...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Tired abortion arguments

Last night, one of the nurses mentioned in passing that she had recently visited a website that displays information, including mug shots, of registered sex offenders living in this area. One of the other nurses (the nurse mentioned earlier and who we'll call "Rita") said that her previous partner's then-7-year-old son had been molested by a female babysitter. She spent a few minutes describing her frustration with the woman's response and attempted justification of her actions, the involvement of this woman's minister, and the ridiculous failure of the local law enforcement to pursue an appropriate course of action and press felony charges. It was a sad story, to say the least. The dietitian, who normally comes in early but for some reason came in around 2am last night, somehow thought this was an opportune time to mention a story she allegely heard about some conservative commentator who said he thought women who have abortions should be legally required to have their tubes tied at the same time. I had to answer a call light, so I walked away for a few minutes.

When I came back, the dietitian was pontificating, with much agreement all around, that she believes anyone with male genitalia (not her precise wording) has absolutely no say in the abortion debate. I expressed my scorn and derision for such nonsense, though likely due to the late hour I was not all that eloquent. I pointed out that it takes a man to make that baby and that if a woman decides to keep that child, the man may be obligated to a couple of decades of child support. Those 2 simple facts alone mean a man has a say in the debate. Rita said that since so many of those men end up being dead-beat dads, that effectively counters my point. I pointed out that just because people fail to uphold their responsibilities does not mean that their rights, and the right, are somehow eliminated. The dietitian then modified her earlier statement to say that married men could have a say in whether or not their wife gets an abortion. So I guess I got a point on that one. Rita made a muddy argument about either the politicization of religion or the religious influence on politics, either way she perceived it as an obvious evil and claimed that any effort to bring a religiously-informed morality into politics was somehow against the Constitution. A couple of call ligths were going off and the debate was turning rancorous and noisy (3 against 1), so I decided to simply back off rather than let things get ugly.

Had it been just Rita and I, I certainly would have argued that her view of religion-free politics is absolutely 1) not what the Constitution actually requres and 2) as much a religiuosly-informed opinion as anything in the conservative's moral agenda. It is the view of religion-as-private-preference, one that has absolutely no bearing on any other area of one's life. If that is how you want to live, then that is fine - keep your religion private and vote like an atheist. However, attempting to prevent others from allowing their faith to influence their politics and views on public morality is just as contentious, imposing and "intolerant" as anything that they object to in the conservative camp. That it is expressed secularly in no way diminishes the religious underpinnings of the argument since many making that kind of statement do, in fact, make claims of faith. Based on their personalized, relativistic understanding of belief and the morality derived thereof, they move forward with an agenda that is irreligious on its surface. But it ultimately attempts to impose that personalized & relativistic concept of faith onto everyone else, to denude and destroy the comprehensive religious understanding of conservative Christianity in this country. Its a tired and failed argument and one that does nothing to make meaningful statements of any kind in the abortion debate.


The difficulty of speaking evolutionally

This semester I am only taking 2 classes; Anatomy 2 and Microbiology. This is a blessed relief from the 4 classes of last semester, but I've noticed a trend that has carried through - my professors cannot seem to restrict themselves to truly evolution-based language. I, of course, have no idea as to the level or flavor of faith to which my teachers may or may not subscribe, but it is clear from my classes so far that they have do not speak evolutionally. By that I mean they do not speak in the language of random chance or natural selection. They rarely speak of advantageous adaptations or survival of the fittest. There is little discussion as to how our delicately balanced internal systems could have developed such intricate interdependence or how cells developed the ability to control their internal mechanisms with exquisite precision. It seems almost impossible for them to speak of physiology of the body or cells/microorganisms without using words one would, in all other situations, associate with an external conscious agent. Words like "purpose" pop up a lot - "the purpose of the epithelium is to..." - but how can a directionless, unconscious anything have purpose? A function, yes, but purpose? And, of course, "design" is bandied about quite frequently, but almost always with the underlying assumption that either the cells themselves or some amporphous, impersonal "nature" did this work. But how can a cell direct its own evolution? How can a microscopic arrangement of proteins, phospholipids and water plan its own development and growth into something more complex? Of course it can't, but in an academic system dedicated to naturalistic reasoning, how can such talk still exist if evolution is the ultimate truth as to the origin of all life? It seems we should find speaking evolutionally far easier than we do.

