the article of justification as the "chief article of the Christian faith."  That's probably not something that hits converts immediately, but it was pretty apparent to me up front.  It's not that justification is not important -- it is.  It's more that it's not any more important than, say, the incarnation, or the sacraments, or ecclesiology.  The Orthodox tend to view salvation as a more organic whole.  Instead of saying "well, if you get this wrong, you get all the rest wrong, too," we tend to see it as "if you get ANY of it wrong, you get it all wrong."  We view all of doctrine in a very interdependent way.  There is no article of faith that can be segregated out and set above all others.  There can be starting points, but there can be no heirarchy of importance.  It's all important.

Second, and this is probably more pertinent, the view of justification held by the Orthodox relies upon other Orthodox views that are largely foreign to Protestants.  One cannot understand an Orthodox view of salvation without also understanding the Orthodox view of anthropology, person and nature, essence and energies, and numerous other understandings of the person, nature and work of Christ and the nature of humanity and what it means to live out salvation as a human person.  Trying to explain Orthodox soteriology to Protestants without first laying this groundwork is fruitless.  It will result in the Protestant believing the Orthodox has "abandoned the Gospel," and the Orthodox being hopelessly frustrated with the discussion since the Protestant will be hearing Orthodox words with "Protestant ears."  And laying this groundwork takes time, and, more than that, patience on the part of the one hearing the conversion story.

Finally, newly chrismated Orthodox are rarely in a position to be espousing doctrines they themselves have just learned.  We can say why we believe what we believe, and we can usually say why we left, what the differences are, etc.  But it is neither wise nor appropriate for a student to put himself in a position as teacher.  We are still learning.  That is one reason I try to avoid polemics on this blog.  I am very comfortable discussing Christian "issues."  I am less comfortable getting into deep theological discussions, since I have so much yet to learn myself.

For a more in-depth treatment of Orthodox-Lutheran discussions on justification and sanctification, I recommend to your attention this excellent post from my friends at "Orthodoxy for Lutherans."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Good thing we made it to Church yesterday......

......because in the vernacular of the South in which I grew up and live, ain't nobody goin' nowhere today......

.....and just to let you know it's not just our neighborhood, courtesy of Rachel here is a picture of the Church parking lot and cemetery.......

......and the Church itself......

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On Sacred Space and the sanctification of time.....

From the Energetic Procession blog:

The Divine Liturgy entails sacred acts and sacred words done within a sacred space. Outside of this space, those looking in are just voyeurs. What is the Divine Liturgy if I can fold laundry or pop a cold one while watching it, and do so in my pajamas, or pause it to answer the phone?

My friends at Energetic Procession make a much wider point than I wish to make here, and I refer you to their excellent blogsite for the full post, which is well recommended.  My reason for posting this beautiful snippet is to highlight that in the Divine Liturgy and the prayer services of the Church, something truly extraordinary, beautiful and yes, sacred is going on.  While it occurs in space that is set aside for the purpose of pointing us to the sacred, it occurs outside of time and space.  In short, the Divine Liturgy is a cosmic event, not a local event.  The current trend toward de-sanctifying the Church service either ignores that reality or, more likely, confesses the absence of that reality in the place doing the de-sanctifying.

There is a billboard near my parents' home that says "Church for people who don't do Church."  How sad that it is not enough to merely "do Church."  Similarly, the sign for the Baptist Church next door to the first Lutheran Church we attended said "It's not just church, it's Life" (note the capitalization).  I once joked to our then-Pastor we should make our sign read "It's not life, it's just Church."

Food for thought.

Sunday, January 2, 2011