Intersecting East and West

I recently wrote about attending an Orthodox Church. I also wrote something on the different cultural and philosophical roots, and therefore mindsets, of the Eastern and Western Churches. I have been doing a fair amount of reading* on Orthodoxy and listening to various podcasts. One of my favorite podcasts is At the Intersection of East and West. The show is a collection of talks given by Michael Hyatt, a Deacon in his Orthodox Church and Chairman of the Board for Thomas Nelson Publishers. I appreciate his perspective and insights. He is a convert to Orthodoxy from an atheist then agnostic then Baptist then Presbyterian (Calvinist) background. I was a Baptist and have been a kind of quasi-Calvinist for many years. Deacon Michael’s take on the typical reformed Protestant culture rings true to me.  His understanding of what a first-time visitor to an Orthodox Church service also rings true to my experience. Here are two of my favorite of his talks (but he has a lot more that are equally great):

Conversion Story:

10 Things I Wish I Knew:

More shows are available at the website link above or in iTunes.

* Here are some of the books I’ve been reading:

Visiting St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church

Deacon: Bless, Master.

Priest: BLESSED is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

Choir: Amen.

And thus began the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the little and beautiful St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church this last Sunday of All Saints morning. This was my first time to ever cross the threshold of an Eastern Orthodox church. This was my first time to participate in an Orthodox liturgy. This was my first time to hear Russian (or was it Serbian?) spoken in a church (though most of the service was in English). This was my first time to see icons in a truly reverential context. It was an hour and a half of a lot of personal firsts.

I was very nervous about going. I am wary of both my tendencies to romanticize experiences and to be cynical. I am also a ponderer and book-learner more than a doer much of the time, which allows me to keep experiences (and their required responses) at bay. I have been reading about Eastern Orthodoxy for a while now. Why I am doing so is a long story, nonetheless I am loving it and being challenged. But I had never been to an Orthodox church. So, when a couple weeks ago my wife and a very good friend of ours visited this same church on a sudden and impulsive whim, I knew I would finally have to make a visit as well.

What did I find there? Walking to the entrance I met some friends that I did not know attended the church. That was a blessing. The church is small and, as you can see from the image above, stands out architecturally. I find it beautiful. I took my eldest daughter with me; she was eager and liked it very much. My daughter knows several of the people that were there. The service was not like anything I grew up with (Baptist/Radical Reformation). Though translated into English (and thank God for the printed handout so I could follow along) the liturgy is ancient. People entered quietly, greeted each other quietly, lit candles, kissed icons (not something with which I am familiar), and stood through most of the service. We did our best to follow, to sing the words (I found it beautiful), to cross ourselves when we should (this was another first for me), and to show appropriate reverence and not look too out of place. We did not participate in either the communion (because we are not Orthodox) or in the kissing of icons, etc. There was the constant noise of children and babies; this is a family oriented community. The interior was dim, but not dark, solemn but not dour, colorful but simple, and of course, the icons which are unique and beautiful (a common word in this whole experience). The homily delivered was excellent–a remembering of all the Saints and the martyrs that are examples to us, and a reminder that Christ’s resurrection really means something, not only in terms of final salvation, but that we are not the same because of Christ’s glory; something profound has changed within us. After the service my daughter and I spoke with Father David (I believe that is how one should address him). He made a point of coming up to us and welcoming us. We did not stay for the after-service meal, but most did. They have a large backyard with garden and play structure for the kids.

What did I think about it all? I should qualify my thoughts first, and maybe get just a little too personal. I am not a “church shopper.” I do not want to consume Christianity. I am not looking for the next “meaningful” thing. I do not want a hip church, or a programmatic church, or a second chapter of Acts church, or an un-church, or a high church. I am not searching for something new or even something old. And I do not want to make decisions based on emotions, and certainly not on heresy. I am not seeking out an “experience.” In fact, I am not really searching for a church at all. And certainly I do not want to go in any direction without my wife with me. Still, and with trepidation, I am exploring. I have been on a journey, a slow journey for sure, examining the tradition I grew up in and was trained in. I have had a lot of questions, a lot of soul searching, a lot of reading. I have tended to be wary of just about everything one finds in an Orthodox church (keep in mind my limited experience): Formal liturgy, recited prayers, icons, religious garb, incense, etc., etc. And yet, my world has been subtlety shifting for several years. I do not know where God will lead me and my family. Wherever He leads that is where I want to go.

With all that in mind, I will say two things about this one visit: a) I am still on my journey, still wondering, still studying, still praying, still seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, and b) I loved it, really loved it. I want to go back and learn more about what I experienced that first time. I want to understand why I loved it and what that means.

