30 September 2007

A Personal Anniversary

One year ago yesterday and today, I submitted my resignation as Pastor of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit. I stated, in simple terms, that I was resigning without any conditions or requests because Zion expects a Lutheran Pastor and I could no longer believe, teach or confess various parts of the 1580 Book of Concord.

It was necessary for me to submit my resignation on two days so that the pertinent officers could be present. On both days, the English District President was present. While I did not ask for nor expect it, the officers granted me the courtesy of publicly announcing my resignation at a congregational meeting. The officers and District President determined that 29 October 2006 would be that date.

The officers were disappointed but not shocked. Three years previous I had publicly announced to the congregation that I was entering a period of discernment concerning my relationship with the LCMS and the Lutheran Church generally. Later I invited the congregation, as a whole, to enter into its own period of discernment. They did. For three years, the officers and I met to discuss the issues and various options. During the three year period, and even before my announcement of "discernment" in May 2003, I met privately with a few of the officers whose particular counsel, wisdom and advice I valued. As speculation grew, confidences were not betrayed.

There were several catalysts which prompted my decision to enter into a period of discernment. Among these were the decision (never implemented, thank God) by the LCMS Commission on Worship to alter the wording of the Nicene Creed; my own struggles with various aspects of Lutheran teaching; my increasing concern about being in communion with those who deliberately, willfully and persistently opposed the Catholic Faith; and my increasing frustration with the disjunction between official confession vs. public teaching. At the heart of the matter, however, was the understanding of liturgy and its centrality to Christian faith and life. The modification of the liturgical tradition that had been received by Lutherans ended up being the "straw that broke the camels back." In this regard, serving on the Lutheran Hymnal Project became an unforeseen catalyst.

While certain options were never in play, I did not know that the discernment I entered in May 2003 would lead to my resignation in September 2006, or my reception into the Orthodox Church.

What I said in my public announcement still applies one year later: I shall always genuinely appreciate and be eternally grateful for the love and the generosity that the members of Zion showered upon me and my family during my tenure as their Pastor. And I am grateful for every blessing of the Holy Spirit that I received in the Lutheran Church—most especially for the gift of Holy Baptism, for a rigorous catechesis in many basic doctrines, for the Holy Eucharist that has nourished my faith, and for the grace to serve three parishes.

25 September 2007

What is the Church?

The Church is not a creation of creeds or confessions. Neither is it an organization of those who hold certain truths to be self-evident. Rather, the Church is a living organism—Christ Himself animated by the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints and faithful.

As a living organism, the Church is not bodiless. It is the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ, the Church has a human “nature” as well as a “divine nature.” In other words, the Church on earth and the Church in heaven are one. Moreover, there is truly an identifiable, material organism called “The Church.” So the organizations called “church” are not (á la Plato) cheap copies of an ideal Church in heaven. Neither are they some sort of outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual fellowship of believers. Rather, there is one identifiable communion of churches that is the ongoing continuation of those 3000 whom the Apostles baptized on the first Pentecost Sunday.

This belief in the true visible Church is necessary for two reasons. First, it is christologically necessary. The Church confesses that Christ is both human and divine. It knows no other Christ. While it may speak speculatively or chronologically about a pre-incarnate Logos, the Church does not know (gnwsis) a pre-incarnate Logos. Rather, the Church knows only the One who is both eternally begotten of the Father and born of the Virgin Mary. Hence, His body, which the Church is, must also have both aspects of the human and divine. Not human in the sense that the body of Christ is found in unidentifiable believers scattered in disparate communions; but human in the same sense that Christ is human—in a discernible, visible body.

