Returning in Order to Advance

It occurs to me that modern “Christendom” is plagued with two related errors: self-preservation and progressivism. That is to say, we are oriented around preserving our institutions as “our” institutions and we think we know better than.

The church heritage out of which I came, the Stone-Campbell Movement, is a case in point. The Movement was originally a unity movement: “Christians only not the only Christians.” So, as in the famous document known as “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” (signed on 28 June 1804), the elders of the Presbyterian church in Springfield (among whom was Barton W. Stone, for whom the Movement was later named in part) willed that their particular church body, “die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.” And, in doing that, they affirmed that “the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.”

At first the Stone-Campbellites were able to maintain something of a parachurch association. But in time, they found it necessary to organize and congregate among themselves, apart from the larger body of Christ. Though the larger part of the Stone-Campbell churches have staunchly resisted forming a denomination (the Disciples of Christ, however, did so about thirty years ago), they still “keep to themselves.” They have their own colleges for ministerial training, their own mission organizations, their own national convention (which is simply a very large preaching and teaching conference–it makes no formal or official decisions), and so forth. When I was in Bible college, we jokingly referred to ourselves as the “non-denominational denomination.” (I know, I know, it’s not original.)

More to the point, the early leaders, while rightly orienting themselves doctrinally around the New Testament Church, cut themselves off from historic Christianity by not considering the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. So, on the one hand the Stone-Campbell churches teach the ancient doctrine of the saving effects of the act of baptism (though they don’t call it a sacrament); but on the other hand, they “know better” than Ignatios of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, and the rest of the early Church, and accept Zwingli’s understanding of the non-sacramentality of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist (that is, that it is merely a rememberance–and not anamnesis in the classic and patristic sense).

How sad.

Here a group of Christians had a phenomenal opportunity in the new world of the United States, and on what was then its western frontier, to forge a new return to the historic and New Testament Church. A return which would further the case of the Church in America. To lay aside all denominational differences, and return to the one Church of God. Instead, they eventually added yet another to the groups of Christian bodies in our world, further enlarging the schism. And in their Lockean and Baconian rationalistic confidence–well-intentioned though it certainly was–they assumed that 1700 years had given them more wisdom, knowledge and understanding than the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, some of whom had known the Apostles.

This is one large problem I have with modern Protestantism: we all want to work toward unity, but the “benchmark” which could serve to assist us in that, we ignore. It seems to me that if we want to be one Church, visibly and manifestly, it would make sense that we would believe and do those things the Church believed and did before the Great Schism, when it was still one. From the first millennium of the Church’s history, we received a common form of government, our common and sacred Scriptures, the whole and unblemished Faith and Dogma of the Church. We all–in our historic lineages–had the same thing. If we’re really serious about advancing the “cause” of unity, of ecumenism, it makes sense that we would all submit ourselves to the Church of the first millennium.

But perhaps we’re too interested in preserving our own institutions. And perhaps we think we know better than they did.

I am a child of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I embrace my heritage, warts and all. But I am intent on taking the “program” of the Movement to its original intent: to seek and to be part of the One Church of Christ, the New Testament and historic Church. To go forward, it is necessary to return. And such a return must be to the full faith and life of the Church.

The Battleground of Thoughts: Logismic Askesis

In the monastic literature, “thoughts” (logismoi) are both “thoughts” in the ordinary sense and also are those “thoughts” which can be provoked by demons and lead to sin. Jesus said, “He who looks on a woman with the intent to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). And Paul urges the Corinthian church to “Take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Being of a philosophic mind, I have understood this Battleground of Thoughts to be mainly about Truth: Knowing what is and is not real about God and the world. Recently, however, I have come to understand this battle in a much more broad and intensive sense. It is not just about thinking rightly; it is also about keeping one’s thoughts pure.

This did not dawn on me all at once. In fact, the story begins before I really started to grasp this askesis of purity of thought. It was the last Monday morning in December just past. I woke to my alarm, sat up and turned it off. The very first conscious thought I had was the haunting Byzantine chant from the Orthodox Matins service of the previous morning: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes.”

As it so happens, this is becoming a more frequent occurrence. The Monday mornings after the previous day’s Matins and Divine Liturgy now frequently have me awaking with a hymn from the service as my first thought. Once it was “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” of the Trisagion hymn. Once, this Monday morning experience even stretched into a Wednesday morning experience.

In a different vein, a couple of weeks ago, I was lying in bed just prior to falling asleep, my mind roaming, when an impure thought came to the fore. I do not recall whether it was a thought of anger, contempt or even lust. The only thing I do remember was my response, which was immediate. “I reject this thought in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Lord Christ, have mercy on me and save me.” I was not troubled by any other sinful thoughts that night and soon fell asleep.

