Timeless, ever-timely

I got inspired by a teaser for a Washington Post guest column April 11:

Their churches will be closed on Easter. Here’s what they would have said.

Featured were nine “faith leaders”:

You can judge their uneven offerings for yourself.

As we are never earlier in our Orthodox Christian Paschal celebration, and generally one to five weeks later than western Christendom, and are largely invisible in North America, no Orthodox clergy were included. But that’s okay.

It’s okay because I can tell you exactly “what they would have said” (give or take countless languages) every single one of them, this April 19, 2020, and many of them right around now, 1:30 in the morning (give or take 24 time zones).

It would have made no special mention of the current pandemic, and yet …

Well, here’s what they’d have said:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom, delivered in the fourth or very early fifth century, which I submit has never been surpassed. It’s our tradition throughout Orthodoxy to read it verbatim, each Pascha. Because it’s timeless, it’s ever-timely.

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Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

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Entangled musings

So long as worship of the Emperor as a God was required by law of all citizens, to become a Christian meant to become a criminal. In consequence, the Christians of the first four centuries A.D., subject like everyone else to the temptations of the Flesh and the Devil, had been spared the Temptations of the World. One could become a converted and remain a thorough rascal, but one could not be converted and remain a gentleman.

(W.H. Auden, in the Introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy)

My former activism on behalf of unpopular causes (e.g., against abortion, against mandatory social leveling on behalf of practitioners of trendy vices) was never a strategy to “get my name out there” so people would seek my legal services. Insofar as it did bring me clients, they strongly tended toward eccentricity if not outright crackpottery.

We were not formally criminals, my clients and I, but we knew that we could not aspire to unequivocal worldly respectability, either. (That is not a characterization of all my clients — just the ones who I knew as co-belligerents in lost causes.)

Most of these activism-related clients were “conservative” Protestants, as was I then. Most of them plainly were either tacitly Nominalists or at least utterly incapable of framing a confident argument in Realist terms. They were the proverbial “Bible-thumpers,” pulling out their favored proof-texts that sodomy is sinful, or that God knows each of us en ventre sa mère. The problem came connecting such things to law.

In a recent podcast, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon opines that Nominalism is probably, “the deepest flaw in the whole Protestant enterprise” (Luther referred to William of Ockham, the Franciscan popularizer of Nominalism, as his “mein meister”, and the Church of England still commemorates Ockham on April 10.) Fr. Pat’s podcast is actually a pretty succinct introduction to the Nominalist-Realist contrast. (Quick: is adultery wrong because God forbade it or did God forbid it because is wrong — contrary to reality as he created it?)

Somehow, I was a Realist, or leaning strongly Realist, even before I knew the Nominalist-Realist distinction and well before Orthodoxy. I frequently lamented, if only in private, the embarrassing and counter-productive arguments of my co-belligerents in the causes we all supported (or, likelier, opposed).

My tacit Realism (which I’m fairly sure developed unawares after my adolescence) may have been another factor, along with my earlier-in-life onset of temperamental partiality to contemplation more than action, that made Orthodox Christianity click for me when I finally encountered it. I wish I were confident that North American Orthodox Christians, especially my fellow converts, were solidly Realist, because we’re living in parallel ecclesial realities if they’re not.

But I began talking about “my activism.” Do I contradict myself, interjecting contemplation? I think not. My “activism” was argumentation, verbal and in writing, which is a fairly contemplative form of activism. I’ve never raided a draft board, lain down in a street, or otherwise gotten into the physical scrum.

And is there some latent negativity in my oppositional activism (rather than supportive activism)? Again I think not, though it may, once more, dovetail with an aspect of Orthodoxy: apophasis, known in Latin as the via negativa. More specifically, I’m less confident of the location of the “this is right and good and pure” bullseye than I am about “wherever that bullseye is, it ain’t here.”

After more than 22 year in Orthodoxy, I’m still picking up threads that I think helped to lead me here. Picking them up, and acknowledging their entanglement and, sometimes, ineffability seems true to life — which is notoriously messy — more generally.

