Monday, May 21, 2007

A Timeline of Church History

Here is something worth checking out. It is a timeline of the Orthodox Church, with many imbedded links to lots of information. It provides a good overview of significant events between Pentecost and the present day.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Orthodox are from Mars; Evangelicals are from Venus

I recently came across an interesting article written by Mr. Jim Ellis of the Associated Press. Called “God for Guys” with the subtitle of, “Sports-Oriented Terminology Used To Attract Men to Church,” the article focuses on the attempts of several evangelical pastors across the country to address the problem of declining male membership in their churches.

Various studies have been conducted over the years to examine the “gender imbalance” of American congregations. One prominent survey indicates that the average U.S. adult church congregation is 61% female, and another found that most churches are only about 35% male. Clearly “church going” is not high on the priority list for most American men.

According to David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church (Thomas Nelson, 2004), “Going to church is perceived as womanly behavior. We don’t go to church for the same reason we don’t wear pink.” Chuck McKeown, the pastor of the United Brethren in Christ in Holy Hill, Florida added with concern, “If the church is going to survive, we have to get men plugged back in.”

Clearly there is something deeply wrong with the way that Americans “do church”. The question I have is whether evangelicals will be able to determine the true cause of the problem and confront it, or whether they will simply trot out a new batch of “seeker-sensitive” gimmicks to create a more masculine façade for their churches and declare the issue solved. Unfortunately, the pastors highlighted in the article seem to have opted for the latter. As you may have guessed from the aforementioned subtitle, sports-themed services are now being offered to lure men back to church.

I kid you not.

In some of these churches, special “guys-only” services are now being held each week in the more masculine-friendly environment of the gymnasium rather than in sissy church sanctuaries, with the worship leaders going by the macho title of “coach” instead of “pastor”. Other churches are offering men’s barbecue services, with your choice of chicken or burgers, after which the grill-monkeys separate into smaller discussion groups, perhaps to savor the rich, masculine flavor of the day’s suggested bible passage.

Other thoughtful changes include cutting the length of Sunday services in half, presumably so that men won’t get bored and will be able to get back home to their TVs in time to watch the real game, and introducing worship music designed to appeal more to masculine tastes. Now there’s a change long overdue! The cuddly Jesus depicted in much of contemporary Christian music, who wants to kiss our boo-boos and help us feel better about our inadequacies, plays rather poorly with most men. At least with those men who don’t wear pink.

Leon Podles, author of the book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence, 1999), wrote that the historic roots of this problem in evangelicalism go back a tiny bit. “The Second Great Awakening, during the early 1800s, helped to advance the liberation of women and changed some of the dynamics of churchgoing,” Podles writes. “Not only were women attracted to the sweeping reforms pushed by revivalists of the period, but the evangelists would attempt to reach men through their wives, hoping the wives would pressure husbands and sons to join them in church.”

If I am interpreting Podles correctly, it would seem that evangelicalism, eventually born of this American Protestant “Great Awakening” movement, became at its very founding a largely feminine-oriented phenomenon, overwhelmingly populated by—God help us—nagging wives! Nearly a century and a half later, this was cleverly portrayed by Norman Rockwell in his famous painting “Sunday Morning”:

Notwithstanding the obvious error that evangelicals engage in when they deny the actual historical origins of their sect and attempt to portray their movement as authentically representing “First-century” Christianity, there is also the matter of the basic denial of just how much influence feminine sensibilities have had on shaping their distinctive theology during the short time they have actually existed upon this earth. This issue goes well beyond the girly music and soft décor evident in many churches, right to the heart of what they believe about salvation and the nature of the Christian life itself.

