Archives for posts with tag: Orthodox Church

Let’s begin with the ‘who’ rather than the ‘why.’ In case you haven’t noticed—and it seems some in the Republican Party either have not, or resent—America is getting darker. My own family is probably representative of the broader American landscape. Four years ago we were a bunch of white people. Today, my wife and I are proud parents of a black 21-month-old daughter. We just had a wonderful visit with our two nieces whose Mexican-American skin is a few shades darker than ours. Welcome to modern-day America.

It is no secret Barack Obama carried the growing ‘minority’ vote. Neither is it shocking, at least not to anyone who knows anything about the culture of ‘darker’ Americans. But it was not the black and Hispanic vote alone that carried Barack Obama to victory. He also won because of strong support among younger voters, many of whom are Christian. To older generations of Christians, many of whom are staunchly ‘religious right,’ this latter category comes as a surprise—or if not a surprise, at least with perplexity. So what do these groups have in common? Why did they vote predominantly for Barack Obama?

As a good Orthodox Christian, I’ll begin by answering apophatically (that is, before explaining why, I will explain why not). The stereotypical reason given for the minority—and even the young vote—is that ‘these people’ are lazy. They want government handouts. They don’t want to work for their money. I saw many ‘jokes’ around the internet like this one: “I predict Obama will take the early lead in the polls until all the Republicans get off work to vote.” This is only funny—to people, unlike me, who think it is funny—because deep down lots of people actually believe there is truth to it. Of course, it is couched in terms of a joke, but jokes are only funny inasmuch as they reflect some sort of perceived reality. Yet this answer is not only oversimplified and stereotyped, but wrong. It is the why not.

In reality, many, if not most, ‘darker’ Americans work hard for their money. In fact, I personally know many of these Americans who work longer hours in physically more strenuous jobs than me for half the pay or less. And then they send half their money to family in other countries so they can buy something more than a one room (note: one room, not one bedroom) house. I know many younger Americans who are far from lazy, but who have rejected the workaholic attitude of their parents’ generation. They actually listened to those sermons priests like me give at funerals—no one says on their deathbed they wish they worked more hours, spent more time at the office; rather, they tend to wish they had spent more time with their family. These young people’s parents thought their children would be best served by money, opportunity, and advantage. Meanwhile, all the kids wanted was a mom and dad who loved them, spent time with them, and were happily married. Those things do not happen when you are a workaholic. Many in the younger generation are not lazy—they simply value some things more than the almighty dollar.

So let’s get to the real reason these ‘darker’ and ‘younger’ and often ‘Christian’ Americans voted for Barack Obama. We need look no farther than the President’s inspiring Election Night speech. Here are two powerful quotes, representative of the real reason Obama was re-elected:

“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.

Near the conclusion of his speech, President Obama spoke these powerful and true words:

We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

These concepts are the real reason President Obama carried a large percentage of the minority vote, and not an insignificant number of the young Christian vote. But again, we must ask why. The reasons are both religious and cultural, yet they have this in common: all of these voting sectors are tired of the old Republican mantras of “rugged individualism” and American exceptionalism. Young Christians tend to reject these notions on biblical grounds. Minorities do not resonate with these concepts because they do not reflect their reality. Not to mention, young voters of all types increasingly understand that while the Emperor might not have no clothes, he often dresses as Jerry Jeff Walker likes his women: just a little on the trashy side. For those who do not understand this metaphor, I will say it in plain English: the younger generation realizes America makes a lot of mistakes, yet maintains an annoying arrogance. But back to the young Christians and minorities.

Since I am a ‘religious leader’ I will begin with the reason young Christians support Obama far more than older Christians. The highlighted passages from his speech last night have a biblical ring to them. When Obama spoke about “obligations” and “responsibilities,” I immediately thought  of Jesus saying in Luke 12:48: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” Ironically, this passage was part of the assigned reading today in the Orthodox Church—I read it this morning at Matins.