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Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Appendix 1

I appreciate Donald Trump’s judicial appointments and a few other things he has done, but I’m utterly opposed to allowing that hateful, unstable and completely self-serving man to serve as President. Maybe by saying it here, I’ll feel less compelled to fault his multiple daily outrages — mere corroboration of his dark soul and tormented mind — in the body of the blog.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Caveat Emptor

Michael Pakaluk proposes a prefatory disclosure to David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, implying that the book is a sort of theological fraud:

Warning. St. Basil the Great, a doctor of the Church—who loved Origen but nonetheless did not embrace universalism—as early as the fourth century, warned the faithful against teachings like those which you will find in this book by David Bentley Hart.

Basil taught firmly that such views could only be entertained by those who had, as it were, lost sight of the plain and repeated teachings of the Lord. It would be the height of daring to believe such things, he said—and so, obviously, to teach and promote them would be much worse. To do so, Basil would say, amounts to collaboration with the Devil, who, in his characteristically deceitful ways, would like nothing more than for people to suppose that the everlasting punishment of hell does not exist.

Pakaluk is presumably Roman Catholic. Hart, like me, is Orthodox.

But Hart, as brilliant as he is, is an increasingly arrogant and abusive provocateur, and this book is outside the Orthodox consensus, which I take to be that we may hope for the salvation of all, but we should not expect it.

I do hope for the salvation of all. I do not expect it.

It is also worth noting that Hart is an Orthodox layman and a philosopher, with no known credentials as a theologian (though one not infrequently sees him so identified).

Let the book-buyer beware.

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Trump didn’t do the thing he’s accused of doing, but if he did it was fine, and in fact that’s exactly what he did, get over it, because it’s not only fine, it’s precisely what we want from a president, and can you believe that Biden did the same thing, shame on him.

Peter Sunderman

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Liturgy, mimesis, humus

I went to a symposium over the weekend, the intimidating theme of which was For I Am Holy: The Command to Be Like God.

Like God?!

But this was my fifth year. I have people who are becoming like family to me. I wanted to see them.

Boy, am I glad I went.

There were no formulae. Holiness formulae can only turn us into delusional, self-righteous Church Lady prigs.

So the emphasis was how the liturgy and encountering great literature (sometimes with holy protagonists) and practicing humility at the most “humus” level can shape us toward holiness.

The Eighth Day Symposia are always ecumenical in the sense that the three main speakers are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. The commonality comes from moderate to deep knowledge of the Church Fathers.

Christians are divided. This is a fact. We have been since the schism between East and West at the turn of the first millennium and since the Protestant Reformations in the sixteenth century. This is a tragedy. That’s why we believe we have a duty to facilitate a dialogue of love and truth, one that acknowledges our real differences, but one that also seeks to achieve a common mind so we can stand reunited in the One who is the Truth.

There is a separate Florovsky-Newman week to focus on our differences. I’ve never been to one, but I think that’s going to change.

Eighth Day Institute is mutually and enthusiastically supportive of Eighth Day Books, a Christian bibliophile’s “happiest place on earth.”

EDB has just published a paper catalog for the first time in eight years. Get one before they’re gone!

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All Christian readers could benefit from listening to the podcast The Struggle Against the Normal Life. It’s a short (11:05) detox for our toxic faux Christian environment.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

This (sigh!) is as good as it gets

I’ve been waiting for decades for the orthodox to rout the progressives in a denominational split — which amounts to waiting for the progressives to overplay their hand just once.

The usual progressive ploy is to plead for dialog — again and again for as long as it takes to wear down the orthodox — then to give false assurances of pluralism once their heresy or immorality is grudgingly afforded the status of an option, then to crush the orthodox when they gain power. Or as Neuhaus’s Law puts it, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

It looks like the United Methodist split over homosexuality and same-sex marriage is as close as we’re going to get to an orthodox rout, and even there the progressives are keeping the denomination name (which may prove a blessing in the long run):

This week, a group of church leaders announced a plan for the dissolution of the worldwide church that would allow conservative congregations and conferences to leave the main body and join a new conservative denomination. Under the proposal, the UMC would give the new denomination $25 million and allow departing congregations to keep their property, and departing clergy, their pensions.

