The Songs of Ascent

Kristen and I want to thank our friends and family for your prayers this past month, as Charles Maximus had a congenital branchial cleft cyst removed from his neck, which then got infected, requiring a second surgery and an overnight stay in the hospital. It’s a learning experience to have your child undergo general anesthesia; especially as someone who has induced general anesthesia in numerous animals over the years. In any case, Charlie has fully recovered with a virile scar to show for his troubles.

Aside from our adventures in and out of the hospital, the last month has been essentially more of the same – I (John) am still seeking to complete my work by the end of July; Kristen is taking care of the boys and working through the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. We continue to prepare for August, when we intend to leave Ames for Oklahoma and begin to raise support full time in order to be able to move to Ethiopia as soon as possible.

In the meantime, while the Western Church celebrates Easter this weekend, in the Eastern Church, we begin Holy Week this weekend, celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus on Saturday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday*. In any case, the period that we call Great Lent ended Friday (March 30).

29790646_10209819427717345_6703191697234883663_n

Grumpy Orthodox Cat tells it like it is.

One aspect of our Lenten devotions that has had an especially profound impact on me this Lent has been our weekly (at least) reading of the Ascent Psalms. Psalms 120-134 consist of a series of short psalms that are believed to have been written upon the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. These psalms serve as a series of meditations that simultaneously address two types of ascent in their original context: first, and most naturally, the ascent of those climbing Zion in order to reach the newly-restored temple in Jerusalem. Secondarily, it addresses the ascent associated with returning to Israel following their exile in Babylon.

The first of these psalms, Psalm 120 (or 119 in the Greek), reads:

An ode of the Ascents

1 In my affliction I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me:

2 Rescue my soul, O Lord, from unjust lips, from a treacherous tongue.

3 What must be given to thee, what must be added to thee against this treacherous tongue?

4 The warrior’s arrows sharpened with hot coals from the desert.

5 Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar,

6 So long has my soul been exiled.

7 I kept on being peaceful with those hating peace, when I spoke with them they kept on hating me for no cause.

Donald Sheehan’s translation, from the Greek.

Notice how verses 5 and 6 are translated here: “Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar/So long has my soul been exiled.” These are psalms meant to be sung while climbing out of the pit; while returning home from exile; while approaching the Lord in order to make offerings to him, to glorify him, to praise him, and to seek succor from him. These themes of return from exile are found throughout:

“I was delighted in those who had said to me: We shall go to the Lord’s house” (122:1)

“Our soul has escaped like a sparrow from a hunter’s snare, the snare has been shattered and we have escaped” (124:7)

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; he who dwells in Jerusalem shall be forever unshaken” (125:1)

“When the Lord had brought back the captives of Zion, we became like those who are given great comfort” (126:1)

And so on.

During Lent, we read these psalms at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful service, but it can be easy to miss the profundity of what is happening. During the weekdays of Lent, communion can only be given from a “presanctified” host – that is, the Eucharist must have been prepared beforehand, at the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. During the Presanctified Liturgy, a number of actions are taken by clergy to prepare this presanctified host for communion; the Ascent Psalms are read while this is happening.

We read these psalms, then, as a community, in preparation for Holy Communion during Great Lent. We read these psalms as we ascend to the Lord, as we seek to return to him from the exile of our rebellion. We read these psalms and are filled with joy, because the Lord is welcoming us back from this self-imposed exile: he’s welcoming us home, to Zion, to Jerusalem, whose “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”


*The reasons for this difference between East and West are somewhat complicated (and unfortunate). Essentially, both agree that the date for Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, many of the Eastern churches have not adopted the Gregorian calendar for their liturgical observances, so that there is a 13 day difference between the date for the spring equinox. In addition, the date for the full moons was established based on problematic predictions made centuries ago, rather than on astronomically correct observances. These differences account for different calculations between East and West for Easter Sunday every year, despite the fact that both use the same foundational criteria to make the calculations.