Final thoughts: I am humbled by how much I don’t know about Christianity, about those who came before, about the practices of Christians around the world. Orthodoxy is an entirely new study for me. I am often conflicted in what I believe, and what I want to believe. This is a bad place to be according to my past Christian training, but I have since come to believe that I would rather be in the hands of God on a surreptitious  journey than out of His hands with full confidence in my beliefs. I can only praise God for His love and fall on my face and ask for His mercy. I thank Him for this church experience and I pray for His guidance.

A footnote: Take another look at the beginning of the liturgy quoted at the beginning of this post. Now consider these words by Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World (1963/2004, p. 28):

The Orthodox liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.” From the beginning the destination is announced: the journey is to the Kingdom. This is where we are going–and not symbolically, but really. In the language of the Bible, which is the language of the Church, to bless the Kingdom is not simply to acclaim it. It is to declare it to be the goal, the end of all our desires and interests, of our whole life, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept in love, and to move toward what is loved and accepted. The Church thus is the assembly, the gathering of those to whom the ultimate destination of all life has been revealed and who have accepted it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man. It is Christ’s gift to us, for only in Him can we say Amen to God, or rather He himself is our Amen to God and the Church is the Amen to Christ. Upon this Amen the fate of the human race is decided. It reveals that the movement toward God has begun.


homo adorans: raising priests for the life of the world

Being a father, a homeschooler, and a Christian, I am constantly sorting out my perspectives on raising my kids. Much of the time I am a failure, though I do have high goals. The questions that anyone in my situation faces is what to emphasize, where to focus, and for what ends? The following selection from Alexander Schmemann’s classic For the Life of the World sums up where my thinking is going lately.

Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by “eating.” The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God’s blessing with his blessing. The significant fact about the life in the Garden is that man is to name things. As soon as animals have been created to keep Adam company, God brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. “And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Now, in the Bible a name is infinitely more that a means to distinguish one thing from another. It reveals the very essence of a thing, or rather its essence as God’s gift. To name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God.

To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or a “cultic” act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that He filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this “very good.” So the only natural (and not “supernatural”) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and–in this act of gratitude and adoration–to know, name and posses the world. All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens,” “homo faber” . . . yes, but first of all, “homo adorans.” The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God–and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (pp. 14-15)

Should I, as a father, homeschooler, Christian, make the goal of raising my kids that they would become priests in the sense that Schmemann describes? That is, should they see themselves as offering up to God what they have been given? I think so. Should this, in fact, be the very foundation of all education? I think so. In this light I find fascinating Andrew Kern’s first lecture in The Two Andrews: On Writing and Teaching Writing. Kern speaks in much the same terms as Schmemann. He tells an imaginative story describing Adam naming the lion. The process is not a simple looking and naming, but involves a total engagement with the lion. God brings Adam the lion, presents the lion to Adam, and Adam then names the lion as a natural extension of coming to truly know the lion, of coming to know what a lion is by being fully attentive to the lion. The process, as Kern describes it, involves three basic yet profound steps: 1) Attentive perception, which in not merely seeing, but is an active, visceral extension of one’s will; 2) Contemplation, which is the process of making comparisons; and 3) Conceptualization, which Kern likes to call “formation.” This third step has a kind of mystical (yet natural) aspect, in that the truth of the lion enters into Adams soul. In other words, when we come to truly know something we form that thing in our soul. But then, when Adam had named the lion he re-presented the lion back to God. In this sense Adam is a priest. Kern states, echoing Schmemann, that, “Re-presenting to God is part of our priestly function.” Then Kern goes on to say that writing is a way to re-present to God what we have come to know. The implication of all this, as I see it, is that the priestly function of writing should be the foundation upon which we build our writing curricula. Further, the process of writing, including the grammar of language, has a kind of liturgical essence and function. Therefore, as I consider the teaching of my children, even if we are only talking writing, should I see my role as that of raising up priests? I think so.

Ploughed and harrowed: Watching films as a preparation for death.

I am reposting this from my other blog.

I have been examining my inclinations lately regarding the kind of cinema I am drawn too. The fact that I do that, and say that I do that, marks me as a questionable character. Nonetheless, I am one of those types who cannot stop noticing my own thoughts, wonder about their provenance, and question their meaning. Naturally, if that is the right word, I prefer films that work along similar lines as my mind. In other words, I prefer films that give my mind time to think and reflect as I watch. I like slow films that carefully, and with nuance, build image upon image, and rely on subtleties and levels of meaning. I find action films the most boring of all films. This is strange because cinema is the art of movement. It is also strange because I love some action films quite a lot (e.g. Die Hard, 1988).