(Law & Religion Forum) Keeping property and pensions, and getting a farewell gift to boot, is a smashing victory — relatively speaking.

God bless the Africans, who forced the progressives (a majority in North America) to sue for “peace.” My great-grandchildren may someday need to be evangelized by missionaries from the global south.

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I must also issue a caveat at this point, because the dominant media falsely make disputes like this a matter of good guys versus wicked homophobes.

David French provides an easy way to do so:

The true fracturing point between [progressive and orthodox] churches is over the authority and interpretation of scripture. The debate over LGBT issues is a consequence of the underlying dispute, not its primary cause … [T]here is a strain of Protestant Christianity that views the Bible as valuable but not infallible or inerrant. Evangelical Christians, by contrast, strongly dissent from that view.

Thus, at heart, the disagreement between the [orthodox and progressive] isn’t over issues—even hot-button cultural and political issues—but rather over theology. Indeed, the very first clause of the United Methodist Church’s nine-page separation plan states that church members “have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice.” …

I’m not for a moment going to pretend that there aren’t homophobes and bigots in [orthodox Christianity]. I’ve encountered more than a few people who turn a blind eye to or rationalize and excuse all manner of heterosexual sin while scorning their gay and lesbian friends and neighbors. But for the thoughtful and faithful dissenters on both sides of the theological aisle, sexuality is the side issue. Differences over scriptural authority and biblical theology represent the central dispute.

Orthodox Christian sexual ethics have absolutely nothing to do with animus against gays and lesbians. In fact, there should be zero animus against any person of any sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, the orthodox Christian sexual ethic—which reserves sex for the marriage between a man and a woman—rests on a sincere conviction that it is not only directly commanded by God through scripture, it’s also best for human flourishing, and it is symbolic of the sacred relationship between Christ and His Church.

And then caveats to the caveat:

French is an Evangelical, which characteristically (and in French’s case) involves a fair amount of parochialism and ecclesiological cluelessness. So I have modified his over-simplified contrast between Evangelicals and Mainstream Protestants to refer to orthodox and progressive more broadly.

Second, for Catholics and capital-O Orthodox, the scriptural teaching on sexuality is important but not all-important, because each Church’s tradition is consistent about the meaning of sexuality. Were I still Protestant, however, I would stand with the lower-o orthodox, because the case that scripture is unclear is dishonest. Here’s an admission against interest to that effect:

I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says… . [However] we must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture… and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.

(Pro-gay Roman Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson)

That will have to suffice, for everything eventually connect to everything else, and I don’t have an eternity to qualify and ramify.

* * * * *

Sailing on the sea of this present life, I think of the ocean of my many offenses; and not having a pilot for my thoughts, I call to Thee with the cry of Peter, save me, O Christ! Save me, O God! For Thou art the lover of mankind.

(From A Psalter for Prayer)

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Anecdotes and trends

One man in my parish is very frugal and doesn’t even own a car. He usually gets a ride to our rural church from someone else in the parish. But a few weeks ago, he had to hire a Lyft, and the driver, a Sikh man, asked if he could come in.

He ended up staying for the whole service and coffee hour, taking videos with his smartphone, and was welcomed warmly (there was even a staged photo of him with Father Gregory and another man in the parish with a notable beard).

A few years ago, a Texan Purdue student, from a Hindu family, completed a long catechumenate and was received into the Orthodox Church. Tomorrow, we receive a heavily-tattooed military veteran, formerly in one of the Arminian Christian traditions. A Protestant pastor is a respectful inquirer, and several Roman Catholics are in the catechumenate. Our founding Priest was Episcopalian, our current Priest Lutheran. I was Calvinist. One of my Godsons was Church of Christ, a Goddaughter raised without religion. Converts in our parish probably outnumber “cradle Orthodox,” though some of the converts have many “cradle Orthodox” children that I may be mistakenly thinking of as themselves converts.

[M]ore than every before, people are searching for the One True Church of Christ – they are searching for Orthodoxy.

Roman Catholics are aghast at the Amazonian Synod, the constant vague and confusing statements coming from Rome, and the consistent degeneration of their spirituality. They’re realizing that there is something serious has gone mission, and they know that there is more.

