Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pop Goes Religion

Here's the most recent Come Receive The Light program that talks about a new book by Orthodox journalist, Terry Mattingly.


One of my major desires is to see our Orthodox faith tackle American culture, not just to condemn the weaknesses of our culture, but to seek out that which can be "baptized" by the faith and used to draw the average American to the fullness of Orthodoxy.

One point of contact that seems to be a natural connection with Orthodoxy is Southern culture. Being a Southerner, I find so many parallels between the Orthodox mindset and my Southern upbringing. Some of these parallels are good and some of them are weaknesses. I think of the unthinking xenophobia all too common in both cultural expressions as one of the common characteristics of Southern culture and Orthodoxy.

Next post I want to talk about the whole concept of Cradle/Convert in Orthodox Christianity.

Monday, May 29, 2006

King of the Hill and the Pew Situation

Well, sometimes popular culture makes your point for you.

A recent King of the Hill TV episode illustrates what happens when well intentioned people and the good intention of reaching people where they are with the Faith, just misses by a mile!

Look at this clip where Hank Hill and his family go looking for a new church to attend.

This is the world I converted from when I entered Orthodoxy.

But the success of these "mega churches" begs the question: Is there ANYTHING we Orthodox can learn from their experience?

Friday, May 26, 2006

One Flew Over The Onion Dome

Well, I've just finished Fr. Joseph Huneycutt's newest book "One Flew Over The Onion Dome" published by Regina Orthodox Press.

Fr. Joseph writes about American Orthodox Converts, Retreads, and Reverts. Converts are obvious, but Retreads? I found out that Retreads are Convert clergy who become Orthodox clergy - an apt description - Retreads.

Anyway, the book comes at a time when more and more people are talking about the inevitable culture clash between the growing number of American converts to Orthodoxy and the culture of Cradle Orthodox.

It is a good book to start this conversation and to encourage us all to make sure the conversation stays humble, honest, and loving.

In the end, it is important to remember that conversion, whether for those just coming to Orthodoxy or those who've lived in an Orthodox culture all their lives, is difficult. It's hard work. Anybody who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

But this hard work is good. Over and over again, the struggles of conversion invite me to an honest look into my own heart. Over and over again, I am invited by the Holy Spirit to examine my motives, scrutinize my attitudes, and honestly confront my own self centeredness.

Or, I ignore the gentle tug of the Spirit and sink further into my own pride.

Either way, the crossroads the Spirit leads me to are always filled with import and danger. "Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one."

May God, the blessed and life-giving Trinity, grant us the courage to understand that the "kingdom of God suffers violence and the violent take it by force." Let us be willing to suffer violence and NEVER return violence to anyone.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


This from a newslist today:

I saw this movie on Al's recommendation. What impressed me most about it was that the filmmakers managed to provide insights into the feelings and actions of both sides. Aside from the violence, which was unavoidable, the only thing that I found truly offensive about it was the continual use of the word "God" in translations from Arabic into English.

But the film got me thinking about other things, especially after a conversation with two friends who were received into the Church eight years ago, and who have now decided that they just can't take it any more. Their reasons: 1) "ethnic" orthodoxy; 2) contempt for converts; 3) ecclesiology; and 4) theological revisionism.

As I was talking to my friends, I found myself thinking about the film, and about the "differences" that set people against each other. The fanatics in "United 93" belonged to a religion which I do not find appealing, but even it may have its virtues. It seems to be, for example, almost completely "colour-blind".

Even its emphasis on the Arabic language seems to have the effect of dampening the kind of destructive ethnic pride that is our besetting sin. It appears that muslims will accept without hesitation just about anyone who shares their faith. I have never encountered a muslim who thinks that some people are, in a word, sub-human. Sadly, I cannot say this about putative Orthodox Christians, and it is, in part, encounters with some of these types while travelling in Europe, that have made my
friends give up on Orthodoxy.

Then there is ecclesiology. How many cities can each of us name that have in them half a dozen "Orthodox" Bishops? And things get really exciting if we count the "non-canonical" Orthodox, the newly-rehabilitated monophysites, etc., etc. We are a scandalous visible contradiction of our own ecclesiology.

