What is my blog is all about:

Anything and everything good, true, beautiful, perplexing, mysterious, unfair, painful, funny. In short: the human condition

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Awful Day (based on a real life event)

The Great and Awful Day had finally arrived. Mike paused for a moment and surveyed the scene before him. As far as his eyes could see were people and yet, strangly, he didn't have the feeling that he was simply waiting around. Instead he sensed that his entire being was in a constant state of motion, a kind of transformation from one state to another. He grimaced as he thought of what he had been taught to expect; stern old men in long black robes prodding people along, two long lines, projector screens with everyone's sins splashed across them; maybe those were ahead, he thought uneasily.
As he moved slowly forward He reveiwed his life with some trepidation. His list of regrets were nothing unusual, but like all people with regrets, the knowledge that they were nearly universal didn't ease the weight of failure. Should have gone to church more, should have called my grandmother more often when she was alone, should have worked harder to salvage my marriage, should have been more patient with my son.....suddenly he was jerked out of his musings by a vaguly familiar voice.
"Mike? Mike Wilson? Never thought I'd run in to you again!" Before him stood a clean shaven man in a polo shirt, his hands shoved casually into his pockets. He appeared quite at ease compared to Mike's pensive mood. It was John something. An old classmate.
The two men shook hands warmly with the familiarity of shared youth and began to chat about the usual topics; Professions, relationships, children.
John had been a pastor of a "medium sized congregation, big on ministry" as he described it. "you know, we may have been on the small side in numbers, but we made up for it in zeal", he stated becoming suddenly animated. "You remember Senator Johnson? He declared his candidacy at a prayer breakfast we organized. They say he won because of the church members' support. Had a kid in our church that wasn't allowed to pray during his valedictorian speech and we decided then and there to fight against all the secualarism in public schools. We also fought to get the nativity scene kept in front of the court house. You could say we were a 'politically active' church for sure. Of course you can't win them all. We also pushed for a marriage amendment to the state constitution, but with the secular humanists shoving their agendas on everyone what can you do?". Suddenly, as if noticing the awkward silence on Mike's part for the first time, John quickly changed the subject. "So, what did you do for a living?"
"I was a bar tender", Mike laughed. "It's a little like pastoring really. Lots of time to listen to peoples' problems, give them a sympathetic conversation partner"
John gave a perfunctery laugh then asked "Don't suppose you saw any of my people in there did you?" with mock seriousness laced with, well, seriousness.
"I did know a church member or two in need of a drink on occasion" was Mike's reply. "Most people just needed the companionship, honestly"
"Oh well" said John, "a drink or two never hurt anyone I suppose", and he began to glance around and shift his weight from foot to foot. Throughout the conversation both men had noticed a strange heat that seemed to strenghten by the minute. For Mike the sensation was not completely pleasant nor unpleasant. He felt at once as if something deep inside him was burning, but that that something was somehow breaking away and dissolving into nothingness. In front of him was a blinding light that he wanted to both run toward and hide from.
Beside him John appeared to not even notice the source of the heat radiating at a distance. Throughtout the conversation it seemed he had become more and more uncomfortable, tugging at his shirt collar and mopping his sweating brow. Finally he exclaimed "where is this heat coming from? That's it. I've got to find a more comfortable place to wait" and he turned a half cirlce. He fixed his gaze on a distant group of people that, indeed, were congregating well outside the reach of the light's radiance. They appeared to be wandering aimlessly about, occasionally bumping into one and another or stumbling over the rocky ground. John moved toward them and Mike impulsively grabbed his arm to stop him saying, "I'm not sure, but I kind of think we should stay in the circle from the light..." Before he could finish, John swung around, the contempt in his face catching Mike by surprise. "I think I know my way around this place better than someone like you would", he sneered. And with that, he stumbled toward the knot of wanderers.
Mike watched him for a moment and then turned back toward the light ahead of him. At first he could hardly walk toward it, it's heat was so intense. But with each labored step, the light became less blinding. While it's intensity did not abate, it began to feel like a strong current of energy and warmth instead of a seering pain.
To Mike's surprise, at the nexus of the light was a person. The light was not a shapeless energy but a dazzling, white robed surprisingly ordinary man. He smiled at Mike as if he had been expecting him.
For a moment Mike stood breathless, taking in the being before him. The man appeared at once both very old and very young. Mike had the strange sensation that he has seen the man before, perhaps many times although he couldn't say where or when.
After a moment of quiet Mike spoke. "So, I suppose this is where we talk about what I did wrong, pull out the projector screen to review my life. See if my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds...."
Suddenly the man threw His head back and a laugh burst forth from somewhere deep inside the man. Not a derisive, malicious laugh but a laugh so filled with joy and life that Mike was sure this man must have to laugh often to let out some of that happiness. When he had finished laughing the man said "Oh, I assure you that scale would be very unpopular."
Nervously, Mike shifted his weight and spoke again. "So there aren't any scales?"
"Oh, there are scales, friend. And there are scenes of your life to remember." And with that, the shining man placed His arm around Mike's shoulder. Mike wondered if the man could sense his discomfort. As he stood beside the translucent being, he was only too aware of his own colorlessness and he somehow felt this had to do with his recently passed life.
The man began to talk in a low earnest voice. "you have chosen many many paths in your journey to this place. Every day on earth is a series of choices that could be called steps to the eternal. Some steps that seemed significant to you." He shrugged "were really of little consequence. But others you may not ever recall made all of the difference. As He spoke He turned and looked earnestly into Mike's face. "Do you remember a woman you once met when you worked at The Brave New Workshop? She and her husband were very young and you chatted about politics and European beers. She didn't say much and at the end of the conversation you told her that her coke was on you. You even encouraged her to get a refill."
Mike thought for a moment "Yes, I do remember that couple. There was something so sad about them even when they laughed. I remember when I asked them how they were doing they glanced at one another and for a split second the woman had a look of the deepest pain I think I've ever seen. It was such a little thing to give her a free coke. But, you know, bar tenders are sometimes a little strapped for cash. It was all I could think to do for her".
The Man smiled gently at Mike. "They had just been to the grave of their little girl who had recently died. It was their 5th anniversary and minutes before they had been sobbing over her grave. I was beside her that night though you couldn't see me. And when you gave her a drink you gave me a drink too. Come with me and you will find food and drink you never knew existed. Let me repay you for your kindness, friend"
Mike stood still "But wait. Umm, in the interest of full disclosure I think we should talk about other things I've done. I'm no saint.....
Again the deafening laughter from the dazzling being. "I am well aware of that"
"But a drink seems like such a small price to buy entrance to your kingdom."
"You will find I calculate my pay scale differently than any employer you've had"
"But what about those that worked so hard for you? I mean, my cousin. She was a real Christian. She was always helping out someone who needed it. Won't she feel a little cheated?"
"My son, Those who really love me never bother themselves with how I choose to pay those I employ."
"But Christ...." and the tears began to flow from somewhere deep within Mike. "There are so many regrets, so many ways I hurt those I loved. Have you met my ex-wife? My son? So many nights I've thought about them."
Christ's eyes became sober, the light deepening to a rich red pool. "Your sins are deep and many and those that cannot face their wrongs have a very different experience of me than you are having." And then His voice rose to a mighty roar "But my kingdom is one of great undoing as well as doing. Come with me. We have an eternity to mend that which once appeared shattered." And arm in arm they entered that place of endless light.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Broken