When the President pointed out “we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions” I thought of Dr Nicolae Roddy’s poignant phrase when he was at our parish for our Bible Lecture Series. He said, “When God says ‘I AM’ (Exodus 3:14) it also implies ‘you are not.’” As Fr Paul Tarazi, another guest at a previous BLS, once said: “Only God looks good with an ego” (the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14 reads “ego eimi”).

Many young Christians are tired of the perceived “I built it” attitude of the Republican Party (whether that is their attitude or not, you can debate—but it is the perception). Not only is such an attitude anti-biblical, it does not reflect reality. None of us built anything on our own. And young people are well aware these days of the science behind their genesis. As the aforementioned Fr Paul once pointed out to his anxiously over-obsessed teenager, who was taking a biology class: “Son, just remember, 16 years ago you were not even a sperm in my testicle.” Armed with this factual information, how could any of us honestly think “I built it”? And is it not revealing, as Fr Paul also has pointed out, that “I” is the only capitalized pronoun in the English language?

i have four young children (no, i purposely left “i” in lower case to make a point, Microsoft Word—quit auto ‘correcting’ me). Their mother and I have changed many diapers, interrupted countless hours of sleep, spent more money than I care to imagine on them, and have made numerous other sacrifices so they may grow and thrive—with no guarantee they will turn out as we hope, mind you. I better never hear them say “I built it.” The hell you did! You would be nothing without me. I would be nothing without my parents. None of us even decided to come into this world. If my children offend me with this type of talk, how much do we offend our heavenly Father with such an attitude?

Potential religious reasons aside, minorities understand Obama’s talk about “obligations” and “responsibilities” and the “sum being greater than the individual parts” because this is their reality. I honestly do not know a single ‘successful’ (in the world’s eyes) minority in this country who is not where they are because of sacrifices made by others on their behalf, because of cooperation and collaboration. For most of them, and for a variety of reasons, the ‘nuclear family’ is not the norm. I am unaware of any minorities who are not where they are today because of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most minorities understand obligations, responsibilities, and the sum being greater than the individuals intuitively and naturally. They do not take for granted what most of us white folks assume: a high school diploma, a college education if we want, and the general benefit of majority status. No one questions whether or not we whites are ‘American.’ No one asks to see our birth certificate. No one asks about my three white kids, “Oh, where did you get them from?” No one assumes we white people are related because we are white, as many assume of our black daughter and other black people we hang out with from time to time.

And one final word to those who are concerned many younger Christians and minorities—or even President Obama—are ‘socialist.’ These aforementioned groups are, by and large, no more socialist than the Tea Party is fascist. Sure, there are some socialists who vote Democrat, just as there are some who vote Republican and believe certain things about ‘legitimate rape.’ But neither of these two extremes represents the respective party. Most young, Democrat Christians and minorities do not want the state to control everything—they simply want us to collectively pick up the slack so our sum is greater than the individual parts. Why? Because that is how they (correctly) understand the Bible. Why? Because the sum being greater than the parts reflects reality. To many young Christians and the vast majority of minorities, Barack Obama’s stated vision of America resonates with them more than anything they have heard lately from the Republican Party. And that, my friends, is the real reason younger Christians and minorities carried President Obama to re-election.

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Today an excellent short article was being passed around my Facebook circles regarding the notion of someone being spiritual, but not religious.  You may refer to the original article from the Huffington Post here: http://tinyurl.com/7xag59f.  I liked this article, but wish to offer a few more thoughts on it that extend beyond the normal limits for Facebook comments and status updates. 

First, while I agree with pretty much everything in the article, I think those of us who are “religious” need to own up to our role in leading people to be “spiritual, but not religious.”  What I mean by that is simple.  If people from the outside–or probably even worse, from the inside–see how we behave, why would they want to be associated with religion?  We may rightly criticize the “spiritual, but not religious” group for their faults, but we should also be willing to accept criticism back for our own.  In fact, I would argue, if we were self-critical to begin with, most people would feel no need to be spiritual, but not religious.  For this reason, I make every effort to follow the authentic, but difficult, biblical tradition.  The Bible is extremely critical of those of us on the “inside” of religion.  So instead of spending time worrying about the so-called “culture wars,” I prefer to spend time criticizing and improving my own faults and those of my own faith community. 