To the world the true Church looks like (and regrettably often acts like) all other mortal and flawed organizations; yet Christ also looked like a mortal and flawed person since He was capable of suffering, endured wounds and died. But to faith the Church is seen to be no different than Christ: of the Father animated by the Spirit; mortal yet immortal; receiving sinners and living with sin, yet holy and perfect; flawed yet infallible; suffering yet glorified. But above all, the Church is seen to be one. Not one by virtue of what will be, but one in being and in truth. Not one because here and there people have determined to be “church” or “church-like,” but one because there is one communion of bishops to whom the faithful have been sacramentally attached. This, then, is the true Eucharistic fellowship: not pockets of places where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered, but the intercommunion of bishops who rightly divide the word of Truth Himself.

This belief in the true visible Church is necessary not only christologically, but also soteriologically. If the church is only those who have determined to be “church” and who have gathered themselves and called for themselves ministers who will do “church,” then salvation comes not from the Father through the Son in His Spirit. Rather, salvation comes from the ground up—from those creatures who have located or formed or gathered together to do what the Lord has said.

Please do not misunderstand. It is necessary for Christians to obey the Lord; and obedience is the way of salvation. However, the Lord’s mercy precedes obedience; and God’s spirit comes before forming, establishing and doing; and the Father’s love begets, sends and bestows His Life through those whom He has chosen. Were it otherwise—were “churches” the building block of the Church—then it would be possible, and in fact probable, that the gates of hell would prevail. But the Lord has guaranteed that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church (Mt 16.18).

Believe, Confess & Teach

The Holy Apostle Paul states that if thou confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thy heart that God hath raised him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For, with the heart, we believe unto justice; [and] with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation. (Rom 10.9-10) He then continues by speaking about preaching—the act of proclaiming or teaching the kyregma; that is, content of what is believed and confessed.

Let me suggest that we do well to pay attention to the ordering of the concepts by the holy apostle. It is not unlike the order of the words when the Lord says, You are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that you may know, and believe me, and understand that I myself am. (Is 43.10) The word order the Lord chooses indicates theological priority: we know (gnwsis) and believe and understand. In other words, we do not understand in order to believe so that we might know. Rather, we understand what we believe due to the knowing—the profound relationship—we have in and with God. In the same way, the Holy Apostle states that believing begets confessing which, in turn, begets proclaiming and teaching. In other words, the triad is “believe, confess and teach.”

Now I freely admit that I may be parsing the triad of “believe, confess and teach” a bit too finely; for I will also freely admit that the three—believing, confessing and teaching—are symbiotically intertwined and therefore cannot always be neatly separated. Nevertheless, to understand the Orthodox view of creeds and confessions, it is necessary to understand that doctrine does not form creeds but springs from them; and therefore the primary purpose of creeds or confessions of faith is to articulate doxologically what is believed, rather than to provide content for instruction; and that while creeds or confessions of faith are norms and boundaries for what is taught, that is not their primary role. The primary role of creeds and confessions of faith—and their rightful home—is not the classroom, but the liturgy.

21 September 2007

An Apologia for the Colloquium

David Schütz, a former Australian Lutheran pastor, now Roman Catholic layman, good-naturedly raises an issue with which I wrestled before agreeing to participate in "Faith of Our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans." He asks if the conference was proselytizing. No doubt others might see it as an attempt at "sheep-stealing." The conclusion I reached was based on the common understanding of proselytizing, which understands "proselytize" to mean actively recruiting persons away from their self-stated faith or religion in order to join yours. Sometimes, but not always, a note of deception or fraud is attached to the word "proselytize." Often it carries a negative connotation.

But is it proselytising when you offer to explain yourself to those who have admitted confusion based on mischaracterizations and caricatures of your position? That was the stated purpose of both the Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans and the Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Anglicans.

Is it proselytising when you invite to your place whoever might wish to hear such an explanation? For that is what happened. The colloquium was not held a "hostile take over" of a Lutheran or neutral territory. Neither were bait and switch tactics used to invite those who came or those who will listen to the audio on Ancient Faith Radio.

Is it proselytising when, for the sake of clarity, you offer to explain yourself addressing specific issues over which one group stumbles, employing those who are most familiar with the invited group's issues and language? Archbishop Nathaniel forthrightly explained at the beginning of each colloquium (here and here) that the colloquiums were offered not to lure but to explain because (a) Orthodoxy in America is not well known and (b) Orthodox theology is often explained with categories unknown to Orthodoxy. Realizing that an explanation of Orthodox theology will raise different questions and issues depending on the background of those listening, His Eminence further stated that the colloquiums were an attempt to anticipate the issues and questions by different groups. And who better to anticipate such issues and questions but those who have had a foot in both places?

Concerning this latter point, I well recall when I was merely interested in Orthodoxy having to wade through defenses or criticisms of infant baptism or "rote prayers" or certain liturgical ceremonies which have never been at issue in Lutheranism. That is still the case today. The majority of books by Orthodox and non-Orthodox which present or critique Orthodoxy do not share the assumptions that most Lutherans--and especially confessional Lutherans--share. Why not then cut to the heart of the issues which Lutheranism raises against Orthodoxy while using a theological language familiar to Lutherans? Would such an attempt be proselytizing? Or would it rather be an attempt at true respect; an attempt to take seriously the issues and questions raised by Lutherans?

Finally, our American mentality, and the current modus operendi of ecumenical relations, might have several persons suggest--in fact, insist--that such a colloquium is "unfair" because it was not a dialogue, a free exchange of ideas by differing parties. In other words, what some might want was not a presentation of Orthodoxy but a debate on Orthodoxy. However, then the ears are not tuned to listen carefully to what one is saying, but rather to see who can score points and win. (Regrettably, that is the modern mode of debate.) Furthermore, the caricatures and mischaracterizations would most likely continue. Hence, the organizers determined that the best thing was to let the Orthodox presenters speak; and let the people who attended, of their own free will, as well as those who freely listen online, judge for themselves on the basis of what Orthodox representatives say about Orthodoxy.

19 September 2007

On Orthodoxy for Lutherans

As announced here some weeks ago, St. Andrew House - Center for Orthodox Christian Studies hosted a conference entitled Faith of Our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans. Audio files on all eight presentations are now available at Ancient Faith Radio. Also available are audio files of a previous conference on Orthodoxy for Anglicans.

I was honored to be one of the presenters. My presentation was "Creeds & Confessions in Orthodoxy." The manuscript for my presentation is available here.

16 September 2007

Humility - The Way of Life

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Following the lectionary for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Pentecost XVI.

Humility is the way of life for those who hope to be saved. Those who wish to navigate safely through the temptations, heartaches, stresses, hardships, sorrows and evils of this world must set aside pride, ambition, selfish desires, and their own agendas. They must not think of what most conveniences them, nor manipulate for their own benefit persons or events. Neither must they make ultimatums about when or how they will help another or apologize or be kind. These are all acts of pride—and so they are acts of self-destruction that drive us away from our heavenly goal.

Humility is not second nature to us. And so we must study the lives of the saints to learn from them the ways of humility. And we must continually ask the saints, and especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, to intercede for us so that we do not lose our way, so that we do not take the often traveled road of pride, but remain steadfast and ever-improving in the narrow way of humility. We must pray that we can learn from their example. We must pray that we may be supported, encouraged, and cheered on by their prayers. But above all, we must ask the saints—and especially the Blessed Virgin Mary—to help us always remember that while the Lord scatters the proud in the conceit of their heart and puts down the haughty, He exalts the humble and lifts up the lowly. In no other person is this lifting up of the humble more evident than in the holy Theotokos.

The Holy Apostle Peter tells us why we should be humble; why humility is the way of salvation. True humility is rooted in the firm faith that our Lord God is merciful. Listen to what St Peter says: God resisteth the proud, but to the humble he giveth grace. Be you humbled therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in the time of visitation: Casting all your care upon him, for he hath care of you. Keep in mind these words from the Holy Apostle. The humble man knows that the Lord cares for him. The humble man knows that the Lord’s mercy provides all things. And so the humble man pushes down his arrogance, his feelings of pride and his desire to get ahead or get even because the humble man constantly keeps before his mind’s eye where he fits in relation to God and in relation to all men.

That true humility--that humility that serves whomever we meet, especially those closest to us; that humility that sees in each spouse and child, in each relative and friend, in each coworker and stranger, someone who is better, most deserving and more worthy than we are—that humility is evident in the lives of the saints because they have within themselves the Spirit of Christ; and they do not wish to lose His Spirit, and so live with all their strength the mind of Christ. And what is the mind of Christ? Disregarding all that He is—that He is the God who ought to be obeyed and who can easily enforce His might—disregarding what He rightly deserves, Our Blessed Lord took the form of a servant and humbled Himself becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. And because of this humility, God the Father exalted him, and has given him a name which is above all names.

This unselfish sacrifice on the cross; this free act of setting aside all He was for the sake of another; this willingness not to demand His due, not to insist on being served but to serve and give His life a ransom for many—this humility is the mind of Christ. By the Holy Spirit in baptism and chrismation, you have received this mind of Christ, the spirit of true humility. Our Lord Jesus, then, urges you in today’s Gospel not to live proudly and arrogantly, but to live humbly with God and all men. For this is what the Lord requires of you: to be just, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6.8)

This humility begins simply, in the commonest and simplest of all places—at the table. Whether the table is in your home, the home of another or at a restaurant, true humility is shown not when you elbow your way to the seat you prefer, and not when you insist that this is your chair or that you require special accommodations. True humility is shown when you wait for others, when you are the first to tend to the needs of others and when your hunger takes second place to making sure that others have what they want. In this simple way, at the table, you are not practicing good manners so much as you are practicing the way of salvation. For the way of salvation is the way Our Lord blazed—the way of serving rather than being served. And the way of salvation is the way modeled by the Holy Theotokos—the way of humbly and obediently receiving whatever the Lord gives without complaint, without modification, without concern for her own well-being. For in her, above all mortal men, we see the truth of Our Lord’s axiom: Every one that exalts himself, shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself, shall be exalted. Truly she is exalted and all generations call her blessed, because truly she humbled herself under the loving hand of God.

03 September 2007

Website Update

The website of Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church has recently been updated. The site has a slightly new look, and several pages (most notably the "Liturgy" page) have been rewritten.

Significant additions include
  • A new page which provides the Service Booklets for Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church
  • A table for the dates of Easter and Lent according to Byzantine calculations
  • A link to the online booklet that will be used for Church School for adults beginning this Sunday
If you haven’t visited the website in a while, please take a look and let us know what you think. And check back from time to time. Other changes will be appearing—including photographs—in the coming weeks.

02 September 2007

Principle Issues: The "One" Book (or "How to Become Orthodox")

For more than 20 years I was interested in Orthodoxy. During this time I read many books about Orthodoxy. I also read critiques of Orthodoxy, and I read the Fathers of the church. Like many others, during these two decades I was thinking that one book--or the "right" series of books--would convince me either to accept or reject Orthodoxy.

You see, there is this temptation to believe that one can read his way into (or out of) Orthodoxy. In fact, that temptation persists not just concerning Orthodoxy but concerning most religions, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. The thought is that, when we're searching, we'll stumble along the right book, the right set of words or the right argument that will make everything click. It's not unlike trying to conjure a vision so that you might believe. But vision conjuring is putting God to the test. And reading yourself into Orthodoxy is forcing the Church to be an academic endeavor when, in fact, she is body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints and faithful.

If one pursues the course of reading one's way into the Church, then one may end up very knowledgeable about Orthodox teachings, but not yet understanding the Church or her life; and so not yet Orthodox. It's rather like reading one's way into a family or believing that taking a class in "being a good sister or faithful husband" will actually achieve that end.