Though I came to film as did many of my generation, through Disney and television, through comedy and western, I took an educational turn down the path of art history, of philosophy, of the humanities, and so went the course of my mind. In college I was introduced to foreign films and they became a kind of revelation for me. I discovered I was sensitive to film as an artform as much as a way to tell stories and entertain. Sometimes viewing films became difficult for me as each scene, each pan of the camera, each edit evoked a multitude of thoughts. I would be simultaneously transfixed and distracted by a film. I would frequently not finish films, then, when I did, I would sometimes be overcome for days. Needless to say, this kind of film viewing is not typical, though I know it is not uncommon either. I will admit that it may be a kind of limitation, but it is who I am. It is also personally annoying at times. I find that I seek that “overcoming” kind of experience, even to have my life changed forever, and yet I fear it too. One does not wish the existential crisis to come, but one cherishes those that have come. One does not want one’s mind to be taken over, as it were, but one needs to be shaken. So I struggle between the desire to be profoundly redone by a work of art and the desire to remain safely as I am.

I have wondered why I seek out art for this purpose. I know art can be a distraction or a light pleasure. But I have often disdained art used for those purposes, though I know this attitude is incorrect, for art can function in many ways and for many purposes. Recently I realized how I have though about art; I cannot say it better than Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good. (Sculpting in Time, p. 43)

To prepare a person for death, that is what I have sought; to be prepared for death. I am not morbid in this sentiment. I do not seek death. But I have been on a mission of sorts since my youth to seek the final implications of belief. I long for films (and any art) to take me there, or push me there. A film does not need to be heavy handed, nor does it need to be dark. It can be full of light and life, but it does, at least, need to reach into one’s soul, as it were, and open it up to a kind of receptivity. I long for that harrowing and rendering. that is why, in the face of so many competent and popular films, my reactions are so often a shrug of the shoulders.

Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Kaidanovski shooting the film “Stalker” in the summer of 1977 in Jägala, Estonia. Photo: Arvo IhoAndrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Kaidanovski shooting the film “Stalker”
in the summer of 1977 in Jägala, Estonia. Photo: Arvo Iho

It is not that I cannot be amused, but I cannot help but think that amusement means “without the muses.” To be amused is to stop thinking, to be diverted from the the realities and implications of existence. Life, as we know it in this whirling electronic age, has become a world of diversions. We all need diversions at times, but diversions are not only not hard to come by, they are thrust upon us with such repetition and force that it takes an active and committed individual to ward them off. I believe such a commitment comes from the orientation of one’s soul toward (or away from) the infinite—to borrow a word from Kierkegaard. To turn away from diversions into a powerful work of art, and then to let that work of art do its function, and to be receptive to that function, is a kind of antidote (though not a complete cure) to a life of amusements. It is not the only way, but it is one way.

There is, however, a caveat somewhere in all this. That is, one must be able to trust the artist, the filmmaker, if one is to be thus undone. I cannot, I should not, allow any artist to plough and harrow my soul unless I know that artist’s character. This may require one to push back against that first viewing, that sacred viewing that no one wants disturbed, and to take a cautious approach. This is why the choice to view one film over another, or to take a chance on a film, ought to be based first on who is the filmmaker and not the actor. It is the filmmaker who is accountable. It is the filmmaker who must be trusted. I like a great many films for various reasons, but this need to trust the filmmaker brings me back time and again to the likes of Bresson, Dreyer, Rohmer, Tarkovsky, and Renoir, and why I appreciate, but with caution, the likes of Bergman, Allen, Antonioni, and Tarr. I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with their own list of filmmakers.

Does anyone else think this way?


I know that you have suffered. Suffering is endemic to human life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suffered. He was one of the preeminent poets of his age. He was a good man and loving husband. He was a family man. He was a handsome man. When we think of Longfellow we often see the old, bearded, white-haired man, stately in his profile and serious in his gaze. But the journey he traveled from the clean-shaven, good looking, youngish man we see in this photo below to the elder Longfellow of popular image is a journey of profound and heart-breaking tragedy.

In brief, Longfellow was married twice. His first wife was Mary Storer Potter. She was eighteen when they were married and they were married four years. At age 22, and when six months into her pregnancy, she miscarried and never recovered. She died a few weeks later. A young Longfellow lost his young wife whom he loved and child they hoped to bring into the world. He wrote, “One thought occupies me night and day… She is dead—She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” Longfellow pours himself into his work and years go by. He then marries Frances “Fanny” Appleton after a long courtship. They had six children. Longfellow was deeply in love with Fanny. They had been married eighteen years when tragedy struck. Fanny was apparently using some hot sealing wax to seal locks of her children’s hair in envelopes when her dress caught fire. Awoken from his nap by his wife’s screams Longfellow rushed to his wife to find her engulfed in flames. He grabbed a small rug and tried to put out the flames, but the rug was too small and he then used his body to smother the flames. He carried his wife to the bed and called the doctor. Fanny, however, was so severely burned that she died the next day. Longfellow was so severely burned that he could not attend Fanny’s funeral. His face was so scared that he stopped shaving so as to cover the scars. That bearded, aged Longfellow that we know was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Eighteen years after Fanny’s death Longfellow wrote the poem The Cross of Snow in memory of his beloved wife.

