Facing Forgiveness

It is forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church. This is how we begin Great Lent. I missed Forgiveness Vespers because of car problems. I could offer a blanket, “Please forgive me.” There is nothing wrong with that. Still, there is something about looking into the eyes of the person you may or may not have wronged, of asking forgiveness for wrongs you may not know you have committed. Forgiveness Sunday reminds me of Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. Each of us needs to see ourselves as responsible for all the wrongs done to all people, and thus infinitely obligated to make things right. Forgiveness is not easy. It should not be easy. It is about facing the fact that in what we have done, and perhaps most in what we have failed to do, we have broken the world, and we are obligated to make things right.

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Why I Hate Lents

Eastern and Western Christian traditions have different ways of calculating the date of Easter, or as we Orthodox call it (because we like to be exotic and stuff), “Pascha.” Do not ask me to explain what those different ways of calculating Easter are or why they are different. You have Google for that. All I want to say in this short post is that they need to stop being different. I mean, come on, folks! This is dumb!

My Catholic and Protestant sisters and brothers begin their journey to Emmaus today, with Ash Wednesday. In the Orthodox Church we begin Great Lent with Forgiveness Sunday, a different ceremony in which all members of a parish ask forgiveness from each other. (This is the part where pedantic Orthodox readers say, “Well, actually Great Lent begins on Clean Monday when…”). This year, that happens on March 13. March 13! That is two weeks shy of when “the West” celebrates Easter.

I have heard recent rumors about fixing a common date for Easter. Then again, I heard similar rumors a decade ago. This is something various parties keep talking about, but I honestly remain a bit pessimistic about any positive developments on this front. It could be that I am just generally more pessimistic these days (thanks Obama!), but I think there are some good reasons for my pessimism. For one, even if we were to fix the date of Easter, I doubt all Christians would still celebrate at the same time. There will be some fundamentalist groups out there who refuse to acknowledge whatever decision the leaders of “false” churches (i.e. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) reach.

But more to the point there are powerful fundamentalist forces within Orthodoxy that would see any kind of compromise with the West as heresy in the extreme. They would talk about how the calculations for the date of Easter were fixed at Nicea. It would not be a valid argument in this case, but it would sure as hell confuse a lot of people. Savvier fundamentalist Orthodox will resist any compromise by waxing ecumenical (never-you-mind that most of them hate ecumenism as well). They will say that we have bigger things to worry about, like the filioque, papal authority, and beards.

I hear that! I agree with it! Truly! The Council of Toledo’s well-intended but heretical decision to change the language of the Creed is arguably a much bigger fish. Or at least it seems that way. On the other hand…maybe it isn’t.

We Eastern and Western Christians have a lot of things to work out if we are ever to be reunited. But this is the most important feast of the church. How are we going to be able to gather around the table, so to speak, to talk through any of our differences if we are all coming to the table at different times?

I may be pessimistic, but mostly I am pessimistic about my people. I mean, we cannot even agree with each other about when to celebrate Christmas. We Orthodox sure do love our infighting. (Case in point: check out the hubbub over the Great and Holy Council which may or may not happen this summer.) There is still the possibility that Pope Francis may say, “Okay you crazy Orthodox kids. Have it your way. We’ll do Easter when you do.” Decisions in the Roman Catholic Church are not quite as easy as that. The pope is not, practically speaking, a dictator. His word is not exactly law. But the greater centralized authority exercised within the Roman Catholic Church, as well as a generally more positive attitude toward ecumenism, make it much more likely that the West will meet us where we are than the other way around.

Seriously guys!
Seriously guys!

Frankly, if that were to happen, it would be a shame. I mean that literally. If the bishop of Rome (dammit!) were to shrug his shoulders and say, “Whatevs. Let’s do it your way,” then we Orthodox should be ashamed of ourselves. It would mean that we have become ridiculously intractable. Stubborn. Thick-necked and hard-hearted. If Pope Francis (Patriarch of the West) were to take that kind of unilateral action, it would be a great argument in favor of the Roman Catholic Church. I do not mean that in terms of doctrine or liturgy. I mean in terms of charity. In general, this pope seems a lot more willing to try to work out the differences between East and West, whereas, in light of all the bickering and posturing in advance of the Great and Holy Council, we Orthodox Christians seem barely interested in working out our differences with each other.

So, Western Christians, I wish you a blessed Fast! See you next month!

The NRA is a Terrorist Organization

I am sitting in the Nashville airport, about to head out to a conference, and trying to bring myself to take some time to educate myself about the details of these latest domestic terror attacks. I seem unable to do it. I know I want to. I know I should. But all I can think about right now is Sandy Hook. 

The images in my mind of children terrified and dying as yet another deranged gunman tore through the lives of the innocent haunt me every time another one of these shootings happen. I thought then, “Well maybe this time we will finally do it. We will pass laws that we know work. That we know save lives.” 

And we didn’t. 

That is what I find so hard about these latest rounds of mass shootings. We know we can stop them. At least in theory. But in practice, our democracy is almost totally dead. How else could a powerful lobbying organization sponsor of domestic terror overwhelm the will of the majority of Americans?