Protestant Christians are tired of the happy, clappy/seeker-friendly service which offers a spiritual experience a mile wide, an inch deep, and is often loaded with gnostic beliefs. They’re realizing that something is wrong, something is missing, and that there is something more.

Non-Christians in these latter days are turning from the world, desperate to find some beacon of Truth in a dystopian society. Many muslims, buddhists, and hindus are finding Christ. They’re having a spiritual awakening. They KNOW something is wrong. They want to fix it themselves, but they don’t know what it takes.

Father John at Journey to Orthodoxy. Need I add that this rings true?

It is also sadly true that some leave the Orthodox faith. That baffles me, but life is hard — harder for some than others — and people struggle with burdens they cannot (or do not) articulate.  But the trend seems to the contrary.

If any of Father John’s descriptions fit you, we’d love to see you.

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The Lord is King, be the peoples never so impatient; He that sitteth upon the Cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet.

(Psalm 98:1, Adapted from the Miles Coverdale Translation, from A Psalter for Prayer)

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Search-and-question mode

God does not always have us in a search-and-question mode. Rather, He gives us times, sometimes long periods of settled contentment right where we are. From my late twenties I confess to have been settled and content in Reformed Calvinism

… I also picked up a few stray Orthodox FB-friends liking or challenging their posts, who came from my own Reformed background. After gigging them playfully every now and then for months, they finally said, “Okay Rockett, you need to read some good Orthodox stuff, or shut up!” Seriously, I agreed only to learn their quirks & errors. I was a very happy, well-read confident Reformed Calvinist, twice elected as a Ruling Elder. I was content, assured…even a tad cocky!

Many of those words could have been mine, but they are David E. Rockett‘s (with emphasis added).

I, too, entered Reformed Calvinism in my late twenties, and abode there, content, for roughly 20 years (he lasted a bit longer). And I, too, started reading about and in Orthtodoxy with the intent of figuring out how it was wrong — in my case, not on a taunt from Orthodox friends, and pretty clearly to figure out how Orthodox-Wrong (of which I knew little) differed from Catholic-Wrong (which I thought I had figured out).

It proved Rockett’s undoing as a Calvinist, as it did mine.

How well do you know Orthodox Christianity? Do you wonder why so many are leaving Protestant traditions for it? Isn’t it time to find out?

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Inviting Jesus into her heart

Today, both Latin (Roman Catholic) and Greek (Orthodox) Christians remember the falling asleep of the Mother of God.

THE_PLATYTERA_DETAIL-web

Using some of the terminology from our revivalist friends, Mary became the very first to accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior, and invited Him thus into her heart (which is exactly what the Platytera Icon shows).

Fr. Jonathan Tobias.

You cannot get any more “lifework” than a young virgin saying, in the Latin version, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, in response to the Archangel’s invitation.

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I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

An open letter to Josh Harris, seeker

Dear Josh:

I hope I can call you Josh, though we’ve never met and I was way too old in the 90s to get caught up in “purity culture.” (Heck, even my son was a bit too old.)

What I have to offer, despite that, is the different way to practice Christian faith that you reportedly are looking for and most certainly need. I was discovering that different way when purity culture was turning into a big deal, and I’ve been following it for more than twenty years now.

I thought of your recent announcements as a kind of “apostasy,” though I hadn’t focused on what you actually said. Still, since I was no longer in the Evangelical world, I wasn’t threatened by it. I had no “horse in that race” so to speak. I’ve known for a long time now that “Christian” doesn’t have a very clear, agreed meaning in the U.S., and leaving some kinds of “Christianity” may be a very good move (especially if you move toward the right kind).

I felt kindly toward you for honesty: not reinterpreting scripture so you could go on being a megachurch pastor and Christian celebrity. From the way I see you telling your story now, that may not even have been existentially possible for you.

In fact, I’m dropping the label “apostasy.” “Rehab.” “Recovery from PTSD.” Those seem more apt.

