Friday, July 28, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Hearing the Scriptures

Most Christians for most of Church history did not own their own copy of the Scriptures (either in whole or in part). They heard the Scriptures read in Church. While sitting down and reading the text of the Bible is important, we certainly can listen to the Bible being read, and gain great benefit from it. With modern technology, you can listen to recordings on your phone or home computer, and these recordings are available for free. If you are strapped for free time, are a mother with small children that keep you busy, or spend a lot time on the road, this might be the best way for you to study the Scriptures. 

The King James Version was in fact translated with how it would appeal to the hearer in mind (not just the reader), and if you have difficulty reading the KJV, chances are good you will have an easier time listening to it.

And when you feel too tired to read, or are going through sections of Scripture that can seem tedious (like long lists of names in the book of Numbers), you may find listening much easier than reading.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

The Chinese philosopher Laozi famously wrote: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Dao De Jing 64). One of the points of this saying is that we should not be overwhelmed with the length of the journey, but simply begin it, taking one step at a time. A more contemporary saying begins with the question "How do you eat an elephant?" with the answering being "One bite at a time." This is also true of reading the Scriptures. The Bible is a very large book (or more precisely, a large collection of many books), and depending on how diligently you read it, it can take a long time to make your way through it. But if you read 3 chapters a day, you will have read most of the Bible in a year.

However, a better way to look at this is not that reading the Bible is a very long journey that will be difficult to complete, but rather that it is a lifelong journey. It is an important part of living the Christian life, and so it should be something you do every day. You don't really get through the Bible; rather, by regularly reading the Bible, you allow it to get through you. St. Poemen illustrates this point:
“The nature of water is soft, that of the stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God” (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 192f.).
No matter how many times we may have read through the Bible, we need to continue to read it, because we need it to constantly soften our hearts, and open ourselves up to God's grace. I have been reading the Bible regularly since I was a boy, and I still learn new things every time I read it. I am also reminded of things that I have forgotten, that I needed to be reminded of. And I don't doubt that this will continue to be true until my last breath.

It is helpful to read something from both the Old and the New Testaments. I suggest a system for doing so in "A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible," but if you simply read one chapter a day from the Old Testament, and one from the New, this would provide for some balance in your reading. Some part of the Old Testament can be especially difficult, and so reading that along with portions from the New Testament can keep you from getting bogged down.

Reading the Scriptures in Accordance with the Fathers

According to Canon 19 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, we are told that the Scriptures must be interpreted in a way that does not deviate from the teachings of the Fathers. When converts are received from other Christian group, they are asked (among many other things):
Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?
The answer the convert is to give is: "I do." But how do we practically go about doing that?

There are many commentaries on Scripture from the Fathers. I have gotten my hands on most of what is currently available in English, but the average person probably could not afford to gather such a collection, and reading through them is a massive undertaking unto itself. But even with all of those commentaries, there are many passages of Scripture for which there is no patristic commentary at all. So what do you do when you're reading the Bible, and you don't have patristic commentary to explain what you are reading to you?

St. Augustine wrote "On Christian Doctrine" in order to teach people how to properly read Scripture, but he has an interesting comment about someone who might not get it right. First he explains what the purpose of the Scriptures is for us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and then says:
"Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived. Since, then, the man who knows practices deceit, and the ignorant man is practiced upon, it is quite clear that in any particular case the man who is deceived is a better man than he who deceives, seeing that it is better to suffer than to commit injustice. Now every man who lies commits an injustice; and if any man thinks that a lie is ever useful, he must think that injustice is sometimes useful. For no liar keeps faith in the matter about which he lies. He wishes, of course, that the man to whom he lies should place confidence in him; and yet he betrays his confidence by lying to him.  Now every man who breaks faith is unjust. Either, then, injustice is sometimes useful (which is impossible), or a lie is never useful. Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether" (On Christian Doctrine 1:36).
We learn what it means to love God and our neighbor in the teachings of the Church. If we interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the teachings of the Church, we may get some things wrong, but we will never be too far off track.

