A good friend of mine asked me on Facebook yesterday why I observe Lent. The question is a natural one for biblically conscious Christians who rightly desire a scriptural grounding for all aspects of Christian practice. My response to my friend was probably the most in-depth written treatment I've ever attempted of how I've come to understand the spiritual reasoning behind Lent in the Orthodox tradition, so I figured it was worth cross-posting here at my blog. To set this up, my friend had posted a general question to her Facebook followers about why any among them observe Lent. I commented saying that I would try to find her a concise Orthodox treatment of the question, since some others who commented had gone down the road of "anti-religion" proof-texting. But she countered that she wanted to know why I personally found Lent to be valuable. Why do I personally observe it? This was my response, cleaned up slightly for this more formal platform.
One of the odd realities a Protestant is faced with upon entering the Orthodox Church is the role of saints in church life and piety. Prayers are offered to saints quite frequently and encouraged of the faithful. The practice cannot be summarily dismissed as a flourish of theological decadence, as many Protestants (including myself once upon a time) are inclined to do. The Church has a theology of the saints that proclaims they are not only alive in Christ, but that they are spectators of life on earth and can be called upon for their prayers in the same way that we call upon our living friends and family for theirs.
Facebook has made people weird. I suspect a lengthy volume could be written about the host of behaviors seemingly stable people exhibit on Facebook that would be considered signs of sociopathy in just about any other context. One such behavior is the Christian Humble Brag. I'm talking about people who post pictures of their amazing houses, or their extensive world travels, or stories of their professional achievements, and then have the temerity to declare themselves "blessed". There's nothing inherently wrong, in my opinion, with sharing one's successes and privileges with others, but tying such things inextricably to God's provenance is slippery ground. The theological trouble with such declarations is real enough, but a downstream consequence is that some truly beautiful accounts of God's blessing are not made known by people who are loathe to come across as vain or insensitive to those within earshot who have not known the same kind of blessing. My wife and I find ourselves in that position right now. We don't know why God chooses to reveal Himself through blessing in the ways and timing that He does, but we know that as His creatures, we are bound by love to tell of His goodness. What follows is a story of blessing, and of two undeserving people who are overcome with gratitude.
Disclaimer: This is the kind of post I would've preferred to plan in advance and give much thought to, but today's date has caught me by surprise. Hopefully what follows below will do the subject matter justice.
Fifteen years ago this morning, I walked away from a plane crash without a single bruise or scratch on my body. While that event hasn't been without its costly ripple effects (I now mask a significant fear of flying, especially at landings, that I didn't have prior to June 18, 2002), it's been a valuable, ongoing catalyst for personal reflection. Reflection requires knowledge of the details, however, so I'll begin by establishing some context and relaying the events of that morning as they unfolded.
In my previous post, I relayed a story about a Baptist blogger who recently accused a distinguished Orthodox Christian scholar of not being a Christian. The ensuing "dialogue" between the two was distinctly one-sided, the Orthodox Christian asking his accuser to dialogue with him, and the accuser refusing to do so on the assumption that he already understood enough about Orthodoxy. I don't think I've ever been quite as cocky as that blogger, but I do know what it's like to encounter people of differing views online, realize I'm not equipped to dialogue with them, then panic. And there's really no better word than panic for when people take the time to accuse strangers, but walk away when those accused presume to defend themselves.
In early 2015, twenty-one Coptic Christians were forced to their knees and beheaded on a Libyan beach by members of ISIS. The event was captured on video by the killers and released on the internet. Rightly, there was a worldwide groan from Christians of many differing traditions about the evil of ISIS's barbaric act. Not only that, but there was also an equally ecumenical reverence for the martyrdom of those men, many of whom could be heard crying out, "Lord Jesus Christ!" at the final moment before their heads were severed from their bodies.
Not everyone was impressed.
Becoming Orthodox presents particular challenges for people who have arrived by way of other, specifically Protestant Christian traditions. Questions of ecclesiology, generally not part of the Protestant consciousness in the 21st-century, are suddenly pushed to the fore. The notion that Christ may have intended for His Church to have institutional, visible marks is alien, if not anathema to the western, Evangelical mind. The pluralism inherent to American Evangelical Christianity is functionally treated as a feature of the faith (yay diversity!), rather than the tragedy that it is. I say "functional" because many Evangelicals you speak to will readily concede that such fragmentation isn't actually ideal, but behind that sentiment is a presupposition that unity not only can't be achieved by means of establishing institutional authority (or consolidating under an existing one), but that it shouldn't.
With the onset of Lenten abstentions barely nine days hence, I recently got to reminiscing about my first Paschal liturgy. It's an experience I've always envisioned telling as one event along the lengthy timeline of my Orthodox conversion, but as a working, married father of four, writing that complete history seems to become less feasible as time elapses. Given the nearness of the Paschal season and the fact that I haven't written anything in months, I felt this a worthy exercise.
St Gregory of Nazianzus wrote in one of his theological orations against the Christian mistake of debating theology before a worldly audience (cf. John 13:35). It's hard not to apply this wisdom to some conversations I occasionally get baited into on social media.
My wife recently posted a question on Facebook, asking any of her pro-choice friends to offer their rationale for abortion in the wake of the current Planned Parenthood revelations. The question was couched in terms of a desire to "understand" the basis for such thinking and involved a request of any pro-lifers that they refrain from turning the comment thread into a boxing ring. Essentially, my wife was attempting to create a "safe space" for people with contrary views to express them, the thought being that under such non-confrontational conditions, the likelihood was higher that a clear statement of pro-choice rhetoric might be forthcoming. I'm glad my wife did that, because the two pro-choice responses that she garnered--one in particular--offer a teaching opportunity. In the interest of preserving that safe space on my wife's Facebook wall, I decided to offer these thoughts here on my blog.
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