Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Most Wonderful, Most Stunning, Most Splendid, Most Bestest Cathedral that You’ve Never Heard Of!

This picture is in honor of all the snow we've had this week!

That would be Ely Cathedral!

Ely is a small market town in Cambridgeshire, on a small rise in the fens of East Anglia.

St. Etheldreda founded an abbey there in AD 673.  The abbey was destroyed in 870 by Danish marauders, but was rebuilt by Ethelwold, the Bishop of Winchester, in 970.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1083 by the first Norman Bishop of Ely, Simon.  The history of its ongoing construction is too vast to be chronicled here.  Most dramatically, however, on the night of February 12-13, 1322, the original central tower built over the crossing collapsed, causing significant damage but causing no casualties since it happened at night.  In its place, Alan of Walsingham designed and built an octagon lantern to replace the fallen tower that soars above the crossing like a bejeweled diadem.  It has been described as one of the most singular achievements of architectural genius found in cathedrals throughout the UK. 

Along with the Lantern, construction on other aspects of the cathedral were ongoing throughout the medieval period.  Notably, the chantry chapels were added by wealthy patrons whose bequests covered the cost of having a priest regularly say mass on behalf of their souls, as well as creating beautiful chapels around their tombs in which these masses were said.

Building projects continued until under orders of Henry VIII the abbey was dissolved in 1539.  The architect George Gilbert Scott oversaw a massive restoration project from 1845-1870.  Ely Cathedral continues as the Bishop’s Seat for the Diocese of Ely in the Church of England.

My all-time favorite day out is to take the train from Cambridge to Ely (a fifteen minute ride maybe). Walk from the train station to the wonderfully named River Ouse (think Ooze), where there is a small marina and canal boats and pubs and restaurants and parks and helpful signs telling one more than one ever wanted to know about eels.  From there it is a short walk past tidy houses and medieval facades to the Cathedral Square.  At one end is a house where Oliver Cromwell lived.  Ely Cathedral escaped the depredations that many other Church of England cathedrals suffered during the English Civil Wars and Cromwell’s Protectorship, probably because of his association with the town.  After a tour of the cathedral (I’ve been on a lot and each one has been worth it!), it’s time to seek out the real reason for coming to Ely ;-) – a trip to the Almonry Tea House to have either tea and scones or, even better, brambleberry and apple pie with ice cream, all whilst sitting outside in a lovely garden in the shadow of the cathedral and its Lady Chapel.  A walk past the abbey ruins and the bishop’s residence on the way back to the train station just about undoes me every time because of the beauty unfurled with every step.  Or maybe that’s just the effect that brambleberry apple pie has on my brain.

Here are some pictures.  They really can’t do the place justice.  You’ve got to go there and experience it all in person.  Pie included.

Ely Cathedral has been called 'The Ship of the Fens'

The cathedral sits in the middle of the small market town of Ely
Ely Cathedral was one of the largest buildings north of the Alps when it was built.
It's the fourth longest cathedral in the UK.  It just goes on and on.
One approaches the western doors from Cathedral Square.
The Cromwells lived nearby.
Once you enter the Great Western Doors, and pass under the tower and into the nave,
you enter a space designed to reflect the Trinity-centered world of the Bible.  All that's missing here
is the riot of color from the paintings and decorations of the medieval church, all removed after
the English reformations.
The ceiling above the nave is Victorian
but is exquisite nonetheless.
The view from the crossing under the Lantern into the choir to the high altar.
With the choir to your back, looking past the crossing with the Lantern above down the nave
Ely Cathedral's glorious Lantern
A chantry chapel off to one side.
St. Etheldreda, whose abbey got things going 1300+ years ago.
There's a lot more, but I think I'm overwhelmed by it all and need something to help me recover.
So I think I'll just amble over through the gardens to one of my favorite tea houses anywhere.
There it is, The Almonry.  I'd like a spot of tea, please.
A scone with clotted cream and jam, and maybe a flapjack...
Or maybe a piece of brambleberry apple pie?
I think I'll be ok now.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

History, Tradition and Legend: Some Issues and Thoughts concerning the Acts 8 Account of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

I am working on a lecture to be given next week on the Origins of Christianity in Africa.  More specifically, I’ll be looking at how Christianity came to the Axumite Empire under the emperor Ezana in the first half of the fourth century.  This story is not widely known, but is well-attested by contemporary and verifiable evidence.  So it makes a good subject for a university audience, introducing an exotic (for an American audience) topic and bringing everyone up to date on the current state of the discussion around it.