Because we may not understanding something in Scripture we should of course always be open to being corrected by the Church. If we have questions about something, there are many people in the Church we can ask for guidance. But we should not allow the fear of our misunderstanding something in Scripture to prevent us from trying to understand it.

There are many sources we can turn to to help us better understand the Scriptures. There are books like Johanna Manley's "The Bible and the Holy Fathers," which provide some commentary on the passages of Scripture that are appointed to be read liturgically. All of St. John Chrysostom's commentaries on the books of the New Testament are available online, as are many other Patristic commentaries. So I would encourage you to make use of what is available, and try to get you hands on useful resources, but as long as you continue to try to understand the Orthodox Faith properly, you will be able to read the Scriptures with benefit, and will keep from getting too far off track in how you understand it.

Continued in Part 3: In Context

For more Information:

A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

Computer Based Bible Study... for Free

Friday, July 21, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

How can someone who has never really read the Bible before begin to read and understand it? I will try to answer that question in a series of posts, beginning with this one.

Why is the Bible Difficult to Read?

Let's face it, the Bible can be difficult to understand, and there are a number of reasons for this. The Bible comes from a very different culture, and it was written in ancient languages that are not our own. It was written a long time ago, and over a long period of time. And while it is all inspired by the same Holy Spirit, it was written by many different human authors who used many different literary types (genres) to convey their message to us.

We should not let this scare us off. There are parts of the Scripture that are very easy to understand. These are the low hanging fruit that God has put there even for the most untrained reader, but there are many things that require work on our part to understand, and we should be willing to do that work.

But why is it that some parts of Scripture are difficult to understand? St. Augustine tells us:
"Some of the expressions [in Scripture] are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness.  And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty" (On Christian Doctrine 2:6).
We are humbled by the fact that we do not completely understand the Scriptures. It takes humility to understand the Scriptures, but it is also inspires humility that there is so much we do not understand.

We also never have a "feeling of satiety" in our understanding of Scripture, because of these difficulties. A "feeling of satiety" is that feeling we often have on Thanksgiving day, when we have had too much to eat, we feel like bloated jellyfish that have just washed ashore on the beach, and we couldn't be tempted to eat another bite, no matter how good the food was that was offered to us. We never get that feeling when it comes to the study of Scripture, because there is always much more for us to learn, and so we are left wanting more. And because we have to work to understand the more difficult things in Scripture, we value more what we learn because of the effort it took for us to do so.

The fact that there are difficulties in understanding Scripture should not leave us with a helpless sense that there is nothing we can do about it, and then just give up. There are many things we can do to help us in this work.

A Good Translation

The first step is for us to get our hands on a good translation of the Bible, and preferably a couple. For a complete discussion of this topic, and of the options that are available, see: "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible." But to make a long story short, here are the texts I would recommend you get a copy of, at a minimum:
1. A good edition of the King James Version. See: Recommendations on Editions of the King James Version.
2. The Orthodox Study Bible. This text is not perfect, and I don't think the translation is usable liturgically, but it is in relatively easy to understand English. In the New Testament it is the standard New King James text. It also has some brief but useful study notes, and introductions to each book of the Bible.
3. The New King James Version. A copy of the standard New King James Version is good to have for comparison with the King James text.
4. The Boston Psalter. For the Psalms, there is really no substitute for this text. This is what is generally used in our liturgical texts, and in the Jordanville prayer book, and there is no reason to not use this as your primary translation for the Psalms.
There are several other translations that are good to consult for comparison, but you don't have to buy them. They are available electronically, for free. Young's Literal Translation, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the Brenton translation of the Septuagint.

The King James is a beautiful and generally accurate translation, and there are good reasons for using it, but if you have not grown up at least hearing it read on a regular basis, you might be better off sticking with the Orthodox Study Bible and the New King James text initially. I would not recommend using any other translation as a primary text for reading the Bible -- and for the reasons why, I would again refer you to "An Orthodox Look at English Translations of the Bible."

