Why I chose ‘John’ as my Chrismation name

When a convert joins the Orthodox Church it is customary to receive a ‘new name’, usually the name of one of the Saints. Generally this is the name of a Saint with whom the person feels a special affinity. An exception is when your birth name is already a ‘Christian’ name, and since my first name is Andrew it was naturally assumed I would not adopt a different name at Chrismation. After all, Saint Andrew the First-Called was one of the twelve apostles, a martyr, and exemplary example of the Christian life, and I strongly suspect it was with him in mind that my parents named me. However there is different Saint who has been very formative in my ‘faith journey’ the last few years: the Apostle and Evangelist, John the Theologian, also sometimes known as the John the Beloved.

icon of st john the theologian
St John the Theologian “in Silence” (Village of Vladimir, 18th Century) Source: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/john-the-apostle-the-theologian-in-silence/

Several years ago while still in the charismatic-evangelical church, I turned again to read the gospel of St John. This was not unusual as over the years I have read all four gospels many times. What was unusual was that I ended up reading John’s gospel over and over again. Every time I reached the end I was compelled to turn to the beginning and read it all over again. I tried reading different scriptures but nothing but St John would do. As the months followed I found my view of almost everything changing. Long-held views on the person of Jesus, on the love of the Father, on redemption, on salvation, on what it is to be human and what it means to be ‘saved’, were challenged and transformed. But more than just changing beliefs, I felt a change in myself. I became more aware of the presence of God in everything around me, more aware of of my need for Him, and at the same time more aware of my acceptance and inclusion in Him.

As lovely as this sounds it was also unsettling. I am deeply grateful for the years my family and I spent in the charismatic church; for the many people who loved and cared for us, who stood by us, prayed for us, ministered to us, and by their example pointed us to Jesus. But I became increasingly dissatisfied with the culture and message I had been committed to for so long. I became convicted that I needed to change, rather than expect others to do so. I knew God was calling me to another place. And so began my journey to the Orthodox Church.

icon of st john the theologian
Christ and Saint John – Source: http://www.ukcopticicons.com/order-an-icon.html

I therefore regard John the Beloved with a special reverence. He had a special intimacy with our Lord, being the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, and reclining with his head upon the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper. He was present on the mountain of transfiguration and at the raising of Jairus’ daughter. He was the only disciple present at the crucifixion, and one of the the first witnesses to the resurrection. And he was the one charged to by Jesus to regard the mother of our Lord as his own mother. But beside these universal truths, it is the gospel of Saint John that has formed and shaped me the most these last few years, and led me to the Orthodox Church.

Therefore when I became a member of the Orthodox Church through the sacrament of Chrismation, I adopted the name of John in honour of Saint John the Evangelist.

In the Orthodox Church, the eight day of May is the feast day in honour of the holy apostle John and therefore my own Name Day.

O beloved Apostle of Christ our God,
Come quickly to deliver your helpless people.
He on whose breast you leaned, will accept you as intercessor.
Entreat Him, O Theologian, to disperse the clouds of darkness,
Granting us peace and great mercy

Troparion to St John the Theologian (2nd tone)

Why I Joined the Orthodox Church

Why does a 50 year old protestant, a deeply committed member of the evangelical-charismatic church for 30 years, suddenly go and join the Orthodox Church?

In future I hope to say more about the first part of the story, the leaving part, but I’m going to skip this for now. Suffice to say that I’d been dissatisfied with my church for some years, and slowly came to realise that it wasn’t just ‘my’ church but the charismatic church in general that had become alien to me on many levels. In this post I want to focus on the positive reasons for becoming Orthodox, rather than my dissatisfaction with my former church.

 

The short answer

holy apostlesOne of my children became Orthodox last year. I initially attended one or two services with him, including his joining service (‘chrismation’). While finding the services strange and some of the beliefs challenging, I was drawn back again and again. Over several months my questions and doubts dissolved and my heart was drawn to worship God as part of this faith community.

 

The slightly longer answer

While the explanation above may satisfy some, there is obviously more to this tale. A lot more in fact than can fit in 800 words. However I’d like to highlight here three key aspects: theology, prayer and worship. Forgive me if my treatment of these is superficial and inaccurate. My understanding is limited; moreover this is a personal reflection and space is limited.