Now granted, this is only a couple of experiences. I hardly qualify as a spiritual teacher. But my experiences, when put together, did help me realize the importance of battling for purity of thought. I need to both fill my mind with Scripture and the prayers of the Church. I must carefully guard my thoughts against sin.

This was brought home to me in a dream I had yesterday morning. I had somehow acquired a cloth bag full of snakes. They were all extremely tiny. Dozens of them were wrapped in a cloth ball about the size of a grapefruit. I could not leave the bag well enough alone, however. I kept coming back to it, toying with it, attempting to look inside. Finally, I untied one corner and faster than thought, the snakes began to escape throughout our apartment. One even found its way through a hole in my shirt right in the center of my chest. Many of them immediately began to get larger; some were the size of a boa constrictor. One of the larger ones began to swallow one of the ferrets we owned until just recently. I got the poor guy free after much struggle. Another snake I tried to throw out of the apartment, and it attacked a neighbor below. Snakes began to take over the apartment, and I eventually awoke.

It is terribly difficult to fight these impure thoughts, I find. More difficult than can be imagined, even in a fitful morning dream. But the monastics testify that this sort of thing, while it is an endless battle in our earthly existence, is yet a battle in which we can know consistent victory. If we continually struggle and call on the name of the Lord for help.

[Note: Huw has blogged on this topic today as well. And Karl has an important blog on hesychia, and its relation to guarding one’s thoughts, today as well.]

Squandering the Inheritence: The Sunday of the Prodigal Son, The Second Sunday of the Lenten Triodion

Luke 15:11-32 is always the Gospel reading for the second Sunday of the Triodion, the three weeks of “pre-Lent.” It is the story of the Jewish son, who takes his portion of his fathers wealth–wealth that had not only been accumulated in the father’s lifetime, but the land and artifacts and wealth of the father’s father, and his father, and on back down the preceding generations–and makes off for parts unsavory. The story is well-known. As is its glorious and happy conclusion.

But it struck me today that the son’s offense was not just loose-living and carousing and the like–as darksome as are those deeds. Rather, as Archpriest Patrick Reardon pointed out in Liturgy today, the son squandered the tangible deposit of the labors and wisdom of the many generations that had gone before. Like Esau, he despised his birthright for the here and now.

It was noted today that the fool in Proverbs 1, is precisely that person who rejects the wisdom of father and mother, who each are wise from their father and mother, and they of their parents, and so on. Wisdom is not learned so much as it is handed down.

Furthermore, the son’s return is the essence of the Christian Gospel: a return to the Father. It was remarked that Christianity is inescapably patriarchal: as in pater and arche, a return to the Father who is the source of and ruler over all. The Father is the fount of the Trinity: of the Father is the Son begotten and from the Father the Spirit proceeds. We are taught by the Holy Spirit to say: “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). And Jesus our Lord taught us to say “Our Father.”

But the faith of the Prodigal Son was more than just fine points of biblical doctrine–important though these are. Rather, the Prodigal Son is transfigured into the Penitent Son by parable’s end. That is to say, it’s not the knowing, but the knowing and the doing, that makes way for wisdom. For me, in this pre-Lenten season, and on into Great Lent itself, I want to model the Prodigal Son. I want to receive from my fathers and mothers in the faith the wisdom handed down to them. But not just head knowledge or mere understanding. Rather, I want a return to the Father that shapes and molds my very life.

God have mercy on me a sinner.

Christian Duty, Holy Spirit

Part of my personality works itself out in habit. Most of the time, if something is important to me, I’ll find myself doing it pretty much in the same way at the same time, and mostly indefinitely. Sometimes, I’m fortunate enough to direct this force to good ends. When I was a junior in high school, I somehow became convinced of the necessity and benefit for daily Scripture reading and prayer. I started doing it, and before I knew it, it was a habit. (That of course, does not mean I’ve been perfect in my observance. During most of my recent seminary experience, oddly enough, I was more habitual in not reading Scripture and praying. Weird.)

However, that being said, my sense of my “progress” in the faith has not been with regard to proficiency in Christian habits, nor even in ever-greater ethical and moral purity. Rather, my barometer of spiritual good things has been: my own feelings.

This came out recently in an email discussion I had with a local Orthodox priest, Fr. Patrick Reardon. I sent him an email bemoaning my sorry fate: I wasn’t praying or going to worship, I felt all dark and icky. Of course, I was hoping for some insightful, laser-focused word of wisdom (Fr. Patrick has that “feelings-be-damned-say-it-like-it -is” side to him). I thought he might say something like, “Gosh, that’s terrible. You’d better get back to your prayers and your Bible, and by all means hie thyself back to worship!” Instead, he said (in rough paraphrase), “This sort of thing will not end until you quit using your feelings as a basis for judging your spiritual life.”