War and Peace

I grew up hearing Bible stories at home and at Church and so understanding the basics of Scripture was not a problem for me when I actually began reading the Bible for myself, but I can relate to the problem that many have beginning to read Scripture. I had the same problem with War and Peace -- which is probably the most notoriously difficult-to-finish book of the great classic novels.

When I was a new convert to Orthodoxy, I began reading Dostoyevsky's novels, and loved them. But when I was finished reading those, I thought I would try Tolstoy, and so got a copy of War and Peace, and I read several chapters, and found it difficult to follow. I put it down in 1991 and did not pick it up again for nearly 20 years. The problem with the novel for me was it was a complicated book from a foreign culture, and a bygone era, and it was full of a vast array of characters, and had many elements that I was not familiar with. It was hard to see where things were headed, or to keep track of who was who.

What changed was that I saw the four part Soviet era film based on the novel. The movie is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and the acting was excellent. Watching the movie helped me figure out who was who, and also what the novel was all about. When I then picked the novel back up, I found it to be fascinating and very entertaining. It was also a pretty good way to learn the History of Russia's role in the Napoleonic wars up through Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, which was why Tolstoy wrote it in the first place.

There are ways to get the same bird's eye view of Scripture too, and once you figure out who is who, and where things are headed, Scripture begins to come alive.

Getting the Big Picture

One way to get a feel for the scope of Scripture is to read Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy's "Law of God". About 300 pages of that text are focused on the contents of the Old and New Testaments, and this text provides a very thorough overview of the Bible.

There is YouTube channel called "The Bible Project". The people behind it are Protestants, and they only talk about the books that are in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but they have a summary of each book of those books, and they do a very good job of explaining the structure and content of these books. I would recommend ignoring their word study videos, and their videos on the themes of Scripture, because there you get a lot more Protestant theology then you get help on understanding the actual content of the Bible. Furthermore, if you run across anything that sounds fishy to you, ignore it.

For example, here is the video on Chapters 1 through 13 of the Gospel of Matthew:

And this is example of how the explain the structure of one of the most difficult books of the Bible, Leviticus:

A Good Bible Dictionary

There are a lot of Biblical reference texts that one could buy, but if you are only going to get one, you should get a good Bible dictionary. There is a Bible Dictionary in Russian that was published by the Orthodox Church, and there may be one or more in Greek, but as things stand at present, if you want a text like that in English, you are going to have to make do with a Protestant text.

There are two I would recommend:

1. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible.

2. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible.

For example, if you are reading Exodus and you run across a reference to the Urim and the Thummim, if you look these words up in a Bible dictionary, it will tell you pretty much everything the Bible says about them, and everything that historians know about them. If you are reading Hebrews, and you run across Melchizedek, you can look him up, and find where else he is mentioned in Scripture and who he is. If you look up the name of a place that is mentioned, you will find things like what the name of the place means, its history, and often also find a map showing where that place is. You could of course look these things up on Wikipedia too, but the information you will find in these texts is generally going to be far more complete and reliable.

Continued in Part 2: Staying on Track.

See also: Computer Based Bible Study... for Free

For a sermon on why we should want to study Scripture, read St. John Chrysostom's 9th Homily on Colossians. You can also listen to a sermon I gave, entitled "Rich Man / Poor Man," which was based on that homily.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Stump the Priest: In the Lord Shall My Soul be Praised

Question "At the beginning of Psalm 33 (in the Septuagint), which we hear often in the liturgical services, is the line "In the Lord shall my soul be praised." This seems a strange way of putting things. What do you think this means? Are there other similar verses in the Scriptures?"

In the Boston Psalter (the translation we use liturgically), this verse is translated:
"In the Lord shall my soul be praised; let the meek hear and be glad."
This is a very literal translation of the Greek Septuagint, which is a very literal translation of the Hebrew. The King James version translates this verse as:
"My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad" (Psalm 34:2).
Which translates the Hebrew idiom in a way that more clearly conveys the sense of the Hebrew. A more literal translation of the Hebrew would read:
"In the LORD doth my soul boast herself, the humble hear and rejoice."
By comparing different translations, you can often get a better idea of the range of meaning of the words in a text, and this is a good example of that.