The theology of the Orthodox Church emphasises the unity of God and the triumph of God’s love. The Holy Trinity are united in their nature and in all they do. In this framework, Jesus perfectly reveals the Father in every way, and corrects false notions of God evident in the Old Testament scriptures. Redemption is not seen as a legal transaction, where Jesus satisfies an arbitrary notion of divine justice; rather it is a rescue mission where the whole of the Trinity deals decisively with the issue of death-caused-by-sin once and for all. And although not being church dogma, this includes at least the possibility that the work of redemption will somehow be effective for all people. The Orthodox Church permits me to hope that the work of Christ is at least as powerful as the error of Adam. 1

The practices of prayer is central to the Orthodox Christian. This is obviously true for all Christians, however the Orthodox Church provides a great deal more help in making this a reality. There are set prayers to be said when rising from sleep, at 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, 6 pm, evening and before sleep (personally I aim for morning and evening!). Orthodox services are crammed full of prayers. And the prayers are crammed full of scripture and very much centred on God (not me and my needs). 2 Obviously there is room for spontaneous and personal prayer. But the essence of prayer is that done ‘in the name of Jesus’ that is, in accordance with scripture and God’s will. I have found that praying in this way is liberating, freeing me from the whim of personal feelings and distracting thoughts, and it seems to be slowly transforming my mind, bringing my thoughts and feelings in line with scripture. Some may argue that this is possible without set prayers, and that somehow praying prayers penned by others in somehow inauthentic and mere ‘religion’. I have come to believe that to neglect a practice found to be beneficial by generations of Christians over two millennia, and replacing it with whatever I feel I right on the spur of the moment, is both foolish and a little arrogant.

paschaOrthodox worship is where I have experienced the sharpest contrast with the charismatic church. Gone are the amplified music, the projected words, and ‘contemporary’ songs. Gone too are the spontaneous ‘contribution’ where songs and even sermons may be interrupted by a prophetic word or tongue. Orthodox worship is liturgical, with set services for every day. Rituals, processions, incense and icons all play a part. On every Sunday, and on other feast days, the focus is on encountering Christ in the Eucharistic meal. Superficially this looks a world apart from charismatic worship. It is hard to explain how I have transitioned to this world and reconciled the differences, and space does not permit me to try. However my experience has been that Orthodox worship is deeply infused with the presence of God, and the set form of service focuses attention on God in a way that a meeting manipulated by a worship leader seldom achieves. 3 If you want to know more you will have to try it for yourself.

 

If you want to know more, try these links.

  1. Permit me to hope, (Brad Jersak): https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/permit-me-to-hope/
  2. Orthodox daily prayers: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-synekdemos-daily-prayers-for-orthodox-christians
  3. The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: https://youtu.be/OYg5D6gpe98. This recording is in different form and slightly more polished rendering (!) than at my church. It is in two parts, the liturgy of the Word, climaxing in the gospel reading (at about 24 minutes), and the liturgy of the faithful, climaxing in the Eucharist.

Faith Shift


faith-shift-663x1024When once faithful followers begin disturbing the status quo, instead of honouring their spiritual evolution they are often labelled as rebellious, divisive, and even heretical. We attend church less often or leave church altogether. Sometimes we’re asked to leave. The anger and guilt can lead us to disconnect from God. Lost and without a map, many of us end up on the fringes of all we once knew – alone, disorientated, and disillusioned.

Faith Shift – Kathy Escobar

Many Christians encounter what is often described as a crisis of faith. Some supress it and just carry on. Others leave the church and faith entirely. Escobar describes this as a faith shift. In this book (also entitled Faith Shift) she offers a description of the journey many find themselves in and offers hope that this might be a good thing.

She describes the early stages of the Christian life as Fusing. We begin with belief, add to this learning, we work hard for God, and find security in belonging to our tribe. There is security in affiliation, conformity and certainty. Many stay at this stage for all their lives.

But for many this stage is followed by Shifting.  When the foundation of faith begins to crack there are often common ingredients. Disengagement with the worship, the sermon, the church and others. Uncertainty with what seemed so sure. Longing for a more authentic faith, a faith that is bigger than the rules, regulations and certainty of our infancy. A faith that is more about redemption than judgement, more about restoration than condemnation. A faith that is more about this world than the next. At this point do we turn back to safety or push on into uncertainty?

There are many reasons for turning back: we may be concerned about the effect on our family our children, we may miss the inspiration we used to receive, we want to avoid the pain and turmoil of moving forward, we miss the certainty of our old faith. Escobar is clear: it’s OK to go back, and it’s OK to go forward.

For many going back is not an option. The forward path leads to Unravelling. Each unravelling is different. But negative feelings are commonplace, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, and shame. Escobar offers soul care for the unravelling: expect the unexpected; come to terms with negative emotions; consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk; accept that some relationships will fall away; make time for safe, life-giving friends; try experiencing God in new ways; be selective in what you read and what events you attend; resist the temptation to compare yourself to others; avoid big triggers if possible.

Fortunately there is hope. Unravelling is just a stage in the journey. You can move on to Rebuilding. What seems like an ending can become a beginning.   Drawing on her own personal story and that of dozens of others, Escobar offers compassion, hope and tangible practices for rebuilding a new and authentic faith.

kescobarKathy Escobar co-pastors the Refuge, a Christian community in North Denver. You can learn more about her work and writing at www.kathyescobar.com. Faith Shift is published by Convergent Books.

Disarming Scripture

img_0133-1“Christians have long sought to reconcile the loving God they encounter in the New Testament with the violent and angry depictions of God found in the pages of the Old Testament. On the one hand, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44). On the other hand, we read in the Law of Moses the divine command for God’s people to ‘show them no mercy’ (Deut. 7:2) and ‘kill everything that breathes’ (Deut. 20:16).”

So begins Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood, subtitled ‘Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we need to read the Bible like Jesus did’.

I have counted myself a Christian since the age of eight, when an encounter with the love of God changed me forever. The question of how to reconcile a God who unconditionally loves all people with the scriptural accounts of God sanctioning or commanding actions which were undoubtedly brutal, cruel and barbaric has obviously occurred to me a few times. This is a particular issue for evangelicals if we care to admit it. As Flood puts it, ‘If the Bible is God’s word (inerrant and infallible), how can it present such starkly contrasting visions of who God is, and what faithfulness to God entails? What effect does this have on our ability to trust and love God? How does it affect how we see and treat others when such violent passages are meditated upon and internalised as Holy Scripture?’

Several solutions have been offered to me over the years, and perhaps offered to others by me. ‘The sin of these people was so bad that God needed to cleanse the land of it completely.’ ‘This was the most loving thing for God to do; letting the people live would have resulted in an even worse situation.’ ‘God is God, and whatever he does is good, therefore these violent actions are also good.’ ’Jesus only shows us part of the picture of what God is like; we must also factor in these violent passages to get a full revelation of God’s holy character.’ Evangelicals are taught (conditioned?) to humbly accept what they are told by their leaders, and for the most part I believe this is good and have tried to do so. However when subjected to close examination, some of these statement are downright unscriptural (e.g. compare the last statement with Hebrews 1:3), and all extremely worrying.

As an aside it is worth noting that the problem is magnified by the doctrines of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. These concepts are not part of the historic dogma of the church but rose to prominence in the 19th century as an understandable but in my view misguided reaction to enlightenment thinking and scientific discoveries which challenged the authority of scripture. The Orthodox Church have far less issues with the violent passages of the OT (or the Revelation of St John) as they believe that the revelation of the Gospels ‘trumps’ all other scripture.

In Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood argues convincingly that we cannot endorse the violent portrayals of God in scripture, nor simply ignore them. Just as it is unacceptable to use scripture to justify bloodshed in God’s name, it is equally untenable to pretend these passages are irrelevant and simply whitewash over them. The so called liberal and fundamentalist approaches do not do justice to the sacred text. Flood’s solution is that we must learn to read the Bible in the same way Jesus did. He presents many examples of the way Jesus challenged in his teaching and life the traditional interpretation of scripture and subverted its meaning completely. To give just one instance, when Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume his enemies, the OT presents this as evidence that he was acting as a ‘man of God’ (2 Kings 1:10). But when James and John want to do the same (Luke 9:54) Jesus rejects this spirit as belonging to the devil. Flood also devotes a chapter to the Apostle Paul’s conversion from violence and how this is manifested in his message. For example 1 Cor. 15 uses verses from the prophet Hosea to proclaim a defeated death and an end to the victory of sin through the resurrection of Jesus. But the original verses describe a killing spree where compassion is hidden from God’s eyes and even unborn children and killed along with their mothers.