Advertisements

By the Waters of Babylon…

We keep moving forward; right now, in the cold and the snow, that movement seems somewhat intractable. But we do our best to move forward, diligently and prudently.

The first weekend of February was a blessing. Iowa State University’s Christian Veterinary Fellowship hosted this years North Central Real Life Real Impact retreat, where the CVF groups at nearby veterinary schools (and vet tech and pre-vet schools, as well) gather to talk about what it means to share the vocation of Christian and of veterinarian, and of how to live that combined calling faithfully. I was given the opportunity to give a talk I called “What It Means to Be a Veterinary Theologian (which, BTW, you already are).” I led discussions about what we mean when we use the terms theology and theologian; how we might grow and improve as theologians; and how we might think about and work towards theologies of veterinary medicine. In addition Kristen and I got to meet a number of wonderful people, some of whom live and work here in the mid-west, and some who serve overseas. It was a real gift to be able to connect with and learn from these folks.

While the writing of the thesis progresses, I’ve got a number of tasks to keep me busy/distracted. Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve collected a number of samples (mostly skin biopsies and environmental samples) that I have shoved into the back of our -80* freezer, always aware in the back of my mind that near the end I’d have to break them out and extract DNA from all of them. Well, the end is nigh, and last week and this week have been dedicated to that task. Thank God for podcasts and audiobooks.

IMG_0988

My view last week and this week.

 

In preparation for Lent, the Sunday before last the Church read the parable of the prodigal son, which is perhaps my favorite of Jesus’s parables. It’s so rich, and there is so much that could be said about it. In terms of Lent, however, the most helpful aspect of this parable is the prodigal son’s desire for his true home. As Schmemann writes:

I received from God wonderful riches: first of all life and the possibility to enjoy it, to fill it with meaning, love, and knowledge; then – in Baptism – the new life of Christ Himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the peace and the joy of the eternal Kingdom. I received the knowledge of God, and in Him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a son of God. And all this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular “sins” and “transgressions,” but in the sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father…

And, as I remember, I find in myself the desire to return and the power to return “. . . I shall return to the compassionate Father crying with tears: Receive me as one of Thy servants . . .”

One of my favorite things about this Sunday, in which we contemplate our return from our self-imposed exile, is that the Church also include Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy . . . 

27866992_1788669331436341_8193107839714369433_n

An icon of the Babylonian exiles and King David, referencing Psalm 137.

 

This past Sunday goes by two names: Last Judgment Sunday, and/or Meat Fare Sunday (which in Latin is Carni Vale, and why carnivale is celebrated all over the world). This is the last day that we are able to eat meat until Easter Sunday. The Gospel reading is Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus explains that those who take care of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner, will inherit the kingdom, while those who do not will be dismissed from his presence. What I take away from this is the personal aspect of what we’re commanded to do. We are to care for individuals, not some abstract. In doing so, we find Jesus in those individuals, and are brought closer to him through them.

Living In and Through Sacred Time

At this time, John has begun writing his thesis, and wrapping up the last bit of data collection on the last (and, naturally, most challenging) chapter of said thesis. And of course, mechanical issues have arisen with our anaerobic chamber so that this data will not present itself willingly.

Kristen continues to heroically wrangle children who have clearly inherited their mom’s looks (praise God) and their dad’s temperament (Lord, have mercy). Charles Maximus will undergo outpatient surgery on February 28 to remove a branchial cleft cyst, which is a small pocket of cells on his neck that he has had since birth. The vet school has a program that provides small children with Josh, a stuffed Golden Retriever, who comes with a children’s book that explains the process of undergoing surgery at a level that small children can understand and (hopefully) be comforted.

We’re putting together a small book that will provide a visual outline of our work – who we are, what we hope to do in Mekelle (and why), how we hope to do it, and how others can partner with us and help us accomplish this vision. I fully expect that those reading this will see this presentation in the near future.

As we fulfill our duties in preparation for our move to Mekelle, we take joy and solace in the calendar’s reminder of those events that have already occurred in salvation history that we are called to relive and participate in on a cyclical basis. I can’t express how deeply participation in the calendar has helped me know Christ in unique and truly life-changing ways.