If you read about what really took place in the first centuries of Christianity and what was believed by our early Fathers, you will discover a much more militant form of the faith. The history of the first 300 years of Christianity is unmistakably written in the blood of the martyrs. Men put themselves and the lives of their entire families at great and imminent risk if they dared profess belief in Christ. In those days the gospel wasn’t presented by women with big hair and too much makeup, batting their over-laden eyelashes and sobbing, “Jesus just wants to come into your life and show you how much He loves you!” By contrast, many Roman men came to faith in Christ by witnessing the courage and manly determination demonstrated by Christians who chose brutal torture and horrible death over denying Jesus Christ. Like it or not, it is in the nature of men to respond favorably to that kind of brave commitment, and to take it very seriously.

Far from frightening men away from Christian faith, the fiery crucible of Roman persecution actually attracted men to the faith, who found in the witness of the martyrs something truly worth living and dying for themselves. Men are funny that way.

Beyond the ever-present threat of martyrdom, early Christianity also portrayed itself as “the narrow and difficult way” leading to salvation, and a life of spiritual warfare and ascetic struggle. Our early Fathers were true and manly spiritual warriors, wrestling not against the flesh and blood of others as Islamic jihadists do, but against the sins and corruption of their own fallen human nature in order to be conformed by the grace of God into the image of the perfect humanity of Christ. Long vigils of prayer, strict fasting, many prostrations, watchfulness, and ongoing repentance were a few among the many elements which formed the very backbone of the early Church’s understanding of Christ’s command to “deny yourself daily, take up your cross, and follow Me”.

St. Paul well understood the value of such intensive asceticism (“athletic discipline”), though his words are frequently reinterpreted to “spiritualize” and soften their meaning today. Paul often used the metaphor of athletic competition to characterize the Christian faith, speaking of the need to train well, to run with endurance, to compete as to win. He never indicated that simply entering the race would guarantee the prize, but that victory must be won. He wrote to the Corinthians of his own physical conditioning which he directly connected to his hoped-for spiritual victory, telling them that he buffeted his own body, to bring it under submission, “lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Contemporary evangelicalism is decidedly opposed to such portrayals of the Christian life, which is understandable given the feminine influence that has shaped it. Until recently at least, it was still safe to say that most women were somewhat less attracted to intense struggle, competition, and dying for a good cause than their men, who are simply wired differently. This is another reason why evangelicals long ago set aside the study of early Christian Patristics, and fairly breeze over them in their seminaries. Such writings appear too “hard edged” to modern sensitivities, and delicate evangelical theologians routinely dismiss the early Christians as “having forgotten the gospel of salvation by grace” and of substituting “the theology of works” in its place.

Today’s evangelicalism presents the very picture of salvation without struggle. By simply saying a sinner’s prayer or by shyly raising your hand when everyone else’s heads are bowed, you are instantly and eternally saved. The “narrow and difficult way” of Christianity that Jesus taught is now seen as the narrow and difficult way to Christianity. In other words, the only hard part is moving from unbelief to belief in Christ; after that you are welcomed into the loving arms of Jesus who will take all your hurts away and grant you the abundant life. Rather than being characterized as a diligent and determined commitment to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us,” and “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), the Christian life has been redefined as a “relationship” (A somewhat soft and feminine description, found nowhere in the bible) in which Jesus promises never to leave us or forsake us, but to love us forever ("Sigh"…doesn’t He sound just dreamy?).

In the bible, we are told that if we believe in Jesus we will be saved. Early Christians understood that the term “believe in Jesus” implied a lifelong reliance upon Him and a determined, faithful obedience to His commandments, without turning back from the effort or denying Him before men. Salvation was seen as the undeserved but gracious crown bestowed by God upon the spiritual athlete who so labored out of love for Him. Christian history is filled with many “hero stories” of courageous men (And women, by the way!) who boldly “fought the good fight” and persevered in the faith with patience until the end.

For salvation purposes, evangelicals interpret all the bible verses which call us to “believe in Jesus” so that they no longer represent a lifetime of actions, but a single action, a one-time declared “acceptance” of Christ that forever seals salvation and ushers one instantly into “the Sabbath rest of God”. Contrast this with earlier Christianity which saw the initial acceptance of Christ as marking the beginning of “the great contest” in which the believer entered into the “arena of souls” to battle against the passions of the fallen flesh and the invisible forces of evil to emerge transformed and victorious by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.

