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Orthodox White Nationalism at the Charlottesville Protests

I wanted to ask my friend if she happened to see any Orthodox clergy standing with her, but I think I already know the answer. 

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Courtesy Jill Harms Photography

A friend of mine recently moved to Charlottesville. She was at the protests over the weekend, or I guess you would say she was a counter-protester. (I am hesitant to say “counter,” though, because it implies that the white nationalists had anything worth protesting.) A photo of her came across my timeline, posted by Jill Harms Photography. When Brandy (my friend) commented on this photo, she explained that they had just faced down a group of club-wielding white nationalists who were trying to access Emancipation Park, and they were steeling themselves for a second confrontation.

Continue reading “Orthodox White Nationalism at the Charlottesville Protests”

Lord, Bless These Store-Bought Grapes

Today is the feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. Jesus hiked up Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John, and was transfigured before them so that he shone with the uncreated light of the Most Holy Trinity. Transfiguration comes near harvest time, and so a tradition has been established to bless grapes and sometimes other fruits and vegetables. There is a deep symbolism here. Grapes take their flavor from their environment—the soil and the rains where they are grown. The ripened grape is a transfiguration of the earth. The grape itself is transfigured into the Eucharist, when fruit of the vine becomes the blood of our Savior.

Yet much of this symbolism is lost in our society. The grapes my priest blessed this morning came from a store. There is a connection to the people when grapes are brought in from local growers. “This is ours.” In a way, “This is us.” “We offer the fruits of our labors to God.” But what is the fruit of our labor when we buy a bag of grapes from the grocery? Self checkout?

We no longer live in an agrarian society. While traditions should not be changed just because the times change (some changes are not good), the traditions of the church have changed with the times. (After all, every tradition started as something novel.) It is only as the once mighty institution of the Orthodox Church has found itself increasingly operating at the margins of relevance that anxiety has fostered in many an allergy to any change whatsoever.

transfigurationFundamentalism is a response to a threat. There is a story from Vedic times in ancient India that illustrates this truth. A man asked a priest if it was acceptable to eat beef. The priest replied, “Only if it is tender.”  The cow was a revered symbol of Hinduism in ancient times. It only became a sacred cow when the region was conquered by invading Muslim armies. (It is also at this time that the caste system became more rigid.) Threats create anxiety, and anxiety leads to the petrification of what were once more fluid cultural identifiers. As another example, in the Orthodox Church today, icons tend to look somewhat “medieval,” even if they were painted only recently. Ironically, one can find older icons that look more like the paintings of their times. The famous theologian and iconographer Leonid Ouspensky called such icons aberrations, but they were, in fact, the progression of holy art, which were arrested by anxieties about modernity. (Ouspensky also said there was no innovation in iconography, which is clearly and demonstrably false.)

But back to grapes. In some parishes, other fruits and vegetables are blessed along with grapes. This might be something that should be universally adopted, but only under the condition that the things one brings in to be blessed come from one’s own garden. This may help to re-establish the link between our labor, the earth, and our community, a link that tends to get lost in the markets of global capitalism. Thus I am proposing a kind of “lite” innovation that helps to strengthen what was intended in the blessing of the grapes itself.

Our liturgies are agrarian in context, and some aspects of agrarianism are important components of Christian identity and spiritual formation. Our connection to the earth was established in our original vocation in the Garden of Eden. We are “tillers” and “tenders” of the earth. When we dig in the soil with our own hands, we become more of the caretakers that we were in the beginning. Furthermore, we become better caretakers of the planet, which God intends us to be, rather than its abusers, which we more often are.

Buying from the store is a part of everyday life, but maybe it is not a part that should be blessed, at least not in its current form. God only knows where the grapes that were blessed this morning came from. God only knows if the calloused hands that harvested them belonged to a child who should otherwise have been in school. If nothing else, working with our own hands helps us to think about such things when we do shop at the store, and maybe it can help us to shop more responsibly—to shop more like Christians.

Global capitalism disconnects us from the earth and from each other. My children do not like to eat chicken roasted in the oven. They prefer their chicken boneless, skinless, and in a frozen plastic bag. They do not like to be reminded that what they eat was once alive. But perhaps they should be reminded of that as much as possible. Maybe if we reminded ourselves that we were eating things that once lived and scratched and pecked at the earth, we would take greater care when we do eat. Perhaps we would eat more like we would have in the harmony of Eden (minus the dead bird, of course). Such eating would bring us a little bit closer to the New Heaven and the New Earth of the Kingdom of God.

