Monday, August 11, 2014

Christianity Without Repercussions

I remember when I was growing up one of the things that I always heard against the Roman Catholics is how they go and live their lives how ever they want, then they just confess their sins to a priest and start the cycle all over again. They pretty much believed that they would just get a free pass as long as they confessed to their priest every once in a while. They supposedly had no repercussions for their sins, no consequences.

As I grew older there was this one thing that was starting to catch on at some of the different Protestant churches that I attended; this thing was having an accountability partner. This accountability partner was supposed to be the person that you went to when times were getting tough and you were being tempted to stray from the straight and narrow especially with certain sins.

Say that you struggle with pornography, well your accountability partner was supposed to help you curb that temptation, and they were there for you if you fell off the wagon. This all sounds strangely familiar to the role of the Priest in the Orthodox Church, who you confess your sins to and who is supposed to help you with any particular sins you seem to be struggling with. So far this all sounds pretty similar, however, I would like to point out a few differences below.

1. Salvation

The first difference is salvation. In most Protestant or Evangelical circles salvation is boiled down to a decision with repentance followed by a prayer of acceptance. After that you are pretty much set for life (or death) on the whole salvation issue. If you sin you just pray to God to forgive you, promise to sin no more, and go on your merry way. This might sound a bit simplistic, or over generalizing, but this is from my own experience and my observation of others' experiences.

In Orthodoxy salvation is something that you constantly work for. It is not a one and done deal. Some people use the saying that we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved to convey the process in Orthodoxy. It is a constant thing that we strive for. As St. James says, faith with out works is dead. And when we go to confession we can have a penance that we have to perform in order to take communion again. These can range in severity and length (having an affair, for example, can possibly be three years of no communion doing penance the whole time). This is for our own benefit as this helps us to learn from our mistakes and not make them again. We are truly held accountable for our actions because our salvation is dependent on what we do in this life.

Now, it's not all gloom and doom. We are not in a constant state of fear for offending the Angry Sky God who shall smite us and send us to Hell if we stumble just once (well, not all of us).  We have jokes, we make fun of ourselves, we enjoy getting together and breaking the different fasts. But we never stop working toward our salvation. And our works are done because of our faith. Our faith is made strong and alive by our works.

2. Faith

The second difference is faith, or how we live our faith. From reading my blog you should know by now that Orthodox Christians pray to saints and celebrate certain feast days pertaining to some saints or biblical events. One reason for doing this is that it keeps us in touch with our roots. 

The parish I attend now is under the jurisdiction of Antioch, the same Antioch mentioned in the Bible, and the same Antioch where the word Christian was first used for the followers of Christ. This same Antioch has had a bishop since Peter. One of the more notable bishops of Antioch is St. Ignatius, who was a disciple of St. John the Apostle, and who tradition says is one of the children with Jesus when Christ says let the children come to Him.

So how does that information come in to play with my faith? Well, St. Ignatius was killed in Rome. On the way to his death he wrote a few letters, a part of which dealt with what was to come to him. The way he faced his death is an inspiration to me to live my faith they way he did, and to accept all tribulation that may come because I choose to follow Christ - even unto my death.

Take also, St. David, King and Prophet. He just so happens to be my patron saint. He was a soldier and a leader, but he was also a murderer and an adulterer. Yet he was known as a man after God's own heart. If he can be saved from his sins, then I can be saved from mine. Also, the man  was a mean poet.

There are a ton of saints in the Church and I am connected to them because I live and practice the same faith that they did when they still lived. I know that when I celebrate the liturgy that the saints and angels are celebrating right there with me. I know this because my faith has roots that go all the way back to the Apostles - to Jesus even.

This is something that Protestants don't have, rather, they have an ever changing faith constantly redefining who they are. They look to the Rick Warrens, the Max Lucados, and the Tim LaHayes to define their faith - and how to live their faith - for them. What I am trying to say is that they have no stability; they wait for the next big name to come around and tell them what their faith is. They are constantly seeking their next "spiritual high" 

Now don't misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with strengthening your faith. I constantly struggle to strengthen my own faith (one reason being that I fell into many periods of faithlessness when I was a Protestant). But we have to be careful not to burn ourselves out. I see this so often amongst different groups and individuals - they go looking and searching and are ever redefining their faith so much that they hit a wall and just stop. They lapse and lose their faith. 

But it's OK since they said that one prayer right? They still get VIP passes to Heaven all because of that prayer, right? It kind of doesn't make sense to better oneself if all the hard work is done. What motivation is there to pick yourself up when you fall if there are no repercussions for our actions?

3. Prayer

The third difference (and the last I'll list for now) is prayer. Yes, the Orthodox do use prayer books with prayers written in them. We use those prayers, but it does not mean that we are only limited to those prayers. Those written prayers show us how to pray properly, and we are free to use our own prayers. 

The Orthodox also have established times to pray (1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th) but are usually meshed into morning and evening prayers for home use (AFAIK monastics do the full hours). These prayers are done in a set way - the same way that we pray in church. A lot of the prayers are the same ones that we use in our churches. One of the reasons behind these stylized prayers is to unite all of us whether at home or at church; if everybody is united in prayer then they can be united in faith.

In the Protestant churches that I grew up in the preacher (or whoever was leading the prayer) would say, "Let us pray," and then he (or she) would be the only one praying. I guess other people could say their own prayers, but it doesn't seem very uniting, nor inclusive.

I know people who would use those little devotionals and do some Bible readings at home, but I never could really find any set pattern to what was going on. One day seems to be about serving God in this way, and the next day would be about not getting road rage. Each day would have its own Bible verse, and both would be just as varied with no segue or tie in. It is very chaotic. 

In Orthodoxy when a priest or deacon says "Let us pray unto the Lord," the whole congregation responds. In fact the whole liturgy is one big prayer service wherein everybody present is involved - even the hymns are prayers! The term liturgy means "work of the people." The priest can not serve the liturgy if there are no people there to celebrate. The whole thing is very unifying.

We even have set Bible readings that teach us lessons, OT and NT, that are arranged in order (we go through the whole Bible in a year). The homilies (read: sermons) the the priest gives are usually related to the scripture readings of that day. In this way we are unified, all praying together, all working together for our salvation. The whole Church is our accountability partner.

Yes, we pray to our saints. We ask for them to intercede on our behalf, just like (and this is important here) we would ask anybody here on Earth to pray for us. We remain united to those in Heaven through our prayer, they are our brothers and sisters just as much as those still here on Earth. We believe that they can still pray for us because they did not cease to exist when they died and they are still part of the Church, just as they were on Earth. To deny this is to deny the resurrection.

We do not worship our saints, even though we pray to them. We honor them as one does close family, or even one's preacher or favorite Christian author. We do not bestow upon them any kind of deity, we do not think that they have any special powers, and if miracles are attributed to them it is understood that the miracle happened from God who used that saint as His vessel.

Protestants (some Lutherans and Episcopalians/Anglicans excepted) are not unified this way in prayer. It is every man for themselves, each left to their own devices. There is no one to hold them accountable and even if there is there are no major consequences; they said that one little prayer - isn't that all that matters?
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