Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Today in the church we celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This is a commemoration of an actual event in the 8th century. While it is a defining event in the life of the Church, and especially in my tradition, it is not something that would be celebrated as a triumph by American Christian orthodoxy.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that considered itself orthodox Christianity. We believed that the Bible (especially, if not exclusively, the KJV) was the very Word of God to man, and all we really needed to know about God was contained within its pages. We believed that God saved us, sinners from birth because of Adam's transgression in the Garden, through His grace and our faith (alone) in Christ's saving work on the cross. This Christ Who had taken our place in death was God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. We needed no other creed, we needed no other argument, we needed no other plea.

We definitely needed no images.

Don't get me wrong - we had symbols. We had an American and a Christian flag in our sanctuary, and we thought nothing of pledging to both during a service, something no iconodule would literally have been caught dead doing. We had a cross in our baptistery, forbidden by most of the Reformers and a hotly debated practice in the modern Reformed circles of today. And we'd have fought tooth and nail with anybody trying to take them away from us.

But images, unlike those enshrined at the Catholic church at the other end of town, those were anathema. Pledges to them were worship of idols.

You see, what separated Christian orthodoxy from heresy at that time was one's belief about icons - images of Christ and the saints that were held in reverence in the church. If you believed images had an integral place in the life of the Church and the believer, you were orthodox. If you believed they should be repudiated, you were a heretic.

Exactly the opposite of the Christian orthodoxy I grew up with, and which has been prevalent in the United States right up to the present time.

It's OK to pledge to a flag, it's OK to require assent to extra-biblical formulae like "Justification is by grace through faith alone". But don't kiss a representation of Christ, God come in actual material form as the icon of God. Don't set any other books on top of your KJV (Scofield, of course) black leather wide-margin Bible. But definitely burn those pictures of the Theotokos and Jesus - they're idolatrous.

But lest either us iconodules or us iconoclasts get into a fist-fight (or worse, a "theological debate") over the orthodoxy of icons, let's look at it from a more Lenten perspective.

We'll begin with the iconoclasts, as that is my past rather than my present, at least in the material sense. You've removed all the images from your churches. You may have only the velvet painting of Elvis left on your wall at home, and not the velvet painting of the Last Supper.

But what idols do you have left in your heart? I don't mean the obvious ones, like TV, sports, career, or the like that you hear about each week from your pulpits. I mean those that are part and parcel of your religion. Are you insistent on your version of the Bible, but rarely read it? Do you require extemporaneous prayer because you're proud of your ability to pray in public? Does nothing come before God - except your personally constructed image of Him? Spend some time evaluating the images you've left in place.

And for those iconodules among us, we're not immune to some of these same idols; plus, like all those who fully practice their religions, we have added temptations to treat our faith in an idolatrous fashion. Do we hold our icons high during our processions, kiss and bow, but outwardly only? Do we love the images of the saints, but have no interest in imaging the saints' faith in our own lives? Will we fight to keep our images in our churches, but go to no effort to keep the faith at home? We may kiss our gold-covered Gospel in the nave, but to we read it at home, and seek to live it out in our lives?

So whether you are an iconoclast or iconodule - or hopefully both, as needed -  may orthodoxy, "right worship", triumph in you this day. Let us become icons of Christ, the icon of God.

Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

Friday, March 22, 2013

How to Find Sin’s Root Cause

I read this statement this week on Facebook, from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s Clean Monday evening sermon: (Photo: S. Vlasov)

"We cannot repent sincerely if we do not know why we have done this or that sin, what inner thoughts, temptations, or movements of our soul has brought us into a state of sin."

I’ve been trying to find a way to agree with this statement. I dislike the idea of disagreeing with a Patriarch of the Church, so I tried to find a number of ways to reconcile this statement with the scriptures. Finally, I sought out the context of the statement, and found this portion that I do agree with wholeheartedly:

"Indeed, the very first step that each of us must make, including now as we enter the forty days of Lent, is to attempt to examine ourselves thoroughly, to examine the circumstances of life that dictate our sinful behaviour. It is not always easy to do this because we justify ourselves all the time. And here, we need to renounce self-justification, to think and speak before God only for ourselves, only of the things that we ourselves have done wrong.”

This can be a starting place for our examination. Let’s pinpoint the basis for our discussion:

  1. Great Lent is a time set aside for a special effort of repentance.
  2. This requires a thorough examination of our lives.
  3. Finding the root cause for our sin is necessary to repentance.

This comes close to what His Holiness said, and perhaps is what he was driving at. In any case, this is the understanding of his message that I believe we need to examine:

As we begin this Lenten season of repentance, we must seek out the root cause of our sin.