Let me suggest, then, that the better way is to understand the purpose of books and teaching as these relate to the Christian faith and life. Books, catechesis and instruction exist not to impart a body of knowledge so that one might become convinced or perusaded about the correctness of a belief. Rather, books, catechesis and instruction are provided to help explain what one has already experienced in the body of Christ. The liturgy is, most chiefly and commonly, this experience of the Church. So books, catechesis and instruction in the faith exist to explain the what, the how and the why of the catholic and godly living that is the liturgy. Or, put more simply, one ought to attend regularly an Orthodox worship service (Byzantine or Western rite) and allow various Orthodox books (like those by the good Bishop) to explain why the Church worships as she does.

So when asked "What one book [or author; or series of books] influenced you to become Orthodox," I increasingly give this answer: "The Liturgy. When I began praying the hours and celebrating Mass without editing the prayers, without trying to 'Lutheranize' them; when I took them at face value and prayed them as they were given, then I began to understand the catholic faith--which, in turn, led me to embrace Orthodoxy as the one true Church."

Incidentally, my decision to pray the Western liturgy without emendation was coupled by my decision to read the Fathers the same way. So when I began to read the Fathers the same way--not forcing them to speak 'Lutheran' but embracing them (foibles and all) in their own context--then I began to see that the inadequacy of the interpretations I had preached, the teachings I had taught, and the phrases I had learned and used. And, at the same time, I began to understand more clearly not only how the Church spoke and what she meant, but even more importantly how the Fathers truly intersected with the liturgy.

Admittedly, this took a while. But not nearly as long as the 20 years of "interest."

Seek the Lord's Bread

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Following the lectionary for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Pentecost XIV.

St Cyprian instructs us that when we pray for daily bread, we are asking first and foremost for Christ, who is the bread of life and “the bread of those who are in union with His body.” And so with this petition we are asking Our Father to restore to us the daily reception of the Eucharist “that we who are in Christ [may] daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation; [and that we] may not, by the interposition of some heinous sin…be separated from Christ’s body.” For our life—all that we are and all that we have and all that we need—flows from and depends upon this altar bread, this bread of heaven, this bread which is our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. So by beseeching God to give us our daily bread, we are really stating that we have renounced all other breads—the bread of this world, the bread that men work to get—since these breads do not truly satisfy and are incapable of leading us in the way of salvation. So with this prayer, we are stating that we have renounced the world, with all its riches and enticements; and that we will live from only this one bread, one food—which is Christ Our Lord.

When that is our prayer—when we mean to say, “Give us each day Our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist; feed us daily with the Bread of Life; grant that we may commune in heart and mind, in body and soul, with this true Manna; and let us always partake of the chalice”—when that is our prayer, then we shall begin to do as Our Lord prescribes in today’s Gospel. For what did you hear Him say? Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Is not this altar where the kingdom of God is for you at this time? Is not this place where the Lord’s kingdom comes and where it is set before you? And is it not the Lord’s will that all creatures, in heaven and earth, gather around His holy altar to offer themselves and the world in thanksgiving to God? To seek God’s kingdom, then, is to seek to be here, at this Mass, standing before the Lord’s altar, where you may, with a true heart, receive the living bread which comes down from heaven. For you know what your Lord has said. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Let your soul long, then, and even faint for the courts of the Lord. Let your heart and your flesh cry out for the living God (Ps 83[84]). For even the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts. Perhaps this is why these fowls of the air sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. For your heavenly Father feedeth them. He gives them their daily bread; and their daily bread depends on and even is Christ, who is the life of all the living. Certainly, you are of more value than sparrows. For not one of them is forgotten before God; yet the very hairs of your head He has numbered. So do not be anxious. Do not fret. Do not be afraid. Do not worry. And take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. … [T]he life [is] more than meat, and the body than clothing.