In these and many other examples we see Jesus and Paul taking OT scriptures and interpreting them in a way which is redemptive and transformative, resulting in disarmament of the texts. Rather than focussing on the ‘correct’ way to interpret the text, taking all the data into account, harmonising everything and making everything balance out, both Jesus and Paul employed a faithful questioning of scripture, interpreting it in the context of the redeeming and transforming love of God. We would have to say that neither Jesus nor Paul regarded all scripture as faithfully representing the character and will of God. In so doing they show us the way to approach scripture which neither defends nor ignores the violent passages but redeems them.

There are several other chapters in this book which deal with reading the Bible in the framework of its trajectory towards the revelation of Jesus, the role of the state in ‘bearing the sword’, what it means to love your enemies, and un-doing judgement. In the final chapter Flood concludes by rejecting the moral bankruptcy inherent in unquestioning obedience and its contemporary expression in authoritarian Biblicism, and argues for the better way of reading the Bible like Jesus did: faithful questioning motivated by compassion.

Derek Flood is a writer, artist and theologian. He holds a master’s degree in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological union, and is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post and Sojourners Magazine. Derek blogs at The Rebel God http://www.therebelgod.com/. To hear an interview with Derek try the Nomad podcast at http://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/nomad-81-derek-flood-how-to-read-the-bible-like-jesus/ (to jump over the presenters’ banter start at 9 minutes and 30 seconds). Disarming Scripture is published by Metanoia Books.

Inspiration and Incarnation

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament 

pete-ennsFor most evangelical Christians it is a given that the Bible (by this is meant the canon of scriptures recognised by the early church fathers, minus the books dismissed as ‘apocryphal’) is infallible and without error. The reasoning goes something like: scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16) and God does not lie; therefore we can treat the Bible as if God himself spoke every word, and every verse is perfectly true. Some allowance is made for simile, hyperbole and interpretation, but within strict limits. If someone’s opinion or a scientific discovery are found to be conflict with the Bible, well they must be wrong.

The problem with this stance is obvious. If one single verse of the Bible can be proved to be false, then the whole belief will collapse under its own weight, taking with it our confidence in the scriptures and our faith in God. In my view this stance is fundamentally disrespectful to the scriptures and to Christ. It treats the Bible as so fragile that a smallest question will undermine its authenticity and also leads to a faith centred on the Bible instead of on God.

In this book Enns aims to demonstrate that is it possible to hold firmly to an evangelical position that the Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but at the same time acknowledge that the Bible bears the weaknesses and flaws of its human authors and the cultures in which they lived. Moreover this is the way that God meant it to be. Just as God incarnated himself as a man who took on sin, suffering and disgrace, so the Bible itself is an incarnation in which God can be found revealing himself through the lives and writings of people who had some very bad ideas and practises. This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures.

In around 170 pages Enns considers a few aspects of the issue:

  • Similarities between the Old Testament and (earlier) near eastern literature, covering creation and flood stories, history and civil and religious law. If the Bible is directly from God, then why do these parts draw so heavily on earlier non-Jewish literature?
  • Theological diversity in the scriptures themselves; parallel proverbs, histories and even versions of the Ten Commandments that differ and in some cases contradict each other. If all these scriptures are infallible and inerrant, then why the differences. Granted some are fairly minor differences, but some are opposites (God requires complex ritualised animal sacrifices; God never required sacrifices…).
  • The treatment of old testament scriptures by new testament writers. Paul for example often takes OT passages and totally subverts their meaning. Jesus himself regularly does the same, reflecting the way that contemporary Jewish theologians treated the OT scriptures.

That these issues are problems at all are a symptom of the way that evangelicals use the scriptures. As Jonathan Sachs has recently observed, ‘fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident’ (Not in God’s Name, p218).

Enns finishes by tentatively suggesting approaches to understanding scripture that incorporate both its inspirational (God-breathed) and incarnational (born out of human persons and culture) nature. We must remember that that it is impossible to divorce the Bible from the cultures from which it emerged, and also impossible to divorce our interpretation of the Bible from our own culture. In considering diversity in the scriptures, we can trust the Bible not because we can ‘argue away’ its diversity but because we believe, by the gift of faith, in the one who gave scripture to us. We trust God, not our conceptions of how the Bible ought to be.