I don’t have something profound to say. I just have a hard time when I feel helpless. Maybe I can think of some kind of response — something to say — that amounts to more than, “Can we pass laws this time?” If we couldn’t do it with Sandy Hook, we just cannot do it. Maybe instead of focusing on the laws we need to pass, we need to turn our outrage against the NRA that keeps them from passing. Its ideology is no less radical, no less inflexible, and no less dangerous than ISIS/Daesh.

Visiting my “Home” Church on Thanksgiving

I am typing this quickly on a mobile device. I apologize in advance for ant typos.

I may have told this story before. If I have, please forgive me if it bores you. But some stories bear retelling, even if they are boring. I am about to go to my home church, it is Thanksgiving, and I am feeling contemplative.

My home church is not the one I attend in the South. It is the one that truly started me on the path to Orthodoxy. In a way, though I was not chrismated there, it is the one that made me Orthodox. (I wish I could say the name of the church here, in my hometown, where I am actually from, but experience has taught me that trolls, when they know who has ministered to me, will make the lives of those people more difficult, which is not to complain, only to explain my relative silence.)

Two statements stick out in my mind that were said early to me when I visited this church. The first morning, my wife and I carried in my daughter, wrapped up to keep her warm, sucking on her passifier in her carseat, and old man met us as we came into the church. As many older people are wont to do, took a moment to admire our little girl. Then he looked up at me and my wife and said, with a smile on her face, “Now, you’ll want to keep her away from me, because I’ll teach her to say, ‘Bullshit!'”

My wife and I are converts from a fairly legalistic tradition. So my wife was shocked, even scandalized, to hear an otherwise saintly looking old man curse in front of an infant inside of a church. Personally, I was overjoyed! God knew I needed to hear a little scandal, you might say. I think it was God’s way of telling me that this was not going to be the kind of place that strained at gnats but swallowed camels.

The second statement came maybe on our third visit. An older lady met us in the narthex, handed us a bulletin, asked us who we were, and said, “Well, it’s nice to finally see some white people around here!” Of course, we were not the only white people, but it was a fairly “ethnic” church, and that little joke, a little bit of ribbing toward us, and a little self-deprecating about the community, was yet another reminder that this was a church that did not take itself too seriously.

That is not to say that they did not take their faith seriously. They did! Very! I have yet to see a place where the little old ladies could cross themselves as fast whenever they heard the name of the Trinity. And they did it three times, not just once, usually finishing somewhere around the “P” of “Spirit!” The difference is that, for them, faith was less about the trappings. Don’t get me wrong! I love the trappings of Orthodoxy, but the trappings are pretty diverse. One of the challenges of the church I attend in the South now is that it is mostly made up of converts, and converts tend to get very concerned about getting the trappings “right.” (Yes, I get the irony of what I, as a convert, just said.)

One example is a sign somebody put up in the narthex of my current parish. “This is a holy place! Please keep silent!” Maybe the exclamaition points are not there in real life. I am not certain. But that is what it feels like sometimes, “Hey, you! Do this right!” Of course, I do not care for too much talking and joking in the narthex. The sign is right. But sometimes I just want to say, “Lighten up!” Sometimes, I pretend it says, “Bullshit!”

A friend once called it “Orthodox compulsive disorder.” It is a tendency to get very, very pharisaical about things. And though such people are relatively common in Orthodoxy, they are not very true to the spirit of Orthodoxy. (I am also not quite sure how common they  are; I meet a lot of Orthodox Pharisees on the interwebs.) My experience is relatively limited, mind you, but there is a certain kind of carelessness and improvisation to the way I have seen my sisters and brothers who are “cradle” Orthodox attend to the trappings. They are reverent. They are devoted. They are serious. But sometimes, they are doing it “wrong,” at least as far as a person suffering from Othodox Compulsive Disorder might say. Sometimes they talk a little too much in the nave. Sometimes they say, “Bullshit!” in the narthex.

I am not saying I want to be evangelical again. Puh-lease! There is a propriety and reverence to the liturgical orchestra (by which I mean the people, not an actual orchestra) that truly makes the Orthodox Church feel like nothing else. I guess the difference really is the improvisation. It is the “errors.” The church I attend now tends to have people who are very concerned about getting every step in the dance just right. The dance looks technically perfect at times, but also very rigid, lifeless. The dance of the cradle churches I have attended are less perfect, but the little missteps, improvisation, and even moments of ignorance about how things are “supposed” to be done makes it all the more beautiful, because it makes it all the  more human. We are Christians. Not robots. The Orthodox Church has always been like that, a little wide, a little fluid. That is what Christianity is. Difference is a part of who we are. We are not all the same. We read the same notes, but we never play the same tune. In a manner of speaking, I guess you could say that my home church reminds me that the  more we care about getting Orthodoxy exactly right, the less Orthodox we actually become.

Thoughts About Prayer and Christian Politics

Perhaps my greatest struggle as an Orthodoxy Christian, indeed as a Christian in general, is the role of the church in politics. I have been thinking about this a lot in the wake of the refugee crisis and the Daesh attacks on Paris. Part of me wishes my church had a more cohesive response to these poignant issues. Yet another part of me is glad it does not.

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