Where’s the discipleship in Orthodoxy?

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.

Mom,

You said:
I’ll be ready. I have been going back and reviewing Sola’s to check my understanding. I find myself still wondering how much emphasis goes to expecting the Word to speak to you individually or how much (in actual practice) depends on the priest. Where is the actual discipling process carried out? That I haven’t figured out. I know that you are studying orthodoxy at a level that very few in a typical congregation would ever do (based on what I see in Protestant and Catholic adherents). Where do you see this placing you? I can appreciate the hunger for truth and the search that you are in, but I don’t want you to lose the preciousness of your personal experience/relationship with God in conjunction with this knowledge. From what I understand you to say, you are entering more fully into prayer, fasting, and reading of the Scripture. What are the fresh insights that you are receiving from the Holy Spirit for you personally as a result? What does this look like for you?”

Good questions!  If I understand you correctly, based on our discussion so far about Sola Scriptura, I think in your first question you are asking whether the individual Orthodox believer is responsible for reading the Bible on their own, and how much responsibility for understanding it is placed on the priest?  Hopefully I read that correctly.  If I didn’t please clarify for me.

The answer is, of course, both!  Yeah for ambiguous answers.  The individual is definitely not off the hook for knowing the Scriptures.  They can and should be reading them and know them.  My local parish has a weekly Bible study.  Parish members have the opportunity to hear a lot of Scripture on Sunday, though to be honest not as many take advantage as they should, and there are daily readings that each parishioner is encouraged to read on a daily basis at home that can form the basis for Bible knowledge.  Then you have podcasts, like the wonderful Coffee Cup Commentaries that I sent to you, to cite an example of the resources that are available outside the local parish.

Orthodoxy certainly provides many opportunities to know the Scriptures.  Like you find in Protestantism, though, the actual uptake by individuals is spotty.  Some see it as important, and some don’t.  Insert sad noise here.  Personally I’ve found Orthodox practices to be mostly encouraging to my personal study of Scripture.  There’s room for improvement, I think, but if you are Orthodox and don’t know your Bible, it’s your own fault.

As for discipling, that looks very different in Orthodoxy.  There’s a variety of mechanisms that exist to help a convert get their sea legs, and make sure that you are making progress toward Christ likeness.  Again, the ultimate responsibility for using them is up to the individual, but the tools are there, and in my estimation are far superior to Protestantism.  Those tools are a mentoring relationship with a godparent and confession with a priest.  I haven’t discussed either of these with you, so I’m probably jumping the gun and opening up topics that I’m not quite ready to address, but I’ll go ahead and throw them out as teasers.  Every person becoming Orthodox, when they are chrismated, have a mentor that is picked out.  That person is your godparent.  They are responsible for you as a Christian, and if things are working correctly they should be guiding you into Orthodoxy.  Then you have confession, which is so much more (as I understand it) than just going periodically to list your sins and getting a little forgiveness so you can go and sin more.  In Orthodoxy confession is more like counseling, but it’s required counseling for everyone.  Usually this means that your priest knows the issues you are dealing with and you have accountability.  Outside of these two discipling tools you have a more strongly knit community in Orthodoxy than you typically do in Protestantism.  That is, of course, speaking from my own experience alone, so I can’t say that this is always the case.  Like everything else, it varies in uptake, but it’s there for you.

You referenced my search for knowledge in the Orthodox sphere, and voiced some concern that this might be an overbalancing factor against having a personal relationship with God.  I think I understand what you are going for there.  Certainly I have a tendency to live in my head.  I’m a learner, and the new knowledge and exploration in Orthodoxy is exciting.  I love this kind of thing, but eventually that will fade as it slows down and I become more used to Orthodoxy.  I don’t know how long this process will take, but I’ll enjoy the ride.