Well, then my analytical, argumentative side kicked in. “So what the heck am I supposed to do about this? I mean how do I know where I’m at spiritually?” Well, you know, it appears that it doesn’t really matter whether or not I “know” where I’m at spiritually. It seems there’s this thing out there called “duty.” And if it’s between some sort of awareness of my spiritual state and duty, duty is the pole I’m to gravitate towards.

“Ah, good! So if I’m doing my duty consistently, then . . .” Nope. Ain’t like that at all. I’m to just do my duty. It is within the parameters of duty, not spiritual sensitivity, that the Spirit works. I don’t love my neighbor because I feel like it. I love my neighbor because it’s my Christian duty. Whether I feel or sense anything spritually in loving my neighbor is beside the point. This, admittedly, is a new concept to me.

Duty is not works righteousness. It’s not as though I’m earning my salvation by doing my duty. Rather, duty is apparently something like cutting a channel through my soul. Through it, the living water of the Spirit will flow and irrigate the arid land that is so often my life of faith. Duty won’t ever really give me much of a barometer of “spiritual progress”–since all my progress can be wiped out so quickly with the giving in to temptation and the formation of vicious habits.

This, I think, is the one piece of baggage I have to attempt to untie and jettison from my upbringing. I’m not sure if it’s endemic to Protestantism, or just my Stone-Campbell heritage. But it has sure stuck with me. I not only had a need to be sure of my salvation–I was baptized as a seven-year old and submitted to a conditional baptism as a young twenty-something–but I also had to be sure that I remained saved and had to from time to time discern where my soul was at. That is probably much closer to works righteousness than is duty.

So since duty opens the sluices, as it were, then I’ll stick with duty. The rest is up to the Spirit.

“Now that the day has come to a close, I thank thee, O Lord . . .”

Just got off the phone with Anna. She’s in Pittsburgh with her brother, Delane. He faces fourteen hours of surgery tomorrow, from 7am-9pm EST. From what I could tell her mother, Mary, Delane and Anna, herself, were all facing tomorrow matter-of-factly. They don’t seem too focused on its ominous presence. Perhaps they have the right mindset. Or perhaps they’re more concerned about Delane’s wife, Terri, with her and Delane’s newborn, Lucas, and Dad and brother-in-law, travelling through the snow-blanketed north-central U. S. They expect them in tonight late.

Me, I’ve been pretty anxious for them all. This evening, venerating icons, lighting candles, and offering intercessions, helped. I like the final petition of the Troparia of Thanksgiving: “Now that the day hath run its course, I praise thee, O Holy One, and I ask that the evening with the night may be undisturbed; grant this to me (us), O Saviour, and save me (us).” Followed by twelve “Lord, have mercy.” Even in my anxiousness, I cannot come to God but by way of humility.

For those readers so inclined, do offer a prayer for Delane, for his family, for Anna. And pray for me, a sinner.

The Justification of God Meets the Religion of Me: The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, The First Sunday of the Lenten Triodion

The ancient tradition of the Church almost immediately developed the forty-day observance preceding the great feast of Pascha, or Easter, which we now know as Great Lent. The standard for the fasting and prayers of this time grew out of the catechumenate, the period of teaching and discipleship that preceded baptism, but with the monastic movement begun in the fourth century, these observances took on a rigor that seems daunting to us today. This was the modus operandi of ancient Christianity: more is more. It was maximalist as opposed to minimalist.

As the disciplines of Great Lent developed, there developed also the period we now know as the Triodion: the three Sundays prior to the start of Great Lent in which the Church prepares for the great forty-day struggle. We have received from the ancient Church the tradition that every year the first Sunday of the Triodion begins with the Lukan parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18.9-14). In this parable the Pharisee thanks God he (rather in the manner of Michael Jackson) is not like the other guys, particularly like the publican, or tax collector he sees standing over off to the side. The Pharisee prays, fasts and tithes. But he doesn’t go away from the Temple justified. The tax collector, on the other hand, we well know, does.

It’s interesting to me that the Pharisee was left in his sin, not because he was praying, fasting and tithing. Readers of Matthew’s Gospel know that these are the very things the Lord requires of us. Rather, the Pharisee approached these righteous acts from the standpoint of himself. He is the biblical equivalent of the religion of me. The Pharisee’s faith was centered on himself, and thus he left the Temple condemned by his own prayer.