I have nothing against a global market, per se. “The market” is just a system for the distribution of resources. Trade across borders can be a good thing. In can enrich the lives of the exporters as well as those who purchase the goods. (I mean, olive oil!). But our global markets today have become omnipresent and omnipotent systems, justifying their dominance by nothing more than the tautological insistence that they must exist as they are. Global trade today often comes at the expense of local cultures and local flavors. Something holy is lost in this. The once innumerable varieties of seeds, adapted over generations to flourish in their local environments, form a polyphonous song of praise to the Creator God’s infinite glory. Now, field after field of Roundup Ready soybeans chant to scientific ingenuity in cold and lifeless monotone.

So I think we could stand to be a bit more deliberate in thinking about how the Feast of Transfiguration ties into the transfiguration of the earth in the harvest, and we need to be more deliberate in strengthening those ties. Or to put it differently, we should pay more attention to the ways modern life has severed so many of our once taken-for-granted ties to the church in the rhythms of daily life and the yearly agricultural cycle.

This has got me thinking that I need to recover the garden I once kept, to clear away the weeds, till the soil, and plan for the next growing season. My children need to learn, and in more than just a conceptual and abstract way, that food comes from the earth and sky and rains God has given us; they need to learn how food is transfigured by the power of God, joined to their own labor, into nourishment and life.

In light of the above, we might add another layer of meaning to the already packed symbolism of the blessing of grapes described in the first paragraph. If at the Feast of Transfiguration, we would bring the fruits and vegetables from our own backyard harvests, we might begin, in a small way, to transfigure the dominance of the global market itself, to make it more like the God who loves us and who died on a cross to save us from our own wayward arrogance and pride. In this way, our buying and selling might become more human, more humane, and more holy.

 

Inclusive Language in the Liturgy

Public Orthodoxy is making waves again, this time by daring to talk about…women.

Actually they aren’t even talking about women. They’re talking about Greek. The GOA (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) made it about women when they opted to approve a revision of the creed from “for us and for our salvation” to “for us men and for our salvation.” The problem with this revision, the authors (Aristotle Papanikolaou and John Fotopoulos) is that it makes gender exclusive language that was originally gender inclusive. Greek, like many other languages, has gendered nouns. Anthropos is a masculine noun. But that does not mean that anthropos is male anymore than German a German girl is an “it” (das Mädchen is a neuter noun). Anthropos refers to humanity in general. Anér means “man.” Continue reading “Inclusive Language in the Liturgy”

Academe Needs More VSA

 

As some of you know, my money-making job is basically something like an assistant to the academic dean at a summer boarding school for gifted high schoolers. It’s called Vanderbilt Summer Academy. In short, in the fall I recruit a diverse crew of academics to geek out about their respectively disciplines for a few weeks; in the spring I help them turn that geeking-out into a syllabus; and in the summer I do observations, feedback, and general support. It is about 18 months of work for about 6 weeks of magic. And the academy needs more of it.

The magic I am referring to is not the magic of learning. It is the magic of taking all those people you interviewed—engineers, theologians, writers, mathematicians—and having a few beers with them after work, or sitting with them around the lunch table, and listening to the conversations unfold. The thing about academics is that we are naturally curious people, but we spend most of our lives focusing our curiosity into a narrow set of problems or questions. There is nothing quite like watching the enthusiasm on a historian’s face as an environmental engineer talks about water polymers.

 

It is worth noting that Vanderbilt has a robust culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. Believe it or not, when you are a biologist studying antibiotic resistance, it helps to know a chemist. Even informal collaboration has a creative benefit. We all need to get outside of our own heads every once-in-a-while. During the summers, the faculty I work with have very little time to do their own research, yet they keep coming back. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them say that working with our students helps them fall in love with teaching all over again. Their students are also very creative, and so a lot of our instructors come away with new ideas for their own work. I would also like to think that those lunch and happy hour conversations have a lot to do with it. At least, they do for me.