But the minute one presumes to say something about the ‘origins of Christianity in Africa’, one wades into intractable controversy.  Because wasn’t ‘Africa’ ‘evangelized’ by the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch?  I put all three in quotations for a reason, because each one represents assumptions that may or may not be true, or at least misleading.

First, there is an account in the Book of Acts where the apostle Philip meets and evangelizes an individual who is described this way: ‘And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure.  He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.’ (Acts 8:27-28 ESV)  The challenge when reading a passage like this is that we are often limited by our own experiences or perspectives in how we choose to interpret this.  Take the term ‘Ethiopian’, for example.  Most today would without hesitation assume that by ‘Ethiopian’, Luke means someone from ‘Ethiopia’, which we would equate with modern day Ethiopia.  But in New Testament days, there was no such place as ‘Ethiopia’.  ‘Ethiopian’ is a Greek word that at its origins meant ‘burnt face’, i.e., dark-skinned.  So while Luke knows precisely what he is talking about, our own presuppositions tend to jump in and confuse matters.

A second issue has to do with the person the eunuch is serving.  In contemporary English translations of the New Testament, Luke describes this person as ‘Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’.  Once again, our first inclination is to interpret ‘Candace’ as a proper name, just as we might say, ‘Charles, Prince of Wales’.  However, there is no record of there being any queen named Candace in this part of the world during this time.  Because of this, we might be tempted to think Luke was fabricating ‘history’.  But a little digging uncovers the interesting fact that ‘Candace’ refers not to a person, but to a title – Kandake.  Further exploration reveals that Kandake refers to a woman who ruled either as a regent during the minority of her son, or as empress in her own right.  Moreover, the Kandake ruled, not over ‘Ethiopia’, but most likely over Meroe, a kingdom south of Egypt at the confluence of the Tacassi and the Nile rivers.

An artist's rendering of the Kandake

We are not told anything else in Luke’s account.  We don’t know what happened to the man.  We don’t know if he became an evangelist for his new faith, and if so, if he met with any success amongst his own people.  We are not told if any new churches were started as a result of his efforts.  We are just given his singular example of an African man responding to the good news explained by Philip.

So here is a case where we have textual evidence (the Book of Acts) of the conversion of an African man who was an official of the Kandake of Meroe.  And while we do not have corroborating evidence that would enable us to say this absolutely happened, we also do not have evidence that would cause us to question the veracity of Luke’s account.

So, ‘All’s well that ends well’?  Um, no.  Of course.

When I was living in Addis Ababa, I had the privilege of meeting the then Abuna Paulos (of blessed memory) in his reception room along with a group of students from my daughter’s school.  On one of the walls was a beautiful icon of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.  Turns out, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) officially traces their origin to the conversion of this man as recorded by Luke.  Christianity was then brought to Ethiopia, and through his efforts the church had its beginnings here.

With His Holiness the Abuna Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

And if that were not enough, Eusebius writes in his Ecclesiastical History (NFNP2-01):

But as the preaching of the Saviour’s Gospel was daily advancing, a certain providence led from the land of the Ethiopians an officer of the queen of that country, for Ethiopia even to the present day is ruled, according to ancestral custom, by a woman.  He, first among the Gentiles, received of the mysteries of the divine word from Philip in consequence of a revelation, and having become the first-fruits of believers throughout the world, he is said to have been the first on returning to his country to proclaim the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life-giving sojourn of our Saviour among men; so that through him in truth the prophecy obtained its fulfillment, which declares that ‘Ethiopia stretches out her hand unto God.’

In this case, the Tradition held by the EOTC and also found in Eusebius indicates that the man converted under Philip’s ministry went on to be the means of the gospel coming to the ‘Ethiopians’.  There are several options as to what’s going on here. 

First, the gospel may indeed have first been brought to Ethiopia by this official.  He may have preached among his own people, and his preaching may have resulted in conversions.  And churches may have been established.  In which case he would have been the apostle to the Ethiopians, and the icon in the Abuna’s reception hall would be accurately presenting the origin of the EOTC.

Secondly, the gospel may indeed have been brought to ‘Ethiopians’ by the official, but the ‘Ethiopians’ of these early documents in no way correspond to the way we today understand ‘Ethiopians’ to be.  If this is the case, then it is plausible that Eusebius is passing on accurate information about the origins of a church among the ‘Ethiopians.’  It’s just that his use of Ethiopian corresponds to historical Meroe and the surrounding peoples along the upper Nile and its tributaries.  This would mean that there is probably no continuity between the events recorded in Acts 8 and the origins of the EOTC.  This also does not imply that there is historical continuity between Acts 8 and the later Christian kingdoms along the Nile that persisted until the fourteenth century.