Tomorrow, July 12, is Chloe's third birthday. Three years have passed since the first moment I saw her face. An eternity of grief has passed since the last time I saw it. For all the graces that I have been given (and they are many), I feel the deep brokenness of the universe. A brokenness that seems irreparable.
The Fountain Of Tears
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy
If you go over desert and mountain,
Far into the country of Sorrow,
To-day and to-night and to-morrow,
And maybe for months and for years;
You shall come with a heart that is bursting
For trouble and toiling and thirsting,
You shall certainly come to the fountain
At length,—to the Fountain of Tears.

Very peaceful the place is, and solely
For piteous lamenting and sighing,
And those who come living or dying
Alike from their hopes and their fears;
Full of cypress-like shadows the place is,
And statues that cover their faces:
But out of the gloom springs the holy
And beautiful Fountain of Tears.

And it flows and it flows with a motion
So gentle and lovely and listless,
And murmurs a tune so resistless
To him who hath suffer’d and hears—
You shall surely—without a word spoken,
Kneel down there and know your heart broken,
And yield to the long-curb’d emotion
That day by the Fountain of Tears.

For it grows and it grows, as though leaping
Up higher the more one is thinking;
And ever its tunes go on sinking
More poignantly into the ears:
Yea, so bless├Ęd and good seems that fountain,
Reach’d after dry desert and mountain,
You shall fall down at length in your weeping
And bathe your sad face in the tears.

Then alas! while you lie there a season
And sob between living and dying,
And give up the land you were trying
To find ’mid your hopes and your fears;
—O the world shall come up and pass o’er you,
Strong men shall not stay to care for you,
Nor wonder indeed for what reason
Your way should seem harder than theirs.

But perhaps, while you lie, never lifting
Your cheek from the wet leaves it presses,
Nor caring to raise your wet tresses
And look how the cold world appears—
O perhaps the mere silences round you—
All things in that place Grief hath found you—
Yea, e’en to the clouds o’er you drifting,
May soothe you somewhat through your tears.

You may feel, when a falling leaf brushes
Your face, as though some one had kiss’d you,
Or think at least some one who miss’d you
Had sent you a thought,—if that cheers;
Or a bird’s little song, faint and broken,
May pass for a tender word spoken:
—Enough, while around you there rushes
That life-drowning torrent of tears.

And the tears shall flow faster and faster,
Brim over and baffle resistance,
And roll down blear’d roads to each distance
Of past desolation and years;
Till they cover the place of each sorrow,
And leave you no past and no morrow:
For what man is able to master
And stem the great Fountain of Tears?

But the floods and the tears meet and gather;
The sound of them all grows like thunder:
—O into what bosom, I wonder,
Is pour’d the whole sorrow of years?
For Eternity only seems keeping
Account of the great human weeping:
May God, then, the Maker and Father—
May He find a place for the tears!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Composting and the Resurrection

Philip and I recently began gardening as well as composting. I have to admit, the whole process took me completely by surprise in terms of the spiritual significance I have learned from it.