Not all those who wander are lost, J.R.R. Tolkien observed. The corollary is that not all who lead know where they’re going. Both these statements are true of Joshua Harris, the former pastor and author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” (1997), who acknowledged on Instagram last week that “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”

[*I Kissed Dating Goodbye]’s message became “a big part of my identity, and almost my own sense of self-worth,” Mr. Harris told me last December. “So to even open the door to think that maybe it was, on the whole, unhelpful, and hurt people—it was just hard to go there.”

Jillian Kay Melchior, Wall Street Journal (emphasis added).

Apparently you did open the door and go there, and got an earful that would shake up any conscientious person. I’ve read some of them, and my godson is one of those who got poisoned (he’s recovering well).

Thus:

In July, Mr. Harris made two personal announcements on Instagram: He and his wife were separating, and he had “undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus,” he wrote. “Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.

Many Christians responded with mourning, but I’m hopeful. Abandoning untrue beliefs is progress ….

(Emphasis added again)

I can whole-heartedly recommend “a different way to practice faith” than you’ve ever known, and of which you may even have no clue (having a clue and knowing something are not the same).

Ignore any “different way to practice faith” that baptizes the sexual revolution. Doing that would harm people as much or more than anything you’ve done before.

Ignore (I’m sure you will) any way that permanently anathematizes all who’ve ever sinned sexually. Ignore them if the first sexual sin gets you kicked out or branded with a scarlet letter of some sort.

Get thee to an Orthodox Church, with a capital-O, and just observe for a few months.

The Orthodox Church is probably a mystery to you because you grew up in the West, where the only visible claimant to the title The Church was Roman Catholicism. We Orthodox know that body well, because a thousand years ago, Roman Catholicism was Orthodox (and, to be fair, Orthodoxy more freely used the moniker “catholic”). We were one big family, with a few minor quarrels and personality differences. But then the Bishop of Rome, one of five Patriarchs of the Church, got too big for his britches (a crude shorthand, I know, but I’m not writing a theological treatise or Church history here) and eventually split — went into schism — from the other four Patriarchs and the Churches they represented.

That schism has never been healed. The Bishop of Rome increasingly took his church off the rails, adding doctrines that didn’t belong and tying down things that needed to remain freer.

The other four Patriarchs (Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch) never closed up shop, but they’ve been concentrated mostly east of Rome’s turf. They have preserved the ancient Christian faith without innovations and defining everything to death.

So Orthodoxy will probably look a lot like Roman Catholicism to you. (They’ve screwed up the Mass, bless their hearts, but it’s still recognizable.)

Like I say: Don’t commit. Just go and observe for a while. Russian, Greek, Romanian, Antiochian, even my own obscure Carpatho-Rusyn — Orthodox is Orthodox, and we’re working on shedding those ethnic labels in the U.S., since they don’t really belong.

That reminds me: If you stumble onto an Orthodox Church that doesn’t worship in English, keep moving. They’re not “wrong,” but you probably won’t get much out of it. There are plenty that use English now.

When you get there, open your heart and your mind. Those icons that may trouble you are stand-ins (and more) for the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews.

Talk to the Priest with your questions. The people around you may be less knowledgeable, in a Protestant doctrinal sense, than you’re used to, because the center of the worship is Christ and His Eucharist, not the sermon. But the Priest almost certainly has formal education and has some idea where a Protestant inquirer is coming from. Odds are, he was once a Protestant, too, if you’re in the U.S.

Then settle in for the long haul. There will be some formal catechism and then a formal reception service if you decide to stay.  They may even conclude that you should be baptized again (though we don’t re-baptize if a prior baptism was done more or less as we baptize, as mine was, for instance).

Don’t count on being a leader again. Maybe, maybe not. But do expect that some well-meaning someone-or-other will make a big deal of it if you officially become Orthodox. We are in America, after all, and we’re sadly susceptible to celebrity culture. I wish it weren’t so. People can be destroyed by getting elevated too fast, as the Apostle Paul knew.

My advice: Say something like “I’m still healing from my past life and I don’t think it would be helpful for me to get into the limelight again.” Because that’s probably true, and I think you know it now.

Don’t let any elation about entering Orthodoxy make you think you’ve arrived. It means you’ve started in earnest. There’s going to be some serious interior remodeling, not just rearranging some furniture.

This is, after all, a really different way of practicing faith.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).