The al-Ghazali Monastery in Nubia, northern Sudan, which dates from the early 7th century,

Thirdly, both Eusebius and Ethiopian tradition may be involved in reconstructing history/tradition by word association.  Eusebius is aware of the prophecy in Isaiah concerning ‘Ethiopia will stretch forth her hand to God’.  And the story of the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch’s conversion may be too tempting a plot line not to fill out in order to ‘prove’ the fulfillment of prophecy.  The same with the EOTC.  There may be an eagerness to view any biblical reference to ‘Ethiopia’ or to ‘Ethiopians’ as referring to contemporary Ethiopia.  But as we have seen, ‘Ethiopia’ does not necessarily mean ‘Ethiopia’, and an ‘Ethiopian’ is not necessarily an ‘Ethiopian’

Nubian Bishop and the Theotokos

Among the challenges posed here is to figure out the difference between legitimate Tradition (that which is handed down from the Apostles to the present day and which is authoritative for the Church) and legend.  Eusebius is writing some three hundred years after the events he discusses.  What are his sources, and are they conveying information that is accurate, or are they taking liberty with the historical record for polemical reasons?  And the same questions need to be asked of the EOTC’s tradition concerning the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch.  What are their sources?  Do they reflect unbroken ‘Tradition’ from the event itself.  Or do the sources betray a fabrication of history, again for polemical purposes?

Nubian - from a 9th century icon of the Resurrection

The great problem here is that we just don’t know.  We ourselves are not acquainted with the sources used either by Eusebius or by the EOTC.  We cannot therefore make a judgment based on evidence, one way or another.  What we are left with are our own prejudices – the very things we are inclined to accuse our ancient sources of harboring.  So while it is not safe to verify the accounts presented by Eusebius and the EOTC of the connection between Acts 8 and Ethiopian Christianity, it is also unsafe to nullify those accounts.  We are already aware of how easy it is to misinterpret passages because we aren’t fully acquainted with what certain significant words (in this case, ’Candace’ or ‘Ethiopian’) mean in their context.  This makes (or at least should make) us cautious of being too quick to dismiss a Scripture passage or a Church Tradition as being in error.  It is just as likely that we will be the ones shown to be in error when all is said and done.

Columns from a church in old Dongola, capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria

So at the present time, we can say that the Acts 8 account of the ‘Ethiopian’ eunuch likely refers to an African man serving in the court of the Kandake of Meroe in present-day Sudan.  Eusebius, and the Tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church recount that this man’s subsequent ministry resulted in Christianity being introduced to the Ethiopians.  Presently, there is no corroborating evidence of a mid- to late-first century church in Axum or areas that might plausibly be considered to be ‘Ethiopia’ at the time.  However, as is often said, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  It just means that we can only report the claims, the issues and the current state of the evidence as they presently are.  Which means the most we can say currently with respect to Acts 8 and the origins of the Ethiopian Church is a resounding if unsatisfying ‘maybe’.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hard Work of Getting There

Christ is in our midst!

I wrote my PhD thesis on Richard Baxter, who was a Church of England pastor during the most tumultuous decade of England’s revolutionary 17th century.  His book, The Reformed Pastor (1656), became the most influential book in English on pastoral ministry for the next three centuries.  Baxter was absolutely convinced that the spiritual growth, what he called the ‘reformation’ of the parish, was dependent upon the reformation or transformation of the priest.  A priest who was ignorant or was spiritually unconcerned would inevitably lead his parish away from Christ.  Whereas a priest who was himself a committed disciple of Christ, whose heart was tender, teachable and growing in Christ – this kind of shepherd God could use to bless His people (see my book Reformation Pastors: Richard Baxter and the Ideal of the Reformed Pastor, 2004).

One thing led to another
This was born out in Baxter’s own remarkable ministry in the town of Kidderminster.  And successive generations have proven the worth of Baxter’s take on the priest’s and pastor’s call.  Churches served by ignorant, corrupt or uncommitted ministers tend not to thrive, whereas churches led by clergy who are educated, committed and themselves growing in Christ tend to experience what Baxter calls ‘reformation’.

