Prelims, Zacchaeus, and Lent

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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.

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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.

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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).

Camel Diseases and Human Health in the Horn of Africa

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Our translator very thoughtfully marked this camel for me.

In this post we want to discuss one aspect of the veterinary component of the work we hope to participate in when we move to Ethiopia. When we discuss our desire to help Ethiopians (and share the love of Christ) through veterinary medicine, many folks in the U.S. (understandably) haven’t considered the value that people in developing countries place on their livestock, and on the veterinary infrastructure (or lack thereof) that is necessary to enable their livestock to be productive. Even fewer have considered the role of livestock species that are uncommon in America or the West.

A couple of years ago, I (John) got to help my boss write a review article for CAB Reviews (part of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International), which we titled “The impact of camel disease on human welfare in East Africa.” We’d like to share some of the more interesting (in our humble opinion) information from this article here, to show how significant veterinary medicine can be for people who have extremely limited access to veterinarians and veterinary technology.

Introduction

We begin by describing how half to two-thirds of the 27 million camels in the world are in East Africa (i.e., Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia), where their ability to adapt to extremely harsh environments is highly prized. In East Africa, (dromedary, or one-humped) camels are used for meat, milk, transportation, market/wealth reserve, prestige, hide, and labour. We discuss how 75% of the world’s camels are found in the world’s Least Developed Countries, and are thus often neglected in terms of research into improved production methods and veterinary diagnostics and treatments. When we conducted interviews with pastoralists to better understand their livestock priorities and concerns, camels were ranked the most important species more than 95% of the time.

Adaptation to Extreme Environments

As drought and water shortages increase in the Horn of Africa, the camel’s ability to withstand these challenges (especially as compared to other livestock species) increases the potential value of these animals in this region. Camels can lose up to 30% of their body’s water (~3x that of other domestic animals) and survive. They also have unique mechanisms (including their kidneys, the shape of their red blood cells, and the shape of their bodies in general) that decrease water loss and enable rapid rehydration. Whereas a cow will naturally lose 8-11 gallons of water per day, a camel will lose about 1/3 of one gallon of water per day. In addition, camels are able to withstand extreme heat due to the shape of their bodies and special blood vessels in their noses.

If you want an idea of how harsh the Ethiopian environment can be, check out these photos of the Danakil Depression (and the camels there!).

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The harsh landscape in the Horn of Africa.

Reproduction and Calf Viability

Camels take a relatively long time to reproduce. Fertility rates in the Horn of Africa are around 40%, and gestation is 13 months. If everything goes well, a healthy cow (female camel) will have a calf about once every 28 months. There are a huge number of diseases that cause infertility or loss of prenatal calves in camels, such as pasteurellosis and trypanosomiasis. Losses may be as high as 40%. Once born, camels, like cattle, need “first milk,” or colostrum, from their mothers to protect them from infection until their own immune systems are developed. Many who make a living by herding (i.e. pastoralists), however, told us that they prevent the calves from drinking colostrum, because they believe that the colostrum itself makes the calves sick. Thus calf deaths are extremely common; the number we often heard was 50%. Probably 3/4 of these are caused be calf diarrhea – E. coli, Salmonella, rotavirus, etc.

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Acacia thorns are often used as corrals, here keeping the calves from wandering and protecting them from predators, like hyenas.

Diseases Affecting Production in General

In addition to reproductive diseases, there are many diseases that “cause wasting, weakness, decreased milk production, and in some cases, death. They also decrease in value from an economic/market perspective. These animals thus fail to serve their intended purpose, which is ultimately to benefit the welfare of the people who care for them. Diseases that affect overall health include (but are not limited to) trypanosomiasis, infectious respiratory disease, paratuberculosis (Johne’s disease), Camel Sudden Death Syndrome, intestinal parasite infestations, and ectoparasite (i.e., tick) infestations.”