The salvation scheme of evangelicalism reminds me of the new children’s sports that are now being pushed by “progressives” in the public education system which allow no competition, no victors or losers, no hurt feelings, and everyone wins an equal prize for simply entering the game. Dear God, the Venusians have landed and have taken over our schools and our churches! No wonder real men prefer to stay home and watch football on Sunday mornings. At least in that setting the outcome is still decided by blood and struggle.

Some of the Orthodox churches in the Old Countries have also experienced a decline in men over the last century, and have sometimes been characterized as “full of children and old Babushkas”. Thankfully this trend has been reversing in recent days in many regions. Nevertheless the problem with the Orthodox churches there is different from the problem with evangelical churches here. There it is simply the old familiar human problem of sin, and many men’s reluctance to submit their lives to Jesus Christ. Here the problem is not just with our men, but with the evangelical churches themselves and the feminized theology they promote. Men are warriors by nature, and denied the opportunity to fight and struggle in church, they truly do prefer to stay home and at least watch others do it on the football field.

The answer to this is not sports-themed services, but perhaps a return to Pauline sports-themed theology. Men need to struggle and compete and emerge victorious. We are simply built that way. While I deeply appreciate women’s efforts to subdue the worst of those traits in us and make us men more civilized, I fear that in evangelical Christianity they have been overly successful and have emasculated the Christian faith in most of their churches. Evangelicalism is not going to reverse this damage with a few gimmicky ideas. It truly needs to rediscover the historic Orthodox Christian faith in which men are allowed to be men and to function as God intended for them. Christian Orthodoxy is not the enemy of evangelicalism as some ill-informed apologists today imagine and portray it. It may well turn out to be the very salvation of it.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Spiritual Orphans

The inspired writer of the book of Hebrews was a man who held a deep appreciation for his ancestors in the faith. In chapter 11, he wrote of the many men (and women) in Israel’s history whose lives and great deeds demonstrated a true and living faith in God. We could even say that his appreciation for these people included a profound sense of indebtedness to them. Had it not been for these faithful witnesses who had gone before him, the writer of Hebrews would have clearly had no context for his own faith and would have been greatly impoverished in his knowledge of God. He valued his “spiritual fathers” because they transmitted to him the rich inheritance of faith, without which he would have been very little more than a spiritual orphan.

Clearly today’s Christians also have an appreciation for these same saints, as witnessed to by the fact that their stories are read over and over again in Sunday Schools across the land, and many of the children who attend those schools have been named after these saints by their parents. Names like Joshua, David, Ruth, and Sara are common in evangelical families.

While this is by no means an objectionable practice, there remains something rather odd about it. Like some fictionalized tale of a “post-rapture” world in which all the Christians are missing and no one “left behind” seems to notice, what’s astonishingly absent from the evangelical experience is any obvious awareness of the nearly 2000-year history of our own Christian saints and fathers in the faith, as well as the gratitude we should owe them for their cumulative contributions to our present-day spiritual inheritance. Their stories are never taught in evangelical Sunday Schools and their names go largely unknown and ignored. It’s as if they never existed, and the Christian faith and doctrines we take for granted today are entirely the product of our own wise and discerning reading of the bible (a document which also, apparently, owes its compilation, preservation, and continued existence to no man or human council in the past two millennia but must have floated down from heaven to us in its present form!)

In truth, evangelicals have done more than ignore their fathers in the faith; they have insulated themselves from them by accepting wholeheartedly a fabricated “treatment” of church history which asserts that the early church fell away almost instantly in the post-apostolic period, and any struggling remnant of Christianity was soon corrupted with paganism under the influence of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, to eventually mutate into the “Roman Catholic Church”. This false scenario is taught from pulpits and in print to evangelicals across our nation and is accepted by them as unquestioningly as if it were to be found in the pages of the bible itself.