Now, in some ways I am going to be hypocritical with respect to my previous statement.  I generally try to stay away from critiquing even other Christian denominations, at least publicly.  I confess, sometimes it is very difficult to avoid critiquing modern expressions of Christianity, especially when I believe such expressions give Christianity and religion a bad name in general.  So please understand I make these next comments in the spirit of the best interest of Christianity as a whole, and not from ill intent to simply criticize others for criticism’s sake.

I would take Ms. Daniel’s argument a step further.  She correctly speaks of the importance of belonging to a community because in a community one must deal with people “calling you out on stuff” and “disagreeing with you.”  In other words, it is easy to be spiritual, but not religious, because you can be spiritual all by yourself, with no one to point out your imperfections.  This point is well taken.

Again, however, take this argument a step further to the situation we have today in Christianity with the multiplication of denominations.  Clearly, the “spiritual, but not religious” group was not the first to run off and start something on their own.  They were not the first to challenge or deny authority, however you want to spin the argument.  This general spirit and attitude towards religion comes from the Protestant Reformation.  And this attitude is still pervasive today among the majority of American Christians–most of whom still identify themselves as Protestants.  To me, personally, I would think “protestant” would be a derogative term.  Why would someone want to identify themselves as protesting rather than standing for something?

As I said, I am very hesitant to be critical of other faith traditions, whether different denominations or different religions altogether.  But sometimes, for the benefit of Christianity in general, I believe certain questions must be asked.  If we Christians begin accepting the presupposition that if we don’t like what’s happening in our church we will simply join or start another, then we have no right to criticize people who take that argument a step further and become “spiritual, but not religious.” 

Anyone who knows me realizes I have a lot of problems/concerns/complaints against the way we Orthodox tend to think, act, etc.  Technically, it is one of my job responsibilities to critique these things, at least in myself and in my own parish community.  But for the very reasons outlined in the article I shared, I cannot see myself leaving the Orthodox Church.  Do we have problems?  Yes.  Are we perfect?  No. But I also have problems, and fleeing the Church would be to run from my problems, to assert my own will and supposed expertise.  As our Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch once said (paraphrased): “The Church is not invented.  It was founded by Jesus Christ and is passed down for generations.” 

The ultimate challenge for us who are “religious” is to live in such a way that others would also at least respect “religion.”  As it stands, there are plenty of reasons to disrespect religion.  As it stands, most of us fall under the critique and judgment in this article leveled against those who are “religious, but not spiritual”–we just haven’t taken the argument to its logical conclusion.

I have just returned from vacation with my wife.  We had a great time.  I will again be leaving town for the Parish Life Conference in Houston, but I hope to keep the blog updated regularly this week.

Yesterday in the Orthodox Church we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit.  For those of you who heard my sermon yesterday, I apologize for repeating myself to you.  For those who did not hear it, I hope you find these comments helpful.  By the way, if you want to listen to the sermon in its entirety–or any sermon offered at St Mary, whether by me or our bishop or deacon or a guest homilist–check out our website at http://www.stmarywichita.org/sermons.html.  It is usually updated from the weekend by Monday or Tuesday.

In my sermon I tried to make the function of the Holy Spirit clear to my parishioners.  They have a great advantage over everyone else because they live in Kansas.  Why, might you ask?  Because in Kansas we understand what it is like to have a mighty wind.  In the Greek and Hebrew, the word translated as “spirit” (in reference to God’s Spirit) means “spirit,” “wind,” or “mighty wind.”  They are all one and the same word.  In relation to the Holy Spirit, this takes on great significance in two areas especially.