It strikes me that this is the great blessing of the Church’s tradition. Too much of my own religious life is the great struggle to guage my spiritallity in terms of me. The great barometer of my faith has been . . . well, me, my feelings and my own judgments. But with the great gift that is the Tradition of the Church, it no longer has to be about me. Indeed, it cannot be. The Tradition is given to me by God through the Church for the sake of my own justification and salvation. Not that through it I earn my salvation–that would simply put me back in the religion of me. But rather that God has chosen in his mercy to actualitze my justifcation, to sanctify me, within that which is most emphatically not about me.

The Pharisee had it wrong, not because his worship practices were wrong, per se. He had it wrong because his religion and worship was about himself. It seems to me that we Christians need the kind of worship of the publican who starts his prayer with God, appeals to his mercy, and only at the end, inserts himself. And not a self that feels good or is made comfortable, but a self who knows that the distance between himself and hell is exactly the width of God’s mercy. It seems that any worship or religion that focuses on me, on the worshipper, is ultimately idolatrous. Worship is first, last and middle about God. If we keep the focus right, we’ll not only know his mercy, we’ll know ourselves as sinners in need of it.

A Still Point in Whirling Chaos:Judges, Cultures, and Saturday Night Vespers

My life is a roiling mass of transition right now. Three months of pregnancy and the ever-encroaching beginning of parental reality have knocked my world around just a bit. The steady and ever-more positive advance through doctoral work is now somewhat up for grabs as the needs of our forthcoming child rearrange all our priorities. Then there’s my relentless schedule of study, teaching prep, work, classes, teaching intro classes, the long, endless hours on public transportation, sleep-deprived nights, and trying to find adequate time to give quantity attention to my wife. And within these last days the anxieties about my brother-in-law’s health, the drepressing realities he faces, even if the surgeries are successful and he survives them, about Anna’s and the baby’s travel safety, and their own emotional health over the coming days.

Life can wig you out pretty good, let me tell you.

Still and all, I hauled my worried self down to the bus stop and headed off to vespers at All Saints Orthodox Church. The silence and calm deliberation which filled the church building was restorative.

Before the service began, one of the parishioners went forward for confession. Archpriest Patrick, busily chanting psalms in quiet Latin, took note, and silently met the person before an altar to one side of the sanctuary, behind which was a cross with a large, life-like icon of the crucified Christ. After some murmured prayers, the two huddled next to one another, heads bowed, as though minutely inspecting something of the most extreme importance. After some moments, Fr Patrick placed his stole over the head and shoulders of the penitent, made the sign of the cross and gave his blessing. The parishioner returned to his seat, and Fr Patrick returned to his chanting of the psalms.

The service proper began with “Blessed is our God always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” And in slow, deliberate chant and recitation, we made our way through the prayers and psalms to the benediction. From the cadences of “Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening” to the much-repeated petitions of “Lord have mercy.” From the Vesper psalms’ cry of “Lord, I have cried unto thee,hear me. . . . Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense” to the exultant chant “Let creation rejoice, let the heavens cheer, let the nations clap their hands for joy, for Christ our Savior to the Cross hath nailed our sins; and having slain death and rasied up Adam, the progenitor of mankind, hat granted us life; for He loveth mankind.” From the opening call of “O come let us worship and fall down before the Very Christ, our King and our God” to the closing solemn prayer of Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” And making our way, as if by stages, I found with my fellow pilgrims that which I most needed: “Christ who is always now and ever unto ages of ages.”

How different is this world in which I found myself so clearly anchored this evening. And how often I forget it. The lection for this evening’s Scripture was from Judges 2:14ff. Fr Patrick observed: There is no such thing as a neutral culture. Every culture has a religion, every religion a culture. The Israelites were not enticed after the demonic gods of Canaan by the child sacrifices. Rather, by stages, they were enticed by a culture in which sex and sexuality suffused everything. Asherah poles, after all, were little more than statues of large phalluses. And in a culture in which sex is omnipresent, so, too, will be one of the consequences of sex: pregnancy. And in Canaan, those many children were sacrificed and killed to appease the gods of sex and power the Canaanites followed.

How carefully I must walk in my world. This chaotic life can give me ample opportunity to be inattentive to my pathway, to be enticed by the godless culture around me, and to be blind to the humanity that suffers under its weight. Their only hope, and mine, is him who calls us all to the narrow way, the ladder of ascent, by which in faith, energized by God’s uncreated grace, we are transfigured on the mountain with him and in him.

O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, through the intercessions of thine immaculate Mother, of blessed Joseph, the righteous Benedict, father of monks, the priest martyr Eleutherius, the holy John Climacus, the bishop and martyr Onesimus, and of all thy saints, have mercy on us, bring healing to Delane, and spread your unwavering protection over Anna. Amen.