We’ll begin with a couple of classic Biblical examples of examined repentance. The first of these would have been read during the service His Holiness had served just before his sermon, the Prayer of Manasseh. We’ll read the middle portion of his prayer:

“Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities:”

Manasseh, in his quest for repentance, prays to God in recognition of repentance as the gift of God, and as a requirement for the salvation of those who sin. He has examined himself, and declares before God and those of us who pray his prayer with him that he

“did not [God’s] will, neither kept [His] commandments: [he has] set up abominations and [has] multiplied offenses”.

Next we turn to another prayer read in every service of the Church, Psalm 50[51]. This is the prayer of repentance David wrote after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah murdered. His definitive statement regarding the root cause of his sin should give us pause:

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

In our psychological age, we have become infected with the idea that we are deep creatures, and that far below our consciousness lie our real motives. If we can just dig deeply enough, we can turn over all kinds of rottenness - or all kinds of natural divinity, depending on one’s viewpoint. From there we can begin to know ourselves and become the holistic, self-actualized people we were meant to be.

David didn’t seem to think so “I know mine iniquity, and my sin is ever before me”, he says. It’s right in front of our faces; we don’t see it because, as His Holiness said, we don’t want to look. David looked, because Nathan the prophet came and held the mirror of God’s word in front of him. He saw that he was a sinner because he had sinned, and he had sinned because he was a sinner. He had identified the root cause. This is what he turned in sorrow away from - a good look at himself and what he had done.

It’s not enough to simply turn away from our sinful selves, however; that is still not repentance. Repentance is a movement away from something and toward something else. A prolonged focus and dwelling upon what we need to turn from is not moving us toward righteousness, it is simply wallowing in our sin.

Both Manasseh and David spent a second looking at themselves, and most of their prayer looking where they needed to to toward. Manasseh prays:

“For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life”.

After identifying the root cause of his sin, David went on in his prayer to list all the things he would automatically do in response to God’s gift of salvation, especially the same thing Manasseh said he would do: declare the praise of the Lord.

This is echoed in the New Testament in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The son, “when he came to himself”, did not begin a discussion with himself about how he wound up in the pig pen. He did not see Dr Phil about his “daddy issues”, or try to determine why he was so hell-bent on trying to find his own way when he had it made back home. He turned his face toward home, and prayed the same prayer that Manasseh and David had prayed.

Let us begin this Lenten season by spending a moment looking in the mirror, at the human face that is the root cause of our sin, and then spend the rest of the season moving in prayerful repentance toward our Salvation, lifted high on a cross where we can’t miss Him if we’ll only look. Let us go to the life-giving cross and praise Him, for God will save us that are unworthy, and show us His goodness. Let us praise Him all the days of our lives, for all the powers of Heaven praise Him.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to Conduct a Media Fast the Orthodox Way (Part 3): Turn Out, Tune Off, Drop In

Let’s begin this post by answering definitively the question:

Should you add a media fast into your spiritual practice during Lent?

The answer is a semi-equivocal:


Semi-equivocal, because you may not need to just use less media - you may need to use different media, or use media differently. If nothing else, you need to evaluate what media you use, and how you are using it. Even if you make no changes, you’ll have a purpose to your practice. You will be striving to “take every thought captive”.

There may even be media that you need to use more in order to have a good media fast.

We’ll look as some things to bear in mind as a media fast is undertaken. First, some concepts that apply to all media use, then some suggestions for regulating specific media types. These are in no specific order.

General Considerations

  • Keep your eyes on your own screen. Just like “Keep your eyes on your own plate” with fasting from food, it is essential that you judge only yourself.
  • Don’t substitute a public medium for a private one - for example, don’t quit browsing Facebook where you have more public exposure, and instead browse Tumblr or Twitter.
  • If the primary way you  communicate encouragement to and from others is social media, don’t cut it off entirely. We’ll look at some strategies for staying connected while reducing wasted time. It is especially important during a time of spiritual struggle that we seek to give and receive strength from our fellow pilgrims.
  • If you have any doubts about what you are doing, discuss them with your spiritual director. You will have difficulty continuing on the path you have set for yourself if your steps are not firm, and discouragement will be the result.

Specific Mediums:

Books?!?! Yes, books are media. You may have thought you were off the hook because you read all the time, and hardly even watch TV or surf the net, but, no such luck. If you are an avid reader, use that avidity to read some spiritual writings like The Way of the Pilgrim, The Lenten Triodion, the Church Fathers, or other recommended works. Perhaps you may need to get your nose out of the book and get it into somebody else’s business for a change, doing good works instead of reading good works. If you’re not sure where to start, as around - there are plenty of people willing to share with you what they’ve enjoyed. Maybe you don’t read at all hardly - consider working your way through a single book like The Lenten Spring or The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete as a substitute for some of the other media that you will be reducing.

For those with children, consider picking out something to read with them during this time. I don’t just mean the daily scripture readings, but something that will inculcate spiritual truths in a more casual manner, such as George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin, or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Moving Pictures
This includes a wide range nowadays. Cable, satellite, over-the-air broadcasts, internet streams, YouTube, Redbox, movies etc all fall under this general heading. Many cut this out entirely during Lenten seasons, which is not necessarily a bad idea, and probably the easiest to get along without. However, it may be helpful, especially for families, to watch some things that provoke spiritual discussion. That could be anything from Ostrov to Veggietales. The important thing is to select carefully, and spend the time talking. Use media events to engage rather than disengage.

Some practical ways to limit video media include:

  • disconnecting the cable from the television, and only watching what you record
  • suspending Netflix and Hulu subscriptions until Lent is concluded
  • only watch things as a family - no solo video time

I’m not going to suggest here that you listen exclusively to Ancient Faith Radio during Lent. In fact, it may actually be best for you to spend a good bit of time in silence, especially if you’re a music (or especially a talk radio) fanatic. That being said, when you do listen to music, consider not using the radio or non-programmable internet streams. Take the control of what you let slip into your psyche.

I don’t know how many people just sit down in front of Google anymore and spend hours looking for, as Johnny 5 would say, “more input”, but unless you are a researcher, it’s probably not your best choice of Lenten occupations. Stumbleupon, Tumblr, even Pinterest can while away hours on trivia. So can “news” outlets like Huffington Post. You shouldn’t retreat into a cave for 6 weeks unless you are a bona fide hermit, but you can take control of how you use information media.

  • Subscribe to specific sources that you trust to vet information for you - the Huffington Post or Patheos can do this, and so can many local news sources.
  • Use services like Instapaper or Pocket to save articles for convenient reading times. You’ll save time if no time is convenient, and you’ll have to make a conscious decision in order to read them.
  • Cultivate the need to know less. Events in the world will go on without you. If they’re important, you won’t be able to ignore them even during a media blackout, or they’ll still be there on Bright Monday.

Social Media
Most of those in Gens X & Y are users of social media, but still see it as wasted time to some degree or another. Many feel like it is a substitute for real human encounters. I would argue that this is not entirely true. In fact, I know my brothers and sisters in Christ better, and have more interaction with them than I otherwise could, because of Facebook, not in spite of it. The same could be said for my extended family. That being said, using social media to connect in the modern public square does not have to be like watching advertisements on television, sifting through a glut of data hoping for a few gems.

  • If you can’t moderate your usage, you may need to tune out. This doesn’t mean you have to entirely disconnect, however. With Google+ you can set up just certain circles of people whose update you want to follow. You can do the same with Twitter. Facebook goes a few steps further: you can choose those friends whose statuses you want to keep up with, download Facebook Messenger, close your main Facebook window, and still be able to keep up and connect with those you commune with there.
  • If you logged into your social media outlet on Clean Monday, and each day since, and it’s been a graveyard because all your friends are fasting from social media, perhaps you should consider doing the same in solidarity.
  • Unfollow non-productive feeds - joke pages, feeds that post questionable photos of various types, celebrities - at least for the duration of Lent. This will help clean up your media wall, and make it more trim and useful.
  • Use your social media time to encourage others toward love and good works - be proactive, not just reactive, as is our usual mode in these venues.

Conclusion: Turn Out, Tune Off, Drop In

Timothy Leary said “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” is describing the way the counter-culture of the 60’s should engage with the dominant culture. I would suggest a slightly different course of action:

  • Turn out: get rid of “every weight, and the sin that so easily besets” you. Take thoughts captive, and make a choice.
  • Tune off: Many of our usual media use habits simply need to be put away for at least the Lenten period. The ways in which we avoid people by not using media need to be examined as well, and our reluctance to engage may need to be tuned off as well.
  • Drop in: Seek to engage others, both in your media use and your media fast.

Lent is a time to evaluate every area of our lives, beginning with something as basic as food, and extending to something as pervasive as out media use. Ultimately, learning to function as the Body of Christ in union and communion with Him is the goal of these efforts. This means exercise, which requires activity, not passivity. Let us use these tools God has given us to build one another up and bear fruit in our own lives, through fasting, prayer, and giving, and may God grant you a blessed Lent.

Continue the Conversation
Do you  have other suggestions for a fruitful media fast? Ways that you have been able to use or limit media effectively? Please share them with us here - encouraging one another to love and good works is what this is all about!