The inscription of Psalm 33 [34], links this Psalm to David's flight from Saul, and his deliverance from the Philistine King of Gath in 1 Samuel 21:10-15:
"And David arose and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me? Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?"
St. Basil the Great's homily on this Psalm provides a good interpretation of the verse in question, which explains it in the light of this background:
""In the Lord shall my soul be praised." "Let no one," David says, "praise my intelligence, through which I was preserved from dangers." For, not in the power of man, nor in wisdom, but in the grace of God is salvation. "Let not," it is said, "the rich man glory in his riches, nor the wise man in his wisdom, nor the strong man in his strength, but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth" the Lord his God [Jeremiah 9:23-24]. If, however, someone is praised for beauty of body or renowned parentage, his soul is not praised in the Lord, but each person of such a kind is occupied with vanity. The ordinary professions, in fact, those of governor, doctor, orator, or architect who constructs cities, pyramids, labyrinths, or any other expensive or ponderous masses of buildings, do not merit to be truly praised. They who are praised for these things do not keep their soul in the Lord. It suffices us for every dignity to be called servants of such a great Lord. Certainly, one who ministers to the King will not be high-minded because he has been assigned to this particular rank of the ministry, and having been considered worthy to serve God, he will not contrive for himself praises from elsewhere, will he, as if the call of the Lord did not suffice for all pre-eminence of glory and distinction? 
Therefore, "in the Lord shall my soul be praised: let the meek hear and rejoice." Since with the help of God, by deceiving my enemies, he says, I have successfully obtained safety without war, by only the changing of my countenance, "Let the meek hear" that it is possible even for those at peace to erect a trophy, and for those not fighting to be named victors. "And let them rejoice," being strengthened to embrace meekness by my example. "O Lord, remember David, and all his meekness" (Psalm 131[132]:1 LXX]. Meekness is indeed the greatest of the virtues; therefore, it is counted among the beatitudes. "Blessed are the meek," it is said, "for they shall posses the earth" [Matthew 5:4(The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil, Exegetic Homilies,, Homily 16, trans. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963),  p. 251ff).

Friday, July 07, 2017

Sister Vassa on Homosexuality

Sister Vassa Larin recently sparked a controversy by posting her advice to a mother who has a 14 year old son who "came out" as a homosexual. She has been a popular figure in the English speaking Orthodox world, and is a highly regarded liturgical scholar. She is a very bright and articulate person, and has often been invited to speak at Church conferences around the world --  and in fact was the featured speaker at a youth event in my own diocese, and my parish spent the money to send some of our children to that event, one of my own daughters included. So it is with genuine sorrow and great disappointment that I must take issue with her publicly, because she has publicly endorsed views that are in serious error, at a time when pro-homosexual propaganda is inundating our children from virtually every direction in society. Our children should be able to count on those within the Church to encourage them in the Faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3)... and to not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).

In the course of the discussions that followed the original post, I came across a sincere Orthodox Christian who has struggled with homosexuality, recognizes that homosexual sex is incompatible with the Christian life, and is striving to live a life in accordance with the Gospel -- and he interpreted much of the criticism of Sister Vassa's post as a failure to appreciate the difficulty of his struggle -- though he recognized that her post was problematic. Let me just say up front to him, and to anyone else who is sincerely struggling against this sin that the problem is not with them and their struggle, nor would I minimize their struggle. I would, however, suggest that while heterosexuals have different struggles, it is not as if we cannot relate and appreciate their plight. We all have crosses to bear. My wife's godmother grew up in the Soviet Union, faced near starvation, was separated from her husband who had been drafted into the Soviet Army, and had to flee for safety when the Nazis invaded with three small children, ending up in a displaced persons camp at the end of the war. She then had to come to a foreign land, and start from scratch. She never saw her husband again, and never knew whether he was alive or dead. On top of all of that, her son was killed during the Vietnam war. Despite all of these hardships, she lived a pious celibate life and was an inspiration to all who knew her. Being a Christian is usually difficult, and it is difficult for different people in different ways, but that it is difficult is something we all share.. and if we don't, it's because we aren't trying very hard. So God bless you in your struggles, and know that we all love and support you.