Uses for Camels in East Africa

Food

Studies have shown that camel milk often makes up 30-50% of the nutritional needs of pastoralists in East Africa. One year old children in this region can receive up to 2/3 of their required mean energy and 100% of their protein from camel milk. Camels in the Horn of Africa produce an average of 11 to 13 pounds of milk per day (higher than cattle in the same region). Lactation lasts between 9 and 18 months. The milk has unique antimicrobial properties, and has lower somatic cell counts than that found in cattle. Mastitis is therefore an extremely significant disease for these camels (and, unfortunately, extremely common). In addition, the fact that the milk is commonly consumed raw is a cause for concern, as there are a large number of food-borne illnesses caused by drinking raw milk (i.e., brucellosis, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, etc.).

The risks of raw milk comes to my mind frequently when I work with camels, because there is a tradition that those who are about to work a herd will come together and share a bowl of fresh milk before getting started. It is considered impolite to decline, but I have found that if I make sure I have a big milk mustache, even if I only sip a little, my hosts are satisfied.

Camels are also slaughtered for their meat, which has a much lower fat content (and is much tougher) than beef. The hump, which consists of fibrous fat, is considered a delicacy in many pastoral areas. As with any slaughtered animal, there are a number of  potential food-borne illnesses associated with camel meat, including salmonellosis, campylobacter infections, toxoplasmosis, and echinococcosis.

Conditions at slaughterhouses are vastly different, as well. A colleague and I visited a camel slaughterhouse at one point, accompanied by the slaughterhouse’s veterinary inspector. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and when men with machetes started hacking at the camels’ hamstrings so they would lay down before being slaughtered, our eyes widened and our jaws dropped. The inspector noticed, and asked, quite innocently, “Is this not how you do it in America?”

 

Camel milk and meat. Note the fat from the hump on the upper left side of the plate.

Transportation

Another use for camels is for hauling goods, milk, water, or, in the case of many pastoralists, for relocating one’s entire home when in search of better pasture. In northern Ethiopia, many people won’t drink camel milk or eat the meat for religious reasons, but have found the camel’s capacity for transportation to be immensely useful. Camels are well-known for hauling salt out of the Danakil Depression in north-eastern Ethiopia.

Economic and Cultural/Societal Resource

Camel herds function as the wealth reserve (and therefore as a measure of cultural prestige) for many in the Horn of Africa, especially pastoralists. The Horn of Africa exports enormous numbers of animals (~$600 million per year) to the Arabian Peninsula, especially around Ramadan. Diseases in the Horn of Africa will occasionally lead to an export ban, which has enormous consequences for those who depend on this trade to make a living.

Zoonoses

We wrap up the article with a discussion of diseases that are shared between humans and camels, including brucellosis, Rift Valley Fever, Q Fever, rabies, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). All of these present serious health risks for the people that care for and come into contact with camels.

Conclusion

Hopefully this post has shown that “the camel is of immense value to many in East Africa, and especially to the pastoralist peoples who live there. This animal, which gets so little notice in most of the world, gives food, provides transportation, income and a sense of self-worth to these people.” Hopefully it also shows the role that a veterinarian can potentially play in East Africa, and how one can love others using their veterinary training and skills.

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Me and a friend.

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.

Who Do We Think We Are?

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Kristen and John at Niagara Falls in October 2009, when John was on leave after returning from Iraq (and after having dragged Kristen to a monastery for their first week together).

This entry will be shorter than previous ones, because we don’t really want to talk about ourselves all that much (at least on the blog; I (John) could talk about myself all day). However, we do want to explain how we came to desire to work overseas, and why we’ve decided to pursue this goal.

Kristen’s Story

When I was 17, an evangelist came to the Stillwater Church of Christ and shared his experience as a long-term missionary in China.  I was so moved and impressed by the work he was doing, I contemplated packing my bags and moving to China the next day.  Years later (in 2011), I went on a short-term trip to Haiti.  It was my first experience with extreme poverty and I really didn’t know what to expect, but by the time my trip came to an end I didn’t want to leave.  Many of the people I met were still displaced from the effects of the 2010 earthquake but the amount of love and joy they had for each other and for me was inspiring and overwhelming.