Theological revisionism? Well, you all know what I mean - for example, several regular posters here have unburdened themselves at length about the new-age theology that seems to percolate ever more fragrantly at SVOTS. Even the Ecumenical Councils can now be whitewashed into revisionist irrelevance, if this might help to serve the cause of superficial ecumenism. Am I the only one who has noticed that we even
have one lurker here who waits for opportunities to take shots, however oblique, at the Council of Chalcedon? And who can blame him? We might as well have issued printed invitations.

I have now lumbered on for six paragraphs without even mentioning scandals, the sad business in the OCA being only the most recent. These usually are even more "scandalous" than they need to be because of the inept and amoral ways in which they are dealt with.

So why do I remain Orthodox? I have a certain affection for my ethnic background, but this is entirely incidental to my commitment to the faith (except when someone attacks my ethnicity from a belief that I am not fully human) and not enough to keep me in the Church.

My friends will probably end up in the great Roman family. Despite its faults, it is also, at least, pledged to the full dignity and equality of all human beings. I am beginning to see its appeal..........

So, the question is how can converts survive long term in an ethnocentric parish?

Your thoughts

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Hard Work of Communion

This past weekend I attended at Divine Liturgy at a parish where 95% of the service was in English. It was a welcomed change.

But, as I've said before, if you mistake my recent struggles with an ethno-centric Orthodoxy as based on language only, you'd be mistaken.

My greatest struggles are internal. How does one deal spiritually and emotionally with feelings of alienation and disconnection? What is it like to live as a "foreigner" or "stranger" in the midst of a place that was supposed to be "home."

Believe it or not, I have no illusions of asking those around me to change the way they have always done things to make me feel more comfortable. Hey, I'm arrogant, but not THAT arrogant.

No, in fact I am coming to see this sense of being a "stranger" or "foreigner" as a spiritual gift. It is another way for my own spiritual journey to enter more deeply into the sufferings of Christ. After all "He came unto His own and His own did not receive Him." He was a "stranger" and "foreigner" in His own world.

So, how does this sense of being a "stranger" help me in my own struggle to enter into being Christ-like?

First, being the "stranger" calls me to humility and repentance. As much as I insist that my struggle is for authentic evangelism to the general population around us, I must confess that some (perhaps most) of my dis-ease stems from my own desire for comfort and the familiar. This self-centered attitude MUST die within me if I am ever to know "sober joy." As a stranger, I am invited to confront my own spiritual poverty and repent.

Second, being a "stranger" calls me to identify with other "strangers." Now in my own sense of being a Stranger I can relate to others who feel alienated and cut off. Now my desire for evangelism can be purified from the shame inducing tirades of accusation against others to an authentic compassion for others that transforms me. As a stranger, I can now reach out to other strangers and invite them to know true "philanthropia."

Finally, being a "stranger" calls me to Christ Himself. Jesus knows what it is like to be rejected by His own. He knows what it is like to look out over the city of Jerusalem and lamenting that He would have gathered them unto Himself, but they "would not." As a stranger, I am now invited to join another Stranger and learn to do the hard work of communion.

Being a stranger in a place I thought was home is hard. The fact is that Orthodoxy is my home, but I am now entering deeper into the grief of my own conversion and naming this as grief. But that's what we humans were created to do. God brought all the animals to Adam to see what Adam would name them, and we too, are called to name the poverty, pain, woundedness, of our own souls so that, in naming them, we can overcome them with the love of Jesus Christ.

I am embracing (with tears) my own sense of being a stranger in a place I thought was home, and in doing so, I am learning about my own weaknesses and wounds, and, by God's grace, I am confronting my further need for repentance and healing.

It is "good" to be a stranger. It's just not pleasant.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Birds of a Feather

Since my last post, some may get the impression that my trouble with an ethnic centered Orthodox parish is based on language, and nothing could be further from the truth.

But language is just a symptom of a deeper struggle in an Orthodox parish.

And that struggle is the same struggle being played out in our nation over immigration - the struggle of assimilation.

But in a parish setting, the struggle moves to a deeper challenge from a doctrinal position.

The fact is, we Christians are called to reproduce ourselves through authentic discipleship and evangelism. The Commission of the Church is to bring Christ to every "ethnos" around the world (Matthew 28:19).

No bishop or priest I have ever spoken to about this denies this or even attempts to explain this away. They all agree that this is a spiritual task of the Church, but how do we do this?

Well, let me say right off that I truly understand the desire of many to have religiously familiar worship. It makes sense to me for Greek immigrants to want to preserve something familiar in a strange country. It makes sense to me for a Russian immigrant to America to at least have one place in a community that reminds him of the home he loves. This makes sense to me. It also makes sense form a sociological standpoint. People naturally group together with others like themselves.

Hey, its the very basis for my own struggle as a convert to Orthodoxy. I miss the familiar around me. I miss not being around people like me. But I value the theology of Orthodoxy over my own comfort. I value Orthodox theology because I am convinced Orthodoxy has preserved the fullness of the Christian witness for America, but along with that theology comes an "ethnic" package that is a stumbling block to the "catholic" message of the faith.

From a sociological position, people want to be with others like themselves, but the Gospel calls us to a radical viewpoint, and that is the healing of those things that divide humanity. The vision of St. John in the Revelation was one of all believers gathered before the Throne of the Lamb from every kindred, tribe, and tongue.

This isn't just happening here. The Russian Church is struggling with the same issue in England. See www.dioceseinfo.org

To be sure, while we are here on this side of Eternity, we struggle with the ramifications of the Gospel, but it should be at least a value in our hearts and minds.

Besides, is the Orthodox Church truly fulfilling its call to be the Body of Christ here in America if it continues to either ignore or to marginalize the vast majority of the population?

I'm not sure I have any answers about this, but I do know that my heart breaks for the Americans who wander lost in a spiritual sea of religious confusion when all the while the Orthodox Christian faith holds the remedy for their lostness. Is there any Orthodox Christian leaders out there who weep for lost America?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Come Over And Help Us

As I said at the beginning of this blog, I wanted to explore the plight of converts to the Orthodox Christian faith.

My previous posts have been a glimpse into my own struggle with some issues of a convert with literally no ethnic connection to any Eastern Orthodox groups coming into a community where the conversation has been going on for centuries.

I wanted to first start by examining my own soul. Usually when I am confronted with this kind of struggle, its roots are in my own spiritual poverty, so that's where I have found I must begin if I am going to work through a spiritual struggle. King David prayed that God would search his heart to see if there be any wicked way in him.

It is this willingness to begin first with my own spiritual poverty that helps protect any struggle from a prideful and self centered trap that leads to resentment and self righteousness.

To be sure, it is not guarantee that this trap will be avoided, but it is a good beginning.

Now that that is said, I confess that my current struggles have to do with the sense of being a stranger in my own church. Having converted to Orthodoxy after a lengthy spiritual journey, I (foolishly) thought I had dealt with the possibility of confronting a heavily "ethnic" mindset within Orthodox churches here in America. I was wrong.

This "ethnic" mentality has exhausted me of late and I am currently assessing my own spiritual strength. I am not wondering about Orthodoxy at all. I will leave the Orthodox Church half an hour after the Ecumenical Patriarch leaves the Church! But I am wearied of being "xenos" among a people who seem to have little sense about how to do anything other than be "ethnic" and preserve their "ethnicity."

My prayer is that there will finally be a bishop who has a vision as St. Paul did of the Macedonian calling out "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (Acts 16:9)

Maybe a Southern bubba stepping out of his pick-up and calling out "Come and help us, y'all!"

I am convinced that Americans are spiritually hungry for the theological depth of Orthodoxy, but can they ever have access to this abundant spiritual banquet if there is no sense of urgency to help them make the journey?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Honesty Is The Best Policy

First, thanks for all the folks who've stopped by to offer comments and well wishes.

I guess I titled my last post "Stranger in a Strange Land" for several reasons, not the least of which when it comes to authentic honesty about my own soul, I tend to do what many do - either ignore my own spiritual poverty, or excuse it with rationalizations.

But that's not the goal I tell myself is most important to me. My goal I like to think I have is to be an authentic, honest, Orthodox Christian. The goal I like to think I have is to actually be prepared to stand before Christ at that "awesome judgment seat" and have a right answer. That's what I'd like to think, but my behavior too many times betrays my "good intentions" with the reality of my life.

The fact is the faith gives me the Good News that there is no longer a need for me to be a slave to my passions and my weaknesses. Christ has defeated sin, death, and Satan. I don't have to obey the lusts of the flesh and the "pride of life" anymore. I can be free to become what I was created to become - an eternal companion with the Uncreated God Who means me no harm and loves me more than I, myself, know how to love.

But this Good News comes with Bad News as well. If I choose, in my freedom, to continue to be enslaved by my passions and spiritual poverty, I am promised that God will not diminish Himself or shade me from His eternal glory to accommodate my lack of ability to stand in the Uncreated Light of His presence.

God has poured out His eternal grace and mercy on this world and preserved in His Church all the wisdom any person will ever need to prepare for that awesome Day. He has even given humanity His Holy Spirit to guide His Church "into all truth." This abundant treasury of mercy and grace is lavished on every person at all times and in every place. My only act is the purposeful choice to embrace and be embraced by this mercy and grace. God will never turn me away. He will never reject me. He will never refuse me His forgiveness and love. In fact, He will continue to love me unconditionally even if I reject Him.

Now comes the greatest challenge of all, what am I to do with this unconditional and terrifying mercy? What excuse will I have on that Day? What am I to do?

Ah, we come back to the timeless wisdom of the Orthodox faith - repentance is my beginning, my practice, and my purpose. To learn how to repent without shame or without guilt, this is the work at hand.

No wonder the Church teaches me to cry out "Lord, have mercy" knowing full well He will certainly have mercy. The only question left up in the air is will I receive it?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

Let's start with reality, shall we? I find reality to be the most difficult conclusion since it requires a level of honesty rarely associated with we humans. We are too willing to be self-deluded. We prefer the fantasy of our own sophistication or worse our own weakness.

This preferred mindset leads to all kinds of unhealthy habits and conflict. We confuse co-dependency with communion. We settle for accommodation to mediocrity rather than continue doing the hard work of excellence. We allow the compromises of life to stupefy us into a delusion of existence rather than honestly confessing our own need for authentic life.

This self-delusion can sometimes be named a virtue. We arrogantly insist that our willingness to compromise and to "get along" are actually signs of spiritual maturity and humility, all the while perpetuating a "status quo" that institutionalizes our own poverty of soul.

To be sure, humility and compromise are necessary if we are to ever build consensus and cooperation. But these good goals should never be used to further dishonesty or delusion. It should also never be used as an excuse not to boldly do the right thing regardless of the popularity of that act.

How does one find the balance necessary to avoid delusion and yet be gracious and humble? I think the first step is repentance.

Metanoia, the Greek word translated as "repentance", first asks us to "change our minds." In other words, we begin this process of honesty with ourselves. I can't change another's mind. That work begins with me alone. So, my own thinking, my own mindset, my own perspective must first survive the honest scrutiny of a divine light. King David rightly began saying "search me, O God, and know my heart." It is this humble willingness to begin with myself that frees me from the delusion of thinking all we need is for everyone to see things our way to set all matters right.

Beginning with myself. That is where the death of delusion begins.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Welcome to Sober Joy

The title of my blog actually comes from a Greek word - nepsis. It literally means "sober joy." Many of the fathers of Eastern Orthodox Christianity say that this state of sober joy is the goal of mature spirituality, and it is my fervent desire.

So this little corner of the blogosphere is meant to be a place where I work toward this goal, and maybe get some help and comments from you, weary blogger.

A little bit about myself. I am a former Pentecostal pastor who converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in November of 2001 along with about 20 families from the church I had pastored in Atlanta, GA. I have a theology degree from an Evangelical Protestant school, and actually spent some years working in the Evangelical Protestant media ministries as well as pastoring. I am even a member of NRB (the National Religious Broadcasters).

I want this blog to focus on my current obsessions. Here they are in order of my strongest addictions:

Religion (Eastern Orthodoxy specifically)
Politics (the crunchy conservative kind)
Culture (I'm American by birth, but Southern by the Grace of God!)

Currently I am struggling with the plight of converts to Orthodox Christianity. Many come to Orthodoxy with little to no cultural connection to the faith, so we enter into a group whose conversation has already been going on for centuries. How do we catch up? Should we even try? Is there a place for us in this conversation? How do we deal with the feelings of frustration of feeling like an outsider? Just a few questions I'm currently thinking about.

In any event, Southern hospitality is legendary, so I want to hold up my end. Welcome, dear friend. Come in. Please join the others in the sitting room. I'll be in with some sweet tea and snacks in just a minute.