Sunday, May 22, 2011

Icon corner -- 2 new additions

For those of you who are not Orthodox, we like to put a prayer corner up in the house with icons and other devotional materials (you can see the cross, the palm branches from Palm Sunday, holy water and our Bible, Service Book and prayer books in this one). It is a devotional aid and a space that is set aside in the home to pray our daily prayers and to venerate God and His Saints (for example, we should always face the icon corner and make the sign of the cross when we pass it, et cetera).

We recently got Emily a new icon of the Guardian Angel (top row, 2nd from left), and we also got Stephanie's Patron Saint, Saint Stephanie of Spain (top left). Now to get Abigail a new (larger and nicer) icon of Saint Catherine -- we bought the one we have now for her birthday the Fall before we were Chrismated. The photo is a bit misleading in focus -- standing before it in our home, the icons on the bottom row are slightly below eye level, and the other four are perhaps a foot or two above eye level. Eventually we'd also like to move everything to an East-facing wall, since it faces South now due to space restrictions, and we'd like to get a vigil candle instead of the overhead lightbulb. But as things stand right now, we feel quite blessed to have the icons we have and a nice space to put them in.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Sacrament of Holy Repentance

Confession and absolution.  It's something I didn't realize how much I missed until I found it again.

In the Orthodox Church, as with most historic traditions, private confession to a priest is considered part of life.  It's not something my wife and I were raised with, and not something that was initially comfortable to us when we first practiced it as Lutherans 10 years ago, but over time it became something we cherished.  We fell out of the habit when we ended up in a parish that did not really emphasize confession, but that is to my shame, for my Pastor at the time assured me he would hear my confession and pronounce absolution any time I wished.  I was simply too lazy and slothful to do that which my soul needed me to do.

In the Orthodox Church confession is not "mandatory" in the sense that you don't have to go every so often, or whenever this or that happens -- there are guidelines but no real strict rules about when to confess.  But it is certainly "mandatory" in the sense that it is expected.  We were expected to confess before our Chrismation.  We also confess in preparation for communion (not weekly, but frequently), whenever we have particular sins that burden our consciences, or whenever we have committed some serious sin that needs to be dealt with before God in a more formal way than prayer and the Sacramental life.  In short, no one tells us we have to go, but we are encouraged to go, and go often.  In our parish, it's easy -- after Vespers on Saturday, we can ask our priest if he will hear our confession that evening.  Or we can call him and show up early.  Or during any weekday liturgy, or really at any time he is available. 

Before we began making use of confession about 10 years ago, I remember feeling awkward and self conscious at the thought of telling someone else the bad stuff I've done.  Truth be told, I still am to an extent -- I definitely do not color my sins in confession as the people I've sinned against might were they to know the extent of my wrongs.  That's something for me to repent of -- I should trust my spiritual father more.  But the beauty of confession is precisely in the absolution, and whatever self-consciousness I might have while laying my sins before my priest departs when he prays over me and announces the absolution. 

The rite is relatively simple.  We petition the Lord to forgive us and be merciful to us, we recite a standard confession, and add whatever particular sins are troubling us.  Then, while we kneel, the priest lays the end of his Stole over our head as in the pictures above and below, and prays the following:

O Lord God of the salvation of Thy servants, gracious, bountiful, and long-suffering, Who repentest Thee concerning our evil deeds, and desirest not the death of the sinner, but rather that he should turn away from his wickedness and live; show Thy mercy now upon Thy servant, John [my communion name, after my Patron Saint John the Apostle], and grant unto him an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance, pardoning his every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary. Reconcile and unite him unto Thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, with Whom are due unto Thee dominion and majesty, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Then, he places his right hand on the Stole, makes the sign of the cross on our head, and pronounces the Absolution:

God it was who forgave David through Nathan the Prophet, when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman in tears at his feet, and the Publican, and the Prodigal Son: May that same God forgive thee all things, through me a sinner, both in this present world, and in that which is to come, and set thee uncondemned before His dread Judgment Seat.