Two events this week stand out.

First, today (February 2) is exactly forty days after Christmas, and thus the day that the Torah requires firstborn sons be presented to the Lord in his Temple in Jerusalem. This event is recorded in Luke 2:22-40, in which St. Simeon, who was told he would see the Messiah before he dies, takes Jesus in his arms and proclaims:

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have beheld your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people. A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel.

This morning I read two prophecies of this event in the Minor Prophets, which simply amazed me. The first was Haggai 2:1-9, in which Haggai is encouraging the Israelites to get off their butts and rebuild the temple now that they’ve returned from the exile in Babylon:

For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake the nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. . . . The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of  hosts.

In Malachi 3:1, we read, “And the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”

Ours is a God who keeps his promises.

intampinarea-domnului_greek

The icon of the Meeting of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple. Mary hands Jesus to Simeon, as Joseph and Anna look on.

The second event marks this week as the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, in preparation for Great Lent. This story, found in Luke 18:9-14, was read this past Sunday, as it is always read annually on the third Sunday before Great Lent.  Here, a Pharisee is praying, thanking God that he’s not like other, less pious people (because he fasts, tithes etc.), while a tax-collector stands quietly, beating his breast, and praying over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus finished this story: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one how humbles himself will be exalted.”

As we prepare for this great Fast (in which prayer and giving to the poor are amplified, and we eat no animal products, and less of everything else), we read this story to remind us that ascetic endeavor (or any other good thing we can do) avails us nothing without humility; that is, reliance on the mercy of God. Last week, with Zacchaeus, we saw that the first step towards our on-going reorientation toward and return to Jesus is our desire to see him; this week, we see that genuine and radical humility comes next. We also begin using the service book that leads us up to Pascha (Easter), which we call the Triodion. During morning prayers, we begin (and continue throughout Lent) singing:

Open unto me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life: for my spirit goes early to the temple of your holiness, coming in the temple of my body, wholly polluted. But because you are compassionate, purify me by the compassion of your mercies.

Icon-Publican-and-the-Pharisee-3

The icon of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Prelims, Zacchaeus, and Lent

DSCF1762

I found this goat in an acacia tree in the Afar Region of Ethiopia. It reminds us of Zacchaeus.

 

It’s been a tough (but edifying) couple of months! In a nutshell:

  • Kristen and the boys enjoyed an extended stay with family and friends in Oklahoma from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. This was in part because the car we bought in November was totaled by a deer the day after Thanksgiving (no people were hurt, thank God). We replaced the car once John joined everyone in Oklahoma for Christmas, and the replacement has been serving us well.
  • Charlie became quite accustomed to lots of sweets, TV (especially Dinosaur Train), and getting his way while in Oklahoma.
  • Judah has two mandibular incisors, and has decided he’s not such a big fan of sleeping through the night.
  • Kristen recently enrolled in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, which is a a fifteen week course designed around four vantage points or “perspectives” — Biblical, Historical, Cultural and Strategic. Each one highlights different aspects of God’s global purpose. This is a highly recommended course for those looking to live and minister overseas.
  • I (John) spent most of the last two months preparing for my preliminary oral exam (prelim), which I passed on January 17th! This allows me to write, submit, and defend (this July) my PhD thesis, which addresses the control, prevention, and treatment of bovine digital dermatitis, a major cause of lameness in cattle. In my PhD program (Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine), the prelim is somewhat unique. Essentially, I was required to design and write an innovative research proposal that I then presented to my PhD committee (five veterinary researchers at ISU), at which point the committee asked whatever they wanted in order to determine my level of knowledge regarding veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine. My research proposal involved surveillance of brucellosis in Ethiopian livestock, a topic of great interest in the Ethiopian veterinary community, and at Mekelle University in particular. Preparation for the prelim was much more stressful than the actual exam, but everything went well.

At this point, we have our noses to the grindstone, and we’re doing what we can to prepare for the move to Mekelle. Once I finish my PhD (in July, God-willing), our plan is to dedicate all of our time to meeting with potential supporters in order to raise the support we need to move. Our goal is to have the support raised to enable to move during late fall or early winter of 2018/19. All donations and support that we receive before that time go toward our start-up/travel expenses.

IMG_6111

The boys checking out one of Charlie’s favorite Christmas gifts.

 

As we continue to work towards these goals, we can’t help but feel stuck in a sort of limbo, of waiting until the next big thing. At times like these we remain grateful for the way in which our church shapes time to enable us to focus on the most truly meaningful cycles and narratives – those that allow us to participate in salvation history. Our church does Pascha/Easter big (the Feast of Feasts!), and we prepare accordingly. In fact, there are three layers of preparation for the annual celebration of Christ’s victory over death – Holy Week, Great Lent, and the four weeks prior to Lent.

The first event that occurs in preparation for Great Lent (which, in turn, prepares us for Pascha), occurred during the Divine Liturgy this past Sunday. The Gospel reading for this service is Luke 19:1-10 – the story of Zacchaeus. Here, we encounter a man who made his living by collecting taxes for the Roman government (collecting more than was required in order to provide himself with income). However, this man had heard that Jesus, a well-known teacher and healer, was passing through his town, and he so desired to see this Jesus that he (being short) climbed a tree in order to do so. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann says in his wonderful book on Great Lent,

…the theme of this first announcement is desire. Man follows his desire. One can even say that man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledge by the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, ” says Christ,”there shall your heart be.” A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man;  when he passionately desires something he does things of which “normally” he is incapable. Being “short,” he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things. . . .

Zacchaeus desired the “right thing”; he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins as the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desire: the desire for God and His righteousness, for the true life.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t tell us that climbing the tree results in Zacchaeus seeing Jesus; rather, he tells us that Jesus “looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.'” Thus, Zacchaeus’s desire leads to being seen by Jesus; as Schmemann says, “it ‘forces’ Christ’s attention; it brings Christ to [Zacchaeus’s] home.”

Finally, it is noteworthy that Zacchaeus climbed a tree, with no regard for his own dignity, in order to see Jesus, who would climb his own tree, with no regard for his own dignity, for the life of the world two weeks later. We who desire to see Christ are called to take up our cross and follow him, regardless of the cost.

As we prepare for Great Lent, may we all, in our desire to see Christ, be seen by him, and thus be changed.

IMG_5431

The Orthodox Church and Mere Christianity

e98fc5d3f05160eead0d35d9c4845397--byzantine-icons-orthodox-icons

In our last post, we wrote about how we came to learn about and join the Orthodox Church. Today, we’re writing to explain what the Orthodox Church shares in common with other Christian churches, as well as unique aspects of the Orthodox Church that tend to stand out. Again, this is written from the perspective of our unique context, and written for our friends, family, and other potential supporters.

C.S. Lewis, in the preface to his book Mere Christianity, describes how he wrote this book “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” However, later in the preface he goes on to express his concern that readers might misconstrue this effort and “suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.” He goes on to describe a hall containing doors that open into a number of rooms. “Mere” Christianity can be found in the hall, which is “a place to wait in, . . . not a place to live in.” The rooms are the various Christian traditions and churches (where “there are fires and chairs and meals”), of which one must ultimately choose, if one is serious about following Christ.

Rooms may be chosen for a number of reasons – some good, some bad. Our reason for choosing the Orthodox Church, as we stated in last week’s post, was because we had become convinced that it offered the fullest, most thorough, most accurate means by which we might come to know, follow, and be united to Jesus Christ, eternally. Note that we do not say it offers the only way. We don’t dare make that presumption.

Mere Christianity

Here we will do our best to explain the hallway: the mere Christianity that Lewis describes in that fantastic book, from our perspective as relatively recent (~seven years) Orthodox Christians. If you’re really interested, we highly recommend that you peruse Mere Christianity itself (or read it again if it’s been a while).

We are firmly convinced that the most important question that Christians must be able to answer is that one that Jesus asks his disciples in the Gospels: “Who do you say that I am?” Understanding who Jesus is, is a necessary prerequisite to understanding what he has done, and what we are to do in response. The answer to this question is the foundation of “mere” Christianity.

This question predominated the first few centuries of Christian history, and was most significantly addressed in what are known as ecumenical councils. In these councils, bishops (and others) met to discuss debates about who Jesus is, as well as any number of other issues. Essentially all Christians agree with the fundamental conclusions of the first three ecumenical councils, which were held between 325 and 431 A.D. The most significant statement to come from those councils was the Nicene Creed (which we highly suggest you take the time to read, if you’re not familiar with it).

The fourth council, held in Chalcedon in 451, produced the first split of lasting significance in Christianity. The Chalcedonian Definition (another good read) contained the statement that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, that he was one person in two natures (i.e., human and divine), and that this occurs “without confusion, change, division, or separation.” What is commonly known as the Oriental Orthodox Church disagreed with this statement, believing that the concept of two natures was unacceptable (however, recent dialogue has indicated that this may be largely an issue of wording, rather than actual Christology). Essentially all Protestants, Roman Catholics, as well as Eastern Orthodox Christians, hold to the Chalcedonian Definition.

Thus, mere Christianity agrees that God has revealed himself as Trinity: three Persons, one in essence, and undivided; that Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity; and that Jesus is one in essence with us according to his humanity, and one in essence with God according to his divinity. In addition, we agree that the Son became human “for us men and for our salvation.” Salvation is a purpose and result of God becoming human, often referred to as the Incarnation.

Unique Aspects of the Orthodox Tradition

This section will be brief (there are much better treatments of all these topics in the resources listed in last week’s post). Our goal here is to address some of the most common questions people have about the Orthodox Church. Most of these arise because of differences in Catholic and Protestant thought – issues that have only come up as the Orthodox Church has had to interact with the debates of Western Christianity.

Scripture in Tradition

While Protestants hold to the doctrine that the authority of the Bible outranks tradition (Sola Scriptura; the Bible is the spring, and traditions are rivers that stream from it), and Catholics speak of two sources of authority in Scripture and Tradition (two rivers that weave together), Orthodox Christians tend to speak of Scripture in Tradition. Here, Tradition is the river, and the Scriptures are the current that drives the river.

For the Orthodox Church, authority comes from Jesus, and from what he taught his disciples, which they handed down to us. The Scriptures are the primary source for these teachings, but not the only source. One Orthodox bishop produced a helpful list (pp. 205-08) for prioritizing sources of apostolic teachings, such as councils, hymns, and the writings of the Church Fathers. Note that no teaching will contradict Scripture, but that these teachings are the means by which we correctly interpret Scripture.

Salvation

Salvation as typically presented by the Orthodox Church has two emphases: rescue, and theosis, or deification. The idea of rescue is manifested by the hymn we sing over and over at Easter: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

Theosis is the idea that as we become increasingly more like Jesus, we become increasingly more like God (since Jesus is God). Thus salvation is being rescued from death by Christ’s death and resurrection, and subsequently becoming increasingly like him for eternity, because he became like us first. It is not becoming God; just as we cannot become Jesus by becoming more and more like him (or anyone else, for that matter), we cannot become God by becoming more and more like him.

This is one of my favorite Orthodox prayers, asking God to save us.

The Sanctification of Matter

The sanctification of matter is the fundamental explanation for a number of unique teachings and practices in the Orthodox Church. When the immaterial God became a human being (i.e., matter), it changed what it means to be matter. Matter became a vehicle that God uses to bless us, and we can experience his grace through material things. This includes the matter that comprises the sacraments (e.g., water, oil, bread, wine, etc.), visual depictions of Christ and his saints (typically called icons), even the bodies of devout believers who have died (called relics).