Orthodoxy does something really good for me here that I think you will appreciate.  Orthodoxy has huge amounts of knowledge.  It has the collected writings of a Church that is 2,000 years old.  I’ve been reading in the writings mostly just from the first three centuries and I’m nowhere near completely read.  It’s a huge body of work and I don’t think I could ever wade through it all, much less completely internalize it.  There’s plenty to chew on.  But that’s not Orthodoxy.  I’ve been writing these big long apologetic style emails, with quotes from historians and early church writers and philosophical arguments and what not.  But that’s not Orthodoxy.  All this information I’m accumulating and trying to distribute to you to help you understand is also not Orthodoxy.  It’s not a set of things to understand.  You don’t become Orthodox from reading books.  That’s what they keep saying.  That’s what I’m told.  In order to be Orthodox I have to go and do and be.  Orthodoxy is all verbs.  🙂

Of course, I’m over simplifying, but I find that Orthodoxy is far more effective at motivating me to move out of my head and act than Protestantism was.  I think that rather than leading me into a danger zone of turning Christianity into an apologetic swamp of facts, it is telling me to stop thinking and start being.  This probably isn’t coming through on these emails because they are so heavily driven by the intellectual side of the questions.  It seems that in order to open a person’s mind to these truths it is sometimes helpful to pry with the apologetic crowbar.  Sometimes not too.  I’ve found both to be helpful to me.  Everything that I’m reading, and hearing, and seeing is telling me that this isn’t a comfy choice.  It will require much from me, and my family, but it promises much as well.

Because of my interest in Orthodoxy I have begun to enter into the rhythms of the Orthodox life.  I keep a small rule of prayer.  I fast.  I attend services.  I read the daily Scripture readings and descriptions of the day’s feasts.  Right now the Church is in the middle of the fast of the Nativity, which is quite long, but I’m not engaged in that.  One thing at a time. 🙂  There’s so much to the Orthodox life, so I just pick up small chunks and don’t worry about the rest.  I’m actively connecting with some men in the parish to see if any of them might make a good godparent/mentor.  It’s an interesting time.  I don’t know that I can pinpoint an insight that has come specifically due to increased prayer and Scripture time.  I have so many new thoughts in my brain right now, I’m not sure I can pluck them out and trace the source.  Certainly I read Scripture differently now.  Or with a different slant.  I see certain passages in a different way, but I haven’t journaled anything, so I don’t have any particularly good examples to share that I know came from Scripture and personal study.  I do have something I can share from a book I’ve been reading called “Beginning to Pray“, but Archbishop Anthony Bloom.

First, in the following section he is talking about the absence of God in our lives, as opposed to those times when we feel a distinct presence of God.  When he talks about the absence of God he has already stated that of course God is never absent in truth, but may sometimes seem that way to us.  With that proviso he says:

First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.  The fact that God can make Himself present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship.  If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter.  We can do that with an image, or with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.  A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom.  If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him.  We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer, ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life.  So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is.

The second very important thing is that a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us.  We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned.  I do not meant this in major terms of eternal damnation or eternal salvation already given and received, but it is always a critical moment, a crisis.  ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘judgment’.  To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment in our lives, and thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting.  Remember the many passages of Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity.  Therefore, the first thought we ought to have when we do not tangibly perceive the diving presence, is a thought of gratitude.  God is merciful; He does not come in an untimely way.  He gives us a chance to judge ourselves, to understand, and not to come into His presence at a moment when it would mean condemnation.

Beginning to Pray is a good book, as far as I’ve read it, and in my own estimation which is of course flawed and ignorant.

So I guess my answer to your last question on what this discipling looks like to me, it looks like humble pie and a lot of patience.  If I’m learning in this process, what I’m learning is just how little I know God, and how flawed I am.  But I’m encouraged to make strides!  Yeah for hope!

I love you.  Keep the questions coming.  I’ll be working up a dry, boring, intellectual and apologetic approach to explaining the intercession of the saints.  Of course, this isn’t Orthodoxy, but it’s something.

Mark

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Where’s the discipleship in Orthodoxy?

2 thoughts on “Where’s the discipleship in Orthodoxy?

  1. I don’t have any comments that relate specifically to this post (I don’t think…?) but I did want to say that I am so glad you are posting these letters online! I am a new convert after about six years of looking into Orthodoxy/wanting to be Orthodox, and I still don’t articulate some of this stuff very well. I’m definitely looking forward to using some of your letters as building blocks for communication with some of my family members that have questions.

    Some of my favorite books are The Mystery of Faith by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev and Orthodoxy and the Religions of the Future by Father Seraphim Rose… although the latter can be a bit mind blowing once you get into it! 🙂

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