Knowledge is its own good. It is divine. I believe this is something most academics intuit (even the atheist ones). The natural enthusiasm that comes from conversations experts have with peers from other departments and other disciplines feels a lot like worship in some ways. It is an eschatological event of sorts. The kingdom of God comes to earth…over beers.

A Letter to My Sister on Her Birthday

Dear Toni,

Or shall I call you “Joan”? Sometimes it’s both. You are 37 now. And you are four months pregnant. Dude! For the record, I have this other open letter I’ve been working on, about how I think about you and pray for you when it comes to your new status as a mom. I just cannot seem to find the words. I have been struggling with that lately—finding the words—especially the closer I feel to a person. I guess it is that the closer I feel to someone, the more I appreciate the mystery that they are. The more depths and layers I see. They become more dynamic, less two-dimensional. Hence my struggle writing something to you. You are very dynamic.

I just want to thank you for making me a better person. You may not know you have. Most of us don’t realize the difference we make in other people’s lives, for good or ill. You have made a very good difference in my life, very good indeed. Apart from the fact that I just plain admire you, over the years you have also helped me to be more compassionate. You helped me to be more patient. You have helped me to face down some demons that I would have rather ignored.

There are a number of fond memories I have of you. Two of them stand out. I remember the night we left Indy. You and Dan helped us pack. You were crying. We had just gotten closer, you said, and now we were moving away. I think that was the first time I saw you cry as a grown-up. Then I think about when you made me cry as a grownup. You sent me a text and asked me to pray about something; I think it was the first time you had asked me to do that. I understand why. When I found Jesus in Junior High, I became kind of an asshole for a while. I felt like we had gotten over something when you asked for my prayers. I did pray for you, by the way, and I still do. Often. Pretty much every day. I’ve been asking Joachim and Anna to watch over you; I have asked the Mother of God to give you wisdom. I have asked St. Nektarios to intercede for you as well. He is credited with at least one fertility miracle. He was also pretty badass, like you.

Apart from my prayers and this post, I haven’t got you a present yet. You always get me such good gifts. You are so much better with that than me. I always struggle. What do I get the girl whose interests and tastes are so beyond me? What can I get you that you need and would appreciate? (Breast pump?) I will come up with something. It will be late, but I know you are okay with that, because you’re cool like that. I want to try to get this right. (Dan, if you are reading this, help!)

For now, Happy 37th birthday! You’ve not yet reached half of your life-expectancy! Congratulations! And my God grant you many, many years!

With love from Tennessee,

David

 

By the Waters of Babylon…

“O daughter of Babylon…Happy shall he be who…takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

Some of you know I am a “Nazbeen,” a former Nazarene. The Orthodox Church is the church I fell madly in love with. I had realized long before that that if I continued to be Nazarene, I would eventually become an atheist. The problem was that the God I was told who loved me, and the God I was taught to love, was just so…inhuman.

Nazarene theology teaches that through faith it is possible to be saved by the grace of God from the effects of original sin. They call this the doctrine of the “Second Blessing” or “Entire Sanctification.” The CoN is part of the American Holiness tradition. Rather than talk about the history and theology of that movement, I will skip straight to the effects. Entire Sanctification is the belief that sainthood can be instantaneous. Indeed, it should be. What you get, then, is a lot of people trying to convince themselves that they are saints, and feeling like failures for being sinners. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it is the gist.

I believe in sainthood. Hell! I believe in Entire Sanctification! I just think it takes time. It is long. It is rare in this life. And the true mark of someone who is entirely sanctified is that they will deny being so. (By contrast, one who would become a minister in the CoN must report when they were entirely sanctified and how many people are entirely sanctified yearly through their ministry.)

This past Sunday I was back at a Nazarene Church with relatives. The sermon was good, as far as those things go. It was about how a Christian should deal with adversity. “The world is watching us,” the preacher said (quoting from memory). When pain comes into our lives, we need to turn that pain over to God so that it can become something that God will use to grow us later. (I heard a story along these lines on NPR yesterday, dealing with “Post-Traumatic Growth.“)

That’s all well and good, but it left me wondering, “What about outrage?” The preacher talked about the Psalms, and about how David would face adversity, but trust in the Lord. Naturally this made me wonder about Psalm 22, or what may be my “favorite” Psalm, Psalm 137.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
 On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
 For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

Remember, O Lord, against the E′domites
    the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Raze it, raze it!
    Down to its foundations!”
 O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall he be who requites you
    with what you have done to us!
 Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!