Now, to the specifics of Sister Vassa's post:

Sister Vassa began by trying to inoculate the rest of her answer with a disclaimer:
"Dear N., Thanks for writing. I can't reply to your question officially, but will reply to it personally. Because my personal opinion is not in line with some official pronouncements of my Church. So please just accept it as my personal opinion, no more and no less than that."
I'm not sure how she could give an "official" response, but presumably she means that this answer is sort of off the record... except that she posted it on Facebook for all the world to see, and it has since gone viral, and has been shared on pro-homosexual "Orthodox" groups. She has taken it down, but the horses are already out of the barn, at this point. She has not (at least as of yet) posted a retraction.

She acknowledges up front that she is disagreeing with the Church, but confines that disagreement to "some official pronouncements". The problem is these pronouncements include the Scriptures and canons of the Church which are clear and unambiguous on this subject.

Following some other introductory comments, she then, after giving quick lip-service to the idea that an active homosexual lifestyle was sinful, proceeded to undermine that belief by minimizing the seriousness of the sin:
"But here’s the thing about homosexuality. And please read this to the end, if you could. I must say, and cannot say otherwise, that actively living it out is a sin. It’s a no-no. But so are many other things, which we tolerate in ourselves as “only human.” Like, our consistent disregard for God’s word, which is worse than the sins of “Sodom and Gomorrah,“ as our Lord points out in Matthew 10: 14: “…And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable (ἀνεκτότερον) on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Mt 10: 14-15) [Emphasis added]"
It is simply twisting this text of the Gospels to attempt to equate someone who maybe doesn't read their Bible as often as they should with rejecting the Gospel, which is what Christ is talking about in that passage. I don't take the sin of ignoring Scripture reading lightly, mind you. I generally ask three questions when hearing someone's confession (aside from questions raised by the specifics of their confession), unless they bring these subjects up first:
1). How's your prayer life?
2). Are you reading the Scriptures regularly?
3). Do you forgive those who have offended you?
But not reading the Scriptures regularly is not the same as rejecting the Gospel. Both are sins, but there are degrees of sin. There is, for example, a big difference between having an unkind thought and engaging in mass murder. It would be insane to say that there was no difference between those two sins. Unkind thoughts can lead to the act of murder, and so should not be ignored, but they are not the same. And the canons of the Church show this clearly. There is no canon that suggests a lengthy penance for having an unkind thought. The penances for murder, however, are lengthy -- some suggest excommunication until the person is on their deathbed, other, more lenient canons call for 20 years.

There is no canon that calls for a period of excommunication for failure to read the Scriptures. The stricter canons against homosexual sex call for a 15 year penance, while St. John the Faster allowed for it to be lessened to 3 years, if the person was truly penitent and took their penance seriously. Both sins are sins; however, the sin of sodomy is far more serious. The sin of rejecting the Gospel is even more serious, because there can be no possibility of restoration for someone who has chosen to cut themselves off entirely from the source of healing, but that does not make the sin of sodomy a light matter.

Not a single Church Father could be cited to support the idea that Christ's point in this passage was to suggest that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah weren't so bad after all. His point was to cite one of the most wicked examples found in all of Scripture, and to say that rejecting the Gospel is even worse than that.