Nairobi Orthodox seminary students and faculty with his Eminence Makarios Archbishop of Kenya and his Beatitude Theodros, Patriarch of Alexandria

This is why I am so passionate about theological education in Kenya.  We have the opportunity for these brief couple of years to engage and train the next generation of ministers for Christ’s Church, not just across Kenya but across sub-Saharan Africa as well.  Our input now will have a strategic impact, not just on the lives of these men, but on the hundreds and thousands of the faithful whom they serve.  The history of modern warfare teaches us that if one sends out soldiers who are poorly equipped into battle, then that battle is lost before it is even begun.  And in a religious landscape riven by heresies, corruption and ignorance, we who are so resource-rich have the opportunity to help our brothers and sisters in Kenya get the kind of education and equipping they so desperately need to lead God’s Churches there.

This is Kibera in Nairobi.  There is an Orthodox Church here.  The priest was trained at our seminary.  He also took classes from me at St. Paul's University as he worked on his BA.

As you know, I have been invited by His Eminence Makarios, the Archbishop of Kenya, to serve under his omophorion as Lecturer in History and Theology at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi.  I’ve also been invited to resume my position as Senior Lecturer in History and Theology  at St. Paul’s University in Limuru and Nairobi.  At both institutions I will be helping to train the next generation of leaders for God’s churches.  Like Baxter, I believe that helping these men to grow in Christ and equipping them to help the people in their churches grow in Christ is the most strategic investment one can make.

Yours truly teach a seminar on Christology at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Some of you are making that investment already, helping me by becoming monthly supporters of my missionary work in Kenya.  Others have joined my support team by committing to pray for me, my work and my students.  Presently I can account for 60% of the support I need.  That means I need to come up with more than 40% before I can return to Nairobi and take up my calling there.  Would you pray about joining my support team?  In particular, I need people willing to become monthly contributors for the next two years.  Some could give $100 or more a month; some perhaps $50/month; others $25/month.  You can start right now – just follow this link to my OCMC webpage and follow the instructions when you click on the ‘support’ button at the bottom of the page: .

With my students in remote SW Ethiopia to see first hand the situation with the churches there.

I currently need another 26 people who are willing to give $100/month if my participation in this work is to become a reality.  This seems impossible from where I stand right now.  But then every step I’ve taken over this past year has seemed impossible to me.  I’ve always known that when God calls, He also provides.  Even if I cannot fathom how.

With my students in the field (which, by the way, are white with harvest).

Thank you so much for walking with a praying me through these past months.  I actually have much to thank God for right here and now while I wait to see how God answers prayers concerning my support.  First, I was asked by our local YMCA to come back to the job from which I was downsized last year.  This has given me an income while I walk through my own season of transition.  I am thankful to God that I have the means to pay my bills.  Secondly, and most importantly, my daughter Caroline and her beau Will announced their engagement before Christmas and plan to marry on May 23 in Orlando, FL!  I am so happy for them! (And grateful to have a job so that I can do my part to cover their wedding expenses!).

One final goal for prayer:  If my support comes in this Spring, I am hoping to make my transition to Kenya after Caroline and Will’s wedding in late May/early June.  Please pray with me to this end.

Thanks so much for your support and your prayers.


Tentative Travel Schedule – Come and see me!
Feb 7, Saturday             Hilton Head Island Marathon
Feb 8, Sunday               Holy Resurrection Greek Orthodox Church, Hilton Head, SC
Feb 10, Tuesday            St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church, Watkinsville, GA
Feb 10, Tuesday            University of Georgia, Athens, GA, Lecture
Feb 14-15, Sat-Sun        St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church, Souderton, PA
Feb 27, Friday               University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, Lecture
Mar 15, Sunday             St. Mary Orthodox Church (OCA), Falls Church, VA
Mar 27, Friday              University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, Presenter
Apr 25-26 Sat-Sun        Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Linthicum, MD
May 3, Sunday              St. Luke Orthodox Church (OCA), McLean, VA 
May 23, Saturday          Caroline and Will’s Wedding!  Orlando, FL
End of May???              Leave for Nairobi???

I am available to come and speak at your Church or your group.  Email me at and we can make plans.

With my daughter Linnea after we ran the 'Marine Corps Historic Half' Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, VA last year.  The race on Saturday will be a bit longer.

Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(877) GO FORTH (463-6784)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Living with Ghosts

I heard an interview with members of the Punch Boys on NPR this morning and was arrested as one of them described what has become a common occurrence when they are giving a concert.  He talked about looking out from the stage into the darkness and seeing all of these bluish faces illuminated by their smart phone screens – scores, hundreds of people doing things on their screens while the concert is going on.  He said that, from the stage, they looked like ghosts, little disconnected apparitions desperately looking for connections in this hyper-connected world.

