Archives for posts with tag: Orthodox

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.

For those of us who follow the Orthodox Christian calendar, tomorrow is the 40th day of Easter, which is also known as Ascension.  We celebrate this great feast in honor and remembrance of Jesus being taken into heaven on the 40th day after His resurrection from the dead. 

Unfortunately, many Christians overlook the significance of Ascension.  Even we Orthodox often do that, especially after we have been celebrating the greatest feast of all, Pascha/Easter, for 40 days.  Ascension is the time when all of the Easter decorations come down and is when the church begins to return to what we might call ‘normalcy’–i.e. the way it looks pretty much every other time during the year.  But the significance of the Ascension should not be overlooked.

The feast of the Ascension should make clear to us how Christ’s resurrection was fundamentally and functionally different than any other resurrection recorded in Scripture.  In the case of the others who were resurrected, they all eventually died again.  But the celebration of the Ascension shows that Jesus’ resurrection was unique.  It is different than all of the others.  What makes His unique?

Unlike any other accounts of someone being raised from the dead, only Jesus is said to have been taken into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God.  To be seated at the right hand of God indicates at least two things.  First, to be at the “right hand” of God indicates Jesus has been raised in power and glory, for the right hand is biblically the hand of blessing and power and glory.  Second, and closely related to the first point, to be “seated” indicates Jesus is enthroned as a judge.  Even in a modern American courtroom we can see how the judge is the one who is seated.  When the judge enters everyone stands until he is seated; and when the judgment is announced by the judge, the defendant rises while the judge remains seated to announce the judgment.  This focus of Jesus as the judge is confirmed by St Paul’s sermon to the Athenians (Acts 17:31: “[God] has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”). 

This second aspect of the coming judgment is often minimized today by Christians and non-Christians alike.  We prefer to view Jesus as a very nice, forgiving, meek man.  And certainly Jesus was nice and forgiving and meek when He walked the earth preaching.  But His promise, and the Scriptural promise, is that He will return in the same way in which He was taken (i.e. in power and glory); and when He returns this second time it will be “to judge the living and the dead,” as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed.  I jokingly refer to this scenario in baseball terminology.  It will be like when the closer enters the game from the bullpen to his music.  Jesus’ song would be something like, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

Without minimizing the severity of the judgment, I believe it is important to point out one thing.  The primary basis of the judgment, according to Jesus’ words, is not how ‘moral’ we are (which so often leads to self-righteousness, which Jesus strongly condemns).  It is not about how often we go to church or how many Bible verses we memorize.  When He returns, Jesus will check up to see if we have responded to His grace by acting graciously towards others.  In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus laid out His criteria for judging: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, housing strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned.

Seeing that Jesus said nothing about blogging, I better get busy doing some of these other things…

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.

Yesterday our parish hosted our annual Mediterranean Festival.  It was another great year for us.  I would like to thank everyone who worked countless hours to make our event a success.

Speaking of yesterday, I want to highlight an interesting aspect of yesterday’s Epistle reading (according to the Orthodox lectionary).  We read Acts 9:32-42.  This passage speaks of the healing of Aeneas and the raising from the dead of Tabitha by the holy apostle Peter.

Here is what I find most fascinating about the passage: Aeneas is the name of a Trojan hero in Greek mythology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeneas).  He left the city of Troy and helped start Rome.  According to the myth, Aeneas is considered a progenitor of the Romans.  He was no small figure as both Julius Caesar and Augustus traced their lineage to him.  He was also the subject of Virgil’s Aeneid. 

So what makes this interesting in relation to the Bible is that the original readers of Acts almost certainly would have made a connection between the Aeneas of mythology and the Aeneas of Acts 9.  Thus, when the original reader heard, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” in Acts 9:34, they heard much more than we hear (unless it is explained to us).  They hear, “Aeneas, a founder of the Roman Empire/dynasty, you are healed by Jesus Christ.” 

The healing of Aeneas in Acts is written as an invitation to all Romans–and by extension, all nations (i.e. non-Jews/Gentiles)–to accept the healing provided by the teaching of the Jewish messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

The main purpose of this blog, as I have mentioned before, is not to provide a full commentary on books of the Bible, but to highlight certain aspects of the Bible often overlooked by the average reader (and sometimes the average commentator).  Today’s post is quite short for this reason, but I did want to point out an interesting aspect to yesterday’s reading in the Orthodox Church.  We read Mark 15:43 – 16:8.  Much could be said about this passage, but I will limit myself to an important distinction made between 15:43 and 15:45.  This distinction is entirely lost in every English translation I have found.

In Mark 15:43, Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body (Gr. soma) of Jesus.  In Mark 15:45, English translations unfortunately translate like the NKJV: “[Pilate] granted the body to Joseph.”  This translation misses an important distinction.  The word translated as “body” in vs. 45 is actually the Greek word ptoma.  As you can see, this is an entirely different word than the soma in verse 43.  The Greek word ptoma means body/carcass.  So the translation as body is not entirely wrong, but it misses an important distinction made by Mark’s Gospel.  Someone hearing the Gospel in Greek would hear it similarly to how we would hear the following in English: Joseph asked for the body of Jesus…he was granted the carcass.

I personally believe the biblical writers chose every word carefully, and thus I think it was no accident Mark used two separate words in vss. 43 and 45.  The body (soma) of Christ is used in the New Testament as a reference to the Church.  In Mark 15:43, Joseph asks for the soma, but according to 15:45 he is granted not the soma/body, but the ptoma/carcass.  In other words, Christ’s body, the Church, is not granted to Joseph.  The body of Christ/the Church is directly under God and is not permitted for anyone to hold or control as their own, except God Himself.  To put it simply, we belong to the Church, the Church does not belong to us.