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Kristen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010.

As Christians, we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to care for and love the sick and the suffering, to try to live a life worthy of His sacrifice.  While that can, and should, be lived out in our own communities and neighborhoods, there is also a need in communities that don’t have the resources we have been blessed with here.  God calls each of us in different ways and John and I feel there has been a desire and a willingness placed on our hearts for Ethiopia.

John’s Story

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John at the ziggurat in Ur (of the Chaldees) in southern Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham (2009).

My first encounter with some sort of development work involved two short-term spring break trips with the Church of Christ University Center in Stillwater, OK (also, by the way, where Kristen and I met). One trip was to Impact Houston Church of Christ, which has an amazing inner city ministry; the other was a work project in Saltillo, Mexico. These trips made me aware of the possibility of development work as ministry.

At the same time, I was able to attend one of Christian Veterinary Fellowship’s Real Life Real Impact weekends, where I learned about the kind of work that Christian Veterinary Mission did around the world. At the time, I recognized that I wasn’t mature enough (both in my faith, and simply as a person) to pursue development work long term. However, my decision to join the Army Veterinary Corps was heavily influenced by my desire to use the skills and knowledge I had obtained to serve others. I was seeking to share Christ’s love through veterinary medicine in whatever capacity I could at the time.

While in the Army, I did some work in Bosnia, the Congo, Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda, which served to strengthen my resolve to find some way to pursue development work in the future.  I was deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, and it was there that my life changed drastically. I can say that in hindsight, but at the time, I would have said that Iraq was inconsequential: I wasn’t a combatant, and because the Army had become so risk-averse by 2008, I really didn’t have that much to do. I had a lot of time to read, though; and (much more importantly), I had a lot of time to pray. This is where I discovered the Orthodox Church (something we plan to write about in more detail in a future post), but in many ways, it’s where I discovered my absolute dependence on Christ, and where my desire to drop everything to serve him really sprang to life.

Everything since then has been an effort to discern how Kristen and I can use what we’ve been given to know Christ and to love others in such a way that we can look back and know that we made the most of what we were given.

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John and Kristen on their wedding day (May 29, 2008) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why Christian Veterinary Mission?

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I’m a little behind on posting this week, because Charles Maximus’s godmother got married in Chicago this weekend, and Charlie was the ring bearer. Congratulations to Jen and Garrett Ledesma; many years!

Thanks to all who have been showing their support as we prepare for next year: those who have been praying, those who have made very generous contributions, and those who have contacted us to encourage us, followed us, and provided us with their contact information!

Today, I want to write about our sending agency (I’ll explain this term below): Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM). I want to explain who they are, what they do, and why we chose to partner with them.

What is Christian Veterinary Mission?

Christian Veterinary Mission was founded in 1976 by Dr. Leroy Dorminy, a veterinarian from Georgia. At the Baptist World Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in July 1975, Dr. Dorminy met a woman from Africa who, when asked how Christians in the developed world can help in developing countries, responded, “what we need is for you to come and teach us your skills that we might do for ourselves.”

Dr. Dorminy then approached his denomination’s foreign mission board, but was turned away, in part because they simply didn’t know what to do with a veterinarian! As a result, he became convinced that there was a real need for an organization that understood the veterinary profession and what veterinarians can offer in the way of sharing Christ’s love in developing countries.

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Dr. Leroy Dorminy (photo courtesy of cvmusa.org).

Due to the need for experienced, professional guidance in terms of supporting those placed overseas, CVM became a part of CRISTA ministries in 1978. CRISTA’s mission is “to love God by serving people – meeting practical and spiritual needs—so that those we serve will be built up in love, united in faith and maturing in Christ.”

