Festal service books from Father John Edward Baskaran

We are thankful of this gift of festal service books from Father John Edward Baskaran, who mailed these in from his church in Pennsylvania, USA.

Our Malaysian orthodox community possessed festal service books in Slavonic, but not in English. These will be a great help to us!

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Beginning to Pray (A. Bloom)

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Anthony Bloom (also known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh) is a prominent and prolific Christian writer and broadcaster with a fascinating life story. He was a Russian émigré,, whose family fled during the horrors of the communist revolution. They escaped to France, where he became a medical doctor, and participated in the French Resistance when the Germans invaded. He ended up becoming the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland.

His book, Beginning to Pray  starts with an interview where he explains this life story. The rest of the book consists of short essays containing reflections on prayer, or more specifically, on learning how to pray. The focus of the book is pastoral rather than theological.

Beginning to Pray is a brisk read: around 120 pages or so, and the language is clear and lively. There were multiple times, when reading Anthony Bloom’s books that I had to turn back  to the front cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up something by C.S. Lewis instead. I felt that their writing styles were very similar, in that both have an uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts with simple and engaging language.

“You remember how you were taught to write when you were small.  Your mother put a pencil in your hand, took your hand in hers, and began to move it.  Since you did not know at all what she meant to do, you left your hand completely free in hers.  This is what I mean by the power of God being manifest in weakness.  You could think of that also in the terms of a sail.  A sail can catch the wind and be used to maneuver a boat only because it is so frail.  If instead of a sail you put a solid board, it would not work; it is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.  The same is true of the gauntlet and the surgical glove.  How strong is the gauntlet, how frail is the glove, yet in intelligent hands it can work miracles because it is so frail.  So one of the things which God continues to try to teach us is to replace the imaginary and minute amount of disturbing strength we have by this frailty of surrender, of abandonment in the hands of God.”

The essays are organized around addressing practical obstacles that Christians face in prayer. For instance, the first essay is about the challenge of praying when God feels absent, another is about being “in the moment” and avoiding the impulse to rush through prayer. He relies heavily on example to explain his points: stories from the Bible, from church history, from folklore- he even makes reference to The Little Prince.

There is an emphasis throughout the book on the importance of humility in prayer. When we pray we are encountering God, in all his transcendence and power. A lot of the obstacles to prayer that the Beginning to Pray deals with are a result of regarding this encounter too flippantly. There is also a sense of humility on the part of the author. I did not get the sense that I was getting a lecture on prayer from someone who has figured it all out, but rather that I was reading reflections from someone who has spent his life trying to learn how to pray better himself.
I would add that while the ideas in Beginning to Pray are firmly Orthodox, I think Christians of all denominations would enjoy and appreciate it. As evidence, note that the book is currently being published by Paulist Press, a Roman Catholic publisher. Thus to everyone who struggles with the idea or the practice of prayer, this is a book I would highly recommend.

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.