It also ties into why we honor the saints in the Orthodox Church. What we’re doing when we honor the saints is drawing attention to the myriad ways that individuals throughout history have allowed Christ to shine through them. The golden circle that surrounds a saint (their halo) in an icon is meant to represent the uncreated light of Christ shining through that person.

15334022087_ee08fbd519_b

We realize that this is barely skimming the surface of this immense topic. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions or concerns; we’re glad to talk, and aren’t easily offended. I (John) plan to discuss the concept of the sanctification of matter, along with humanity’s role in creation (especially as that pertains to veterinarians and their patients), in future posts.

e98fc5d3f05160eead0d35d9c4845397--byzantine-icons-orthodox-icons

What is the Orthodox Church (and Why Did We Join It)?

IMG_0131

The Coatneys at Pascha 2017.

I’m writing today’s post in response to a handful of inquiries from friends who have expressed a desire to come alongside us in support of our work, but aren’t sure what it means for us to have joined the Orthodox Church. In some cases, friends (understandably) want to know where we (and the Orthodox Church) stand in terms of our Christian faith before they can make the decision as to whether to support us.

This is much too large a topic to cover adequately in a (relatively) brief blog post. I’ve decided to cover this in two posts; in this post, my goal is to explain how I (John) learned about the Orthodox Church, why it appealed to me, and how Kristen came on board, after some hesitation. Next week I’ll discuss what the Orthodox Church shares in common with other Christian churches, as well as some of the things that members of other traditions identify as being unique to the Orthodox tradition.

Again, my purpose here is to introduce the Orthodox Church to our (potential) supporters. Thus it is a contextual introduction, written from our unique experience of the Orthodox Church, to those in their own contexts, which tend to be evangelical and/or Church of Christ, or agnostic/atheist/none. It is not an encyclopedic, comprehensive introduction, nor is it meant to disparage other Christian traditions. I will provide links at the end of the post to resources for those interested in learning more.

How We Discovered the Orthodox Church

IMG_2134

Charlie at our home’s prayer corner.

When I was in Iraq in 2008-09, I would attend Sunday worship services based on my schedule, the location of the service, and how I was feeling. On a whim, I decided to attend the Orthodox Liturgy. It was led by Fr. Stephan, an Air Force Chaplain, with three Iraqi women who worked on base as translators and one service member (besides me) in attendance. Even in its simplicity (e.g., a folding table and two chairs on which sat two small icons), two things struck me: the beauty of the service, and the Scriptural foundation of the prayers. I was intrigued, and Fr. Stephan was gracious enough to spend the next few months teaching me about the Orthodox Church.

I learned that the Orthodox Church claims apostolic succession, as do the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church (the Orthodox and Roman churches split in 1054 for reasons I’ll discuss next time). This means that the bishops of the church were ordained (by the laying on of hands) by earlier bishops that go all the way back to the laying on of hands by the Apostles in the first century. The claim is also meant to affirm that these bishops have consistently maintained the same faith held by the apostles (I will discuss what that means in the subsequent post).

I also learned that the Orthodox Church is conciliar; i.e., decisions are made by groups of bishops in council, and then approved or rejected by the entire Church following these councils. Because decisions are preferably made at the most local level, the Church has developed along ethnic and linguistic lines, such that the Greek Church, the Russian Church, the Antiochian (e.g., Syrian and Lebanese) Church, etc., come together to make up the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. In the U.S. and other countries in which the Orthodox Church is not native, the situation is further complicated: as Orthodox Christians have immigrated to these areas, they have brought their own priests and bishops who speak their own native language and are accustomed to their native traditions (which are not necessarily part of the greater Orthodox Tradition).

Thus in the U.S., for example, we might have Greek, Serbian, and Romanian churches under the jurisdiction of three different bishops in the same city. Efforts are being made to determine how the Orthodox Church might be unified in these areas, so that there might one day be an American Orthodox Church, an Australian Orthodox Church, etc. However, this is likely still a very long way from being realized.

