Archive for October, 2009

Pagans and Orthodox Christians

October 30, 2009

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It’s the day before Halloween so the news outlets are knocking themselves out running “your next door neighbor, the pagan” stories chronicling the rising numbers of pagans, particularly Wiccans, in America, and neo-paganism’s acceptance as a cool new religious choice.  I just finished reading an ABC News article  that does its best to prove both of those points.  Did you know that Wicca is a much more accepting, religiously tolerant, environmentally conscious, and gender and sexually affirming religion than your traditional, oppressive, misogynistic brand of Christianity? Aside from the  coming out stories of middle-age housewives, confused teenagers, and gay men who cast salt circles in their backyards wearing black bathrobes or nothing at all, the one fact that struck me so powerfully about this article was the demographic number – .3%.  That is the general estimate of practicing pagans (Wiccans, but also worshippers of the Norse gods for example and other flavors of neo-paganism) in the United States.  Let me shake you up by pointing out the Pew Forum’s most recent survey of American religious groups estimates the total number of Orthodox Christians at

.6%

Yes, that’s less than 1% of 305.5 million Americans.  What is the matter with us, my fellow Orthodox Christians?  I am actually very pissed off and discouraged that we, the keepers of the ancient Christian faith, the witnesses of  the fullness of the Gospel, the inheritors of the first Christian communities established by the Apostles,  have only a .3% numerical significance in this country over the pagans!

Each of us individually needs to recommit ourselves to evangelism and the spreading of our faith.  If our relationship with God and his Holy Church means so much to us, our zeal has got to translate into hard numbers.   At this rate we aren’t going to see 1% before the end of the next decade.  Where do you think the pagans are going to place?   

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Halloween and Orthodox Christians

October 26, 2009

halloween-pumpkin 

Pews or no pews, kneeling on Sunday, headcoverings.  You think these cause consternation and discord among our “Little T” debates?  Try raising the issue of Halloween among 10 Orthodox Christians and you’ll get 10 different opinions, each centered around the question of  ‘what commonly observed, secular American activities are appropriate for an Orthodox Christian to take part in?   

 In this past Sunday’s church bulletin, I went back and forth about what exactly to put in concerning Halloween.  Knowing the range of opinions, I did not want to print anything that was too dogmatic or based upon my own beliefs, but was a more general treatment of the Christian holiday associated with the season and which was in line with our priest’s judgment, which is pretty neutral about Halloween.  On the other hand, very strong injunctions against the practice of Halloween have been preached in recent years, and not so recently.  You’d be surprised to know that St. John of Maximovitch, who I myself revere, dealt with Halloween in his own way back in his earliest days in San Francisco.   This is not an issue the Church has considered on a level in the way abortion or same sex marriage attack key doctrinal positions.  This is a pastoral issue and as such is subject to the various interpretations of clergy.

So in order to balance these competing pastoral opinions, I found the following explanation from the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Belief, concerning the history of All Hallow’s Eve and its connections with the modern celebration of Halloween.  Make of it what you will, but it presents a more moderate counter-balance to the usual explanation of Halloween as a strictly  Celtic, pagan influenced observance, and the gateway holiday that leads a Christian straight into Satanism and damnation.    (A few minor grammar edits are mine to adapt it for length and for use in an Orthodox publication.)

The Feast of All Saints is a holy day of the Church honoring all saints, known and unknown. This is much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, where many people are honored on one day.   Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location, and many times local churches honored local saints. Gradually, however, feast days became more universal. The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints occurs in Saint Ephrem the Syrian (†AD 373).  Saint John Chrysostom (†AD 407) assigned a day to the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where in the Eastern Churches the feast is celebrated to this day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th. The current observance, November 1st, originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (†AD 741), and was likely first observed on that date  in Germany. This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.

The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has grown up in the English-speaking countries as a festival in itself, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.  While many consider Halloween pagan, as far as the [Western] Church is concerned the date is simply the eve of the feast of All Saints.  Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigils we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us.  However, for some Halloween is used for evil purposes, in which many Christians dabble unknowingly.

Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.”  The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own. Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year. The day after All Saints day is called All Soul’s Day, a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed.

As so often happens in our “internet as fact” culture, blog readers often visit  a variety of blogs to know what to think and believe.  They can pick and chose from millions of bloggers who use their electronic soapboxes to display a clever use of words and out-of-context sources, and to broadcast their “authoritative” opinions to the world.    I say this to dissuade anyone from using my post to argue “for” or “against” Halloween.  Opinions I have – but not the ability to make these spiritual decisions for you and your family.  That said, my own family practice has been to celebrate Halloween as a fun, silly night of dress-up, child-friendly scariness and block party revelry.  I have had many talks with the kids about the various origins of Halloween customs and some of the evils that have been improperly attached to Halloween (i.e. Satanism or animal sacrifice) and what is appropriate behavior for an Orthodox Christian.  My kids being kids, always list Halloween as one of their favorite “holidays”, right up there with Christmas and Pascha.  It makes for good segway talks into the difference between having fun and celebrating the life of our Lord and Savior, and what is truly important as a Christian.   In other words, fun in moderation and with a clear understanding of boundaries.

Is this what I think everyone should do?   Heavens no!  My opinion about Halloween may be based on my own poor discernment and failure to give all areas of my life over to the Gospel.  On the other hand, as another priest friend remarked once, “Why should the devil have all the fun?”

Owls at Dawn

October 20, 2009

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One of my backyard Great Horned Owls was calling yesterday morning in the pre-dawn time as I rushed around getting ready for work.  Those deep hooting calls have the power to make me stop whatever I’m doing, grab my children and rush into the backyard to look for the beautiful bird silhouetted against the barely brightening sky; its great size and ear tufts outlined above the top of the oak tree.   There’s an almost spiritual moment in the few seconds of shared observation between the bird and us, before it launches itself with broad wings into the deeper woods.  Then we go back inside to finish our rushing around, busying ourselves with an ordinary day.

 If the Owl Calls Again

at dusk from the island in the river, and it’s not too cold, I’ll wait for the moon to rise, then take wing and glide to meet him. We will not speak, but hooded against the frost soar above the alder flats, searching with tawny eyes. And then we’ll sit in the shadowy spruce and pick the bones of careless mice, while the long moon drifts toward Asia and the river mutters in its icy bed. And when the morning climbs the limbs we’ll part without a sound, fulfilled, floating homeward as the cold world awakens.

                                                                   by John Haines

Reason #4 Why I’m An Orthodox Christian

October 17, 2009

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Not content to celebrate Halloween with a “Harvest Festival”, the blind sheep at Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, will be adding a bonfire fueled with ignorance and spiritual delusion.   Here’s a portion of their original website announcement listing some of the satanic BBQ briquettes they’re planning on warming their hands around (not suprisingly, their webpage has been removed – this is a rather “hot” topic for them right now):

Come to our Halloween book burning. We are burning Satan’s bibles like the NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT, Good News for Modern Man, The Evidence Bible, The Message Bible, The Green Bible, etc…

These are perversions of God’s Word, the King James Bible.  We will also be burning Satan’s music such as country , pop, heavy metal, western, soft and easy, contemporary Christian, jazz, soul, oldies but goldies, etc.

We will also be burning Satan’s popular books written by heretics like Westcott & Hort, Bruce Metzger, Billy Graham Rick Warren Bill Hybels , John McArthur, James Dobson, Charles Swindoll John Piper, Chuck Colson, Tony Evans, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swagart, Mark Driskol, Franklin Graham , Bill Bright, Tim Lahaye, Paula White, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joyce Myers, Brian McLaren, Robert Schuller, Mother Teresa, The Pope, Rob Bell, Erwin McManus, Donald Miller, Shane Claiborne, Brennan Manning, William Young, etc.

We are not burning Bibles written in other languages that are based on the TR. We are not burning the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva or other translations that are based on the TR.

 Wow, Billy Graham and Benny Hinn in the same list!  Did you notice that the Fathers of the Church, like Saint Athanasius, Saint Cyprian, Saint Basil the Great, aren’t even on the list?  I doubt it’s because of their “orthodoxy”, but because these folks are so ignorant of Church history and the source of their own Bible that their vision doesn’t  extend to anything past the Reformation.

Oh and by the way, they’ll be serving a BBQ or fried chicken dinner to everyone who attends.  

Why do we put boys in the altar with knives, fire and alcohol?

October 12, 2009

After Divine Liturgy yesterday my 9 year old reported the usual shenanigans that altar boys get into behind the iconostas.  (Moms, you’ll understand when I say I much prefer not to see what’s going on.)   So the 9 year old tells me, in a very casual manner, about an “incident” that happened with his 7 year old brother.

“Mom, if M’s hair smells like charcoal, it’s ok, it just got a little singed.  He got his head too close to the censor, but we picked out the burned parts.”   

School photos are tomorrow.   Luckily the missing parts are on the back of his head.

The Nobel Peace Prize?

October 9, 2009

APTOPIX Nobel Peace Prize Obama

Was I sleeping the last nine months when President Obama brought peace to the Middle East or finally got us out of Iraq and Afghanistan?   Or was it the democratic revolution in North Korea?  According to Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland, Obama qualifies for this most prestigious award for accomplishments in the field of peace and justice by making us all feel good.   Speaking at a news conference (during which time the Committee also proposed renaming the Nobel Peace Prize, the Grand Exalted Medal for Wishful Thinking, Great Aspirations and Undelivered Promises), Jagland said

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.

Well, hope is a good thing considering the last 8 years of criminal incompetence we’ve been through.  But awarding a Nobel Prize for perceptions and good feelings?   This fact wasn’t lost on Polish activist Lech Walesa, who didn’t just inspire a hope of changing the Communist system of 1980’s Poland, but actually did it in the streets and factories of Gdansk.  Mr. Walesa said in his straight-talking style

So soon?  Too early.  He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage.  He is only beginning to act.

Well, at least President Obama now has something to shoot for.  If I were given a big fancy medal for contributions I’d not yet made, wouldn’t you think I’d kick it into high gear?  No pressure Mr. President.  You’re just in the unenviable position of being the young, untested race horse who’s name’s been engraved on the winner’s cup before the starting gun has even gone off.

Ken Burns, The National Parks

October 2, 2009

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Is anyone watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series The National Parks?  I love the style, beauty and quality of his documentaries, well, except maybe not the World War II series.  This one is different though.   It has the majesty and emotional pull that affected us in The Civil War series.  The power to fill us with pride and patriotism, and a deep feeling of ‘Americanism’.   If you’re feeling a little cynical, an hour of Ken Burns will make you feel foolish and faithless.  You’ll suddenly be saying to yourself, “Damn, I love this country.”

This show is stirring up my earliest dreams to join the National Park Service.  My plan and my college majors were in parks & recreation and natural resource conservation, but   23 years later why am I not a park ranger?  It’s a long story, but life, love and President Reagan and his trickle down economics changed the course of my dreams.  Since then I’ve had to satisfy my wilderness craving by extensive travel and obsessive birdwatching.   

Tonight is the final segment and I think that, in part, what makes The National Parks documentary so moving is the recurring theme of spirituality and reverence; that a love of the natural world brings out something pure and good in man, and moves many to a deeper communion with God.  The national parks are truly our American cathedrals.  I’ve stood in the great naves of Notre Dame and Westminster, and never felt as spiritually touched and awed as I have on the rim of the Grand Canyon or dwarfed beside the trunk of a Giant Sequoia.   I have been baptized in the spray of a Yellowstone geyser, communed from mountain streams, and been in the fellowship of other worshippers along backcountry trails and remote 4 x 4 roads.

It sounds blasphemous to say, but I believe that if I were cut off from the natural world I would die.  Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I would pine away, depressed, sad, withering, like a plant without sunlight.  But as an Orthodox Christian I know that the ultimate source of life and light is God, and I’ve come to understand the Church’s teaching on communion with God and the natural world.   We believe the present natural world is a window, reflecting the beauty and goodness of God’s original Creation, and made as a place of living communion with God.  The window though is clouded by the sin of man and the distortion of creation.   The history of the world has moved through the age of Creation and Separation, to Incarnation and Salvation.   Now is the age of Salvation, through the coming of Christ, His death and Resurrection.   As Orthodox Christians we understand this in a holistic, communal way.  Christ didn’t merely pay some tit for tat exchange of sins with his Blood.  He didn’t balance the ledger of judgment and damnation.  Instead, he sanctified and restored our humanity with His Incarnation; he defeated death by death; and He heals and restores us daily by calling us to live a sacramental life in His Church.  All of this Christ accomplished not solely for Man but for the whole of Creation that was clouded and changed by sin.  Trees, fish, water, birds; the very rocks and dirt we stand on – everything is to be transformed and restored as a means of communion with God.  

Is it no wonder that mankind finds so much spiritual life in the beauty of nature?  There is a danger, however, that such an honest love is twisted, and nature itself becomes an idol.  Theologian and nature lover, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, writing in his book, For the Life of the World, observed that

Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God … The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communication with God in whom is all life … When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence … The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world.

 This is a hard truth for me to wrap my mind around.   Can’t a tree just be a tree?  An object of reverence merely for its beauty?  Isn’t the mere inspiration of awe good in itself?  Or maybe it’s impossible to just look at a winter flight of Snow Geese against the setting sun and not praise the God who created them?  

John Muir, father of the American conservation movement, was himself the son of a brutally strict, Campbellite lay preacher.  It was in Muir’s rejection of his father’s judgmental, wrathful God that he found love and his own personal salvation in the trees and mountains of the American West.   His writings reflect a universalist God, who expresses doctrines of faith in the Gospel of Nature.   It may not be strictly Orthodox, but I think it still has truths to teach us.

Rocks and waters, etc., are works of God and so are men.  We all flow from one fountain Soul.  All are expressions of one Love.  God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless  over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.

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