So deeply has this invented history been ingrained on the evangelical mindset, that rarely does anyone bother to research the truth or falsehood of it for themselves. There is, I suppose, a psychology behind that. We all enjoy stories in which the shining knights prevail against evil and overcome it. So much the better if the knights are “our people” and thus directly validate our beliefs. The early Reformers are often portrayed as such knights, even though most evangelicals today hold very little in common with the beliefs of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin. It’s the story that matters however, not the details, and in this case the story is that evangelicals are the only remaining people on the face of the earth who still hold to a pure and biblical faith, void of any “traditions of men”. That’s quite a story indeed!

The actual history of Christianity reveals a much brighter and more truthful story, even though this revelation will often come as a shock to any evangelical who dares to research it for himself.

Imagine that for your entire Christian life you were taught that nothing but bad happened in the Church from the first century until the fifteenth, for this was a time of great spiritual darkness upon the face of the earth in which men were ignorant of the bible and only followed evil, power-mad church leaders wearing funny vestments. If you’re a Mormon, simply substitute the nineteenth century for the fifteenth, but otherwise it’s the same thing. Now let us imagine that one fateful day you happen to be in a public library and come across a book containing, let’s say, some selected sermons of St. John Chrysostom, the noted 4th century bishop, monastic, and saint. Skeptically you begin skimming one of his sermons, expecting perhaps to find instructions on how to reverently kiss his toes or properly worship idols or whatnot. Soon however, you are drawn into what you are reading as you begin to sense St. John’s deep love for Jesus Christ and his utter, no compromise devotion to Him. His words seem to enflame your heart like Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, and you suddenly exclaim “Wow! I never heard a sermon like this at my church!”

Suppose that this experience piques your interest and you begin delving into Christian history from the first century onward, reading the pastoral letters of early bishops, sermons, apologetics, stories of the lives of the saints, arguments against heresies, and eyewitness accounts of the early Church councils. Perhaps your intention at the beginning of this was to discover for yourself exactly when this Church “fell away” and was corrupted, but you soon discover that there is no evidence of any such wide-scale apostasy to be found. Oh sure, there were many groups which either broke away from the main Church or which claimed to be Christian but were not, such as the Gnostics, the followers of Sabellius, Arius, Apollinaris, and Nestorius to name but a few of the many. But from your steadily-increasing knowledge of the early Church it soon becomes obvious to you that these splinter groups, far from being proof of a “wide-scale fragmentation of the Church” as you were once taught, were in fact obvious departures from the vibrant mainstream of Christian Orthodoxy that clearly can be seen flowing from the very time of the apostles themselves.

As you continue your reading, you see that the early Christian fathers--whom you are just beginning to see as your fathers in the faith--defended and preserved such key Christian doctrines as belief in the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus Christ. You see them coming together in councils to commit these essential beliefs to writing in official creedal form which before had existed in the pastoral writings of even earlier fathers and which they in turn had received from the oral tradition of the apostles themselves. You know and become certain therefore that these doctrines were not “the later inventions of corrupt councils” as heretics today would have you believe, but are valid beliefs that can be traced back to the very origin of Christianity.

While some elements of your faith are thus confirmed, others are challenged. The teachings of your modern evangelical church have led you to reject the idea of infant baptism in favor of “believer’s baptism” only. Yet in your reading you find that Christians baptized their babies from the very day of Pentecost onward, with virtually zero objection to this policy until the Anabaptist heresy of the 16th century rejected this Orthodox practice with a collection of “proof-texts“ lifted from the bible to support their claims. In fact, you find that there are many practices of the historic Orthodox Church which can be traced all the way back to the apostles and upheld by their successors, which are rejected today by many of your fellow evangelicals with a similar sparse handful of “proof-texts” representing modernistic views.

For example, your church taught you that “The Lord’s Table” is a merely symbolic remembrance of the Lord’s death, but the Orthodox Church has believed it to be a sharing in the actual Body and Blood of Christ from the very beginning. The historical evidence of this is absolutely overwhelming and as you begin to reread the scriptures in light of this older view, you see that the writers of the New Testament clearly believed that the Eucharist is much more than symbol alone. You begin to wonder how it is you didn’t see this fact much earlier.

You also find that the Church was liturgical from beginning, having inherited Jewish forms of worship which were soon “Christianized” in content and given their fuller, God-intended meaning. Reading through the early centuries of the Church you see that the liturgical worship of the Church became very much a life-giving fountain of faith and spirituality that saw our fathers through many dark periods of persecution and martyrdom for Christ in a world hostile to the faith. In those days, Christians were often captured in their underground churches, or reported to the authorities by neighbors who saw them coming and going on Sunday morning. Many could have saved their lives by simply staying home, but their love for the worship of God and their deep desire to partake of His Body and Blood compelled them to take the risk. You wonder if the steady diet of “praise bands” and ongoing altar calls at your church would be enough to lure your evangelical friends out of hiding if Christians were so severely persecuted today.

Soon you come to an astonishing personal revelation. Almost without your being aware of it, your reading of the faith of your Christian fathers and your gradual acceptance of their beliefs has moved you to a point rather beyond your evangelical comfort-zone. “My dear Lord!,” you exclaim, “Am I becoming Orthodox?”

This was clearly something you never intended, but now you cannot imagine turning your back on what you have learned, or on the Faith of your Fathers that you found and have come to accept. This becomes even more pressing due to the fact that your new knowledge of Christian Patristics has deepened your understanding of the bible immensely, as passages you were trained to explain away now seem to leap out at you with entirely new meaning. You had come into this study perhaps to prove the evangelical premise that the traditions of the early Church only nullify the word of God and deny its power, but what you found was the exact opposite. Not only are the Orthodox traditions not in opposition to the bible, they actually open up the bible and help you to understand it as never before. In addition, you find that many of your evangelical traditions are not from the bible at all but are the products of men who, many centuries after the time of the apostles and largely ignorant of their teachings as you once were, interpreted the bible in new ways to suit their own doctrinal preferences. It was these spurious interpretations that you had accepted, thinking that they came right from the pages of the bible, unable to say otherwise since you had not known what your Christian Fathers had believed previously.

This might seem like a happy ending to the story, but in fact it is only the beginning of an even greater struggle. You have taken your time in this study and have gradually developed an appreciation for your Christian Fathers. But in the process you have wandered innocently off the narrow “ideological plantation” of contemporary evangelicalism. What will your pastor say, or for that matter your family and friends? They will likely think that you have gone in the wrong direction, and will accuse you of “becoming catholic” or of following the traditions of men rather than the word of God. You know by now that such accusations are not only false, but represent the very height of irony, since your evangelical friends unknowingly follow a host of modern traditions that directly oppose the revelation of the bible. But they are as closed-minded as you once were, and so locked into their viewpoint that your beliefs now appear as a threat to them.

Finally it dawns on you why Christian Patristics are ignored by evangelicals, and why the Old Testament saints are celebrated, while their New Testament counterparts are treated as if they never existed. Now you see why a ridiculously remanufactured and self-serving “church history” is taught in evangelical churches, rather than the real thing. Real church history and the writings of the Fathers is indeed a threat to evangelicalism, exposing its many theological innovations and biblical errors. You long for your friends to see this, and perhaps will even share with them some of the books that helped you discover historic Christianity. But you find that they refuse to even look at such resources, considering them irrelevant to a people who “already know what the bible teaches” and who imagine that they can’t possibly learn anything useful from “church history”.

Perhaps in their efforts to save you from yourself, your friends point you to a Protestant “history” book, or to one of the growing number of “rebuttals” to Eastern Orthodoxy appearing as of late on the internet. As you read through these resources that you yourself might have once accepted without question, you now find them to be sadly ill-informed and crafted to serve an obvious agenda. Repeatedly you find that the principle objections to ancient Christian Orthodoxy are that it doesn’t embrace 16th century and later Protestant doctrinal innovations, which have been conveniently repackaged as “the clear teachings of the bible”. You find yourself marveling that such obviously modern doctrines, completely unsupported by the early Church Fathers, could be accepted by Christians today as if they were exactly what the apostles taught. If such things as bishops and priests and icons and sacraments and liturgy were so foreign to the apostolic faith, why is it that no one objected to them even as they began to appear in the latter half of the apostolic age? Is it so easy to believe that the Church fell away literally overnight with no one, not even the apostles, noticing? Or is it more likely that these things were indeed an integral part of the apostolic teaching, and that we evangelicals in our zeal to deny these truths today have simply trained ourselves to overlook all the evidence to the contrary? Could this also be why we were conditioned to mistrust Christian history and avoid its study at all costs?

It is not an easy thing to convince others that the Faith of our Fathers is living still, as is the very Church of which they were members. Evangelicalism is a carefully constructed “culture of denial” when it comes to such things. Their views essentially make them into spiritual orphans; without Fathers to guide them in their beliefs, and without the Mother Church to nurture them. To be sure, many orphans can become quite tough and self-reliant in a cruel world, but God has something so much better for them in historic Christian Orthodoxy.

You may feel a bit like a spiritual orphan yourself if you have engaged in such a study of history and no longer feel quite “at home” in your present church. This is understandable, and I sympathize deeply with you. I also know that you cannot give up now. I can only encourage you to continue bravely on your spiritual journey and to perhaps make contact with an Orthodox priest, preferably one who has followed a similar journey himself and can understand what you are facing. There are a surprising number of former evangelicals--both clergy and laity--who have found their way into the various Orthodox jurisdictions today, and who are more than willing to speak with you and share what they have experienced along the way. You may find their advice invaluable.

Yes, you can expect rebuke and anger from your evangelical friends who feel you are forsaking the bible. But fear not. You are in fact following an ancient prophesy of the bible from Jeremiah 6:16 which tells us, “Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” The Orthodox Church is that ancient path and good way, long abandoned by many, but providing blessing for those who still find it.

May God bless you on your own journey.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Samaritan Woman

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From today’s gospel lesson [John 4:5-42] we heard the beautiful story of the conversion of St. Photini, the famous “woman at the well”. Like many people who would eventually become saints, her former life was somewhat less than ideal. This woman was, shall we say, unlucky at love, though it certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying! She had gone through five husbands before finally giving up on marriage to live with a man to whom she was not married. She might not have seemed the most likely candidate to receive a private meeting with the Son of God on that warm day by Jacob’s well. Yet despite her many sins, she was greatly beloved by God, as indeed we all are. Thus Jesus reached out to her just as He has to us, providing the same opportunity for repentance and salvation.

According to tradition, sometime after the events recorded in John’s gospel she was baptized by the apostles and given the name Photini which means “the enlightened one”. Following her conversion, she became an enthusiastic evangelist, journeying as far as Carthage on the African continent with the message of salvation, bringing along her five daughters, Anatoli, Photo, Photes, Paraskevi and Kyriaki, and her two sons, Victor and Joseph.

Following the deaths of Ss. Peter and Paul at the hands of the Emperor Nero, Photini and her family traveled extensively, converting countless pagans to Christianity through her zealous faith in Christ. During the difficult days of Nero’s persecution, her son Victor became an officer in the Roman army. Eventually his Christian faith put him at odds with his duties. He was put in charge of a mission to seek out Roman citizens who dared to acknowledge Christ. Refusing to obey such an order, Victor was brought to trial not only for insubordination and treason, but also for his own bold confession of faith in Christ. He was subsequently imprisoned and tortured brutally.