I’ve experienced this as well – at symphony concerts in Nairobi, in movie theatres here in the US.  I’ve watched a mother hand her iphone over to her 5 year old during church, and I’ve seen grownups twiddling with their screens during sermons.  The last time I was preaching regularly in a Protestant context, it was mercifully before smart phones were in widespread use (in Ethiopia, at least).  Even so, before every service we had to announce to the hundreds in the congregation that, for the sake of their neighbor, they really needed to turn their phones off.  Since I was long-winded in the pulpit and not so much into the ‘entertain me’ style of so much contemporary preaching, I’m sure my sermons would have provided golden opportunities for my hearers to improve their scores on their latest word games, had the means been at hand.

Today, the means are at hand.  We are connected to more information than we could possibly manage, we are connected to more people than we could possible engage with (I’ve got 350+ facebook ‘friends’, and I know people with more than 1000.)  Many of us are able to work from home because of our ease of connection, supposedly giving us more time to do the things we want to do.  We can drive without grumbling at misdirected spouses or cursing handwritten directions that left out step 14, listening instead to a pleasant disembodied voice patiently lead us to our destination accompanied by yet another glowing screen on our dashboard that shows us instantly where in the universe we actually are in real time.  So helpful!  All the things which gave our parents and grandparents and all previous generations some modicum of pleasure, we have in spades.  We can even play spades without a deck of cards, or even without other players.  My grandparents used to gather around the big radio console and listen to the news or to radio shows like the Lone Ranger or Jack Benny.  I don’t even need a radio anymore – I can listen to NPR’s morning edition on my laptop while I’m stretching before a morning run, or even on my morning run.  And TV used to be 3 channels + the upstart PBS.  Hindsight tells us we were incredibly impoverished and deprived, with our evening choices limited to the likes of ‘Green Acres’ and ‘Petticoat Junction’ and maybe ‘Bonanza’ if one was that kind of guy.  Today it’s anything anyone might want 24/7.  It’s like a Chinese buffet with 3000 items to choose from.

It has happened with breath-taking speed.  In a matter of just a few short years these tools that were (I suppose) intended to help us live our lives more efficiently have instead become our lives.  Reality is increasingly not enough.  Why would any sane person want to distract themselves with ephemera while listening to live music? Or having a conversation with a real person? Or going for a walk outside?  The answer is because we are increasingly no longer sane. 
We in the West are engaged in a vast project of dehumanization, increasingly desensitized to what makes us human.  We were created in the image of God for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor.  But increasingly we are becoming mere parodies of our true identity, what Isaiah the Prophet calls an idol.  We have eyes, but cannot see; mouths but cannot speak; noses but cannot smell; ears but cannot hear.  We have arms and legs but cannot move.  Desperately reaching out, wanting connection, craving life.  With increasing desperation attempting to satisfy ourselves with that which does not, which cannot satisfy.  We have been conned into thinking that the virtual will give us what we’ve been told we need.  But we end up missing completely the real.  With the result that our lives are wasted on things that do not matter.  We are becoming instead shadows, shades, ghosts, bumping into other ghosts, but too busy with the promises on our screens to see or care.

I am sitting at the local coffee house as I write this, underneath a bulletin board full of local announcements, opportunities and adverts.  And I am struck by what’s on offer:  there’s a card from the Awakening Resource Center, another from Spirit Joy Coaching, another advertising a Qigong Workshop with Master Li, yet another for ‘Sheng Zhen Gong with Jill!’  One can ‘Explore your Chakras with Kim and Sohan’ or participate in ‘Community Yoga with Holly’.  And that’s just the half of the board that I can see from where I’m sitting.

The symptoms are there for anyone with eyes to see.  We are terribly sick, and looking in all the wrong places for help and meaning and connection.  We are becoming C.S. Lewis’s spectral inhabitants of hell in The Great Divorce, who take bus tours of heaven but cannot stand the presence of the really real and rush back with relief to their empty shadow world.  Of course, those of us who are Christians are just as likely to have bought into the prevailing cultural norms.  It’s shouldn’t surprise that ‘the world’ behaves like the world.  But it should tell us something important that so many Christians feel a need to do the same.  Perhaps we, too, have a desperate need to reexamine our primary, fundamental connections.  There usually is a reason behind the fever.

Look at the birds of the air, says Jesus.  They don’t sow or reap, but the Lord provides what they need.  And the flowers of the field – they don’t spin or weave, but God makes them more beautiful than the most stunning human celebrity.  And who has ever found love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control on a screen?  But seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.

Just saying.