This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures. It is Enns’ conviction that, ‘The primary purpose of scripture is for the church to eat and drink its contents in order to better understand who God is, what he has done, and what it means to be his people, redeemed in the crucified and risen Son.’ The Bible is not a fortress that we defend, it is a path that we walk. Conversations about interpreting scripture in a changing world are therefore essential and must be full of humility, love and patience.

I recommend this book to all who love the Bible but are troubled by the way it is still used to justify beliefs and practices that would otherwise be self-evidently wrong, for example, young-earth creationism, discrimination, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and even genocide (although of course all that’s in the past!). You are not faced with a binary choice: accept that good is evil, and evil is good; or reject the Bible outright. There is a third way, viewing the scriptures like we might view men and women, flawed but nevertheless bearing the image of God, revealing the nature and purpose of God, and bearing witness to Jesus. Isn’t this like The ‘Word of God’, who not only took on human nature but also took on all the flaws and sins of mankind on the cross, the greatest revelation of God?

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University (St. Davids, Pennsylvania). You can read more of his work at http://www.peteenns.com/. Inspiration and Incarnation is published by Baker Academic.

 

Benefit of the Doubt

doubtBenefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd is a book for those Christians who are afraid to express doubts, afraid to question the Bible, and afraid to talk to others about these doubts for fear of judgement and condemnation.

It is Boyd’s contention that certainty has become an idol in the church, especially in the evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic wings. For some, unquestioning affirmation of a set of beliefs has become the hallmark of Christian faith. Doubt and questioning have become the enemy, unequivocal allegiance to doctrine is a precondition of fellowship, and certainty is elevated to that of a demigod. The result is the church lacks the tools to grapple with uncertainty and many faithful Christians end up leaving the church through shame and condemnation.

Boyd invites us to embrace a faith that doesn’t strive for certainty but rather for commitment to Christ. He argues that wrestling with God and scripture, ‘screaming at the sky’, and giving up a commitment to certainty are all healthy and necessary parts of our spiritual journey. He contends we can have a rich and fulfilling relationship with Christ even with unresolved questions about the Bible, theology and ethics.

Boyd’s views on the role of doubt are part of his ‘big picture’ in which open theism plays a big part. However there is much that can be gained from this book without having to subscribe to this. I don’t always enjoy his writing style but I’m glad I didn’t stop me completing this thought-provoking and ultimately hopeful book. I read this at a time when many of my long-held ideas about faith were becoming just too heavy to keep carrying round. This book didn’t exactly challenge my faith but did help to articulate some of the thoughts I was having. In brief, subscribing unwaveringly to certain beliefs is not faith; faith is trusting in a loving God, demonstrated through the self-giving sacrifice of Christ, even when you aren’t really sure of anything at all. Following this journey might be unsettling and we may well be misunderstood. But it might just transform us in a way that worshipping at the altar of certainty never can.

Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, St Paul, Minnesota. He blogs at ReKNEW (http://reknew.org/). Benefit of the Doubt is published by Baker Books.

What I’ve Been Reading

img_0009Some readers might be aware I have undergone some changes in my faith recently. To a non-believer these might seem trivial – I still very much identify as a Christian – but from my perspective some of the shifts in my belief have involved a significant realignment. Part of my story has been the influence that reading has had upon the re-forming of my faith. The charismatic network I spent the last 30 years in, with all its wonderful people and vibrant witness to the goodness of God, was nevertheless somewhat of a mono-culture in relation to beliefs. It distinctiveness was for a large part in a set of beliefs, one of which was that these beliefs were the right ones. In such a context questioning and debate is only possible within very narrow limits. Thank God that we live in an age of mass publishing and the internet.

So I present the following five books as a sample of some of the reading I have been doing these past few years, some so called ‘Christian’ books. Just as significant have been the fiction and nature writing that I return to over and over, but those will have to wait for another time. Let’s be clear, these books are not all well-written, not equal in significance, and certainly not the only books that have made a deep impression on me. But they have all challenged my thinking, nourished my soul, fuelled my prayers and left me more awe-inspired and in love with the God who revealed himself as a carpenter from Nazareth.

The books are:

I’m publishing these reviews as separate posts over the next couple of weeks starting off with pure gold from Jersak (click here).