Ancient Faith Radio

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One of the struggles of being an Orthodox Christian in a place like Malaysia is finding access to Orthodox resources. Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet, which makes life a little easier for us.

Ancient Faith Radio is a free streaming radio service, run by the Antiochian Archdiocsese of North America. Nevertheless, it is a very pan-Orthodox effort, with music and contributors from many different Orthodox traditions. Ancient Faith Radio is very valuable for small, isolated, Orthodox Christian communities like ours. They run two channels: Ancient Faith Music, that plays Orthodox music more or less exclusively and Ancient Faith Talk which runs other radio programming, like talk shows and interviews. The station is almost entirely listener supported, and the few advertisements they do air are for products and services aimed specifically for Orthodox Christians.

It is wonderful to be able to listen to top quality Orthodox music from the other Orthodox traditions. Their collection is vast and rather eclectic. The educational segments are also very affirming. I have been particularly blessed by the short segments they do on the lives of the Saints.

For Orthodox Christians in Malaysia, or Malaysians interested in learning about Orthodox Christianity, they are definitely worth a listen.

Becoming Orthodox (P. Gillquist)

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Father Peter Gillquist is a name familiar to many Orthodox Christians in the United States. He was one of the leaders of a house church movement that, in 1987, chose to enter en masse the Antiochian Orthodox Church, bringing 2,000 Protestants into canonical Orthodoxy.

Becoming Orthodox (Ancient Faith Publishing) is the first-person account of their remarkable journey. The book begins in the late 50’s, as Father Gillquist “finds Jesus” in a through Campus Crusade, a protestant organization that ministers to college students in the United States. Gillquist eventually becomes a Campus Crusade staffer. In the early parts of the story Gillquist struggles with finding the proper place of his campus ministry within the Christian church. He talks about how lifeless the institutional  church seemed to him, in contrast to the vibrancy and authenticity of his campus community. And yet his Campus Crusade group was not, and could not be the Christian church.

Gillquist develops a vision of what the true New Testament church “should” be. In 1968 he leaves Campus Crusade, and together with a group of like-minded friends forms a network of house churches that bring about this vision.

In the middle parts of this book Gillquist and his group go into an in-depth study to figure out what the Christian church of the first few centuries really believed. The middle chapters contain a lot of explanation of basic Orthodox Christian theology, as he and his friends discover that the historical church worshiped and believed just as today’s Orthodox Christians do.

There is a surprising amount of suspense at the end, as Gillquist’s movement (who now call themselves the “Evangelical Orthodox”) decide they want to join the Orthodox church.  Gillquist writes candidly about the resistance they encounter both within their movement and in the Orthodox church leadership both in America and abroad. Eventually, most of the leaders of the Gillquist’s movement agree to take their churches under the Antiochian Orthodox church, and the book ends with the joyous account of these mass conversions.

I spent several years working with a bunch of different campus protestant Christian organizations in the United States (including a spell with Campus Crusade) and so I found Gillquist’s account very relatable. I definitely felt a similar tension in that the work I was doing seemed like a blessing to other college students, but the campus ministry also felt unhealthy in that, for some of our members, involvement in our group was “replacing” the church, and that as a consequence we were propagating a form of Christianity that was watered down and incomplete.

Fittingly for a former Campus Crusade staffer, Gillquist’s book reads like a good “personal testimony” of a man finding God. His anecdotes are very engaging, the language is lively, and the conclusion is incredibly satisfying.  It feels like the intended audience for his book is protestant Christians unfamiliar with Orthodoxy,  since large portions of the book give a basic explanation of Orthodox theology and worship. Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile and edifying book even for Orthodox Christians, and a compelling account of a man trying to follow God the best he can.

 

Small church

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Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP. Source

For most Orthodox Christians living outside traditionally Orthodox countries, the reality of church life is the mission church. These are small communities, perhaps as small as a dozen or so people, some with full-time priests and some without, with shaky finances and a skeleton staff.

For me this took some getting used to I have always been a big city boy. Church was always this enormous, powerful institution with hundreds or thousands of people. The nice thing about being in a large church is that you got to pick what to invest yourself in. There are all sort of groups, classes, ministries, and other activities, and you can just choose whatever you are passionate about.

