Archive for the ‘Orthodoxy in America’ Category

Orthodox History

November 17, 2009

There’s a much over-used expression, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been”.   Trite, but so true, and it could easily be applied to the history of the Orthodox Christians in the New World. 

For a couple of months I’ve been reading an excellent, and the first of its kind, website devoted exclusively to the history of Orthodoxy in the US, Canada, the Americas .  It is sponsored by the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA), and headed by Father Oliver Herbel, but the list of names associated with the Society is an academic ‘who’s who’ of Orthodox theologians and historians.  You will simply not believe how much information can be found on this site; most of which is not widely known outside the academic study of American Orthodoxy.   And SOCHA doesn’t just present the nice, pretty stuff either.    They want the rest of us to understand that the Orthodox Church isn’t simply what it is in this country because of the good that was done by the early Russian missionary saints, but was shaped just as profoundly by the prideful,  the spiritually deluded, the ineffective, and some just plain whack jobs.  

This is what makes our history so interesting and so suprising.   I think we Orthodox underestimate just how far we’ve come in the past 200 years.   Orthodoxy has managed to become securely established, albeit in a demographically small size, but still recognizable as an American Orthodox Church.   All we need to do is finish the job.   We must put aside the jumbled bird’s nest of administrative disunity to establish a truly unified American Orthodox Church.

To hear these stories brought to life, check out the companion podcast  on Ancient Faith Radio by SOCHA’s Associate Directory Matthew Namee.

Pagans and Orthodox Christians

October 30, 2009

coven_witches_shakes

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?   

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?”

Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism 2009

September 17, 2009

Now posted on Ancient Faith Radio are the talks given at the recent Conference on Missions and Evangelism sponsored by the Antiochian Archdiocese.   This has been a very succesful, enthusiastically attended conference, attracting a Who’s Who of Orthodoxy, particularly well known converts.  The frank, heartfelt responses of Metropolitan Jonah to a variety of questions about Orthodox unity, missions and relations with the Oriental Orthodox churches are very edifying.  Every word I’ve  heard from Metropolitan Jonah has the power to move me in so many positive ways.   I always come away with a renewed sense of commitment and love for Orthodoxy and the Church in this country.  What a blessing he is for American Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy in Unlikely Places

July 9, 2009

BigBend

So as I posted earlier, I was on vacation the end of June and early July in New Mexico and West Texas.  At some point we stopped in the historic little town of Fort Davis, Texas, on our way down to Big Bend National Park.   We spent a wonderful night at our usual stay, the Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. 

Wherever I travel I always make a review of the phone book and local newspaper  to see what kinds of churches, particularly Orthodox, are found in the area.  Since I’d been to the Big Bend area many times, I didn’t even pay it that much mind since I thought I knew what was to be found out here.   In the way of Orthodoxy that means flat nothing between San Angelo and El Paso.   So you can imagine my total, utter shock when I opened the Jeff Davis County Mountain Register and saw the name Saint Jonah the Wonderworker Orthodox Church in the church listings on page 3.  

To give you an idea how unlikely it is that anyone in the OCA Missions Office ever thought about Big Bend as an area of future church planting, some statistics please.  Fort Davis and Valentine are the only two towns to be found in the whole 2265 square miles of Jeff Davis County, with a total population of 2207.   Thirty miles from Fort Davis is Brewster County and the location of St. Jonah Orthodox Mission in Alpine, Texas.   Only 8866 people reside in Brewster County’s 6193 square miles, most in the town of Alpine (population 5786).  And yet, in two counties where the average population density is less than 1 person per square mile, an Orthodox mission has been planted and a part-time priest assigned.   Glory be to God!

Canon 28 and the Ecumenical Patriarchate

May 13, 2009

I really like George Michalopulos’  writing.  Finally, someone has written clear, concise background and analysis of jurisdictional issues and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s jockying for power in the US.   The American Orthodox Institute  has quite a few articles on these issues, but for a good overview try this one on the history of Metropolinitates and Canon 28 and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’.    

When you’ve finished those, here’s an excerpt from Metropolitan Jonah’s interview with the Russian Patriarchate’s news service during his recent trip, with specific emphasis on his vision for Orthodoxy in America and the OCA’s autocephaly.   This is a man who may have recently apologized to the Patriarchate Bartholomew for being too honest in an age of political correctness and diplomatic niceties, but he isn’t taking back the basic message – the Orthodox Church in America has no intention of looking to Constantinople for its leadership.   Personally, I think Metropolitan Jonah’s leadership style points up another characteristic in which America differs from the Old World – up front honesty – we lay our cards on the table even when it means stepping on some toes (how’s that for some blatant metaphor mixing!)

