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.

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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.

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The icon of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Thanksgiving and Fasting During Advent

This week, Kristen suggested we talk about what Thanksgiving has come to mean for our family over the last few years. To do so requires that we begin with Advent.

Advent/The Nativity Fast

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Charlie examining the icon of the Nativity, and of St. Nicholas.

“Advent” is taken from the Latin word adventum that can be glossed as “arrival,” or, better, “approach.” It refers to the time in which we prepare for Jesus’s approach in terms of his birth on Christmas. Now, unlike the West, the lands in which most members of the Orthodox Church live today have relatively few historical ties to the Latin language. For this reason, many theological and liturgical words with Latin roots are referred to differently by Orthodox Christians. Thus, the time spent in preparation for Christmas (or, in Orthodox speak, The Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ) is commonly referred to as the Nativity Fast. Of course, we Orthodox Christians who live in the West do use a number of terms that are traditionally associated with Western Christianity, like Lent, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc.

While our (Western) family tends to refer to this season as Advent, we can’t help but acknowledge that a defining characteristic of the Orthodox observance is fasting (hence the name, Nativity Fast). For the forty days prior to Christmas (beginning on November 15), the standard practice for Orthodox Christians is to abstain from eating anything that comes from an animal with a backbone (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) for the entire forty days, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to abstain from olive oil and wine, as well. In addition, portion sizes are to be decreased. The money saved from fasting is to be given to the poor. Naturally, time spent in prayer and contemplation of the birth of Jesus is increased.

This sort of fasting also occurs during Lent (in preparation for Pascha, or Easter), in preparation for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June, in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of Mary in August, and nearly every Wednesday and Friday of the year.

It would be misleading for me to claim that my family (and, in particular, me – John) is diligent in our fasting. I will say that we are diligent in our intentions, and in resuming the fast when we fail to keep it for whatever reason. We have come to appreciate that a significant part of the value of the fasts is the humility learned by failure alongside the desire for perseverance. In addition, how a family fasts, and how that will differ for members of the family, varies based on a number of things – pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and very young children (among others) are exempt from the expectation of fasting, and children are weaned into fasting. Orthodox Christians are encouraged to discuss the fasts with spiritual advisors (typically their parish priest) to determine how best to keep the fasts in their own unique contexts.

The reasons for fasting are numerous, and beyond the scope of this post. The most straightforward explanation for the Nativity Fast is that Christmas is likened to a second Easter (or Pascha), in the sense that Christ’s incarnation is the necessary antecedent of his death and resurrection (Fr. Alexander Schmemann coined the phrase “Winter Pascha” to describe the Nativity). And just as Lent precedes Pascha (being the period in which the Church prays and fasts as a community in preparation for receiving initiates into the Church on Easter), the Nativity Fast precedes the Nativity.

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Charles Maximus at four months (left) and Judah Severus at four months (right).

We are commonly asked how, as Orthodox Christians who fast from November 15 to December 24, we celebrate (or do we even celebrate?) Thanksgiving. The Nativity Fast had been around for some time (to say the least!) before Orthodox immigrants to the U.S. encountered this holiday and the traditions (i.e., foods) associated with it. Since there are a number of Orthodox hierarchies in the U.S., this issue is handled slightly differently, depending on the hierarchy. For the most part, there is either an explicit dispensation granted, or a more implicit understanding that the intents and purposes of fasting are commensurate with those of the Thanksgiving meal (when celebrated appropriately), and that the meal is therefore acceptable.

Orthodox Christians see obvious and significant value in celebrating, as President Lincoln stated in 1863, “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The core of Orthodox worship is Holy Communion; another term for this is Eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστία (eucharistia, “thanksgiving”). The verbal form, εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō, “to give thanks”) is used in the earliest reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me'” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

The heart of Orthodox worship, then, is participation with Christ in the offering of thanks to God for his body, broken for us. And this, of course, extends to offering thanks for all that God has given us, a practice that I, for one, could stand to be much better at doing. A helpful reflection that has had a significant effect on me is to imagine what I would lose if God were to take away everything for which I had not given thanks.

Another practice that has developed in many American Orthodox communities and/or families is gathering to pray and sing a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things,” or the Akathist of Thanksgiving. An akathist (taken from a Greek word indicating that it is to be sung while standing) is a hymn that takes a specific form, sort of like a sonnet. This particular akathist was written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan in 1934, during the height of the Communist persecution. It is often attributed to Archpriest Gregory Petroff, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940; the image of someone praying this in the gulag is incredibly powerful.

Here is a recording of this hymn being sung, and here is the text in full. A few highlights:

How glorious You are in the springtime, when every creature awakens to new life and joyfully sings Your praises with a thousand tongues! You are the source of life, the destroyer of death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding-garments, white as snow. All the earth is Your promised bride awaiting her spotless Husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming, after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to You for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature.
Glory to You for the numberless creatures around us.
Glory to you for the depths of Your wisdom–the whole world a living sign of it.
Glory to You: On my knees, I kiss the traces of Your unseen hand.
Glory to You, enlightening us with the clarity of eternal life.
Glory to You for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

How near You are in the day of sickness. You Yourself visit the sick. You Yourself bend over the sufferer’s bed; his heart speaks to You. In the throes of sorrow and suffering, You bring peace; You bring unexpected consolation. You are the Comforter. You are the Love which watches over and heals us. To You we sing the song: Alleluia!

What sort of praise can I give You? I have never heard the song of the cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to You. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers You prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in You, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to You. I have heard the mysterious murmurings of the forests about You, and the winds singing Your praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Your glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship? All nature obeys You, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Your love, I long to thank You, pray to You, and call upon Your Name:

Glory to You, giving us light.
Glory to You, loving us with love so deep, divine, and infinite.
Glory to You, blessing us with light, and with the host of angels and saints.
Glory to You, Father All-Holy, promising us a share in Your Kingdom.
Glory to You, Holy Spirit, Life-giving Sun of the world to come.
Glory to You for all things, holy and most merciful Trinity.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

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Charlie and Judah on Charlie’s birthday (one day after Judah’s birthday).

The Orthodox Church and Mere Christianity

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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”?

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“…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:

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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!