Life in a small church is very different. Literally four months after I was charismated, my church ended up in need of a chanter. Either I had to do it, or we would have no music at all for our vespers and matins services. The trouble is, I had the shallowest understanding of Byzantine chant, to the point that I did not know what the eight tones are. But with the blessing of the priest, I became the chanter for our tiny church, and quite possibly the worst chanter in all of Orthodoxy! Thankfully, a few months after, someone a lot more competent came along to take over./

But this is the reality of life in a small church. You want an outreach to the poor? Then raise the money. You want there to be food after service? Then cook and bake. You want the church grounds to look nice? Then mow and plant. If you do not do something, it just does not get done. There is no one else who can step up if you do not serve.

There is a stressful, anxious, and draining side to this sort of church life. But it has been incredibly rewarding as well. You learn a lot about obedience, about self-sacrifice, about trusting in others and trusting in God. When your church has a large congregation and a lot of resources, your individual contribution becomes less crucial, so church involvement can become more about self-satisfaction than servanthood. In a small church, strapped for resources,  it doesn’t matter what you are passionate in, or where your comfort zone is. If something needs to get done we have to do your best, and trust and hope that God in his mercy can make something of our meager efforts.

 

 

Pentecost

Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, seven weeks after Easter. Pentecost Sunday is a very important feast in Orthodoxy, and one of the longest services of the year. In one sense, Pentecost marks the beginning of the New Testament church. The Holy Spirit entering the followers of Jesus Christ enabled them to continue his work in the world.

One theme God often works in such a way that requires our participation.  In the creation, Adam participates by naming the animals. In the Exodus, God’s plan to free Israel involves Moses, Aaron and Joshua. And in the New Testament, Jesus does not save the world without our involvement, but rather  sends the Holy Spirit to enable us to finish what he started.

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One interesting feature of the Pentecost icon is this strange figure in the middle surrounded by blackness. He represents “Cosmos”: the world shrouded in darkness. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, the followers of Christ were to set forth into the cosmos and make right all that is broken. This Holy Spirit is a gift not just for our benefit, but for us to bless the whole world.

When tragedy strikes, it is a natural response for people to ask “where is God?”. Why isn’t God intervening when terrible things happen? Pentecost gives us a rather difficult answer. One reason that God does not appear to act in this world is that we Christians have, in our weakness, not been faithful to the charge given us. Lord have mercy!

After the feast, we have a time of fasting, known as the “Fast of the Apostles”. This fast represents our preparation where, upon receiving the Holy Spirit we set forth into the world to continue Jesus’ work of healing and redemption. This Pentecost, may we be reminded of how God does remarkable things through unremarkable people. As goes the Troparion hymn for the day:

Blessed art You O Christ Our God / You have revealed the fishermen as most wise / By sending down upon them the Holy Spirit / Through them You drew the world into Your net / O Lover of Man, Glory to You!

 

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite Christian authors, and his is a very fascinating life story. He was a missionary in Peru, had an illustrious career as an academic theologian, with stints at Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, before giving that up to work at the l’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, a community for people with intellectual disabilities. There, he developed an interest in ancient Christian iconography, which culminated in this book.

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons is a collection of four essays on four famous Russian icons: the Savior of Zvenigorod, Rublev’s Trinity, the Theotokos of Vladimir, and the Pentecost Icon, displayed in order below:

The book contains beautiful glossy removable pages of all four icons, and I think Nouwen intends for the reader to contemplate them while reading the corresponding chapter of the book.

 

Nouwen makes the point that what we receive into our lives visually is as important as what what we receive verbally, through reading or listening:

“But what do we really choose to see? It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videocassettes, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories…

For you who will read these meditations it is important to gaze at the icons with complete attention and to pray with them. Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern church.

Nouwen explains the features of the four icons in expert detail, and ties them into the devotional life of the praying Christian. He does not neglect the historical and liturgical contexts where these icons appear. Despite not being an Orthodox Christian himself, it is clear that Nouwen has taken the time to understand well the eastern Christian perspective on prayer and iconography.

This is a very worthwhile read, especially for the reader unfamiliar with the history and importance of iconography in the early church.  For me, as one emerging from protestant traditions that have suppressed the visual aspect of Christian discipleship in favor of just reading and lecturing, it was incredibly helpful to learn how the Holy Spirit works in us visually. As goes one of the Orthodox communion hymns, oh taste and see how good the Lord is.