Then, the priest says:

And now, having no further care for the sins which thou hast declared, depart in peace.

 Finally, the priest prays:

May Christ, our true God, through the intercessions of his most Holy Mother, and of all the Saints, have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good, and loves mankind.

The sense of comfort, the sense of having weight lifted from your shoulders after this Sacrament is indescribable.  It is so wonderful that I feel for those who don't have the benefit of this Sacrament to comfort them when they are burdened by sin (though, truth be told, not nearly to the extent I pity those who have deluded themselves into thinking they have no sins worth confessing).  And I wonder why more do not make use of private confession.  It is one of Protestantism's great weaknesses in my estimation (I exclude confessional Lutherans and high Church Anglicans from this, since both have the rite in their tradition and make use of it in practice, and besides, neither really considers themselves "Protestant" to begin with).

The most frequent objection I hear regarding private confession is "man cannot forgive sins, only God can!"  I find this interesting, since there are only two places in the Scriptures this approximate phrase occurs -- Mark chapter 2 and Luke chapter 5.  I'll use Luke as the example since the language is closer to this oft-repeated objection.  Saint Luke records that after the absolution of the paralytic, "[t]he Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, 'Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?'"And what did Jesus do?  He said "I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," and then He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home."  And that's exactly what the paralytic did.

So Jesus has authority to forgive sins, but that doesn't mean the priest does, right?  Well, Jesus passes this authority on to His disciples expressly in John chapter 20.  He said "[p]eace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you,” and then He breathed on them and said “[r]eceive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Jesus demonstrated His authority to forgive sins in Luke Chapter 5, and He passed on this authority to the Church in John chapter 20.

Perhaps one reason the particular practice of individual confession and absolution finds such disfavor among most Protestants is the fact that it undisputedly developed a bit later in time.  It is, essentially, a 3rd to 4th century development that began as a result of people who apostatized in periods of persecution and wanted to be reconciled to the Church.  So what did the bishops do?  They heard their confession, absolved them and imposed penance.  I would argue late development is an insufficient basis for discarding the practice.  After all, the practice of using hymnody in bar and verse format is quite a late development, but no one seems to have a problem with that.  Further, the Sacrament of Holy Repentance has both Apostolic and Scriptural warrant.  It's not as if it is a development that obscures the Gospel.  Rather, like a beautiful setting for a precious stone, it displays the Gospel in all its glory!

It is a shame to see such a beautiful and comforting practice fall into disuse.  It is my prayer that it will be rediscovered among those who are encouraging the disuse.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Anniversary. Sort of.

We are rapidly approaching a full year of faithful attendance in the Orthodox Christian Church.  Hence, the title of this post -- "anniversary."  Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact date we began visiting.  Hence the qualifier -- "sort of."

I do know we began visiting in May.  And I recall it was during Pascha.  On our first visit, Khouria told us the Holy Doors were open because they remain open during Pascha.  I didn't know what that meant at the time.  Looking back, it strikes me how cute it is that she thought I would.

We've been immeasurably blessed by our time here, and as I've said before, we are most definitely home.  There is no doubt at all this is where we belong.  I've also said before that the most striking thing about our conversion is the impact it has had on our children.  All of them, from our oldest who is 7 to our youngest who is 3, have grown immensely since that fateful day last Spring.  They love the Church, they practice her piety, and they radiate the love of Christ that is embodied there.  Oh, they're still the same kids.  Lauren is still the sweet, smart one who wants to please everyone.  Abby is still the shy, quiet one who has a mischievous bent.  And Emily is still the wild free spirit who loves to talk at the wrong times, but thankfully has stopped yelling "can we go get bread?" before communion every Sunday.  But they are quite obviously becoming Christians, living out their baptisms in the Sacramental life of the Church and growing in Christ day by day.  If for no other reason, we are where we belong because of what it has done for their spiritual growth.

Memories are obviously still fresh.  The first time we attended, we had been researching local parishes that we were "targeting" to visit.  St. Stephens was close by, so we decided to drop in for Vespers on Saturday evening.  It's a small parish, so when we arrived, no one was there except one man who was working in the yard with a garden hoe.  He was wearing blue coveralls and could have easily been a landscaper hired by the parish.  I introduced myself.  He said "I'm Father Andrew."  Our first contact with our soon-to-be priest was watching him lovingly care for the parish grounds by the sweat of his brow.  Khouria Dannie came outside and took us into the Church to show us around.  She introduced us to her daughter and granddaughters and Deacon Ray, and we took a seat at the back.  The service began, and we were in awe of the sheer beauty of the piety and prayer life of the Orthodox Church, though a bit put off by the Arabic chant that is slightly more prominent in the Vespers service.  They held nothing back on our account -- "most Holy Theotokos, save us" and "through the prayers of our holy fathers" rang in our Protestant ears.  We had questions, we were given pamphlets and encouraged to come back.

We visited for a Divine Liturgy shortly thereafter, and the experience was somewhat different.  We knew through reading about the Orthodox Church that the services "run together" -- if you don't know when the Divine Liturgy begins, you'll miss it because they aren't going to stop and tell you when it's coming.  At the end of Matins, the priest intones "blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages!"  That's the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.  It was somewhat different than the Vespers service.  At Vespers, the Church was nearly empty.  At the Liturgy, it was packed.  The Liturgy was quite a bit more familiar than Vespers.  We knew the basic structure, and we knew most of the verbiage, and the tones used for the Liturgy itself were easier on our Western ears.  But there were new things there as well.  The Trisagion hymn and the Cherubic hymn were new to us.  Hymns to the Theotokos and the saints were as well.  And yet there was something familiar about both services that drew us to come back.  Before communion the Church confessed:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen. Of thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom. Not unto judgement nor unto condemnation be my partaking of thy Holy Mysteries, O Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body.

I looked at my wife with wide eyes and quietly said "wow!"  It was one of the most penitential prayers I had ever heard.  When the Church sang the now-familiar post-communion hymn:

We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.

.....we began to believe it.  A year later, that belief has only grown stronger.

We have now observed essentially a full Church year -- a full cycle of Liturgies.  A full cycle of readings.  A full cycle of Feasts and fasts.  When we first entered the door, we weren't sure if we would like it.  Now, a year later, we can't imagine life without it.

That first night we heard, for the first time, the hymn we sing at every Vespers service.  It seems appropriate here.

Preserve O God, the holy Orthodox Faith, and all Orthodox Christians unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Naval Special Forces DEVGRU, on the other hand....

On the other hand, it does fall to government to bear the sword in order to preserve good order, prevent evil and ensure tranquility.  When it comes to bearing that sword, nobody -- and I mean nobody -- does it better than the Naval Special Warfare's DEVGRU, colloquially (and formerly, officially) known as SEAL Team Six.  The training for DEVGRU is so rigorous serious injuries and deaths in training are not uncommon.  These brave men have been from their very inception experts in counterterrorism.  They deserve our respect, honor, admiration and gratitude.

I have been a fan of SEAL Team Six since reading "Rogue Warrior" for the first time.  Some current DEVGRU members may bristle at that suggestion, since its author, Richard Marcinko, is at the same time a true American hero and a convicted felon, and therefore somewhat controversial among the Teams.  Count me among those -- unworthy to hold an opinion on the matter though I be -- who consider Cmdr. Marcinko's service to his country to far outweigh whatever his shortcomings.  The fact that his legacy endures to this day and was on display over the past weekend means we owe him a great debt of honor.  DEVGRU was drawn up by him, designed from the ground up to do exactly what they just did and do it efficiently and successfully.  The culmination of this is the Team he founded just brought down one of the most vile terrorists the world has ever known, and made us all safer in the process.