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
  A gentle face–the face of one long dead–
  Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
  The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
  Never through martyrdom of fire was led
  To its repose; nor can in books be read
  The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
  That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
  Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
  These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
  And seasons, changeless since the day she died. 

Longfellow in 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron

Always remember, suffering is hallowed ground. This is true of your suffering and of other’s.

You can find an audio discussion of Longfellow here, from the Mars Hill Audio Journal series free CD bonus tracks.


Well I’m gonna to go then. And I don’t need any of this. I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you. I don’t need anything except this.

[picks up an ashtray]

And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this. I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one – I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that’s all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.

[walking outside]

And I don’t need one other thing, except my dog.

[dog barks]

I don’t need my dog.

~ Navin R. Johnson, The Jerk

What is it that we need?

If you are a Christian then you need God, right? Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” I guess, by implication, Pascal says you therefore need Jesus. Atheists would say if you believe you need God then you are deluded, that God is a crutch for some kind of mental or emotional weakness. Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, or something like that. Depending on your view they are all right. One glance at much of modern Christianity quickly demonstrates that God is both a crutch and an opiate addressing some very deep need within many, many people. Unfortunately, Sunday morning is too often all about the sincere, aesthetic, and emotional worship of the opiate. I know. I’ve been there. A lot.

On the other hand, what is fundamental to the biblical narrative is the absolute contingency of our existence. None of us asked to be born, but we were. None of us want to die, but we will. Our lives are filled, from birth to death, with needs and wants. The old response to the idea of God being a crutch is to point out that everyone is limping, even if not everyone is willing to admit it. Sure, that’s a bit corny, and it’s also like saying one knows what is in someone’s heart even if that person doesn’t. My problem, however, with that kind of response is not that it’s corny or dubious, rather it’s that I believe it. I believe it with all my soul. God is my crutch. In fact He is much more that a crutch. I am not merely leaning on God. At the ultimate level we are not “in this together” like comrades even though in the day-to-day I have a free will and can choose to turn to God or not. At the ultimate level, however, it’s all God and His will. God did not merely give me life at some point in the past and now I must muddle through. Without God sustaining me every second I cease to exist. Without His sovereign grace and mercy, without His will and His creative power holding everything together I am lost. There only ever was one set of footprints in the sand.

So why am I still muddling through? What do I do with the fact that I experience the reality of waking in the morning, going through my day, facing many questions, facing my fears and insecurities, praying to God that his kingdom will come soon, and constantly failing at being the kind of person I know I should be and want to be. If it’s all God then why also me? Does what I want, then, really matter? Yes, it matters. In fact, in terms of my existence it means everything. God may be ultimately in control, ultimately sovereign, but He also gave me a will that I have to deal with. My life is in His hands, and yet, my life is my life. I am responsible and accountable, and I don’t always like it.

Let me put it right out there, I want to be a different person. I want to be glorious. Imagine the most glorious person you can think of. Imagine the super athlete or the rock star, imagine the greatest politician or smartest brain. Now imagine someone who is so utterly glorious that all those others are laughable in their pitiful glory. I want to be that person. I don’t want to be fool’s gold, I want to be the real deal, all the way through. I want to be that glorious. What would that look like?

It would look like Christ.

Glory does not consist in how popular one can be, or how many battles one has won, or in one’s temporal achievements–regardless of how wonderful they may be. No, glory has to do with who one is. What is your character? If others knew your thoughts, saw what was in the depths of your heart, would they be impressed? Or would they find darkness, confusion, weakness, fear, selfishness, vanity? We do have a lot of glory already. We are made in the image of God; we have within us something of God’s glory as part of being human. But we do not yet have His likeness. In our imageness we carry in us a potentiality. But we look to the day when we come into the likeness of God; when we have finally realized the potentiality of that imageness.

When we think about the coming Kingdom of God we might think about how we will have everything and live in splendor. That is probably true, but all that’s not the real big deal. What will make it so special is that it will be a world without sin. I desperately want to be without sin. I want everything that I touch to stop dying. I want to bring life to others, to be an encourager, a genuine-without-pretense lover. I want my relationships to be full of life while continuing to grow in life. I want to come out of my shell, stop worrying, stop feeling afraid, and stop escaping into isolation. I want to stop making excuses. I want to have courage to be with others, to be the husband my wife deserves and the father my children deserve. I don’t want to be grumpy anymore, or picky, or snotty, or manipulative. It’s not that I want to live forever, I want an entirely different life. And I want everyone to get that new life too. I want others to have real joy, true, but I also want to be around such people. Now that would make for a great world. That would be truly heaven on earth.

That’s what I want. That’s all I need.