But it is not just my teachers, lest anyone assume their own personal faith is shining through. Even my books utilize the language of external agency. Take this quote from my micro book - "The earth initially may seem like a random, chaotic place, but it is actually an incredibly organized, fine-tuned machine." How exactly does random chance produce an 'incredibly organized, fine-tuned machine'? And why is this language so hard to avoid? I'm sure there are those who would argue that our language and culture are themselves barriers to the correct use of evolutionary termingology in everyday speech, but I still find it highly ironic that we find it so difficult to naturally speak "naturally."


Catechumen class and what ensues

Every Sunday after Litury, the wife and I have the inquirers/Catechumen's class. There are, or were, 5 of us attending regularly. One was a young woman who had gotten married to her Orthodox husband in a civil ceremony. They wanted to get married in the Church back in December, so she was Chrismated early with the understanding she would continue to come to the classes through May - we haven't seen her in a few weeks, though, so I don't know what's up with her. The other 2 are an older married couple with 5 daughters. Their eldest became Orthodox last year and I think, partly anyways, her quest rubbed off on them and they are now searching for historic Christianity. They went through the class last year and are going through again with the intention of joining this Pascha. They were very active Protestants and had participated in church plants and what not, so this is certainly a big change for them. It would be almost like my in-laws converting.

Anyways, class went well - we were the only ones there, so we had plenty of time to talk to the deacon and ask questions. I'm much further along to wanting to "convert" than the wife. She's got a variety of hurdles to overcome, not the least of which was growing up in a healthy church and in a firmly believing Christian home. The former is important because many of the reasons that have driven me to search, and what has apparently driven many of the other recent converts in our parish to search, are huge problems with the church's they formerly attended. Some attended a wide variety of styles, church sizes and denominations and found something wanting, something missing, in every situation. They saw problems that were the result of weak theology or shallow thinking and wanted to find something more resilient, stronger, deeper. Aside from our lousy experience at the church I pastored at, the wife has by and large had good church experiences. They weren't perfect, but the people tried to live their faith and did a reasonably good job of it. So she isn't carrying the baggage I and some of the others are carrying and can't really identify with those problems. What's more, the latter point from above means she has a consistent and pervasive understanding that is thoroughly Protestant with a strong Anabaptist flavor (the denomination has a Mennonite background though they do not identify with it any longer and haven't for some time). Needless to say, infant baptism and sacramentalism have played huge roles in our discussions about Orthodoxy and probably represent 2 of the larger problems she has yet to resolve.

The wife and I's discussion after Liturgy got a little heated and eventually turned into an unfortunate argument. However, once tempers cooled, we were able to talk more clearly and she has recognize that she has not really been giving Orthodoxy an honest try. She's been trying to lay Orthodoxy on the foundation of her pre-existing Protestant theology instead of letting Orthodoxy find its own level, do its own foundation-laying. I'm hoping and praying that this new insight will help us both to know if this is really where God is leading us and where it will be best for us to be. Your continued prayers are much appreciated.


Troy tackles icons

Some may remember Troy from a previous post (here) and I've gone round and round with him on his blog a couple of times. He's now attempting to disprove the Orthodox veneration of icons - an issue we've debated before (here and here). I'll probably give him another go but all are welcome. So come on over and enjoy the debate!

The throne

During the coffee hour last week after church, the wife and I got into a conversation with a couple who converted to Orthodoxy only a year or two ago. His wife was mostly minding their young child, so we were pretty much talking to him. We were talking about our faith journey and some of the issues we're still dealing with in regards to Orthodoxy and possible conversion. He said he and his wife dealt with many of the same things and, in what is becoming a frequent refrain, that his wife had a much greater problem with these things than did he. But things kind of clicked for his wife one day, ironically, as she prepared to ask a rabbi a question. She worked in a potato-chip factory and once a month the factory would make a run of kosher products under the supervision of a rabbi. Her question was about Temple worship and why the Jews stopped worshipping that way (I assume she didn't know the Temple was destroyed by the Romans). She realized, though, that what she was seeing at St Nick's every Sunday morning was precisely that. She saw the elements and architecture of the OT brought into fruition and relationship with Christ. The Temple architecture, the decorations/icons, the incense, the sacrifice and the priests - it was all there right in front of her. So things clicked for her and they joined later that year.