Then Sister Vassa minimizes the sin even further by suggesting that the sin is really beyond the level of choice (which if true, would mean that it was not really a sin at all, in any usual sense of the term):
And here’s the other thing about homosexuality. We do know today, according to reliable scientific studies, that this sexual orientation is formed in most (not all) cases, by the early age of 3-4. Importantly, it is before the “age of reason,” which is traditionally considered the age of 7, so it is not a “choice.” You mention that you knew this about your son well before he came out to you now, at the age of 14. I have heard this from several mothers of homosexual children, including one wife of an Orthodox priest, that they “knew” it from their child’s early childhood.
There is actually little in the way of hard evidence that homosexuality is somehow innate (see for example: "Born gay or transgender: Little evidence to support innate trait"). Furthermore, while there are "scientific studies" that argue for homosexuality being rooted in genetics or other innate factors, they come in a highly politicized context, in which the pressure to produce certain results in this area is very great (just consider the firestorm a University of Texas Study received which shows that children of gay couples have more problems on average than those raised by both a mother and a father). And if you don't think political pressure can influence academic research, I suggest you read up on how Nazi politics influenced some of the most respected academic institutions in the world, and resulted in the kind of pseudo-scholarship produced by the Ahnenerbe to promote Hitler's theories of racial superiority. Academicians are human, and they are often motivated by a desire to be noticed and recognized, to make a good living at their work, and to be advanced. Unfortunately, the desire to find and present the truth for its own sake is all too often subordinated to those more selfish motivations. And so a healthy amount of skepticism is also in order here on issues that are currently driven by political agendas.

We do not accept the idea that we are slaves to our genetics, or to the environmental factors of our upbringing, and so effectively have no free will or ability to make moral choices. Such a view is contrary to the Orthodox understanding of what it means to be a human being. We reject determinism, in all of its forms. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we granted that there was some genetic predisposition to homosexuality, this would still not justify the conclusions that Sister Vassa suggests. There actually is a proven genetic predisposition for alcoholism, but this does not make being a drunk acceptable, nor does it remove choice from the equation. If you get pulled over for driving drunk, saying "I was born this way" is not likely to get you off the hook. It is certainly a lot harder for some people to not abuse alcohol than others, but we know that they have a choice, and in fact all of our laws assume that people who are not legally insane or mentally incompetent are responsible before the law for the choices that they make, no matter how disadvantaged they may or may not be.

The Church does teach that we are all born with an inclination to sin. And yet we are taught that we are to overcome that inclination, by God's grace.

What do you mean "we", Paleface!?
"Hence we come to the question of “culpability” for this state of affairs, in one’s gift-and-cross of (homo)sexuality. We can and do separate the question of “culpability” for the sin, and the sin itself, - so let me point out that God must also. In most cases, homosexuality is not one’s own choice. So, “crossing the line” in this area, and not committing to total celibacy, as one “must” do according to traditional, scriptural law, is “more tolerable” in God’s eyes (as Christ says in the above-quoted passage), than our other kinds of trespasses. Among our “other” trespasses let me mention heterosexual adultery, masturbation, premarital sex, and just “looking lustfully at a woman” (Mt 5: 28), - all “sins,” although we tend to “live and let live” with them, as they are only human. But we have a double standard when it comes to homosexual “sins,” for the plain reason, I think, that most of us feel free-and-clean of this particular thing."
I do not wish to be included in the "we" that Sister Vassa invokes here, and I suspect few Orthodox clergy would either. If someone confesses that they have engaged in heterosexual adultery or premarital sex, and they are not talking about a sin in the distant past, or before baptism, I treat them as very serious sins, that would call for some kind of a penance. The penance would would depend on a lot of other factors, but there would certainly be one.

The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the presumptuous "we".

And again we have the problem of equating things that are not comparable. Generally speaking, sins that involve other people are more serious than sins that a person commits alone. Also, sins against nature are more serious than sins that are not against nature. And so if you take the sin of masturbation -- this is a sin one commits alone, and so, while still a sin that cannot be excused or ignored, it is not as serious as having sex with another person that you are not married to. Looking on another person to lust is, as Christ said in the Gospels, committing adultery in the heart. However, neither Christ Himself, nor the Church since, ever suggested that there is no difference between committing adultery in the heart, and committing adultery in deed.