So would I rather see Pope Francis, or look at him on my screen?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Modern Christian Life and the Myth of Moral Progress

I have been following with great interest the discussion initiated by Fr. Stephen Freeman on his blog ‘Glory to God’ on the topic of moral progress (, and others). Taken at face value, I have found his engagement on this issue to be profoundly helpful, until I realize that his perspective, if true, overturns the entire way I have understood my Christian life – at least my pre-Orthodox Christian life.  Like any revolution, this is both exhilarating and deeply unsettling.

Fr. Stephen’s contention is that Christianity in general, and the Christian life in particular is not a moral project.  The gospel is not about taking bad people and making them good, or at least better.  Now, maybe I misunderstood things when I was growing up, and then when I was a Christian leader at university, and then a seminary student, and then a pastor and a missionary and seminary teacher, but along with the emphasis on God’s grace (if mercy is God not giving to me what I deserve, grace is God giving to me what I don’t deserve), came the assumption that the Christian life (the life of discipleship, the Spirit-filled life, however it is described) was a matter of progressively laying aside sin and becoming more and more like Christ.  This, of course, was done, not as a quid pro quo, but out of ‘gratitude,’ so we were taught.  So while there was the constant note of ‘grace’ being sounded from the pulpits and Bible studies and in our pious books, there was the equally strong insistence that our ‘salvation’ be matched by lives that looked saved.  But because of our inherited allergic reaction to all things Roman Catholic, this could never be understood as ‘salvation by works’; we were, after all, ‘saved by grace through faith’, regardless of what James had to say in the second chapter of his letter. 

Amongst many Fundamentalists and Pentecostals, this insistence on a requisite and subsequent holiness was overt, in that there were certain behaviors that the ‘saved’ simply did not do, like drink or dance or play cards or be caught unchaperoned with a person of the opposite sex, among other things.  We Evangelicals thought we did better by getting rid of the overt ‘legalism’ of our Fundamentalist cousins, but the insistence that we progress in Christ (I think ‘grow’ was the operative term) was just as strong.  This might be seen in our insistence on a morning quiet time, or on Scripture memory, or on ‘doing’ evangelism or helping at the soup kitchen.  We were told that we must be ‘pure’ and chaste when it came to our sexual lives.  Our marriages were supposed to be strong and getting better.  Our children were to be disciplined ‘in the Lord’ and be Eagle Scout material, or at least, like Lake Woebegone’s young people, all above average.

I can only speak for myself.  The great dissonance of my Christian life is that I have not experienced any of the moral progress that I was told Christianity was meant to facilitate.  I am not a better person than I was when I ‘accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord’ as a fourteen-year-old.  And in most aspects, I am worse.  All of the sins that I struggled with as a teenager are still besetting sins.  Not only that, I’ve discovered a whole raft of new sins that weren’t a part of my portfolio when I started out on this pilgrimage.  What the hell is going on!?  I have no excuses.  I can’t claim ignorance.  I was Evangelicalism’s poster child in terms of opportunity. I had access to the best Evangelical training, the best teaching, the most awesome associations.  But day after day after day, when the sun went down, I was still very much the same person that watched the sun come up that morning.

I was in denial about this discrepancy for decades.  I bought into what turned out to be a spiritual Ponzi scheme: keep bringing more and more people into the church through our ‘evangelism’ and we will appear to be ‘growing’, while pretty much everyone else who has been around for a while is still working on the same old issues.  I myself really believed I was a blessed somebody.  But with increasing clarity, I have noted with dismay just how far short I have fallen.  With pain I recount how I have walked through a series of overwhelmingly challenging circumstances, none of which have brought out me at my best but rather displayed me at my worst.  As a Protestant, I was supposed to celebrate the light of salvation, preach and teach the light of salvation, live the light of salvation.  But in my own life the long dark night never gave way to a dawn; just to more of the same.  The closest I ever came to finding relief was from the old DC Talk chorus from their song ‘In the Light’:

‘What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior.
This only serves to confirm my suspicions,
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior’

But I thought I was ‘saved’!  It was one thing to struggle with this sin and that sin as a teenager.  But to still be struggling in my twenties just did not seem right.  And when my thirties and my forties found me in the pulpit passing on to congregations everything I had been taught about grace and sanctification but finding myself unable to live it, this I found not just embarrassing, but deeply disorienting as well.  And it wasn’t like I was leading a double life – I was constantly reaching out to friends and colleagues around me, constantly trying to be vulnerable about what I was experiencing, constantly sharing with my spouse and friends what was going on.  But nobody had any answer, other than to leave me with the vague sense that the problem was with me, that if I was just this or that, or if I just got my act together, I could get back on the escalator of sanctification.  I understand their frustration with me.  They were all playing with the same hand I was dealt.  It’s one thing to listen to someone, to share your own helpful perspective, and then see that person go on to experience ‘victory in Christ’.  But when that person just keeps dealing with variations of the same thing for years, even decades, well, what can you do?  Maybe, surely, it’s their fault?  Or maybe your answers don’t actually work.

