What did Jesus do?

For all of my Christian life, which is to say everything except for college and a few years after that, I limited my church involvement to within parish activities. Things like financial support, reading, teaching and the like. I thought at the time, and still think, that such things are important. There are a lot of jobs that need to get done (many that get almost no recognition) to help the Church get its job done. St. Paul speaks of the necessity of all of the parts of the body working together, with none being esteemed above the others.

In St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, he also tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. Of course, this passage spawned the somewhat notorious “What Would Jesus Do” fad. Regardless of how annoying the fad was, we do need to ask, at least, what did Jesus do? Probably the second most important “event” in history is the Incarnation. Jesus taking on human nature so that he could ultimately heal that nature and restore us to the state we should be in. He became one of us, interacted directly with us, communed with us. And not just “us” as in, the believers, but he interacted with everybody.

If we take that rather simplistic view of the Incarnation as a starting point, then it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that perhaps we should consider getting more directly involved with people beyond the comfort of our parish. Of course, the New Testament is filled with just such commands and examples, and the Church has carried this tradition on throughout the ages. Feed the hungry, give to the poor, visit those in prison, the sick, etc. I’ve long supported such ministries financially, and indirectly by teaching about them when I was responsible for teaching. I assumed that supporting such efforts was, more or less, the same as directly doing those things. As far as the objective outcome of caring for those needs, it probably is the same. However, I was missing one key component, one I should have clued in to since becoming Orthodox. Perhaps there is some even greater benefit that would come from getting directly involved.

The Fathers of the Church teach us that the degree to which we are truly human is dictated by the degree to which we relate to God. The closer the relationship, the more human we are. How, then, do we develop a deeper relationship with God? Clearly the first answer is by prayer. In Orthodoxy, the hesychast tradition has, at its root, a pursuit of St. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.” We see this lived out by the great Saints of the Church, many of which were monastics. Monastics, however, are known for something else, even if that may not be the intent of anyone seeking out the monastic life. All monasteries, for the most part (I don’t know of any exceptions) routinely host large numbers of pilgrims, generally providing food, a place to stay, and spiritual guidance, meanwhile asking nothing in return.

The act of caring for others, of course, is commanded by our Lord, as mentioned above. The question is why? The incarnation gives us a clue, as do the words of our Lord when he was describing the last judgement. It is because when we take care of the poor, we are, in fact, deepening our relationship with Christ. This is not merely in a manner of speaking, but it is real. It is tangible.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in ministry outside of the Church, to people who are not necessarily members of any Church, let alone ours. FOCUS North America has launched a program in San Diego to work with a local Rescue Mission to provide dinner to homeless in the downtown part of San Diego. Every Wednesday, groups of Orthodox, representing various parishes in the area, cook a meal, serve it to about 100 people, clean up and head on home. We get the opportunity to talk with and eat with these people who live on the streets of downtown San Diego. Young and old, single, and yes, even families (which is, I have to say, more heartbreaking than anything else we run into).

The feeling that I get by participating in this is rather hard to describe. It’s not pride, nor is it a sense of self satisfaction, even though I’m as susceptible to these feelings as anyone else – maybe even more so. It’s somehow deeper and more fulfilling. I am reminded of the experience of Merry and Pippen when they drank of Ent draught:

The drink was like water, indeed very like the taste of the draughts they had drunk from the Entwash near the borders of the forest, and yet there was some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night. The effect of the draught began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour as it coursed upwards, right to the tips of the hair. – The Two Towers

Perhaps it’s but a small taste of what it is like to really relate to God.

Knowledge of Religion

A recent Pew Forum survey demonstrates what appears, at first blush, to be an embarrassing lack of knowledge of things religious by Americans who claim to be religious. There are a few problems with the way this is being reported, not the least of which is the fact that believers appear to be more knowledgeable about their beliefs than non-believers, although they know less about other religions. It is this latter realization that I think may prove to be quite dangerous.

In general, for the living out of life as an Orthodox Christian, knowing that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, or that most people in Pakistan are Muslim, serves little purpose. Surprisingly, knowing the order of books in the Bible isn’t very important either. Knowing who Moses is, or Job, and being familiar with the ten commandments, those are all very important. More importantly, knowing that Christ died for us, and rose again is important. That Martin Luther triggered the Reformation isn’t.

As I blogged about recently, there has been a growing tendency, as a result of the ecumenical movement, to believe that all religions are essentially the same. Certainly many act that way. I think there is a relationship between both the stated tendency, and this demonstration of the lack of religious knowledge. If someone, particularly someone who acts as if they are knowledgeable, that a certain item is fact, in the absence of any independent knowledge of my own, I am likely to believe them. In general, it is the job of our shepherds to guide us in these issues, much as St. Theophan the Recluse did in this work. Unfortunately, these days it is frequently the hierarchs that are engaged in much of the ecumenical behavior. So, instead of protecting the faithful, they are leading them astray. It is only a strong knowledge of our own faith, and faith of others, that will allow us to see the truth.

At our recent Greek Festival, we had a lot of great conversations with folks from other faiths at our booth. Frequently, though, we would have someone who was Roman (or in some cases Eastern) Catholic come and tell us how we were basically the same. The problem is, that we really aren’t. Superficially that may appear to be the case, but Rome has established doctrines that are at odds with the historic faith, and declared key elements of historic Orthodoxy to be, themselves, heresy. Unfortunately, many people are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their own faith to know this. They certainly aren’t knowledgeable enough about other faiths in most cases to know what the teachings actually are.

If this is truly the case, which is what the Pew survey suggests, and if the shepherds will not guide the flock any longer, how can they continue to follow the Way? Thankfully, not all of the shepherds have given up their responsibilities. There are still many holy bishops and priests to guide the faithful, and we have the tradition as found in our prayers and hymns and liturgies. We have the Monks and Nuns who have long been a source of nourishment for the Church. Finally, and most importantly, we have Christ as our head, and the Holy Spirit to guide us.

However, in this modern era, when the teachings of our Church are so readily available to those seeking them, we shouldn’t merely be content that God will protect the Church over time. As in everything else, we must be ready and willing to assist. We do this first and foremost by looking after our own education.

Interfaith Interest

One of the biggest phenomena on the religious scene in the past century has been the ecumenical movement. The goals of the movement are certainly laudable. People who know each other, and understand each other (to some extent) are less likely to kill each other. I suppose that presupposition warrants some exploration (given that one set of data indicates that 77% of people murdered are murdered by someone they know, with 30% being murdered by family members), but it does seem reasonable.

Now the question that needs to ask is, what is the point of the various religious groups in question? For the Christian, the point is salvation, although the definition of salvation varies a bit. For a more detailed understanding of the Orthodox view of salvation, you can visit the “Glory to God for All Things” blog. Other religions have somewhat similar goals. The hallmark of most of these, and certainly most forms of Christianity is that these groups feel that they have the means to achieve salvation (or nirvana, or entrance into heaven, etc.). Orthodoxy, for instance, believes that salvation comes from Christ, and via the Church that he established. It is important to remember that what we now call Orthodoxy or Orthodox Christianity, was originally called “The Way”. It was a process, not merely a set of doctrines. Since we firmly hold to this, and further hold that salvation is the most important issue facing humanity, it stands to reason that we would not want to do anything that causes confusion about salvation, and that may lead people – either our faithful, or others, to no longer seek out Christ and his Church.

The Ecumenical movement has, in my opinion, resulted in just this sort of confusion. Meetings where different representatives discuss their faith are fine. However, these turned into joint prayer services – in other words, joint worship. The Orthodox Church has long had canons against those activities, largely because we understand that worship is done by a community that is of “one essence” – in fact we state in the liturgy that our ability to recite the same creed somehow reflects our love for one another. I think that there remains that sense among most people, although it is beginning to fade, that of course you wouldn’t worship with folks who hold beliefs significantly different than yours.

I was recently provided with a copy of an article in the Chicago Tribune about an “interfaith” seminary being started up by the Unitarian Church. Given that the Unitarians do not believe that any one religion is necessarily true, one has to believe that this belief is part of what the program will be attempting to teach. Therefore, they will effectively be sowing the very confusion I was speaking of. In addition, I think that such teaching actually serves to denigrate the very religions they claim to be supporting. For instance, Christianity makes some very serious claims – that Christ is the Son of God, that he is the truth and the way. Islam makes similar claims about being the one true way, while at the same time claiming that those who believe that God had a Son are foolish, and that to hold that Christ is God, and that God is a trinity, is blasphemy. Maintaining that both religions are true really means that neither one is. Rather, some generic form of spirituality is true. So, instead of the intended goal of supporting all religions, this interfaith program demeans most of them.

Perhaps getting different religious groups together for a purely social gathering, in the interest of promoting peace, would be a good idea. Certainly there is nothing in Orthodoxy that supports harming members of other faiths. Similarly, if one group is interested in learning about what another group believes, I think it is perfectly reasonable for the one group to make a presentation to the other. It is when ecumenism drifts into either acting or teaching that all religions are basically the same, that the trouble begins.

The best example of the manner in which Orthodox should handle ecumenism, is to provide the kind of loving feedback that this priest provided at the National Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. That is, love everyone, and tell them the truth, in love.