Here’s Metropolitan Jonah laying out some honesty in his interview-

The Patriarchate of Constantinople, as well as some other Local Orthodox Churches do not recognize our autocephaly. And if they want to make any decisions affecting our life, this is only possible with our consent. Otherwise, it will be a great sin against us.

Metropolitan Jonah Apologizes

April 20, 2009

Hmmm….  I’m not sure what to make of this, but I think my take would be it’s an apology from the messenger, but not an apology about the message.   I concede that my recent hot-headed remarks  were much less charitable than Metropolitan Jonah’s original comments made at St. Seraphim Cathedral, but I hope you will see them in the same light – messenger vs. message.   I can’t change my fervent opinion that American Orthodoxy will ever achieve its full potential under foreign control.  Besides, I can shoot my mouth off with much less effect than a Metropolitan whose every word is weighed on the scales of diplomatic correctness.   Strong wording and you’ve got somebody’s under-riassa in a big wedgie.

New Pascha Website

April 15, 2009

resurrection

Can you feel it?  Only 4 days to go before Pascha!  This is it folks; the home stretch.  We’ve almost made it to that great day of Resurrection.   It’s easy at this point to already start feeling we’re celebrating Pascha.   The power of that joyful day is so great it spills over, even into the sadness of Holy Week. 

In anticipation of the upcoming Great Feast or Feast of Feasts, the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America have joined up to create a really nice website focusing on Pascha and the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour.   The Feast of Feasts website  features articles by well-known Orthodox writers and theologians, photos, testimonials, and a lot more.  A really nice feature that is going to be added will be stories of Pascha submitted by readers.  Send an email with your story, reflection or memories of Pascha to editor@feastoffeasts.org and it may be chosen to add to the website.  Keep the length to 300 words or less (no photos, no PDF, text-only)

Saint Tikhon and the Unity of the American Church

April 7, 2009

tikhon

Today is the celebration of the repose of one of the greatest American saints – Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and Enlightener of North America.  He served as Archbishop of the entire North American continent at a time when communication and travel were difficult,  when no well-organized, central administrative structure governed the church in this country, when there were no seminaries, and the faithful were either new immigrants without churches or had been unpastored for decades in remote areas.  His time in America was relatively short – just nine years between 1898 and 1907, but in that time he transformed the Orthodox Church in America and gave it a vision and mission for self-governance and independence.

Ironically, the Orthodox Church in this country has entered a period that, I believe, will test the very limits of what Saint Tikhon envisioned and worked to achieve.  A series of events and actions are taking place right now which, if they do not seem divinely guided, at least are the kind of events that may one day be seen as the opening shots in a very strident conflict between the Old World and the New. 

1.   The election of Metropolitan Jonah to lead the Orthodox Church in America (the only autocephalous Orthodox Church in this country and a grandchild of Saint Tikhon).  Metropolitan Jonah is the strongest voice for American Orthodoxy – a hierarch who isn’t mincing words about the urgency for Orthodox administrative unity in America.

2.   The reigning in of the Antiochian Bishops of North America and Canada and the re-enforcement of submission to the Patriarch of Antioch, supported wholeheartedly by Metropolitan Philip.  

3.   The anticipated Pan Orthodox Synod  that is being convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  Preparatory meetings are already scheduled for this summer.  Big topic of discussion – the church in the diaspora.

4.   Patriarch Bartholomew I’s strongly worded “suggestion” that American Orthodox fulfillment and unity are best achieved by submitting to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.   If you have a strong gag reflex, please be warned when you read the speech given by the EP Holy Synod’s Chief Secretary, Archimandrite Dr. Elpidophoros Lambriniadisthis, to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary on March 16th. 

Let me just make one observation here to the Ecumenical Patriarch’s proposal….. BAAW HAW HAW HAW.  Sorry, I don’t know how to write up the corresponding sound of me snorting my morning coffee all over the screen.   With all due respect Your Eminence, it seems that the more desperate your situation becomes in the oppressive, hostile, crushing state of Turkey, the more you resort to fancy tap dancing to extend your influence, power and importance over the Orthodox faithful in the diaspora.   We all feel for your difficult situation but this is America.  At least for us in the OCA, we’ve been handling things on or own for a good long while now – not always successfully, but we ain’t about to turn against the work of Saint Tikhon and go back to the Old Country, to an isolated, besieged patriarchate which, under the “freedom” of the Turkish constitution and the threat of terrorist attack, has zilcho autonomy and self-determination.   Let’s be frank – Your Eminence has been overseeing a slow death, 500 years in the making, while Orthodoxy in this country is young, alive and moving forward.  And we can go forward as co-workers and co-equals in Christ, but we won’t be doing it holding our Daddy’s hand.  

Metropolitan Jonah put this so much more eloquently than I do in his sermon during a Pan Orthodox vespers  at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas on April 5th (We had some parishioners attend and I can’t wait to get their impressions.)  I absolutely love Metropolitan Jonah!  This is the kind of leadership we have not had in the OCA in decades and it seems only by the providence of God that his election coincides with these new attacks on American Orthodox independence.

As Saint Tikhon observed in a speech given in March 1907 during the first All American Sobor (the precursor to the present OCA All American Councils) shortly before he returned to Russia (and you will excuse his use of the word “Russian” Orthodoxy – he was after all preaching to a predominantly Russian audience) 

…the more I study the history of the Orthodox Church in this country, the more I am convinced that our work here is God’s work; that God himself is helping us; that when it seems as though everything we do is ready to fail — the work of Russian Orthodoxy — on the contrary, it not only does not die, but grows in new strength and brilliance.

Part 2 – Illumined Heart Interview with Metropolitan Jonah

January 8, 2009

I’ve been meaning to post Part 2 of Kevin Allen’s Illumined Heart  interview  for days now, but getting slammed at work wasn’t part of my post-New Year’s plan.  I wanted to ease into the routine after a pretty slow Christmas work schedule, not spend the last few days running like a hamster on a wheel.  Now that I’ve been back at work I have just today replayed this interview at least 6 times, and each time I hear something new and exciting.

In particular, it’s so encouraging to hear Metropolitan Jonah talk about the important position the OCA’s Metropolitan holds as the head of the autocephalous American Orthodox church.  For so long it seems the OCA has been insular and suffering from a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.   The Church of Serbia, the Church of Finland, the Church of Poland, for example, are autocephalous or self-governing churches.   How are we any different?  Yet, I just don’t see the OCA confidently embracing itself as The Orthodox Church in or ‘of’ America.  If the OCA wants to see the growth of American Orthodoxy and unification of Orthodox jurisdictions in this country we need to act like leaders.   

It’s a given that unification wasn’t going to happen under the last two Metropolitans.  The will, the desire  just wasn’t there, and now that we know about the  financial mess, the credibility certainly wasn’t there either.  We were in “the desert…” as Metropolitan Jonah calls it.  I was shocked when Metropolitan Jonah said unification would be easy.  He jokingly states that with enough funds American Orthodox could achieve unity in one week if we just let loose the attorneys on the administrative details.   Seriously, he has no doubts about the feasibility of unity; it is just a matter of stoking the desire while setting aside pride and self-interest.

I say GIVE HIM A WEEK!  Give him all the time and whatever it takes to achieve this.  I want to be part of a united, strong witness for Orthodoxy in America.  It’s time we suck up our pride, our petty jurisdictionalism, the provincialism and culture club mentality and really be “The Orthodox Church of America”.  I am tired of explaining to my friends, family and acquaintances why there is no difference between Greek, Serbian, Syrian, Russian, ad nauseum, Orthodox Churches, much less how we are similar or different from Roman Catholics.

This is the clear and strong vision of Metropolitan Jonah.  This is what we all have to work towards – laity and clergy.  Who can’t be standing 100% behind him when he says

“I believe that our church is set at a crossroads…we have definitively left behind the old way of doing things.. and have embarked upon  a very new road, of really taking up the challenge of being  the fullness of the presence of the  Orthodox Catholic  Church in this country and the ministry at the cross that that entails.   The challenge to bring together, to come together with all the other Orthodox communities in this country, so that together we can create a new incarnation, as it were, of the Orthodox church in America, which embraces all Orthodox Christians in this country, so that we can reach out to and evangelize this country in new and creative ways which we may not have even thought of yet, so that we can challenge our society to live a life in accordance with the will of God, in accordance with the scriptures, in accordance with Christian ethics.  Not by being judgmental and critical of individuals, but rather of showing them in compassion that there’s a better way to live.  Orthodoxy is not just about what you believe, and it’s certainly not just about what you do in church.  Orthodoxy is about how we live.  It’s about how we treat one another.  How we forgive one another, how we’re transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, how we let go of resentment, and bitterness, and anger, and vengeance, and desire for retribution and all of these things which defile our souls so that we can grow into the fullness of personhood that God intended for us.  This is my vision.”

I want this too and God-willing, with Metropolitan Jonah’s leadership, his devotion to the Gospel and God’s Holy Church, we are past the days when the Orthodox Church in America could do nothing more than shoot itself in the foot.