Hearing the tragic news of her son’s imprisonment, Photini demanded and received an audience with Emperor Nero himself. I suppose once you’ve had an audience with the Son of God, mere Roman emperors are no big deal! In an impassioned plea for her son’s life, she boldly spoke for the cause of Christianity. She told the disbelieving tyrant how Jesus is worshiped by the world as the True King and the Son of God. The astounded Nero admired her courage, but his seething hatred for Christians could not be subdued and he sentenced Photini and her entire family to prison. For two years they endured terrible suffering and, after bearing great witness to Christ, Photini and her seven children were at last awarded the imperishable crown of martyrdom.

In God’s mercy, their deaths would not occur before they had been granted the opportunity to sow the seeds of faith in Jesus Christ throughout vast regions of the Roman Empire. Their actions literally changed the world and helped lay the very foundation of Christianity in the apostolic age. What an amazing outcome from such an unlikely woman!

St. Photini found the power to change the world because she first found the power to change herself. Had she remained mired in her adultery and simply told others to “do as I say, not as I do” she would not have found her own salvation nor would have been able to help so many others to find theirs. She realized that the meat of Christianity is found not in words but in transformed lives. Thus she purified herself in Christ that her witness for Him might become pure as well. In short, she put substance over symbolism.

We Americans tend toward doing the exact opposite, often placing illusion over reality in our priorities. Most families live in colossal debt trying to support an outward appearance of prosperity. With the divorce rate at just over 50% and “financial stress” being the number one cause reported, it seems that we are willing to maintain our facade even if it does truly destroy us. Is it any wonder then that so many of our churches have followed this same model, existing in deep spiritual poverty for casting out the sacraments and Holy Tradition of ancient Christianity, yet promoting themselves as exciting places of “spirit-filled” power? Apparently we all live in a dream world in which reality can be reshaped into whatever we prefer.

The Orthodox Church is effectively a spiritual hospital in which those who are terminally ill with the disease of sin can be admitted to begin the healing therapy of washing and regeneration and receive continuously the Medicine of Immortality that leads to eternal life. By contrast, most Americans see “church” as a kind of club where the already saved and the spiritually-gifted go to celebrate their salvation. In a hospital it’s OK to admit that you’re sick, and rather foolish to pretend otherwise. In a club for the rich and gifted, the last thing you want to admit to others is that you are deeply impoverished and truly suffering or bringing suffering to others.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy in so many of our churches, because people act more spiritual than they really are. Sometimes this even causes people who are honest about their sins to despair, because they accept the lie that everyone else is better than they are and feel as if they don’t belong in the company of such wonderful saints. Isn’t that terrible? Shouldn’t the Church be acknowledged as a place of healing for the sinful and the broken-hearted? Wouldn’t you hope that every single person coming through our doors would receive understanding and love from those of us who know that the best thing about Orthodoxy is not its “correctness” but its ability to destroy illusion and reveal the reality of our sins and heal us?

What concerns me is that there are probably many of us sitting here this morning who still haven’t quite grasped this idea that the Church is a spiritual hospital and that we are all patients under its care. We may be desperately trying to maintain the pretense, either to ourselves or others, that we are better than we truly are. Thus when sin is inevitably revealed in our lives, we may try to conceal or deny it, or claim that it is not as bad as it seems. The last thing we may to want to do is to come to confession and reveal what we see as shameful to the doctor of our souls.

How foolish is that? What is more important to us, illusion or reality? Where is the sense in spending so much of life denying any illness, only to discover at the end that we squandered every opportunity for repentance and healing? As Americans, are we simply too caught up in the fantasy of perfection and prosperity to face the truth about ourselves? It’s a sobering question.

St. Photini certainly felt shame when her sins were revealed to her by Jesus. But she did not allow that shame to mutate into denial. She changed her life to be found pleasing to God. May the same God help us to discover what is true about ourselves, and enter into the repentance that will bring us healing.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.