Now, I had learned about the Roman Catholic Church in a similar manner when I lived in Vicenza, Italy, and while that had given me a much greater and more nuanced appreciation for Catholicism, I had not been compelled to consider membership in the Catholic Church. Like many people, I sort of (mis)understood the Orthodox Church to be the eastern version of the Roman Catholic Church, so I was quite surprised when I found certain Orthodox practices appealing, especially as I struggled with being in Iraq, and being away from my wife during our first year of marriage. I began to adopt some Orthodox practices, such as praying from an Orthodox prayer book (and primarily from the book of Psalms), incorporating icons into my prayers, and routine fasting.

I felt a profound connection to Christians throughout history, and learned a great deal about Christians who had been killed as a result of their faith (something particularly compelling as I met a number of Iraqi Christians who had friends and family members in this group). I began to realize that being part of this body would likely have profound effects in terms of knowing Christ better and becoming more like Him.

Unfortunately, Kristen was back in Chicago, hearing me talk about what I was learning and experiencing, but unable to relate to what I was going through, and especially how Orthodox worship and practices were helping me cope. When I got back to Chicago, we began to attend All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church. Kristen was (understandably) uncomfortable with many of the unique aspects of the Orthodox Church (to be discussed in next week’s post), and was hesitant about joining. After about two years of observing these practices, and getting to know many who observe them, she acknowledged that these people loved Jesus and worshipped God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone. At this point, she recognized, along with me, that the Orthodox Church offered the most compelling means by which we could follow Christ, and become increasingly more like Him. As I had already joined the Church on September 14, 2010, she followed on Pascha (Easter), 2012.

IMG_1032

Charles Maximus (the screaming one) and two others being presented following their baptisms. (Photo by Steve Kellar)

Again, I’ll discuss my understanding of similarities and differences between the Orthodox Church and other churches in our next post; in the meantime, here are some potentially helpful resources for those interested:

Additional References

Be the Bee

This is a fantastic series of 5-10 minute videos, put out by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministries, about how Orthodox Christians are to live out our faith. There is also a playlist of selected videos specifically curated to act as an introduction to the Orthodox Church.

If you’re going to watch just one of these videos, watch this one.

Books

Welcome to the Orthodox Church, by Frederica Mathewes-Green

My favorite introduction, but perhaps a little long. There is another that is a little shorter, and considered the classic introduction.

A Journey of Fear and Joy, by Oswin Craton

Written by a former member of the Restoration movement, this does a very good job of showing where the Orthodox Church is similar, and where it differs from the churches of Christ. It is written from the perspective of someone who has decided that the Orthodox Church fulfills many of the goals that the Restoration movement sought to achieve, so it’s worded somewhat strongly in some places.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (also a podcast)

This book is intended to show similarities and differences (from an Orthodox perspective) between the Orthodox Church and other traditions (both Christian and non-Christian).

Podcasts, Etc.

Ancient Faith Radio

Part of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, there are a plethora of great (free) resources here.

Why “Hands Outstretched”?

img_5792-jpg.jpeg

“…let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God.” (Psalm 68:31)

What an adventure this has been!

In July 2017, a few days before our second child Judah was born, we received an email from the Africa Regional Director at Christian Veterinary Mission, informing us that we had been formally approved as Candidates with CVM. A new and significant step has been made in what has already been a long and prayerful journey! After working through some of the necessary logistics, not to mention having baby #2 and John starting the last semester of coursework for his PhD, we are ready to introduce you to “Hands Outstretched,” our vision for where we hope to go, and how we hope to share Christ’s love along the way.

This blog is intended to serve as an invitation to our readers to come alongside us as we continue this journey, one that will lead us, shortly, to Mekelle, Ethiopia. It is our intention to post here regularly as we begin to prepare for our long-term relocation to Mekelle. In doing so, we hope 1) to keep everyone informed as to our status and our progress as we pursue this goal; 2) to share what we’re learning about the history and status of Christianity, as well as of veterinary medicine and public health, in Ethiopia; and 3) to ask for your support as we pursue this goal.

