Fr. Stephen update

  1. Shame in the Public Arena
  2. Speaking the Words of God
  3. That Thing You Do – Right Worship
  4. Unbelief and Good Friday
  5. Goodness and a Word in Due Season
  6. The Loneliness of Shame

It’s probably about time to mention once again who Fr. Stephen is, since I do these updates every month or so.

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

He’s a former Episcopal Priest and, I’m pretty sure, studied with Stanley Hauerwas at Duke. I’ve found him a remarkable source of surprising insights into the Orthodox Christian faith, as he seems incapable of remaining superficial — stopping at the face of things.


If you have ever engaged in one of the typical shame fights on social media, then think about how you felt when it was over (or even if you only read such a shame fight). There is no inner peace. There can be burning anger and a nattering inner voice of opposition that lingers for days. In terms of shame, it doesn’t matter if you are right. Shame loves the categories of right and wrong. It only matters that your opponent disagreed and that you shamed them. Shame is like the game of global thermonuclear war: the only option is not to play.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Shame in the Public Arena)


Nothing is as difficult as true theology. Simply saying something correctly is beside the point. Correctness does not rise to the level of theology. Theology, rightly done, is a path towards union with God. It is absolutely more than an academic exercise. Theology is not the recitation of correct facts, it is the apprehension and statement of Beauty.

I frequently encounter a form of spiritual abuse: the use of true words to do untrue things. Words never stand by themselves. You cannot simply place them before someone and proclaim: “The text says!” That a statement is “true” can also be used to pretend that its every use is justified – that truth “de-weaponizes” any statement. Tragically, the very truth of a statement can give it the power that makes its use as a weapon so devastating. The reality is that “truth” wielded in such a fashion ceases to be the truth.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Speaking the Words of God)


Psychological studies have long shown evidence for what is termed “confirmation bias.” We tend to find proof of what we already think. We might also say that you will tend to think like you live – your actions determine your choices to a great extent, long before anything that we describe as “reason” comes into play. The Church has long known this and enshrined it in a formula: lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of praying is the law of believing.” In simple terms, we believe what we pray – and not just what we pray, but what we pray publicly – the Liturgy.

Historically this referred to the fact that Church doctrine agreed with the Church’s liturgical life and its liturgical life agreed with its doctrine. It can be taken prescriptively, that the one should mirror the other. I take it, however, to be a principle (lex): whatever you do in your praying will eventually determine your believing. I think that because we are wired that way …

[W]hat you do is, eventually, what you will think (no matter what you say).

A simple observation: You cannot say that children matter and exclude them from Baptism and the Cup of Communion, much less isolate them and remove them from the public liturgy of the Church. Their exclusion is a teaching regarding the full humanity of children, regardless of what you mean it to say. There is a connection (whether we want to admit it or not) between the repudiation of infant baptism and the repudiation of the humanity of a child in the womb. Adulthood is not required in the Kingdom of God.

This is a crucial matter. Any time there is some component of worship that “doesn’t matter,” the whole liturgy will begin to not matter. The modern thought, “I don’t need to go to Church to worship God,” simply says that all sense of a Eucharistic life is gone. The notion that some part of life, much less some part of worship, doesn’t matter is already an embracing of secularism …

The whole of our life, ideally, becomes a liturgy, and, as such, is rightly lived. We were created to make Eucharist of all things, to give thanks. We are not the masters of our existence. We are its servants.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, That Thing You Do – Right Worship)


I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Unbelief and Good Friday)


Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously (and correctly) said that in the sacraments of the Church, we do not make something to be other than it is, but to reveal it for what it truly is. St. Basil sounds this same theme in his Eucharistic prayer. The priest prays that God will “bless, hallow and show this bread to be the Body of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ…”  In Orthodox practice, the most essential moment in the Liturgy is the “epiclesis” the “calling down” of the Holy Spirit on the gifts. This is the “Spirit of Truth.” The Holy Spirit does not make us or anything into what it is not, but reveals its truth.

This pattern is consistent with all of Christ’s miracles. The lame are made to walk, not to fly. A human being becomes truly human at the words and hands of Christ. Of course, revealing the truth of someone is not always welcome (if the heart has come to hate the truth). As Christ walks through the land, people are shown to be what they are. In this sense, Christ is the Judge (Shophet). The Judge sets things right. But the Judge doesn’t set things right by forcing and making them to be right. Things are simply revealed in their rightness, their truth. But this truth is so “truly true,” that sickness and its falsehood are swept away.

I was asked last year to speak at a writers’ conference. The topic was writing and the spiritual life. One of the more important points of that talk was to say, “Only write about what you know.” This same advice was given me years ago about sermons. Why (or how) could I preach what I don’t know? And yet, such sermons are quite common. They may be factually correct, or morally correct, but they may do more damage than good. Those who are ordained are not charged with repeating what they’ve read. They are charged with speaking the word of God. That word is living and active and can only be spoken “by heart.” I do not mean it cannot be written. But it must be written and known in the heart before it can be spoken and true. Our words fall short of this goal many times, if not most. It is wisdom, however, to understand this reality and hold it in mind when we speak – particularly when we speak of the matters of God.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Goodness and a Word in Due Season)


The experience of shame … is the experience of being alone, of being disconnected. Some theorists posit that we first experience this brokenness in infancy, in the imperfect relations with a mother. No matter how much care and love is given to a child, the pain of separation will first be felt in its early months. In many cases, that pain will rise to the level of trauma, either then, or later. For a child, it is a pain that they are powerless to change.

Even for adults, the pain associated with shame creates a form of powerlessness. We feel confused, unable to think or to reach out. That feeling is the most unbearable of all human experiences. As a result, we substitute other feelings that are more bearable: anger, sadness.

Our alienation and loneliness are greater indicators of the brokenness of our lives than any moral measurement that might be applied. Our salvation begins with an act of restored communion: we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. His death becomes our death; His resurrection becomes our resurrection. Communion becomes the very ground and source of life.  The restoration of communion in Christ is the only thing that can heal all that has been lost.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Loneliness of Shame)

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.