I had come to the conclusion in 2008 that my long-held, long-believed, long-preached and taught Protestant theology of salvation simply was not working.  It no longer made sense.  It seemed wholly different in emphasis from what I was reading in the New Testament.  According to my own received theology, I was a serial backslider.  It was a cycle that simply went round and round.  And I was a part of that section of Christianity that worked very hard to determine what bad sins excluded one from the party and what other ones could be ignored or redefined as being not sinful after all.  The focus was on what pleased God (i.e. keeping God’s law), and thus whether or not one was in the right or in the wrong.  And I kept finding myself in the wrong – in my thought life, in my war with lust, in my marriage.  And after having tried every variation I could think of, and every suggestion from all the Evangelical Christian life books that I had devoured, prayed every prayer, started multiple accountability groups, I determined that I must be self-deluded, and that a wrathful God was about to call in the chips, that I was about to find myself attempting entry to the wedding feast in the wrong clothes.  And we know how that story ended.

from Martin's Doodles

It was the constant zig zag in and out of condemnation, in and out of forgiveness, that I found untenable.  With the Western churches’ emphasis on a just God and our need for salvation explained and resolved forensically, the ‘Gospel’ made sense for someone who was initially ‘coming to Christ’ and ‘repenting’ and asking God for forgiveness.  Such a person is received by God just as he or she is.  Sins are forgiven, Christ’s righteousness replaces every deficit, heaven replaces hell as the final destination.  But what if the said ‘saved’ person continues to struggle with sin, continues to ‘backslide’ (a term usually applied to ‘major’ sins, usually of the flesh), continues repent and ask forgiveness?  What if this just keeps going on year after year?  Is this person saved?  What sort of ‘salvation’ can this possibly be?

When I discovered Orthodoxy, I didn’t just discover a variation on this way of doing salvation and the Christian life and Christian theology; I found a different way of understanding the Gospel and our response entirely.  Salvation is not about having my sins forgiven, being on God’s right side, about having my legal issues before a holy God happily resolved and thus getting into heaven.  Salvation is not about me becoming a better person, a holy person, a person who can finally keep God’s law.  Instead, salvation comes to all who know they fall short, who know their choices have alienated them from God and from the people around them, who call out for mercy, who are met as the returning prodigal is met by the running Father. 

Salvation, in the Eastern Churches, is repentance, that posture and action prompted by seeing ourselves as we really are, crying out for the mercy from God without which we will surely perish, turning from those ways and thoughts that have so mangled us and pleading with God for healing.  And God surely receives and forgives and heals.  Salvation is also the reconciliation and restoration that occurs in our relationships, with God and with all those around us, especially those we have hurt.  God invites us to participate in the love of the Holy Trinity itself, to receive love and to give love.  It is a different way of seeing, of living, of being that we are invited into, and we find ourselves part of the transformation that God is recreating all around us.  God the Holy Trinity loves us profoundly.  And our response is not intended to be, ‘Ok, now keep God’s law!  Become a better person!  Become a holy person!’  Instead, the response that God’s love invites is love itself.  God saves us in love, by love so that we might share this love and love Him and those around us.  Jesus himself, when asked what the most important law was, said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and all your soul.  And love your neighbor as yourself.’  And now we know how – just as Jesus as loved us.  But salvation will also be our deliverance from death and everything that means in our own lives and in this sin-blighted world of ours.  We were created for paradise, with spirits like the angels and bodies for living in this material world.  But instead we have inherited brokenness, catastrophe, sickness, death and decay – all consequences of our choice not to love.  After His crucifixion and death, Jesus broke its power by His divinity, and raised His humanity to transfigured new life, the first fruits of what God intends for all humanity.  We, too, will be set free from death’s power, from decay’s stench, from the moldering dust of lives long forgotten.  All of us will experience the power of God, this miracle of God, which will touch each of us in the most personal, intimate way – you and I will be saved from death and all that it has ever done to us.  And every tear will be dried.