Why do I like this Psalm? Because it talks about killing infants? Yeah. Kind of.

Obviously, I am not in favor of infant-killing. What I am in favor of is authenticity. The desire to kill infants is about as base as you can get as a human being. To want to take the child of one’s enemies and bash its head in as vengeance for what was done to your own kin is a disgusting, shameful thought. And that is why I like its presence here. The Psalmist, who had lived through a nightmare, put his own nightmarish thoughts on paper for all the world to see, generation after generation.

This Psalm is why I am no longer Nazarene and why I worry about sermons like I heard on Sunday. Humans can be pretty vile creatures sometimes. Evil! And our evilness does not frighten God. The Psalmist does not apologize for feeling murderous. It is just the way it is. And it becomes part of his prayer. He does not pray, “Lord, I offer my murderous feelings to you.” Maybe he should. But that’s not what he does.

One thing I have learned over my inadequate years as a believer is that being Christian means being human, as human as a person can get, human to the point of sometimes saying, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” We feel like that sometimes. Maybe God will take that feeling and turn it into something better later. I do not know. God knows. What I do know, or at least I think I know, is that God cannot do anything in us without our honesty. I think that means not apologizing for the hatred. Not apologizing for the lust. The things we feel are the things we feel. We ask forgiveness for our acts, for the gaze that lingers too long, and for the hatred that becomes an unkind word or a punch to the throat (the former often being the most traumatic). We pray that God will make us holy, but our lack of holiness is not because of our lack of faith. It is because we are human.

If I believe hard enough, can God save me from the effects of original sin? I don’t know. Can God make a boulder so big that God cannot lift? It is a bit of a paradox. What I can tell you is that I cannot believe hard enough to be saved from the effects of original sin (or “ancestral sin,” as some Orthodox polemicists like to call it) because the effects of original sin are not just in me. They are around me. They are epigenetic. The effects of original sin are everywhere. I cannot cut myself off from them. I am a porous human being. We all are.

What I can do is be sinful before God. I can be honest. In my personal experience, Holiness Theology tends to breed people who “make excuses in sin” (Psalm 141:4). That won’t get us anywhere. So to the preacher who gave the sermon last Sunday, I must respectfully disagree. Or at least, I must qualify. It is true that God can transform our pain into something beautiful, just as God transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord, but my pain must be fully and freely offered. It must be laid bare before God. I am not sure that asking God to change our pain has much effect. That has not been my experience, anyway, because when I ask God to transform my pain, I tend to hold on to part of that pain for myself. I hold part of it back because I feel like there is something wrong with it. Surely, if I were a holier person, I would not feel this way in the first place, right? But if the Psalms teach us anything, it is that we must be honest before God, even—or especially!—about our pain. “God! I am so pissed off at you right now!” “God, I wanna punch that sonnabitch in the throat!” Now those are prayers I can get behind!

Death, and Beer and Cigarettes: A Story About the Church

A Facebook friend, Gregory Tillett, posted a story that I wanted to share. The following words are his and are posted with his permission. –David


I admit that I have a distinctly perverted sense of humour, but I was challenged to suppress it recently when I had to choose between hysterical laughter, or vomiting, or flying into a rage.

The young man was dying. He was connected to an array of medical devices, and being given every possible treatment (contrary to his very clear and explicit instructions) that might keep him barely alive for as long as possible.

His family, who clearly believed that his impending death was nothing to do with him, but entirely a matter for them, had finally resolved a massive conflict by bringing together a “non-denominational grief minister” who also described herself as a “death midwife” (his mother’s choice) and an Orthodox Priest (his father’s choice). Oh, and me! I was the choice of the young man’s girlfriend (expressed to her by him). Her role was, of course, problematic. They had been living together (“in sin”?) for four years or more, but were not married. So, as the young man’s parents repeatedly declared, she had no “rights”. Alas, he had also never prepared a Will or any enduring Powers of Attorney, so, legally, she was something of a “stranger”.

The “death midwife” rambled on about nothing in particular. The Orthodox Priest, in obviously grave discomfort and very much out of his depth, recited set prayers and talked about the serious dangers of dying without confession and absolution, and the probable risks of hell-fire and damnation. Someone, finally, suggested that I might offer a prayer, which I did, noting that the young man seemed to be smiling at me as I did so.

Thus the anticipatory mourners departed. While I was waiting for the others to depart, the girlfriend asked me if I would go back into the young man’s room.

As I bent over to listen to him, he said: “Do I have put up with all this crap?” It took me a while to understand what he was saying. When I assured him that he didn’t have to “put up with anything”, he said: “You know, the only thing that I really want is to have a beer and a cigarette with [he named his girlfriend] in the fresh air.” He seemed gratefully amused when I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do”, I said.

I found the oldest female nurse I could. Long experience has taught me that older women are almost always more sympathetic and more pastorally practical than men. I told her what the young man wanted. She remained completely silent. I asked her: “Would a beer and a cigarette in the fresh air make any difference to his condition?” Her expression did not change. “Wait here,” she said. It was not a request. She returned in a few minutes with a young doctor who turned out to be an oncologist, and, silently, ushered us both into an empty room and closed the door. She had obviously told the young doctor about my question. He assured me that the young man was close to death, and neither beer nor cigarettes, nor fresh air, could have the slightest effect on that. “But,” said the nurse (showing not the slightest emotion), “it would be completely against the rules and the law for alcohol or cigarettes to be brought into the hospital, let alone consumed here.”

I knew instinctively that I had to remain silent. She thanked the doctor and, giving me a knowing smile, he departed. “Perhaps,” the nurse said, “Mr X might like to sit for a brief time on the balcony where he could see the outside world and smell the fresh air. That can probably be arranged in, say, half an hour….in case there’s anything you need to do in the meanwhile.” She departed.

The girlfriend offered to “go shopping”, but obviously did not want to leave her partner. I suspect that the man in the nearby bottle shop was not accustomed to selling beer, cigarettes and a lighter to men in Priest’s robes, but he managed to be completely professional, even to asking: “Would you prefer a bag without our logo on it?”

Two older wardsmen appeared, and gently moved the young man in his bed out onto the balcony, supervised by the nurse. “You will obviously need privacy, Father” she said. “I’ll place a notice on the door so that no-one will come in without consulting me first.” She left.

The sun was shining, the air was fresh – well, a little polluted by cigarette smoke and the slight fragrance of beer. The young couple held hands, drank what was to be their last beer together, and smoked their last cigarette. I went back inside the room to leave them alone.

The nurse reappeared. “Have you finished hearing his Confession, Father?” she asked quite loudly, presumably for the benefit of any staff outside the room. The wardsmen returned and the room was returned to its normal order. As I was leaving, the young woman handed me the bag (with no logo) containing a few cans of beer and the pack of cigarettes. “You keep it,” I said. She looked at me with tears in her eyes: “For later, when….” she said. I bent down to say goodbye to the young man, and to bless him. It took me some time to understand what he was saying. “You do……pretty…cool….last rites…Father.” He smiled. And so did I.

Going down in the elevator, two young nurses were talking, obviously about the older nurse who had assisted me. “Hard-faced bitch,” one said. “Yeah,” said the other, “you couldn’t expect human feeling from her.” I smiled again. The older nurse not only did not practice her righteousness in front of others to be seen by them [Matthew 6:1], but carefully concealed it by giving the appearance of being hard-hearted. When, on another day, I attempted to thank her for her kindness, she seemed positively indignant: “I was only doing my job, Father.” A “job”, of course, which she did not define by the bureaucratic rules of the hospital, and which was largely possible because of the image of a tyrant she projected.

The young man died early the following morning.

I often have occasion to give thanks for the “parish” I have been given. My parishioners are those who have been thrown out of, forced out of, alienated from, relegated to second-class status in, or made to feel unwelcome in any conventional parish. They’re the people who may need “really cool Last Rites” involving beer and cigarettes, fresh air and sunshine, and the comforting hand of someone they love but with whom they are not in a “legitimate” relationship.


That right there— That is what it should mean to be the church. We are a people of second-class status, alienated and sinful, unwelcome, but made into a family—the body of Christ—to bring a little life into those spaces where death continues to reign, even if only for a few moments. –David