First, the wind cannot be controlled by human beings, or essentially anything else for that matter.  It blows where it wishes.  You cannot grasp the wind or stop it.  This is quite relevant to the function of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit is uncontrollable.  He does what He wishes, when He wishes (of course, it is assumed He only acts in accordance with the will of the Father), irrespective of human thought or custom.  For example, in Genesis, God consistently chooses the younger rather than the older for the continuation of God’s promise and covenant.  This goes strongly against human convention at the time.  Another example: God decides to take His message to the Ninevites, a people despised by the Jews as we learn from the story of Jonah.  In the New Testament, God sends His Spirit upon the Gentiles equally to the Jews–the Jews cannot stop God from choosing the Gentiles just as He chose the Jews.  In yesterday’s reading, we also heard from the Pharisees that a prophet had never arisen from Nazareth.  Well, if God’s Spirit wants to blow on one from Nazareth and make him a prophet He will do so.  The consistent theme is this: the Spirit, just like the mighty wind of the Kansas tornadoes is unpredictable and unstoppable by us humans.  Therefore, we must always be ready for Him to blow where He wishes; we never know when He will raise a sinner to be a saint or bring in people who previously had been lost.  Consequently, we at all times must be prepared to welcome the sinner, the foreigner, and the stranger.

Second, as with the mighty wind, the Spirit can bring destruction.  The Holy Spirit blows a “gentle breeze” on those who follow God’s teaching, but on those who stubbornly refuse He wreaks havoc.  This is what St John the Baptist said would happen when Jesus “baptized with the Holy Spirit”: the threshing floor would be cleared with the wheat separated from the chaff.  If a tornado comes through Kansas, like it did so memorably this Pascha, we flee to our basement for shelter.  To be saved from the mighty tempest of God’s Spirit we have one protection: to walk in the commandments of God as taught to us most clearly by Jesus Christ.  In Ezekiel’s prophecy (which we read at Great Vespers of Pentecost), Ezekiel mentions that God will send His Spirit so we may walk in His commandments and keep His statutes (Ezekiel 36:27).  Jesus Himself mentions how the Spirit will remind us of all the things Jesus taught, so that we might walk in that way (John 14:26).

I know there is much more that could be said about the Holy Spirit, but for the time being I am limiting myself to these two key areas because I believe they are often overlooked.  Further, I think it is important to see that names are never chosen randomly or haphazardly in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit of God is thus called for specific reasons.  Namely, the Spirit functions as a mighty wind, with both the capability to bring about a gentle breeze or complete destruction.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church was John 4:5-42, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The story is, of course, packed with meaning, but I would like to point out one interesting aspect that is frequently overlooked.

John 4 says Jesus came to a city of Samaria called Sychar.  To my knowledge, there is no historical evidence such a village existed.  This led some Church Fathers and scholars to conclude there is some sort of scribal error involved with Sychar.  However, I am inclined to think it is no error at all. 

The root of Sychar in Hebrew means to earn your living by working as a servant/slave.  It is this same word used in Genesis to describe the 14 years of Jacob’s labor to acquire Rachel.  In addition to this Sychar, several times throughout John 4 the Greek word “kopio” is used.  In verse 6 it is translated as “wearied” and in verse 38 several times as “labor.”  The word “kopio” is also used by St Paul in his epistles to speak of laboring for the Gospel.

One more thing to keep in mind is the play on the five husbands in the story.  The number five in Scripture is often a reference to the Torah, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–the Mosaic Law).  Since the Samaritans only accepted the five books of Moses (and not the rest of the Old Testament), Jesus’ discussion here about the five husbands is likely referring to the woman being under bondage to the five books of Moses.  Remember, a woman during these times was legally subject to her husband, under his authority.

Based on this info, you can see how there is a play going on between Sychar and kopio.  The Sychar, the laboring to keep every aspect of the Mosaic Law, leads to bondage.  Drinking of that water leaves one thirsty, always needing to do more and more, work harder and harder.  On the other hand, the kopio, the laboring for the Gospel of grace, leads to freedom.  Those who drink of the Gospel’s waters will never be thirsty again.  They will reap that for which they had not labored (vs. 38) and, following this path of grace, will continue to kopio/labor for those who will come after them and reap of their work.

As Christians, this should be our worldview: freely you received, freely give (Matthew 10:8).  We have freely received God’s grace, so we must in turn labor to make this grace known to others–not only in our preaching, but through our works of love and mercy.