Parallel to gardening and composting, Chloe's tombstone was placed at Lakewood cemetary and I have made a couple of trips there. As I struggle to live fully in this world and be honest with "reality" (whatever that is) as well as define myself as a person of faith, I found myself thinking "how? How is it that I can accept the fact that my daughter is rotting under the ground and simultaneously embrace the belief that she will raise whole and alive some day?" And the old nagging thought that maybe, just maybe an operational definition of faith is "making things up to be able to cope with horrible reality" is appropriate. Then I took a look at my composte pile and my sprouting seeds......

More and more I am coming to believe that all spiritual truths have some sort of physical correlate. The Orthodox Church puts a great emphasis on the belief that Christ's spiritual kingdom is also a physical one and that these worlds are not completely divided even now. This physical world that God pronounced "good" at creation continues to be good and that has major implications for how a Christian relates to it. I think part of that blurred line is the fact that sometimes we can learn a truth from creation.

Right before he shut the lid to her coffin, Father Paul poured dirt in the sign of the cross over Chloe's little body. He told me "she is a seed, Erica, that we are planting for eternal life". And as I knelt by my tiny plants in my herb garden a few weeks ago those words came allive. I had this thought. A plant seed could sit around the house for years dormant. It would look dead, not grow an inch. In fact, a seed is kind of a dead part of a plant. But put it in the soil and soon it will be transformed into a new, living organism. And even the refuse that I throw in to my compost heap is transformed into riches for the plants. If that little seed can go from a tiny, dormant seed to a beautiful verdant plant surely my child can too someday.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hurt

I've been thinking alot about hurt lately. Not the surface cut on your finger kind but the walk across a sun seared dessert strewn with shards of glass and no shoes on your feet kind. The kind that even Johnny Cash's song "Hurt" can't quite express. The hurt is almost worse when you see someone else's pain because at the end of the day there isn't much you can do. You can't forgive the perpetrators for them. You can't bring the loved one back for them. You can't undo the humiliations they have had to suffer for things society can't tolerate.
I watched a documentary on the Beslan school massacre. If any of you can bear to recall, that was the place where hundreds of little pigtailed and best suited school children were held hostage and slaughtered. On the BBC documentary a little boy who survived recalled asking his father "dad, who is stronger the terrorists or God?" I sat on the couch thinking "what in the world could this father possibly be able to say to a child who has witnessed such unspeakable acts of inhumanity?" and the boy said the father told him "God is. Because God is kind". So I will try to honor all of you who are hurting by attempting to extend kindness to anyone who wrongs me. And in that way we can tell those that have hurt us that there is something stronger than their evil. It's all I know how to do right now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

American Civil War and the Kingdom

As its 150th anniversary is underway, Philip and I watched Ken Burns's documentary on the American Civil War. In the final episode Ken Burns recounts the first reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg following the Civil War. The soldiers met for a meal and then gathered for a reinacting of the famous and bloody Picket's charge. The old war veterans lined up on either side and ran toward each other just as they had done so many years before. But this time when they met they did not fall on each other in combat intent on killing each other but instead embraced, tears streaming down their faces. It is a beautiful picture of forgiveness and redemption.
And it made me think. Maybe one of the activites of the kingdom will be similar to the reunion. Maybe the Kingdom will be a place of great "undoing". Maybe those moments that I would give anything to redo (that hurtful word I said, that friendship I didn't take seriously enough, that hungry homeless guy I didn't feed) will be brought back and reinacted for all to see to the glory of God and the good of humanity. Maybe all the pain and inhumanity we have wreaked on each other will actually display God's glory as He shows us a better way and gives us the chance to do it again the right way, the way a patient father models good behaviour for an erring child. Maybe part of the healing of the nations will be in each of us viewing with unveiled faces the example of Christ and fixing the wounds of those we have wronged.
Maybe at the "moment of eternal harmony" love really does win in the end.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Waves

I remember going to the beach as a little girl and drawing pictures in the sand with a stick. The best sand to draw on was the sand that was washed smooth by the waves. It was really the only sand that anything would show up on. But it was also the sand that would inevitably be swept clean by a wave. No matter how carefully and beautifully I would draw, nothing of the image would remain after 2 or three waves. The sand drawing was, by its nature, impermanent. That is how Chloe's short life is starting to feel. Time and the sheer magnitude of the universe feel like a mighty ocean that is incessantly sweeping over Chloe's memory and I'm the little girl with the stick frantically writing and writing, trying to keep something on the sand that reminds the world that once upon a time there was a beautiful girl named Chloe.
I often wonder at the strange juxtaposition of how irreplaceable she is to me against how "commonplace" her life was in relation to all of humanity. There is nothing that really differentiates her life and death from the millions of others that have come and gone. And it makes the mind of God that much more inscrutable to me. Of how much consequence was this little girl to One who sees billions and billions of lives written on the sands of time and washed away? How many mothers sat on a rock in Japan and wailed in anguish over the baby that they lost in the tsunami? And will He return to us mothers who have lost our dear little ones all those moments that are gone? How will he, in the Kingdom, replace the nights of rocking and singing lullabies to my baby? Does He really bother with such trivialities as giving me back moments to brush Chloe's curls, kiss the crook in her nose, just hold her and feel her little heart beat? Does He know how much of a loss it is to me that I will never again smell her sweet smell? All I can do is hope and believe that the One who appears so beautiful and true in worship and is all justice and mercy is keeping record of all the wrongs done to His children and can do nothing but make it right. I go back to the now tattered quote I hung above Chloe's hospital bed:

"I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened."
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

flags and crosses (my continued journey to Orthodoxy)

It is extraordinary to me to think that at one time in my life my patriotism was more liturgical than my worship of the crucified and risen Christ. I had (and still have) very strong opinions about how one should conduct one's self in the presence of the American flag when the national anthem was playing. The drunken men that would laugh and talk during the anthem or the kid that would leave his baseball cap on caused me deep indignation. There is a collective tradition that we as a country have established as a way to convey our respect for our shared heritage. It consists of standing, putting our hand over our hearts, and remaining respectfully silent as the flag is displayed. Most of us have probably done it a million times in school or at a sporting event. It is perhaps most moving to observe an Olympic athlete, after years of hard work and tears streaming down his or her face, saluting the flag. Watch it a million times and you will shed a million tears.
I also remember when President Ronald Reagan passed away. The days of pagentry and (dare I say it?) liturgy to honor our great president lent a spirit of solemnity and gravity to his passing and allowed us all to unify as Americans. I don't think I would have been too comfortable had any of the honor guard soldiers decided that he didn't think the uniform really represented how he would like to express his personal love for Reagan and showed up in khakis and a polo. The fact is, at that particular time that soldier's personal feelings didn't really matter. He was a soldier for the United States military performing a collective act of respect on behalf of an entire nation. And there are simply rules. And the set ceremony enacted for every US president through the centuries does not become "dead ritual" with use. Instead, it deepens in it's ability to draw us together as a nation and give us a collective voice.
Additionally, the rich symbols and pagentry of President Reagan's funeral gave an outlet to the sensual aspect of grief that a speech never could. For example, who can forget the image of a riderless horse slowly making his way down Constitution Avenue, empty boots backwards in the stirrups? Or the 21 gun salute over his grave? That imagery materialized a truth that a eulogy, no matter how carefully crafted, never could.
Similarly, the liturgy of the Church serves a very real and indespensible purpose. Far from mindless forms and deadening routine, the Divine liturgy of the Church calls us all to lay aside our personal individuality and draws us into the body of Christ. Worship is a corporate act at its center. The head, hands, arms, feet, of Christ coming together as a body to lift Herself up and offer Herself to God. Those that recite the Creed, make the sign of the cross, partake in Holy Communion mindlessly and without thoughtful reverence do so to their own condemnation.
By contrast, those who eagerly enter the Divine Liturgy in order to join with all saints living and dead, beside them and around the world, and to experience the presence of Christ with all their senses (through the incense, arrangement of the church building itself, icons) as well as their intellect (the recitation and preaching of the Holy Scriptures) receive unparalelled blessing.
But still I struggled with life long objections. Isn't being a Christian having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"? It is. But it is also having a relationship the the body of Christ. Just because the soldier participating in the funeral procession undoubtedly had deep devotion and love for his President, that did not mean that he was free to express it individualistically at all times and places. Something very vital for the nation would be lost if his individuality were allowed to trump his duty to give the American people a collective voice. And so I have found it with the Christian life. Being a Christian means entering into a relationship with Christ on the most intimate and personal level. This is why we pray. This is why we read Scripture. But becoming a Christian also means entering into relationship with Christ's body the Church and this relationship, by its very nature, is corporate. When I gather with God's people on Sunday morning (or any other holy day) we are not just the sum of our parts. We are coming to mystically join together as a body. Liturgy helps take us to that place.
There is another aspect to religious imagery that is vital to a believer. As I mentioned above, imagery and symbols speak to the sensual aspect of our nature that cannot be gotten at through arguementation. In a word, it reaches that affective part of us that is separate from our intellect. I had to smile the other day when I attended a concert at a fundamentalist Baptist church. True to their heritage, they had stripped the alter of all religious symbol, including a cross (although there was prominently displayed a huge Bible that I'm sure was not used practically-as much a symbol as a crucifix since its purpose was simply to convey the centrality of preaching to their worship. But I digress). However, there to the side of the pulpit was an American flag. It is just deep within us to use imagery to convey realities. I found this to be particularly poignant the night Chloe died. We have on our wall the Resurrection icon. For those of you who have never seen it, it depicts Christ with Adam on His right hand and Eve on His left as He is pulling them from the grave. Under His feet death lies bound. As Chloe's heart slowly stopped beating and she died I raised my eyes to the icon. It's power flooded over me as it seemed to come alive. At that moment of deep grief, the mind's ability to reason its way to truth is completely gone. But the ability of images to lift our hearts to God is somehow intensified. So the sensual part of worship is just as vital as the rationa and true worship should encompass us in the entirety of our being.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Journey To Orthodoxy (Part 1)