A couple of days later, the wife and I were out doing our Bible study. We try to go through a book of the Bible, one chapter per week, and talk about what we've read; questions, things that jumped out at us and insights or connections we've made. Right now we're working through Hebrews, and last week we looked at chapter 8. I hadn't really thought about our conversation with that couple at all that week until I got to verse 5 and then something hit me - where is the throne in Protestant worship? Hebrews draws elaborate parallels between Christ and the high priest of the OT, between Christ's sacrifice of Himself and the high priest's yearly atonement sacrifice, and between the high priest's entering into the Holy of Holies and Christ's "taking his seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven." (Hebrews 8:1) In the heavenly things upon which the Temple and its worship was based, the Holy of Holies is the throne room and the Ark of the Covenant is the Father's throne. God is present on his throne, which is why the Holy of Holies could only be entered once a year by the high priest, and him alone. We see the same pattern in Orthodox worship. Only the priest and those specially appointed may enter into the altar area because Christ, through the Eucharist, is present on the throne of the altar. God's presence sanctifies that area and it connects the mundane to the divine, opening something between heaven and earth. Those heavenly types upon which OT Temple worship was based have not been done away with. No, they are eternal and thus are still the example we should follow, the pattern to which we should adhere but with the new dimensions Christ introduces through the Church.

With this in mind, my thinking instantly flashed back to the Protestant church I recently worked at. I pictured the west-facing auditorium, the wide, flat stage, the lack of decoration and any kind of Christian symbol. I pictured the lack of sanctity in that place, the raucuous music and irreverent spirit. I pictured the coffee stains and bagel crumbs on the floor. But I saw no throne. I saw no seat for God, no place where Christ is made present to us. So is that still worship, biblically understood? Can we worship without the throne?


Why, then, are you a member?

The wife and I went to Border's this evening to do a little reading and coffee drinking. I saw a magazine I hadn't seen before - Conscience. The sub-title was (I think) "A Catholic Opinion Journal." I stumbled across "First Things" in much the same way, so I thought I'd give it a gander. Yeah, needless to say I was sorely disappointed by this "religiously progressive" rag. One of the first articles was on the (alleged) success of a World Youth Day demonstration in favor of condoms. The author positively squirmed in delight at the discomfort of the Catholic hierarchy and at one point, compared the Pope to a queen. I understand disagreement and a desire to debate passionately held issues, but why the heck are these people still Catholic? Their views go beyond mere disagreement on the small things into questioning the very core of the Church herself. Why, then, are you still a member?


Co-workers never cease to amaze...

I took my latest copy of Touchstone to work with me last night. We've got quite a few open beds at the moment, due to a dip in the number of people who go in for surgery around the holidays (many of our patients are people who had complications after a procedure) so things are a little slow and there is time to do some reading. I was put on the lower ward with one nurse (normally there are 2) and at one point she picked up the magazine and briefly thumbed through it. This issue is on abortion and family, so she asked me what my views are. I told her and the conversation quickly turned into a wide-ranging discussion of faith, Catholicism, the role of women in the church, church history and then into the ethics of modern healthcare, the impact patient care protocols have both on the patient and on the caregiver, as well as a smattering of other topics. What intrigued me is not that we had this lengthy, in-depth conversation over such matters, but that we were in such agreement on so many issues. See, this woman is a lesbian who has been in a relationship with another woman for over 10 years and she sees nothing wrong with that.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate. She's about 55, full Italian and went to Catholic school for her entire pre-college education. She believes in God, she believes in the Church, she believes the Church can and should make moral pronouncements and respects the Catholic Church's steadfastness on its position regarding the immorality of homosexual conduct. She lives with this amazing tension between submission and rebellion, between loving the Church - for its message of hope, for what its given her, for the beauty of its worship - and hating it, largely because of the failings of its members and what individuals within it have done to her personally (she said something about her child getting molested, but this came in the middle of an exchange about the priest-abuse scandal so I wasn't sure if she was using it rhetorically). She seems to be balancing precariously between spirit & emotion, soul & heart. It was fascinating to hear her talk about living in this in-between place and she openly acknowledges that she may be risking her salvation through her defiance. "But," she said, "at leat I'd be with [my partner] in hell and I think that would make it ok." Leaving aside the obvious theological problems with that statement - ain't nobody going to make hell ok - I can't quite decide whether that is ultimately selfish (I'm going to do what I want right now) or selfless (I'm going to love no matter what the cost). Probably both.