What Does CVM Do?

As they explain on their website, “CVM’s mission is to challenge, empower and facilitate veterinary professionals to serve others by living out their Christian faith.” Another way that CVM states its mission is “to share the love of Christ through veterinary medicine.”

CVM thus functions as a sending agency for those in the veterinary profession. One website describes a sending agency as one that “specializes in the care and service of ‘people on mission’ . . . experts in all the challenges and details of a person going into itinerant ministry, and can provide excellent financial services, mailing and database services, fund raising training, donor communication training and support, connections and resources from many other related people and organizations, and more.”

Today, CVM functions as the sending agency for more than fifty veterinarians (and their families) in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia; all of whom raise their own support, as we are doing. In addition, CVM has student and professional ministries in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. I (John) was introduced to CVM through its student ministry while in vet school.

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A map showing the location of many current CVM field staff. The map is interactive here.

Why We’re Raising Support

Before I explain why we chose CVM, I want to explain some of the reasons why we decided to raise support rather than find other funding options.

  • We want to create a community of supporters, who will come alongside us in our work through prayer, financial contributions, and interaction (both on social media and through visits). Raising financial support requires us to do the work of connecting with our supporters by keeping you up updated and involved. It also allows you, when you contribute your time to our work (and money counts here, because you have spent time earning that money) to truly be a part of the work we’re doing.
  • We don’t want to take salaries away from other potential employees. Were I to take a salary from the veterinary school, for example, that’s one less Ethiopian veterinarian or microbiologist that the vet school can hire.
  • We would like to do this work for as long as we’re able, without interruption. I intend to explore a number of funding opportunities, such as grants, once we’re in Mekelle and I’m able to help people determine their priorities and goals. Those sorts of opportunities will fund projects to benefit the groups I’m working with. But grants are typically short term, and if we were dependent on them for our continual funding, we would have to spend valuable time identifying, applying for, and being subject to the terms and conditions of the grants (assuming we’re awarded them).
  • We want our work to be sustainable, and to endure after we leave. If we’re taking a salary, we’re obliged to do the work required by those paying us. Our intention, however, is to come alongside those already doing that work, and offer our experience, knowledge, and skills, to enable them to excel long after we’re gone.

Why We Chose CVM

There are three basic reasons that we chose to work with CVM: their history of financial accountability, their experience with veterinarians and with Ethiopia, and their reputation for caring for their field staff.

CVM and CRISTA Ministries have an outstanding reputation for financial accountability. They have a four-star rating on Charity Navigator (which rates them according to financial health, accountability, and transparency), and are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. It was important to us that our supporters have peace of mind that your donations are being used appropriately and effectively at all levels. All donations to CVM are tax deductible.

CVM has a 40+ year history of supporting veterinarians, especially those seeking to share their expertise in developing countries. By working with CVM, we have access to a community that knows the pitfalls to avoid as a vet in a developing country, as well as what works.

The same can be said about living as a veterinarian in Ethiopia. CVM’s Africa Regional Director and his family spent nearly three decades in Ethiopia; other veterinarians have worked there, or work there currently. They understand the unique cultural and logistical challenges associated with navigating Ethiopia.

Finally, CVM has a reputation for caring for its field staff. This has been a constant refrain as I’ve gotten to know current and former members of CVM’s team. We’ve even experienced it ourselves, as we had some medical issues that required I leave the first CVM event we attended a couple of days early; the prayer, expressions of concern and support, and follow-up were incredible. We feel comfortable knowing that CVM’s members take care of one another, and live out the call to function as brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are a number of organizations with whom we considered partnering, and of course, other groups have a number of skill sets offered by CVM (and in a few cases, advantages that CVM is not able to offer). However, we are confident that we are in good hands with CVM, and we look forward to a fruitful partnership.

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Charles Maximus at the rehearsal for his nouna’s wedding at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago.