Tag: Orthodoxy

Swimming the Bosporus 10: The Good Book and Holy Tradition


I did a lot of church-hopping in my college and Navy days. To simplify the search, I would look to see if a church claimed to be “Bible-believing.” This indicated they were non-denominational, pretty conservative, and focused on the Scriptures. If their name included “Bible Church,” even better.

Following the Bible is the main point of these assemblies, a principle that stems from the Reformation. Martin Luther declared that the Catholic Church was wrong to emphasize both Scripture and tradition. Instead, the authority should be Scripture alone (or, Sola Scriptura in Latin).

You can find all the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.

Luther looked at the Vatican of his day and thought they had lost the plot. He viewed their many rituals, traditions, and innovations as so many barnacles that had attached themselves to the Barque of St. Peter. So, he decided to strip them off.

Swimming the Bosporus 9: ‘Are You Saved?’


Moving around for the Navy and college meant I visited a lot of churches. My standard protocol was to slouch in the back row then flee the instant the service wrapped up. (Introverts unite! Better yet, go over there.) But the church ladies were onto me. Before I could reach the door, they would sidle up with small talk before closing with the classic evangelical question: “So, are you saved?”

You encounter this question constantly in American Protestant circles since it’s such a foundational doctrine. Heaven or hell. Turn or burn. Sanctify or french fry. And the path to salvation is pretty straightforward. Sincerely recite the Sinner’s Prayer and you’re in for good.

You can find all the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.

There are variations, but here’s the Billy Graham version:

Swimming the Bosporus 8: The Rock and the Raft


Everyone knows what “time” is but it’s a slippery concept to nail down. Religion, philosophy, art, and science all have theorized about the meaning, but I’ll stick with the old line, “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

In most variants of the three major religions (and some philosophies) God resides outside of time. He is immortal and never-changing; existing before the ages began, while they continue, and after they’re gone. He created space and time as an envelope for humans to reside within. Spending too long thinking about it can make your brain hurt (just analyze any time-travel movie) but it has major implications for one’s faith.

You can find all the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.

As noted in a previous post, church history isn’t stressed in Protestantism. At the close of the Book of Acts, the timeline is fast-forwarded 1,500 years until Martin Luther is nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg door. That millennium-and-a-half is treated as either a slow drift or a rapid descent into error until the Reformation set Christendom back on track.

Icon, Part 15: The Dormition of the Theotokos


When Christ our God wanted to take to Himself his own Mother [to be] with him, then three days before, through an angel, He informer [her] of her departure from Earth. “[It is] time,” he said, “to bring my Mother to me. So do not be disturbed about this but accept the word with joy for you will receive eternal life.” And through [her] desire about departing to Sion, she went up to the Mountain of Olives to pray with sincerity in [her] usual way…⁠1 (St. Andrew of Crete, 8th Century)

On August 15 in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate the final Great Feast of the liturgical year, which began on September 1, and whose first Great Feast was the Nativity of the Theotokos,⁠2 with Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos. This is more commonly called The Dormition of Mary, since “dormition” is a Latin-derived word that means “the falling asleep.” In Greek this is called “Koimesis.”⁠3 In the Roman Catholic Church this same day is observed as “The Assumption of Mary,” and frankly quite a lot of Orthodox may refer to the feast by the same name. There are subtle differences in the meanings and theology between Assumption and Dormition, but these are fairly minor.

The Dormition, as the last of the Great Feasts, is also the last of the Marian feasts, during which we commemorated not only her Nativity (her birth) but her Presentation at the Temple,⁠4 and the greatest of all her feasts, the Annunciation.⁠5 We have also been with her at Jesus’s Nativity⁠6 (Christmas), Jesus’s own Presentation at the Temple (Candlemass),⁠7 His Crucifixion,⁠8 and his Ascension,⁠9 as well as at Pentecost.⁠10 Mary is the mother of the Church. Jesus, on the cross, put her in the care of the apostle John, and tradition tells us that John cared for her to the end of her days. And while Luke may not have written an account of her death, many believe that the personal touches and remarks of Mary in Luke’s gospel may have been directly due to Luke know her. It is fitting that we honor her death.

Swimming the Bosporus 7: Of Popes and Patriarchs


Six posts in and there’s a question I keep getting: “We get why you left evangelical protestantism for Orthodoxy. But why didn’t you just choose the Catholic Church?” For a Westerner, swimming the Tiber is simpler than swimming the Bosporus based on cultural affinities alone. And, according to Google Maps, the drive from Wittenburg to Rome is 400 miles shorter than Wittenburg to Constantinople. So what gives?

To answer, I first need to give some historical context.

You can find all the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.

The Church was established on the Day of Pentecost, 33 AD, and quickly spread around the Mediterranean. Every church was in agreement with each other as one big, happy family. Well, churlish at times, but what’cha gonna do? False teachers popped up here and there promoting doctrines contrary to Christianity. Councils were convened to discuss foundational beliefs and to condemn heresies.

Icon, Part 14: The Transfiguration


by Theophanes the Greek

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!” And when the disciples hear it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.  Matthew 17: 1-8, Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), 2008.

Swimming the Bosporus 6: Angels in the Architecture


Last week, I finished the narrative portion of my swim from the Megachurch to Orthodoxy. I could have drawn it out for a year, but readers were getting impatient — as was I. Several details were left out, so let’s follow those rabbit trails to add some context.

Over the course of my life, there have been several elements of modern American Protestantism that didn’t quite make sense to me. Some questions involved deep theology, while others were … more pedestrian. Architecture, for instance.

All the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.

For years, I annoyed evangelical friends with my rant about church architecture, so I thought it time to annoy a larger audience. You’re welcome! (Years ago, a Greek guy overheard my criticism and said, “are you sure you aren’t Orthodox?” Perhaps it was fated.)

Book Review: Big in Heaven


“Don’t worry, my friend, for Raskova,” she whispered to me. “I clean baby [crap]. It small thing. You sit. Read.” She said, “I am here,” tapping the pages with socket-wrench fingers. “At Dachau too, my job, priest say, sew sheets for vestment, is very small, he tell me, but big in heaven.” (p. 13)

Big in Heaven is a book of short stories, by Fr. Stephen Siniari, centered in and around the people of the fictional Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish* parish, an ethnically Albanian church in a Fishtown neighborhood. The stories mostly follow the parish priest, Father Naum, through a variety of times, places, and narrators (some more reliable than others). The stories are not sequential. In some we find Naum young and impatient, in others, we find Naum near retirement, wiser, but bearing the scars of many years. In all of the tales, we bear witness to how the parishioners and their friends and neighbors are simply living their lives as well as they know how saints and sinners alike.

Each of the tales is a brief glimpse into the lives of the people of the parish. Through the changing voices of the narrator we learn, sometimes, of backstories and histories of the people, but not always. Sometimes the backstories are unnecessary or merely inferred. Not all of the people belong to the parish – Father Naum is friends with an Evangelical pastor, and regularly has tea with the rabbi of the synagogue across the street. The author studiously avoids common ecumenical stereotypes, however, in these interactions, and each person has his or her own voice and motivations.

Swimming the Bosporus, Chapter 5: Reaching the Far Shore


I began attending my local Antiochian Orthodox church, erratically at first, then more and more often. My wife and kids weren’t sold on Orthodoxy but were very supportive as I made the journey by my lonesome.

At the same time, my dad was dying. He was diagnosed with dementia about eight years prior, then Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years after that. My siblings and I would regularly visit though he could barely communicate.

Read the previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4.

Being a good stoic Finn, I betrayed almost no emotion. I had to hold it together for my daughters’ standard teenage drama and their own struggles with behavioral health, autism, and annual hospitalization. It seemed unnatural to be so cold, but they came first; maybe I can fix myself later.

Swimming the Bosporus, Chapter 4: Entering the Shallows


I had heard of the Church Fathers but, as noted in my last post, the first book I’d actually read by one was On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria.

The Fathers were a loose collection of Christian writers and thinkers who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations during the first 750 years of Christianity. Some were taught by the apostles themselves, many participated in church councils, and others wrote about controversies facing the early church.

Read the previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3

I had read an endless assortment of Christian, philosophical, and secular books, all of which pointed to the truth in their own way. It was as if they showed me part of an elephant, perfectly describing the ear, the trunk, or a leg. All useful knowledge, but I didn’t know how they interrelated.

Swimming the Bosporus, Chapter 3: The Slough of Despond


As noted in my last post, I was officially disillusioned with megachurchdom. My family was understandably tired of trying different communities, so it was time to strike out on my own, Lone Ranger style. Since I didn’t care about the music or the surface-level social interaction, I’d just listen to great preachers on podcasts and online. Get the good word from the big names and avoid the stuff I didn’t like. (Which included waking up before Noon.)

This went okay for a while. Friends told me about liturgical Protestant options, which definitely drew my interest. But the closest option was a tiny place 30 miles away and the family wasn’t down.

Chapter 1 is here. Chapter 2 is here.

The previous few years had been rough. Laid off, stepdad died, dog died, mom died, laid off again — that was a fun 15 months. Both of our girls experienced a wide spectrum of apparently undiagnosable behavioral issues and the resulting violent mood swings and school crises. Add in our own health and financial issues, and it made for a bleak time.

Swimming the Bosporus, Chapter 2: Steeplechase


In my first post, I set the table. Born Lutheran, became Evangelical in my teens, and eventually became a model citizen of megachurchville. Everything was swell. Sure, I had nagging questions about my beliefs but I’d figure those out eventually.

My generic American evangelicalism was a mélange of the zillions of churches and Bible studies I attended, along with the popular books I read. Nearly all were non-denominational with a few Baptist churches here and some Calvinist leanings there. Few sermons dug deep so I relied on the books for that.

Read this post for Chapter 1 and a thorough disclaimer.

The foundational belief they shared was that each individual had to admit their sins to God and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Once you did that, you were eternally saved. In theory, you could immediately charge into a life of depravity and remain on the Big Guest List in the Sky.

Swimming the Bosporus, Chapter 1: From the Megachurch to Orthodoxy


I was received into the Orthodox Church yesterday.

It’s been a long time coming. I first attended a Greek Orthodox service about two-and-a-half years ago, another at a Russian Orthodox parish a couple of months after that, and a third two months later. I’ve been attending that Antiochian Orthodox church ever since. Today, I’m officially a member.

Since I began exploring Orthodoxy, my evangelical friends and family have been supportive but always asked why. Often in capital letters followed by several question and exclamation marks. Those of other traditions (or no tradition) have wondered as well.

Letter to a Friend Looking for G-d


I have a new friend who, like me, is exploring her Jewish roots and discovering the rewarding and difficult aspects of some Jewish communities and their practices. I wrote this letter to her yesterday to support her on her journey.

Dear Ros,

Book Review: Apostle to the Plains


Apostle to the Plains is the story of the first Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christian priest to be ordained in the United States: Father Nicola Yanney. This is remarkable in itself, but Father Nicola would, in this role, serve as the sole parish priest for almost the entirety of the Great Plains for over a decade, riding a circuit that would take him regularly from Kanas to Michigan, from Michigan to North Dakota, and from North Dakota back to his home in Nebraska. Along this way, he would perform over one thousand baptisms, numerous weddings, and a number of funerals, including for close relatives, and even his own daughter. His is a very American tale, sharing as it does the travails of millions of other immigrants, but his is also very much a family tale, and a tale of great personal sacrifice.

Of the many tumults of the 19th century, one that is less well remembered today is the Arab diaspora. Millions of Arabs, many of them Christians, facing poverty and Ottoman oppression left their homes in what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, for the better opportunities available in the New World. There are many common themes one finds in the history of immigration to the United States, and the necessary exile from one’s homeland. Some of these stories, especially in their broad ethnic arcs, are well known to us today – the Catholic Irish, Italians, and Polish, the Jewish diaspora from all over Europe – and they share much in common with the Arab-immigrant experience. In this, Father Nicola’s early story will feel familiar. In the late 19th century, Nicola and his newlywed bride Martha followed the example of many of his countrymen in leaving behind poverty and Turkish pogroms, with help from loans from others who have already made the journey and established themselves, and found themselves in central Nebraska.

Their story upon arrival is likewise familiar in its contours: Nicola worked hard in a job that also helped him learn English, he and Martha started a family, and when they could afford to do so they became farmers and moved to a sod house out on the prairie, nearer a much smaller town. There was another, sadder, familiarity – Martha died in childbirth with their fifth child, and the little girl, premature, died herself days later. During all this time, the Orthodox communities on the Great Plains had no priests or clergy or churches of their own, and had to rely on the one circuit-riding priest of the time, Father Raphael Hawaweeny. When Father Raphael was consecrated as a bishop in 1904 (the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in North America), he gained the authority to ordain others as priests, and Nicola Yanney was nominated by his community to be theirs. Given the scarcity of communities large enough to support priests and churches, Father Nicola would serve not only his home community in Carney, Nebraska, but most of the rest of the Great Plains for over a decade.

How Sweet the Sound


What would Black Gospel Music sound like if it blended with Eastern Orthodox liturgical tradition? Though liturgical traditions have a reputation for their timelessness, or at least for not changing, the Eastern Orthodox liturgy of singing and chanting antiphonally has changed over the past 2,000 years, particularly when Orthodoxy has met with other cultures whose own musical talents and understandings are different.

Though the broad outlines of a Russian or Greek liturgy are substantially identical, with the same prayers, the same order of service, the same structure, they do not exactly sound the same, even setting aside the language differences.  Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Shawn Wallace, Director of Jazz Studies at Ohio State University, and an Orthodox Christian himself, presented a project long in his heart.  How Sweet the Sound was a concert that presented an Orthodox vespers service as blended with, and sung in the style of Black Gospel music.

Words are inadequate to properly describe the concert.  It was beautiful, joyful, and above all worshipful, weaving traditional Gospel and other Protestant hymns in and through the prayers, psalm reading, and hymns of vespers – a service sung and chanted to mark the ending of one day, and herald the beginning of the next.  Holy Holy Holy wove in and out of Psalm 104, Wade in the Water carried, like waves Lord I have Cried, and Amazing Grace brought Psalm 117 to a beautiful crescendo.

Book Review: Memories of His Mercy


The name Peter Gilquist is incredibly well known in the Orthodox churches of America today. Father Gilquist, along with several other pastors, led a mass conversion of Evangelical churches into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1987, after nearly 15 years of searching for the historical Christian church as described in the book of Acts, and in the epistles of the New Testament. That quest is told in his more famous work, Becoming Orthodox, and in related works by others from that movement (I reviewed one such memoir, Surprised by Christ, late last year), but towards the end of his life, Reverend Gilquist wrote a different sort of work – personal memoirs of many of the key seminal moments in his life, ministries, and faith. Those memoirs were compiled and published several years after his death in the book Memories of His Mercy: Recollections of the Grace and Providence of God.  

In Memories of His Mercy, Fr. Gilquist tells stories of his upbringing within a devout Christian home, the men and women who mentored him in his family and beyond, and the courtship of the woman he would later marry. He later moves through some of his fondest memories, particularly of people whose lives touched his. His aim is not to write an overarching narrative, but a much humbler one of attempting to convey how faith, charity and empathy for others, and a strong work ethic tempered by consistent honesty can allow one, with the grace of God, to both be a blessing to others, and be blessed in turn.  

The various tales are also quite simply experiences that he genuinely enjoyed and wanted to share (such as when he helped ghost-write Johnny Cash’s autobiography in the 1970s), or of which he was particularly and personally proud (such as his involvement in the creation of the Orthodox Study Bible). His greatest personal joys were, of course, in his wife and family, and so their lives feature prominently in the stories too. Through it all he talks about how he saw every interaction with other people as an opportunity to evangelize and make friends.

Icon, Part 6: Theophany


Rejoice, O River Jordan, be glad; for within thee the Maker of all things now is here, moved by mercy to seek at a servant’s hand saving Baptism for our sakes. Dance, be glad, O Adam, and, O Eve, our foremother; God supremely good, Who is redemption for all men, is come down to dwell with us.

The Torrent of Delight, Who is Master of all things, doth come unto the river’s swift streams to be baptized; for He willed to give me drink of waters that purify. And when John beheld Him, he cried out to Him, saying: How shall I stretch out my hand upon Thy divine head, whereat all things quake with fear?  Orthros Kathisma of the Fore-feast of Theophany

Coming out of the Advent season, and the 12 days of the Nativity (Christmas), we have reached the Great Feast that marks the end of the Christmas season: Theophany. In the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches (the so-called Oriental Orthodox), Theophany is of far greater significance than the Nativity, and indeed, it is often remarked that in the early days of the Church Theophany was universally the greater occasion than the Nativity, with the Nativity having been originally intended to amplify Theophany. Outside of the liturgical Christian churches, however, this observance has largely been forgotten, which is, I would argue, a significant loss to the understanding and practice of the Christian faith.

Icon, Part 3: The Presentation of the Theotokos


“And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Luke 1: 30, ESV

November 21 (New Calendar) marks the Great Feast of The Presentation of the Theotokos, the third in the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church.  The Feast occurs one week into the Advent season, which starts on November 15, and runs until Christmas Eve Vespers, and commemorates the presentation of Mary, still a young child, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where she will live a life consecrated to God.  Like the first feast of the liturgical year, The Nativity of the Theotokos, this Feast both parallels and foreshadows other narratives, and like the earlier Nativity, it is an expression both of how special Mary had to have been to have borne the Incarnation, and of how venerated she has been since the very early days of Christianity.

As with first Feast, we are still primarily drawing on the Protoevangelion of James, a non-canonical work of the 2nd century which was both in circulation in the early days of Christianity, and much beloved by Christians for centuries afterward.  We will return to this work at least two more times in the series.

Icon, Part 2: The Elevation of the Holy Cross


The second Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year is on September 14, and marks two related events: first, the finding of The True Cross by Saint Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, and secondly, the recovery and restoration, by the emperor Heraclius, of the cross to Jerusalem after its theft by the Persian Empire in its last major war against the Romans.  This feast day is notable for being the only Great Feast day that is not commemorating any Biblical or Biblically-implied event.  It is also the last such Great Feast day until mid-November.

It is also a profound story of imperial conquests, defeats, and cycles of losing and re-finding, played out over 1700 years.  It involves the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a brutal war for the very survival of that empire, coups, assassinations, the elevation of the Cross itself as the single prevailing symbol of the faith, and many figures who loom large in our histories even today.  Its story begins even before the finding of the Cross, with a commoner named Helen, who son Constantine would fundamentally reorder the Roman world.  The story echoes even today in rural Ohio, in small but ornate wooden box, where a tiny fragment of wood, almost too small to be worth noticing, carries with it the arc of Christian history.

The History