Thus my invitation into Orthodoxy was an invitation into love, to receive love from a God who doesn’t stand in threatening judgment over me, to receive a love that unworks the damage I’ve done to myself through my disordered thinking and living and that others have done to me, a love that brings healing, and a love that then calls from me a love in return – loving God who so loves me, loving my neighbor who I see every day, and even loving my enemy who may not deserve it, but who will be loved anyway because I recall that I could not earn such love as this either.

After all the fear, all the guilt, all the condemnation, all the rejection I received and felt, especially in these later years when I began to grapple in earnest with my own brokenness, the Gospel I heard from the Orthodox people I began to know was something different from what I had experienced previously.  It got my attention.  It startled me.  It made me wonder why I hadn’t been told this before.

I certainly blame no one but myself for what I experienced in my 50 years in Protestant churches.  All of the people I interacted with and worked with for all of those years were just like me, doing the best we could with what we knew.  If anyone else was struggling with being a sinner, I was all the more, and so I am in no position to condemn anyone.  I can only hope that they too can enter more fully into what I have begun to taste and see, namely that the Lord is good, and that His mercy endures forever.

A couple of years ago, I had been kicked out of my house by my wife.  Obviously things between us were not good.  We were missionaries at the time, teachers at different theological colleges.  I hardly knew what to do or where to go.  I was too ashamed to ask friends to take me in.  I was also afraid that if word got out that my wife was now separated, her mission (the one that had already dismissed me for becoming Orthodox) might do the same to her.  In desperation I went to the Roman Catholics and was told there was a monastery about 5 miles from the university where I taught.  And when I went there and explained what my situation was to the brother in charge, he took me in.  I lived at that monastery for nearly 4 months.  I didn’t tell anyone that I was separated, out of fear, out of shame.  Finally, I had arranged to invite my priest who was also my spiritual father to visit the several Orthodox priests who were students where I taught.  We both had been very busy, and I had not been able to tell him what was going on in my life.  After he finished having tea with the students, I showed him around and then, as we were walking to the car, I told him about my separation.  I told him that I didn’t think I should be singing in the choir, or serving as a Reader in the Church.  I would instead just stand in the back, if he felt that was the best thing.  At this, the Father stopped me and looked at me and simply said, ‘We Orthodox, we struggle together.’  I believe this is the most healing thing anybody has said to me ever. 

Before I felt trapped in a ministry of condemnation.  Today I have hope.  Before, my closest relationships and associations judged me on the basis of what I did or didn’t do.  Today I am learning what love really is.  Before, I spiraled repeatedly into depression and could not understand what was going on inside of me.  Today, God is working his healing, bringing His perspective to bear on my life and my heart.  Before I was riding on a never-ending escalator, ever upwards in an attempt to grow in holiness, get better, live the ‘Christian life’.  Now I understand that what God wants from me is not my perfection but my repentance. 

As Christos Yannaras writes,

Those who have trusted in ‘themselves that they were righteous’ (Luke 18:9) exclude themselves from the Kingdom.  They themselves have shut themselves out of the wedding-feast and remained content with their virtues, with the self-satisfaction afforded by their moral attainments.  They have no need for God except to reward their individual performance.  This is why the Pharisee who keeps the Law faithfully, is not justified before God, even though he is ‘not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,’ but indeed ‘fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses’; for he does not justify his existence as a personal fact of communion and relationship with God, beyond corruption and death.  The Publican weighed down as he is by a multitude of sins, is justified because he feels his own inadequacy as an individual and seeks God’s mercy, that is to say participation in the life that is grace, a gift of love (Luke 18:10-14).  (ChristosYannaras, The Freedom of Morality, 59)

I struggled for decades as a Christian because I was given the very strong impression by friends, colleagues and leaders that my salvation would be matched (verified) by my progressive sanctification.  But nobody could say how sanctified I needed to be in order to be sanctified enough.  And nobody was willing to make the connection between this and being saved by works, because we all knew that we couldn’t be saved by works – that was a Catholic error.  So we all found ourselves on the ramp of moral progress, or ‘spiritual growth’, where we were to become more like Jesus.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but I was never in danger of becoming like Jesus, and I suspect that the same is true for just about everybody else I know.  We all get by because we either lower the standards, or ignore them – but who gives us the authority to do either?  Or we're simply deluded.  So a Christianity, a salvation that leads to the necessity  of moral progress is a perversion of the gospel. Jesus did not come to make us better.  And if He did, then, um, it didn’t work.

Instead, the mountains and hills are made low.  The first made last, and the last first.  Undone publicans find God’s mercy and the religious professional leaves with only her/his self-righteousness.  It’s the sick who need a physician, not the ‘healthy.’ 

I, for one, am grateful.