My sister-in-law and I were commenting on our children the other day and she laughingly made the observation that her two youngest sons often argue over concepts in which both of them are somewhat correct (“you are wearing a uniform” “no I’m not I’m wearing a shirt!”) but neither of them fully grasp in their nuances (it’s actually a uniform as well as a shirt). She laughed at how both of them become very stubborn and, since they each have some legitimate grounds for their particular claim, find it very difficult to yield any ground to the other at all. The discussion usually finds resolution with a fist fight as you can imagine with two young boys. We then observed that we “grown ups” often do this in matters of faith. While all of us only “see through a glass darkly” we often find ourselves polishing each others’ glasses with our own breath. I say this to hopefully set the tone of this narrative and curb my own demonic tendency “judge another man’s servant”. I have struggled over the last few months with the appropriateness of writing this letter. Would writing a treatise on my journey through various churches cause more hurt and disunity than help? Every Sunday in Divine Liturgy we Orthodox Christians pray for the unity of the church. Christ uses the terms “body” and “bride” to describe the church and I can think of no more intimate images a man could use to speak to how precious something is to him. So Christ must guard His church jealously and I tread softly when criticizing any part of it, no matter how much I may think that part in error. How Christ will gather His bride in the last day belongs to Him alone and I believe it is a grave sin to speculate too much on who belongs to the “true church”. Further, can one even “explain” the nature of faith and their journey to faith(Kirkegaard warns against trying)?
The short answer to why I am Orthodox is this: I am an Orthodox Christian because I believe that the Orthodox Church is the true Church of the apostles as proscribed in Scripture and established by Christ Himself. I believe it is the church that has fulfilled the commission of Scripture to “hold fast to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle” as well as has maintained the practices and structure given to it by the Apostles themselves and handed down to faithful men who have safeguarded them to the present day.
But I should first begin by explaining why I am no longer an evangelical, or more broadly a Protestant. Until my mid to late 20s I had no real categories for any type of Christianity other than conservative Protestantism and really fundamentalism since I was born and raised in a devout Christian home by sincere and godly fundamentalist parents. The journey began as a series of moments in which I identified what I no longer believed before I actually discovered a faith I could embrace.
I would have to say that my initial shift as a human was (and continues to be) away from rationalism as the gold standard to ascertaining all truth. Russian authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wetted my appetite for a more mystical view of the world. The films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman also became hugely influential in giving me categories to think like anything other than a modern 20th century individual that views the best knowledge as that that can be verified and proven through evidence and logical argumentation. I cannot overstate the effects these men’s films had on my constructs of reality and I highly recommend them to anyone who finds modern Western culture somehow lacking in its ability to fulfill or even elucidate the human experience. These film directors didn’t so much give me “answers” to modernity’s woes as show the devastating consequences that a rejection of the spiritual and supernatural has had on modernity. And after viewing these films I began to wonder if modernity has arrived at such a state of unbelief in part due to the Church’s inability to maintain her identity as the “pillar and ground of truth”. Many of the criticisms that Tarkovsky and Bergman level at society could also be leveled at the Protestant church, both liberal and conservative. And so I began to try to determine what exactly the root cause was for the fact that the modern 20th century church holds very little influence in today’s secular culture and find a church that could somehow speak to modernity’s brokenness.
What became immediately discouraging and frustrating to me as I was seeking for the Church was that one can find as many different variations of Protestant churches as one can find variations in philosophies. In my reading of Scripture I was captivated by the promise that Christ would preserve His church such that the very gates of hell could not prevail against her. The beautiful imagery of the Church being the body and bride of Christ I mentioned in my introduction gave me the firm belief that if Christ found the Church so infinitely precious she must be out there somewhere in a visible form. I began to search the small church streams trickling in all directions around me in the hopes of following them back to the mighty river from which they flowed. And all along the way I heard its roar in the distance.
The church experience of my youth was what I would call the “romantic” variation (in the sense of the Romantic Movement). Worship was a highly-personal activity in which Scripture was combed, looking for private meaning to guide everything from which specific college one was to attend to which particular person to marry. Worship services employed the use of emotionally manipulative music and persuasion techniques to generate an emotional response. Any kind of liturgy was considered bad because it was, by nature, not “from the heart” and therefore inferior to spontaneous worship. While the Bible was upheld as the only authority and guide for faith, in reality the individual (or certain very charismatic pastors) became the authority for determining Scripture’s meaning. Not surprisingly, this form of Christianity was also full of innovative interpretations of Scripture that had no precedence in church history (King James only ism, dispensationalism, novel eschatologies, aberrant ideas about the nature of faith and works). And I found it intellectually soft as well as full of self-contradictions. While claiming to be uninfluenced by wordly culture and free from the “deadening” effects of liturgy I found that what was really happening was that cultural trends in things such as music, fashion, social constructs were really just the trends of about 50-100 years ago. With no tradition to inform these churches and no orthodox liturgy to protect them from cultural influences, the tradition and liturgy (however minimal and ineffective) of these churches became whatever people were doing in the previous generation. The same gospel songs were sung over and over (a type of liturgy in and of itself) and forms such as song service followed by a message followed by an invitation were strictly observed.
I was then attracted to what I call the “bad rationalist”(in the sense that these churches use rationalistic techniques but are not consistent with applying them) type of Protestantism in which the scientific method and the rationalistic use of reasoning to lead a person to faith was employed. I felt I had a mandate to use my reasoning skills to determine the validity of any truth and then decide whether or not I would assent to it. Books such as “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh MacDowell I scarfed down as a college students in the hopes of showing that Christianity is as valid as any humanist truth claim on the campus. This type of book assumes that one must be convinced that Christianity’s claims are reasonable before one can embrace them. I was taught that in dealing with an unbeliever I first had to convince him or her that Christianity was plausible so that person could then put his or her faith in Jesus. And this appealed to me for a very long time. I wanted to show my college professors that their belief systems were self-contradictory and if they would only use rigorous reasoning along with intellectual honesty they would find that Christianity was really the most sound of all philosophical systems. This desire held strong, that is, until some of aspects of the Christian life (such as the suffering and death of innocent people, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son-Kirkegaard's book "Fear and Trembling" addressing this passage of Scripture blew me away, what I could understand of it anyway) ceased to be reasonable by any stretch of my intellect. As I thought more deeply, I began to realize that there were plenty of aspects of religious experience that could not be accepted as “reasonable”. But this construct of Christianity only seemed to acknowledge this when they ran out of explanations. This form of evangelicalism had “all the answers” until they had to explain why a group of kindergarteners were blown up by a suicide bomber or why an earthquake killed hundreds of innocent people. In these matters I had to “accept things by faith”. In short, faith started to feel like a cop out when logical explanations ran out. Calvinism had a brief appeal in that it had some logically consistent responses (God ordains suffering as a means to glorify Himself which is a higher good). The problem with this view is that God is essentially a cruel monster that puts His own glory above the good of His creation, knowingly creating a world that He would eventually largely destroy.
I was then briefly interested in what I call “thorough-going rationalist” Protestantism, mainly because I was growing more and more uncomfortable with American Evangelicalism’s apathetic social conscience toward the poor and oppressed in our society. Also, liberal Protestantism at least was more honest and consistent in its use of reason as a tool to inform faith. While conservatives like Josh McDowell and Francis Schaeffer embraced rationalism as long as it served their purpose and supported their pet premises, at least liberals were willing to apply it evenly to all of Scripture and followed the argument to its logical conclusion. The only problem for me was that applying the scientific method consistently seemed to make faith superfluous as well as transform traditional understandings of bedrock doctrine. And both conservatives and liberals seemed to have made a series of theological compromises that has led to modernity’s rejection of God altogether ( I do not want to get too off track at this point as this topic is very extensive, so I will give a book reference and move on. “Without God, Without Creed: the Roots of Unbelief in America” by James Turner).
A type of evangelical church that never held much attraction to me but I will mention because it is so ubiquitous in the Protestant movement and particularly distasteful to me is the mega-church. This version of evangelicalism, more than any other version, has lead to my rejection of Protestantism because it illustrates so clearly how vulnerable Protestantism is to societal influence. The materialism of the mega church along with its unapologetic adoption of marketing strategies to further its purposes convinced me that Protestantism is a movement that, by its very nature, conforms to the cultural norms and philosophical movements of its environment. The mega-church movement is modeled after American capitalism to such an extent that capitalism itself is mistaken for a Christian virtue. This has lead in the United States to an inordinate identification of American evangelicals with the Republican Party. Indeed, the evangelical wholesale support of the GOP so much that they have actively supported an unprovoked war (look up Chuck Colson and other evangelical leader’s formulation of the “Land Letter”), defended the use of torture in violation of the Geneva Conventions (a poll showed that evangelicals supported the use of torture more than any other demographic group in the US), and often approve of legislation that hurts the poorest members of our society (deregulation of corporations, blocking health care reform) would have been enough to cause me to stop identifying myself as an evangelical.
And so, after years of searching, reading, praying, and thinking I came to the conclusion that I was not a protestant. While I saw true redeeming value to all the churches I attended and met many godly and sincere people, there always seemed to be issues that violated my conscience. If I attended a “conservative evangelical” church I would be violating my conscience in relation to bedrock social justice issues that the church has stood for for centuries (and frankly giving up a great degree of intellectual freedom as many of these churches would label me a “heretic” for my political and theological beliefs). But if I attended a “liberal” church I would be compromising my stance on doctrinal issues that are foundational to belief. And I began to finally question the assumptions and premises that undergird all of Protestantism. To say it another way, Protestantism seemed to err at its very roots.
Perhaps the two main reasons that I am not a Protestant is that I no longer hold to the premises that 1.)the individual possesses all the reasoning tools (s)he needs to determine truth and is therefore the best determiner of what beliefs to hold and 2.)that Scripture alone is the only revelation of Christ to the believer
First, the idea that the individual is the best determiner of what he or she accepts as truth. The theological way to state this as articulated at the Reformation is “priesthood of all believers”. The Reformers, 1500 years after the birth of the church, adopted a kind of do-it-yourself, “common sense” approach to Scriptural interpretation and propagated the assumption that each individual was fully qualified because of his/her rational mind to decide Scripture’s meaning for his or herself. All of the sudden each Christian was given the mandate to take Scripture, read it, and formulate his or her entire doctrine from those pages based on those Scriptures alone.
But in my research I discovered that this concept was new in the church (a really good reason in and of itself to question its validity). The western church underwent a radical transformation and shift of authority during the Protestant Reformation (no honest church historian would dispute this). Until the 16th century, Christians accepted the right and mandate of the church to formulate doctrine. The explanation I was always given was that it was really just a shift back to being “biblical”, back to how the early church operated. But the idea of “priesthood of the believer” is not once mentioned in the writings of ancient church fathers such as Polycarp, Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, or St Basil some of who studied under the apostles themselves. Instead, their writings are filled with teaching that points to the authority of the Church in guiding congregations in correct doctrinal formulation. The visible church with all of her offices are identified as the means of identifying false belief as well as correct doctrine.
Scripture itself sets the precedence for doctrinal formulation in the book of Acts. When the dispute over circumcision arose how was the issue resolved? Was each Christian told to pray about it, read the Torah for him/herself then follow individual consciences? If the Church had been following a Reformation model that is how it would have worked. By contrast, the book of Acts records that when disagreements arose the Apostles called a council of all the bishops (not just the 12 apostles but ALL bishops) and the issue was debated among the leadership. When a decision was reached by the bishops the decision became normative for all churches. And this Biblical pattern held true for formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity as well as the cannon of Scripture (not decided until the 4th century). For each of these foundational doctrines church councils were the means of determining what was orthodox belief among the myriad competing doctrines of the times.
By contrast, in churches where the doctrine of “priesthood of all believers” became the rule countless schisms and wranglings were unleashed which continue to this day. I think any Protestant who is honest would have to admit that one striking characteristic of the Protestant movement as a whole is division upon division upon division, something the Apostle Paul found reprehensible in the book of Corinthians. So I reject the idea that each believer is free to interpret Scripture apart from the guidance of the church. I instead hold to the belief that it is the Church as a visible working institution that has been given the charge to safeguard doctrine. Scripture guides all aspects of the church and is authoritative as the words of Christ, but the church through the use of church councils and testimony of church fathers elucidates Scriptures’ meaning for believers just as she did in the book of Acts.
Next the idea that Scripture alone is the means by which Christ reveals Himself, also known as “sola Scriptura”. This view has hugely transformed Protestantism’s worship. As a result of this view, the Lord’s Table is stripped of Christ’s mystical presence and is viewed as simply a remembrance (at least in the more revivalistic and baptistic evangelical circles). The Church (though called in Scripture the very body of Christ) is viewed as simply a collection of believers. All forms and symbols are removed and treated as taking away from the primacy of preaching in the church service. Church members are taught to look solely to the written word in order to enter into relationship with a living, breathing, present God.
Ironically, I find this view of Christianity not only degrading to the revelation of Christ in the Eucharist and in the Church but to Scripture as well. When Scripture is the only means of revelation, certain passages have to be ignored and/or explained away. Also, expectations are placed on Scripture that Scripture never claims to be able to fulfill because it becomes the great answer book. Looking outside of Scripture for guidance is unacceptable, so Scripture must be made sufficient to answer each and every question that the human condition can come up with. I endured years of conferences in which Scripture was scrutinized to disprove evolution, determine the age of the earth, disprove another Christian’s pet doctrine, replace psychological analysis, etc. There just didn’t seem to be any human topic the Bible couldn’t provide all the answers to.
And, once again, this view does not have strong precedence prior to the Protestant Reformation. Prior to the Reformation the Church taught that the Lord’s Table was, in a mystical and unexplainable way, the real presence of Christ Himself. Men such as Polycarp and Clement (who studied under the Apostles themselves) unequivocally preached the mystical presence of Christ at communion and roundly condemned the gnostics for teaching otherwise. In my next post I will explain my current view more exactly, but I will close with the conclusion I came to even before becoming Orthodox or leaving my Protestant church. As I studied more thoughtfully the meaning of Holy Communion along with how it is expressed in Scripture and defended by Church Fathers, I came to the sobering realization that, in relation to the Lord’s Table, I was a liberal. The same premise that liberal scholars make to reject a bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead was the same premise I was using to reject the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion (it doesn’t make logical “sense”, it is only a remembrance so therefore completely rational, any mystical view is left over medievel superstitions). This view requires no faith at all since it is something I could do for, say, a fallen war veteran to remember his service to his country.
To summarize my current understanding of authority, I hold to the belief that Christ reveals Himself to the faithful through Scripture, the Church, and the Lord’s Table. Remove any one of these means of revelation and worship becomes distorted and loses its ability to be truly Christ centered.
Since being a Protestant means that I am personally responsible to interpret Scripture for myself without regard to the teachings and traditions passed down for centuries, and that Scripture alone informs belief, my rejection of the two premises excluded me from being a protestant. I clung to the hope that this did not exclude me from being a Christian.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Resurrection and NT Wright

A family in our parish recently sent us a beautiful letter. After groping for words of comfort, this lovely family ended with "We have no words of comfort for you except 'Christ is risen!' ". Another dear friend who was present the night Chloe died posted some great insights on his blog. He said that in some ways death is harder to deal with as a Christian. His reason was that for a Christian we deeply understand the injustice of death. We know this is not the way it is "supposed to be". Death is not just a natural end in the "circle of life" and it is simply not beautiful. Anyone who was at our house the night Chloe died knows it is the ugly, present triumph of evil over good. Death is not just a person shedding off this old worn out coat and going "to a better place". It is the demonic destruction of God's creation. It is the fullest manifestation of sin's effects on God's world.
So how are Christians to relate to death? Certainly not with hopeless, crippling despair. This would demonstrate a woeful lack of belief that God keeps His promises to His children. But an equally wrong response is to shrug off death and grief with the justification that "she is in heaven. We should be happy". More and more I see this as religious escapism and a form of gnosticism. Actually "she" is not completely in heaven. Her body is rotting under the ground. To look at my beautiful baby and determine that her soul is more important than her body and therefore ignore the ugly reality of her body's current condition is to ignore the truth that Christ's resurrection was a bodily resurrection. His redemptive work was complete only when He rose from the dead. Chloe does not get a free pass. Her redemption will not be complete until she bodily raises from the dead. And here is where the life of faith really collides with this material, rationalist world. Do I stand by Chloe's grave and weave happy stories of her running around in heaven, bouncing on her grandpa's knee. Do I comfort myself by imagining her picking flowers while angels float around her playing harps? While this may give me a degree of peace I do not think it meets the requirements of hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. It is the strong conviction that Chloe's story is not completed and that the present reality (that we MUST be honest about in all its horror) is not the final word . Her "3 days in the grave" are not over but they will come to a glorious end. God's redemptive plan is for her physical body just as it was for Christ's body-restoration, an undoing of sin's decay. The Christian's response is nothing short of declaring that that body will come out the the grave, stand whole and perfect on this earth. That is admittedly a little harder than saying "she is happy and in a better place." But it rings truer.
One of the ways that God provedentially prepared me for Chloe's death (I believe) was in my reading of NT Wright's book "Surprised by Hope". Long before I even knew Chloe was sick I had been interested in what I felt was the paradox of loving the physical world and "believing in heaven". I just couldn't figure out why there seemed to be so much redeeming value to art, nature, human endeavor and yet supposedly (at least in Western protestant teaching) that was all going to some day be scrapped and we would all be zapped up to heaven. This book turned out to be a good corrective to that view as well as essential preparation to dealing with Chloe's death. I read this book before become Orthodox and I found in the Orthodox church this belief solidly central. I highly recommend this book to anyone. This is also a good segway to my next post. Many of you are interested in hearing why I joined the Greek Orthodox faith. I am currently on page 5 of "My Journey" and am still hanging out with the Presbyterians:) Obviously I have some summarizing to do before posting!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Going on

I want to begin my first post by stating that this blog is not always going to be about Chloe, or more correctly, about my grief over losing Chloe. Philip and I have come to a few conclusions about how we should carry on the rest of our lives and one solid determination we have is to continue to pursue joy and fulfillment. Life is not perfect or completely happy but it is good.That said, I am sure I will post often about Chloe. We will always carry the grief for the loss of our beautiful daughter every second of every day. But was are learning to make room for complexities of emotions. As we have called it before: "the paradox of faith", being at peace with the intense pain in our hearts along side the joys. And surley this is how Christ lived. He most certainly felt the weight of the cross even when feasting with publicans and sinners and being accused of being a glutton. So when you see us at a party laughing, watching a sports event, drinking coffee don't be afraid to ask us about Chloe or share in our grief. We think of her every minute and we love to talk about her. But also, don't be afraid to ask us to do something fun:) We love to have fun......
Now some "how we are doing" stuff. I am constantly amazed that anyone still cares and it helps me so much to process my grief "out loud". The funny thing about grief is that it is completly unpredictable so I find it difficult to tell anyone at a given time how I am doing. I knew before Chloe died that the "grieving process" (a stupid term invented in an attempt to rationalize something that is not rational) would not be linear. I knew that here would be "good days" and "bad days" and that sometimes I would experience the pain as sharply as the night I cradled her dead body in my arms. But I didn't know that there would be no way to predict grief's behaviour. There is really no way to tame it to the point that it will eat out of your hand. So when something that gave me comfort a week ago like looking at family pictures causes unbearable pain today, I have to be ok with that and accept that attempting to prepare myself ahead of time for the pain is kind of futile. That is not to say that it is pointless to wrestle with grief and "contain" it. I think that is healthy. But I laugh at how cocky I get sometimes when I think for a second that I could ever "get over it". I don't think grief is a process at all. As if you can "go through" it then get over it. I think it is a companion that you have to live with forever. It changes the way we all change. But it is always there. Right now I am trying to relate to it as my teacher instead of my slave master.
I also believe that I have to find the right way to relate to Chloe. I think CS Lewis alluded to this as well, but I find that my grief can be very narcissistic. I sit and daydream about the way Chloe "should have been" had she lived. But, as a Christian, I believe that she continues to exist. She IS something right now and thinking of her in hypotheticals as she would have been had she continued her earthly life is similar wishing Eva had red hair instead of her blonde hair or wishing she were not so emotional (Eva cries about EVERYTHING). I think it somehow dishonors Chloe not to discipline myself to focus on what she is now. And herein lies the great great difficulty. The fact is I don't know exactly what she is. I understand peoples' desire to comfort me by telling me that she is playing with puppies or she is running around the way she was never able to do here. But the fact is I have no way of knowing that and, really, since she is temporarily separated from her physical body she most likely is not running around. I have to face that truth. I have to face the truth that I do not know exactly what state my child is in. But, percieving through faith, I can cling to the belief that she is at rest.
I just completed a book on death and the state of our loved ones after death and the church fathers are pretty tough on us in terms of any speculation and needing to know. Scripture is largley silent. If Scripture is silent we should be careful not to "seek a sign". The first paragraph of the book kind of hit me between the eyes as it admonished me not to demand of God what He has not determined I need to know. Yet there is much that I do know about my child's existence that gives me great peace. I know she is free from suffering. I know she is enjoying the presence of Christ. I know she is awaiting the Resurrection and healing of her physical body. I know she is interceding for me. I know she joins me and the whole Church in fellowship as we join with Christ during Holy Communion. As a mother who is striving to love her children not for who I want them to be but for who they are, I have to live in this present reality. As my dear friend Bryonie said to me "there isn't what was, there isn't what should have been. There only is what is."