How to Conduct a Media Fast the Orthodox Way (Part 1): The Purpose-Driven Fast

How to Conduct a Media Fast the Orthodox Way (Part 2): Consumer Digest

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How to Conduct a Media Fast the Orthodox Way (Part 2): Consumer Digest

In the last post we talked about the purpose of fasting from food as the Church prescribes. Today, we’ll make some comparisons between our nutritional consumption and our media consumption.

Choices, Choices

Just like there are many different kinds of foods - not just the food groups, but the purposes for foods - there are many different kinds of media. Similarly, there are many ways for each to be used in life. One of the problems we face in our modern society, a first-world problem of the first magnitude, is the multiplicity of choices. There are even choices within choices, which is why we read ingredient lists. Your vegetable soup may have beef broth. Your salad may have eggs. Your meatless crumbles may have only God-knows-what.

But there is a common thread to these choices: We choose. We choose not to eat certain things, and we choose to eat others. We choose not to buy some things for ourselves that we will eat if offered to us in good will.

I’m not talking about free will vs fatalism vs predestination here. We’ll leave that to the armchair theologians with their stogies and IPA’s. I’m just talking about picking something from a set of options.


Depending on your age and immersion level, the word Media may mean different things to you. Those older among us may think of TV (and the really elderly, the radio :-) ). Those around my age who have the cable from the Matrix run into the backs of our necks immediately think Internet. Those much younger than me don’t know anything except the internet and electronic devices of various sorts. These streams of data carry to our itching sense organs everything from music to news to entertainment to stories to statuses to things we shouldn’t watch when it isn’t Lent.

Some read the Bible strictly via electronic device, or stream Christian “radio”. Some gather virtually on social networks, where all of their communication takes place - sometimes even between members of the same household! There are a variety of valid ways to use media, just like one can make dozens of different dishes using chick peas (just ask any Orthodox cook if you don’t believe me!).

Our problem tends to be, not that we make a choice, but that we gorge ourselves on all of them. (I’m talking to myself here - search “kempisosha” on Google and you’ll find me everywhere). Or, we land on one, and simply let it roll past our eyes with no mental stimulation (think Spongebob Squarepants or I Love Lucy marathon).  We avoid making a choice, and just go with a default. This is where we need to approach our media use with purpose, and bring them into line with the reasons we fast from food.

Beggars Learning to be Choosers

Obviously, they way to remedy the situation is to just cut the cord entirely, right? That’s probably not feasible for the majority of us, just like not eating at all during Lent probably wouldn’t be a good idea for most of us. So, we start where we start with our food choices. What is prescribed?

Well, nothing directly regarding media consumption, unless you read St John Chrysostom or others of the Church Fathers who would enjoin you to renounce worldly pleasures like the theater entirely. But with today’s media, we aren’t just talking about entertainment. So let’s start with what we are told to do. Let’s attend as many services as possible. Let’s spend time in familial and personal prayer. Let’s read at least the daily Bible readings. Then there’s work, school, eating, sleeping, and regular ablutions. If there’s still time after that, maybe there’s time for entertainment.

How do we pick what media to fill our “free” time with? What do we have to have to get by - email, instant (or delayed) messaging, possibly certain information sources (gotta get those Lenten recipes somewhere!). We may not think of these as media, but they use the same sources and appliances as our entertainment now. They are as necessary as that morning cup of coffee (every day except on Sunday morning before Liturgy, of course).

With the little entertainment time we may have left, or have reserved, what guidelines do we have to help us make a purposeful choice?

  • What helps us master our bodies? Most often, that will mean choosing to avoid media.
  • What helps us work together? We’ve mentioned email and messaging services. Perhaps your failing, as is mine, is regular communication with people. Choosing media use that encourages communication, like watching sporting events with a group or using Facebook rather than Tumblr, can help you connect. Maybe there’s a TV show that helps you have meaningful discussions with your family members or friends. Just like sharing over a food consumption, sharing over media consumption can be re-creational.
  • What helps us remember others? Maybe that time on Facebook or other social networking sites helps us know how to pray for others, or gives us opportunities to encourage others toward love and good works. Possibly, though, shutting off the screen will make us remember that there are other people living right there with us.

The other helpful source for deciding how we should fast from media is our spiritual director. Let him know your concerns, and give you advice, or even a directive. A friend explained her struggle with media use during Lent to her priest, and was told to limit her overall time online to two hours a day. She did her best to follow that advice, and had a fruitful Lent as a result.

Next Post: Turn Out, Tune Off, Drop In

I’ll let you mull over these ideas and evaluate your media usage. Then we’ll come back tomorrow and talk about some practical strategies for a media fast.

How to Conduct a Media Fast the Orthodox Way (Part 1): The Purpose-Driven Fast