Monday, September 24, 2007

Building the Building

A good friend of mine and fellow seminarian recently said to me, "The generation of priests before us built buildings, but our generation has to build Churches."

This struck me as very wise and insightful. Actually it is one of the most insightful things I have heard in a long time. Although it may sound derogatory to the older generation, implying that the churches they built were not really "churches," I do not believe it is meant in this way. However, I do believe that the statement is a very accurate observation of the cultural divide between the "old" and "new" generations of priests in Canada.

This mainly stems from the fact the we, the "new" generation do not respond to the type of ministry that previous generations responded to. Now, I am not talking about cultural conditioning, new world mentalities, or even language barriers. I am talking about a very different understanding of how the Church should be proceeding into the new millennium. What we are seeing is a shift in the most fundamental beliefs of progress and ministry within the clerical ranks.

This is happening for two reasons: 1. The "new" generation did not grow up in a village type environment where religion was not questioned and the social norm was being Greek Orthodox. 2. We are neither illiterate nor stupid, and this is a dangerous combination in a multicultural society like Canada, where we are bombarded by multiple philosophies, religions, and the latest trends.

The "old" generation comes from an experience of the church that is much out dated for today's society, and ironically out dated for even the Byzantine times. I say this because the type of Orthodoxy that many of the "old" generation know and love, is the type that is fit only for peasant Greece under Turkish occupation. By this I mean simple, sometimes blind, faith based mostly on the sayings of monastic writers (who were the main influence during that time) with little regard for high theology or an ecumenical attitude. Namely, they are in many ways as far from Byzantine Orthodoxy and Zoroastrianism is from Christianity.

Again, let me repeat that I do not say these things to belittle our older generation. I have the highest respect for them and their traditions. It's just that they have great difficulty realizing that many of "their" traditions are not "our" traditions, and furthermore, they are not the "churches" traditions either. This is because during Turkish occupation the Greek nation lost most of its literacy and understanding of high theology by descending into a world of fear, oppression and superstition. It is only in the past century, and really the last 60-80 years that we have the patristic writers at our disposal again! They were lost to us for nearly half a millennium and yet we believe that what our grandparents practised only 60 years ago is the most important witness to authentic Orthodoxy.

Chrysostom said that "bad traditions, even if they have existed for many years, should be disregarded if they are found to contradict the faith." This is the situation we are in now. The "old" generation is set in its ways. It has a vision of what the Church is and where it should be heading. This vision mostly revolves around building large churches, filling them with expensive iconography, establishing Greek schools and dance groups, and having Sunday schools running during Liturgy to keep those pesky children out of the way of the real adults who want to do the real praying.

Conversely, the "new" generation is a seeking culture. It wants to know and learn and be engaged in its faith. It is well educated and willing to participate in worship. It does not want to accept things "just because" or on "blind faith." It demands more from it's teachers, it's clergy and parish councils. It does not want to be tucked away in some church basement, colouring icons and reciting the Creed until it is blue in the face. It does not take hypocrisy well, nor does it simply accept explanations that are not only shallow, but illogical.

To minister to such a generation, priests must turn their attention away from the fundraising, the gold plate dinners and the enormous preoccupation with having the biggest dome in Canada. They must begin devoting resources to the Church's most precious commodity; its people. They should not be wasting 95% of the their time on buildings that will be empty in 20 years because they were too busy to write a sermon on Sundays. It is time to stop building buildings and start building Churches! We must focus on congregations, knowledge and spirituality, not icons, domes and paving parking lots. Those will come in due time. Seek ye first the Kingdom of heaven and everything will be added to you.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Whole Lot of Nothing

I just finished a very gruelling weekend of sacraments. We actually had 11 weddings and baptisms over two days! Very tiring and definitely a good example of the "Burger King Parish" phenomenon. Still, through all these events, in which people have come to the church to either become Orthodox Christians through baptism or to be married in the eyes of God, I cannot help but worry about the future.

Over the years I have participated in hundreds of weddings and baptisms and in over 95% of the cases (this is NOT an exaggeration) the participants did not know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or even how to Cross themselves. It is very disconcerting to see young couples, their wedding parties, and even their parents, come to the church and not even know the basic elements of their faith.

In Baptisms we can gleam the reason for this spiritual bankruptcy that is infiltrating our church. In the last 5 years, I do believe I can recall only one Godmother who knew and could recite the Creed by heart. Only one among hundreds that I witnessed! We have gotten to the point where the Godparents not only read the Creed out of the priest's book, but they cannot even pronounce the words properly, which indicates this is their first time reading it!

If we ask ourselves why young adults do not know the basics of the faith, it is easy to accept this knowing that they had no guidance or spiritual education when they were young. These days, the role of the Godparents is seen as a honorary role that only requires one to buy nice gifts for the child on special occasions. Most believe that such things are left up to the parents, to raise their children in the Orthodox Faith. However, the parents know even less.

Now, in many parishes across Canada, these kinds of situations can easily be avoided. How? Education, education, education! We get angry at parents who choose unsuitable Godparents or unsuitable "koumbaroi" for their weddings, but we do not do a good enough job in educating our people as to what type of people they should be selecting for these roles. In most parishes there are no wedding counselling or marriage preparation courses, no baptism pamphlet given out or catechism held for those coming into the faith! There is virtually no preparation or education whatsoever!

The most common excuse that most priests give is that they have no time and no man power to perform all these ministries. Although being shorthanded is partly true, it is not a good enough excuse to neglect the spiritual education of the people. What can be more important? What is more crucial to the future generations of our church? Are our people less important that putting icons on the wall? Are our people less important than community centres and banquet halls? Are our people less important than all the materials things we put before them?

We spend so much time, effort, and money on all the material needs of the church and we forget that the spiritual needs are the most important. If parishes do not have a significant budget for religious education in their community, then it won't matter how many community centres they build, or how beautiful the icons are. In 20 years there won't be anyone left to look at them; the community centres will be empty. We boast about or buildings while our people do not know the Creed. We boast about our nice tiles and double headed eagle mosaic on the floor, but our people do not know the Lord's Prayer. We boast about the latest trip to the Holy Land, Greece, or any other European locale; whatever distracts us from God's calling to preach the Word, while our people do not even know what time Liturgy starts on Sunday!

And for some reason, we priests do not even mention this from the pulpit! We do not preach against this situation! We do not educate! We have learned the magic word; ACCOMMODATION! We accommodate our people. We accommodate their likes. We accommodate their dislikes. We accommodate their spiritual laziness. We accommodate their ignorance of the faith. We accommodate so much that we start confusing accommodation with LOVE! We start saying that we have to "love" people as they are and not push them too much because they "don't know" and cannot be faulted. It is out of so-called "love" that we intentionally avoid painful yet critical topics in our sermons. It is out of this so-called "love" that we offer "drive-thru" Communion out of the context of the Liturgy because we want those who "work" to be able to receive. Where were they the rest of the year!

Last time I checked, true Love is not letting your children do whatever they want! Parents discipline and guide their children so that they can grow to be well rounded adults. Is not the priest the father of his congregation? Where is it written that the father must spoil his children so that they will not cry or act up? I do believe that God did not do this in the Old Testament and we definitely should not be doing it now. Christ came to preach Love as the true spirit of the Law. This does not mean that he abolished the law altogether! The law remains, but the guiding force behind it is Love.

In the same way, the church must still teach what is right and even discipline when necessary. However, it must be done with love so it will always lead people towards God. If we do not stand firm and teach and guide with a firm hand, we are not practicing Love at all. We are really practicing self love because we look for the praise of our congregations instead of doing the right thing in the face of ridicule. We worry that if we do not offer "drive-thru" Communion, the people will go down the street to the other Orthodox Church and get it. Then we will lose business! Why not start thinking about what is good for our people spiritually and not what is only good for their worldly desires, because it seems to me that we worry much more about our quantity instead of our quality. However, if we keep going down this path, we will end up with a whole lot of nothing!

End of rant.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary. I think it is a wonderful response to the so called "politically correct" movement in North America. Enjoy!

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejewelled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.

It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" (Regarding Katrina) Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response.She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbour as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell.

Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.Are you laughing?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards.
Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The "Otherness" of Worship

Recently I was having a conversation with my wife and it came up that statistically, most people pray in their "native" or "cultural" tongue. This is curious since this may not even be their first and most fluent language, and yet they instinctively use it when they pray and also when they count.

Further reflecting on this, I instantly remember a statement that Frank Schaeffer made in his last book, "Letters to Fr. Aristotle." In it, he defends the traditional use of Greek in Orthodox liturgical services and cautions against the conversion to modern English or even modern Greek translations. Although he does cite the most common problems associated with such a switch (issues with translations and politically correct influences), he does make an additional point. He mentions that it is important to have a "sacred" language. By sacred, he means one that is set apart from everyday speech and reserved only for the worship of God.

Now, at first sight, this point may seem rather insignificant compared to the enormous benefits that would arise from adopting the vernacular in our liturgical services. However, I do believer that Schaeffer is on to something here. And this is where I connect the earlier statistic, that most people instinctively pray and count in their "native" tongues. Perhaps there is a connection between this phenomenon and Schaeffer's statement.

Some may say that the practice of using the "cultural" language is a result of familial and societal conditioning. I would have to agree with this theory. Our sense of ethnicity largely stems from a sense of family and belonging. For me, speaking Greek is very comforting because it unites me to a much larger community of "Greeks" who share the same culture, history, and mannerisms as I do. It fulfills a sense of belonging.

Now let us look at the church. It too is a family which has many members. Furthermore, it's membership crosses gender, cultural and even political lines. The demographic is much more diverse. This means that there arises a great need for a common church "culture" to unite all these different types of people. Some would say that this is the gospel, however we know that this is sometimes not enough. In an age where one can find a church on every street corner (and no two are alike), how is one to distinguish one community from the other? Furthermore, how is the church to be a true family if it does not possess it's own unique traditions which identifies and differentiates it from all the others? The issue of language is interwoven into this complex matrix of communal identity.

Statistics show that most youth in our generation actually want more ritual in their lives. They are seeking it in large numbers. This is due to the human need to experience the sacred, the divine. For most, this means that such an experience must be beyond that which they experience in their daily lives. This is why we see such an interest in eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabala, etc.) in our current generation. It is of paramount importance to create a form of worship that is sacred, something separated from the everyday, and something dedicated wholly to God. This is why the Orthodox Church has maintained its traditional outlook throughout the centuries and has remained quite impervious to outer influence and trends of the time. It is because the truth which it preaches is eternal, and is so emphasized in the consistent form of worship it employs.

Getting back to language. The tendency to use our "native"tongue in prayer testifies to this need for all people to experience the "otherness" of spirituality. They unconsciously reserve their native language as something "sacred" and "set apart." They believe that they have to do this in order to give the holy event of prayer the respect and reverence it deserves.

Furthermore, in step with Frank Schaeffer, worshipping in an language one does not fully understand, forces the faithful to engage their faith in new ways. It demands one to dig deeper into their worship and it requires effort on our part. It is not an "easy" faith. In an age of "burger king" parishes that are known for their new, hip services, it is easy to see how this sort of traditional worship would be very unpopular. It is because it does not cater to people's spiritual laziness, but demands higher thinking and greater effort. It forces the congregation to take interest in what it is doing and how it is expressing it's faith.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to advocate abolishing the use of English in our churches. What I am saying is that we should take very small steps when considering the use of liturgical language because it may have the adverse affect on our congregations. In the states, Greeks are 3rd and 4th generation Hellenes who barely speak a word of Greek. They mostly use English in their worship. However, their churches are not devoid of problems. In reality, they face the same problems we face here in Canada; poor attendance, lax participation, low spiritual education, etc etc. The Roman Catholic Church, with the advent of the second Vatican Council, changed all worship services to the vernacular and actually dropped in numbers!

What does this tell us?" Does it mean that we should only use Greek in our services? No. What it does do is serve as a caution as to how quickly we embrace the cultural and political trends of the time. It could be that through our quest to "modernize" the church, we may inadvertently lose that sense of "otherness" and experience of the "divine " and "sacred" that the Orthodox Church has maintained since the time of the Apostles. In essence, we risk turning the spiritual Body of Christ into just another night out at the theatre.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Judge By True Standards

Someone recently told me, "judge not lest ye be judged."

Truly, we Christians are commanded not to judge others, but is this commandment so black and white? While it is true that Matthew 7:1 states, ""Do not judge, or you too will be judged," immediately after that Matthew 7:2 says, "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Therefore we see that Christ does not merely tell us to not judge. He feels the need to clarify what this means. We are not to judge hypocritically because whatever judgment we proclaim on others, it will be applied to us as well.

Having said this, the question must be asked, "what if the judgment is just?" If the one who is judging is himself/herself innocent of the offence he is judging others on, then when the judgement is applied to him/her, will he not be found innocent? This is something to truly ponder about. Is Jesus really saying to us never to raise a judgement against anyone or is He telling us to be careful how we judge as not to be hypocrites?

Let us think of it another way; If no one ever judges the actions of another, how can an administration run efficiently? Organizations are based on a hierarchy; a system which sets certain people above others to judge their actions and lead them to right behaviour for the good of all. If this type of judgement did not exist, there would be chaos. If the Holy fathers of the church did not justly judge the heretics, where would we be today?

I think that it is too simple to say "do not judge" without qualifying what we mean by it. Too often we, in the church, use this quote as a scapegoat to avoid the real difficult questions of correcting our brother. 2 Timothy 4:2 states, "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction." We have the obligation to judge with righteousness those who attack the body of Christ. Truly, we must judge the sin and not the sinner, and always with love, however there must be checks and balances in the system.

In today's day and age we tend to confuse forgiveness and compassion with righteous judgement. For example, a clergy member may commit an act that, according to the canons of the church, expels him from the priesthood. However, in many cases, and this happens in many different religions, such individuals are allowed to remain as clergy under the guise that "the Church is forgiving." I think that one has nothing to do with the other. It is possible to love and forgive someone, while at the same time allowing them to face the consequences of their actions. Indeed, true love should insist on facing the consequences of one's actions and learning from them. Since when did the canons of the church state that if we forgive you, you get to stay in the priesthood? Never. One was always deposed for serious offences, but still remained a member of the church.

The protection of the laity from those who are incapable of leading them, should be the primary task of the administration. One can love and forgive someone, but at the same time demand that they are expelled from a position in which they continually hurt their congregation. Nice feelings and sentimentality should not get in the way of the proper order of the church or society. Compassion and forgiveness come in many different forms and it could be that we do more damage allowing our brethren to "get away" with certain offences just because we do not want to hurt their feelings. Let us not delude ourselves. Spiritually, we cripple them, the community, and the church.

Back to judgement...It seems that besides not holding others accountable, we tend not to hold ourselves accountable either. We always like to rationalize our faults and usually end up patting ourselves on the back for our "much greater" accomplishments that far outweigh our faults. This occurs because their is no one to correct or rebuke us either. And so the circle keeps on going and the community keeps on deluding itself.

Every once in a while there comes a person who is not afraid to speak out against corruption, injustice, and other forms of evil within society or even the church. Such individuals, because of their pure intentions and usual lack of tact, are usually mocked and laughed at by the majority. However, regardless of the method of delivery, what they are actually saying is true. It is we, as a society, who tend to focus on ridiculing the delivery and the way it is said because we cannot bear to listen to the content itself. Yet, it is the content that is important. If the content is just, then let us accept our brother's rebuke as a righteous judgement because God works through such people. If it is hypocritical judgement, let us ignore it and forgive our brother of his arrogance. Either way, let us not be black and white in our opinions. Let us see, and judge, things are they truly are and let us not be afraid to speak the truth. Jesus wasn't.

I will leave you with a quote from an author who I greatly respect; M. Scott Peck, M.D. Here he is speaking about the courage to "rock the boat" and be different than the rest of society; the ability to speak one's mind:
"Indeed, it takes great courage to be different, to dare to be oneself [Christian]. If we choose to think for ourselves, we must be braced for the backlash. We risk being seen as eccentrics or malcontents. We may be presumed to be on the fringes of mainstream society, regarded as different and abnormal in the worst sense of the word."

Are we prepared to be go "against the tide" even when it means disagreeing with others and proclaiming "judgements" that are perceived as arrogance instead of wisdom? It is a difficult question. The difficulty of the answer depends on the individual.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Misquoting Truth

I just finished an excellent read; "Misquoting Truth: A guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus" by Timothy Paul Jones. In this book, Jones attempts to answer the many erroneous hypotheses of Bart Ehrman's work. Bart Ehrman believes that the N.T. writings are not reliable because they were not written by the actual evangelists they are attributed to. Furthermore, he believes that the texts have been corrupted by multiple scribes over the centuries, adding, subtracting and making errors in the copying of text.

Jones responds to this criticism by a close analysis of Ehrman's biblical examples, stating that if we examine all the differences in the manuscripts and all the so-called changes, we will find that none of these differences or changes augement or change the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Jones goes even further and states that even in the cases when scribes have added theological asides to the text, the material added is not in contradiction, but actaually supports the theology already present in the rest of the text. In this way, he claims that the text, although having undergone revisions, still proclaims the same basic truth as was orginally preached by the apostles.

In addition to this argument, Jones also spends a great deal of time providing evidence for the authenticity of the gospel authorship and for the process by which the books of the N.T. were selected. Although he raises some very good points as to why he thinks the books were really authored by the four evangelists, I do believe that he somewhat misses the point. While he does mention "oral tradition," does not place enough emphasis on the most important point of all; Holy Tradition.

To be sure, Jones does speak in depth about the oral tradition that was passed down through the apostles and so forth through all their successors. However, he uses this point to illustrate that the eye witness accounts were preserved in a largely vocal culture that was prone to memorizing much more than reading. I believe that the "oral tradition" that he mentions is part of a much larger phenomenon of what we Orthodox call "Holy Tradition." This is the belief that, beyond only the eye witness accounts, the true understanding and experience of Christ's ministry was passed down through the collective consciousness of the one true church. This means that it was this one true body that possessed the authority to decide which books were God-inspired and which were not. Jones claimes that the church made this selection soley on criteria of whether the accounts were eye witness or secondary. While this is partly true, the more important criterion was whether the text in question revealed who Christ was in the collective memory of the one true church. As Fr. John Behr always liked to say, "The Canon is Christ." This is the ultimate rule by which the early church accepted certain books and not others. It was not whether they could prove historically that an account was first hand, but whether the text in question described what was passed down first hand. I think that is where Jones lacks in his analysis. Otherwise, he has written a great rebuttle and has provided all Christians with a very powerful apologetic tool to face the growing tide of atheism.