There are three ways that you can help us: through prayer, through financial contributions, and through interacting with us via social media (including this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), as well as sharing our updates with anyone and everyone you think might be interested. We welcome any questions about what we’re doing; please feel free to contact us!

So here we are. We plan on sharing more over the next few weeks about who we are, where we’re coming from, how we got here, and how (and why) we intend to get where we’re going. But first, I want to talk about the name we’ve chosen for this ministry, “Hands Outstretched,” and what that means to us.

In Ethiopia, there is one half-verse of Scripture that is more widely quoted, written, and scrawled across walls and billboards than probably any other text: Psalm 68:31 – “…let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God.” If you look this up in an English version of the Bible, there’s a fair chance that “Cush” will be mentioned rather than Ethiopia; this is simply a translational issue.

For at least the last 1,700 years, and probably for much longer, Ethiopia has been stretching out her hands to God. It is our joy and privilege to join her in doing so as we seek to share our gifts and blessings with the people of Mekelle, of Tigray, and with the rest of Ethiopia. This is first and foremost what we mean by “Hands Outstretched”: that we long to seek God alongside those with whom we’ve chosen to live.

However, there are other nuances involved with “Hands Outstretched” that have led us to choose this image for our ministry. In the Orthodox Church, Psalm 141 has been considered the psalm of evening prayer since at least the third century (and almost certainly earlier than that). In 141:2, the psalmist prays: “Let my prayer arise as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Thus, “Hands Outstretched” also represents the orans, a common posture for prayer in the early Church:

300dpi_edited-1

In addition, John Cassian, in commenting on Psalm 141, makes a powerful observation:

Here the true evening sacrifice can be understood in a more spiritual way as . . . that evening sacrifice that he offered to the Father on the last day – namely, at the end of the ages – by the raising of his hands for the salvation of the world” (Institutes, 3.3.8-10).

Thus, as Cassian points out, the “Hands Outstretched” are the hands of Christ, allowing himself to serve as the true and final evening sacrifice. And we who are called to take up our crosses and follow him are called to stretch out our hands alongside him, thereby participating in his sacrifice.

“Hands Outstretched” also refers to our love for one another, in that we stretch out our hands as a sign of peace (in a handshake), of love and acceptance (in a hug), and in giving and receiving in community (via the exchange of goods). We hope to be peacemakers, sharers in Christ’s love, and to give what we have to those who may need it, as well as to receive what is offered in return (i.e., knowledge and understanding about other cultures, faiths, and worldviews).

Finally, as we wrap up this introduction, I’d like to talk a little more about the Psalm from which we take our name, Psalm 68. Psalms are numbered differently in certain versions of the  Bible and in certain translations, because when the Psalms were translated from Hebrew to Greek in the centuries before Christ, the numbering was changed, and so Orthodox Bibles and liturgical texts will number this Psalm 67. This psalm is an extremely significant one in the Orthodox tradition; Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon describes its use well in his excellent book, Christ in the Psalms:

The Christian sense of this psalm is abundantly clear in its traditional liturgical use, the best example being the rush procession of Holy Saturday night. In front of the church doors, after we have thrice marched around the building, we stand and listen to St. Mark’s account of the myrrhbearing women coming to the empty tomb of the Risen Christ. Then, after that Gospel, we repeatedly chant the triumphant troparion of Pascha: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’ Between chantings of that great troparion we sing lines from Psalm 67: ‘Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.’

Here we have the deeper, more authentic sense of the psalm: Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, arising from the dead (‘Let God arise’), triumphant over sin and death (‘Let His enemies be scattered’), bringing His saints from the demonic depths of Hades (‘I will bring back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea’), leading the Church in her journey through history (‘O God, when You went out before Your people’).

Thus, with Hands Outstretched, we proclaim his death, we confess his resurrection. We thank you for joining with us on this journey. Please consider helping, in one or more of the ways described above. Welcome!