It is also worth noting that not only did someone have to have the Team in place and draw up the operation that brought down bin Laden, but someone had to make the call to execute that operation.  Our President this weekend made what is to my mind one of the gutsiest and most politically dangerous calls of any President in recent memory when he gave the go-ahead to proceed with a SEAL insertion rather than a drone or missile attack.  If things had gone wrong, he was a guaranteed one-termer.  And they could have easily gone wrong.  We flew 2 helicoptors into sovereign airspace of a foreign nation, dropped 25 SEALS into a fortified compound, and had a long and hairy firefight with hostile forces bent on our destruction.  One can easily imagine the bodies of dead SEALs dragged through the streets of Islamabad.  Instead, we emerged with what is by all reports invaluable intel and assets (not to mention Geronimo, EKIA) and we didn't lose a single man in the process.  The jury is still out on a second term.  But President Obama has earned my respect and admiration.  Our nation is safer today for his courage in making that call.  When we recite the petition in the Liturgy this weekend "for the President of the United States and all civil authorities, and for our Armed Forces everywhere, let us pray to the Lord," God help me to remember to cross myself.  In addition to our admiration, respect, honor and gratitude, all of these men deserve our prayers.

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.  A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

-- John Stuart Mill

Thanks be to God for our armed forces, and particularly DEVGRU, and for the President of the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA and all of those involved in executing this operation.  We have been kept free by the exertions of better men than ourselves.  May God preserve each and every one of them.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden

I debated a bit whether to post anything on this.  That is because in large part I'm tempted to write something along the lines of "may he rest in pieces" or some such, and that is not really a healthy expression of what the world just witnessed.  The baser expressions of my own human frailty simply are not appropriate here.

The world suffers -- humanity suffers -- when we lose one of our own.  It really matters not that Osama bin Laden was, by our measure, a despicable human being, a mass murderer who took life without cause and without remorse.  In the end, Osama bin Laden is our brother.  This is the difficult expression of the Christian faith -- that we are all one, for we were all created by One and in His image.  The tragedy is we have lost His likeness, and that is no less true of me than of bin Laden.  One of my former Pastors used to say "the only difference between me and Osama bin Laden in the sight of God is Christ."  This is most certainly true.

We rejoice, in a sense, that his personal reign of terror is ended.  And yet, someone will pick it up again and we will all move on.  We will continue to kill each other and we will continue to pretend that our killing is better than that of whoever it is we killed.  Ultimately, the reason I am uncomfortable with the death of Osama bin Laden is he reminds me of my own sin, the depth of my own sickness and frailty.  In the end, he is a gross hyper-expression of what deep down inside infects all of us.

I told my friend Anastasia over on her excellent blog that I find it striking that I can confess every week "I believe that Thou Art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."  And yet at a time like this, my inclination is to be triumphalistic.  I want to say  "God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector," when I should instead say "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

Saint Paul, back when he was simply Saul of Tarsus, was a horrible persecutor of Christians, a murderous wretch of a man who severely abused and martyred Christians.  The Patron Saint of our parish, Saint Stephen, became the protomartyr while Saul held his clothing and watched him stoned to death.  This man -- this murderous terrorist -- went on to become one of the greatest Saints in the history of the Church.  So while I am thankful that bin Laden is now unable to do any more harm, I also must remind myself to mourn the fact that he did not have more time to repent.  I also must remind myself that it is not ours to judge.  My own salvation is my concern.  Osama bin Laden's salvation is in the Lord's hands.

So it is that I struggle to keep the death of this man in its proper place.  In the end, all we can rightly do is commend his soul to God.  I will one day face death, and looking in the mirror I have no basis to be confident I will fare better than he.  My confidence is in Christ.  Would that Osama bin Laden had that same confidence.  Would that he had more time to repent.  May God have mercy on his soul, and ours.  It's later than we think.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday of St. Thomas

"Thomas touched Your life-giving side with an eager hand, O Christ God, when You did come to Your apostles through closed doors.  He cried out with all: You are my Lord and my God!"
-- Kontakion for the Sunday of St. Thomas