Imagine for example two scenarios. In one case, you have a man who looks on his neighbor's wife with lust, and then later repents and goes to confession. At the same vigil service there is another man who actually had an affair with his neighbor's wife, which resulted in two broken homes, great harm to their children, and countless extended relationships being broken. Would it make any sense for the priest to treat these two cases as if there were no difference between them? Of course not. This does not mean it is OK for a man to look on women to lust, or that such a sin should be ignored -- adultery in deed always begins with adultery in the heart. But it is obviously better for a man to be struggling against the sin of adultery in the heart before it gets to adultery in deed, then it is for him to say "what difference does it make?" and fall into the act of adultery with another person.

If we take the teachings of Scripture seriously here, we also have to acknowledge that homosexuality is a sin against nature (παρὰ φύσιν), and so for that reason is worse in some respects than sins that are in many other respects, similar, but which are not contrary to nature (for example, heterosexual sex outside of marriage). First off, this is clearly what St. Paul says about it in Romans 1:26-27, and St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on this passage, elaborates on it further (see his 4th Homily on Romans). Now, in our time, when we say that homosexuality is against nature, those who argue that it is an innate and immutable characteristic for some people, object and say that it must be natural, since it happens naturally. One need only study human anatomy to see that the anus was not designed with the penis in mind. Furthermore, one need only study the serious health and psychological problems, the propensity for drug and alcohol abuse, and  the domestic violence that all go along with living an active homosexual lifestyle, to see that this is in fact contrary to the natural order (see: "Immoralism, Homosexual Unhealth, and Scripture," by Robert Gagnon). Cancer occurs in nature too, but cancer is not something that makes for healthy human living.

Heterosexual sex outside of marriage is still a sin, and as such, will (if not repented of) exclude one from the Kingdom of God too, but life can come from such immoral relationships. Also, such a couple can repent, get married, and their relationship can develop into something that God can restore and even bless. A homosexual relationship can only damage both parties, and cannot be restored into something good (at least not as a homosexual relationship), because it is against God's created order.

When we say that sins against nature are, as a rule, worse than sins that are not against nature, this does not mean that those who commit these sins are to be despised more, it means they are to be more pitied, because the consequences of such sins are greater because of this fact. It is not loving to enable or encourage an alcoholic to kill himself with alcohol, and it is not loving to enable or encourage a person struggling with homosexuality to live a lifestyle that is destructive in so many respects -- and most importantly, a lifestyle that St. Paul assures us will prevent them from inheriting the kingdom of God, unless they sincerely repent and turn away from that sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) nevetherless requires that we actually speak the truth.

Pastoral Discretion and Non-negotiable Principles of the Faith

Sister Vassa gets into the practical implications of what she is saying:
So what am I saying practically, about what you should do when your son “wants to date”? I think you won’t be able to change the fact that he will “date,” unless he wants to commit himself to celibacy. But I am going to go ahead and presume he doesn’t want to, and isn’t going to, do that, since he’s “come out” to you, and I don’t think you can change that in him, at age 14. So I would say, let him “date” in the daylight, with your knowledge, so he’s not chased into some kind of underground, of illicit hook-ups in certain kinds of pubs or bars. You aren’t “encouraging” him by saying, bring the guy here. Just like other parents, of heterosexual children, say, bring that girl (even the one of whom we disapprove) home, so we can meet her, aren’t saying, go ahead and do whatever you want. But what you are doing is bringing your child’s relationship into the daylight of your home, where your love, values, and mutual commitment, as family, can lend stability and light to your child’s behaviour in his/her relationships. You know, the whole gay-culture of previous decades led many homosexuals (as I know from a dear Roman-Catholic gay friend aged 60 at this point) to get into irresponsible sexual encounters, inspired by the whole aura of illicitness, in hook-ups in public bathrooms and that sort of thing.
If a mother with a 14 year old boy had written, asking for advice, and her son had informed her that he was a heterosexual, and was intent on having sex with his girlfriend, the proper response for a Christian parent would not be to provide them with a room and a condom. A responsible Christian parent teaches their children that they are not to have sex outside of marriage, and particularly when they are 14, they would generally tell them that they are too young to be dating anyway.

One can debate how best to handle a penitent sinner. The canons often lay out very strict penances, however, in our time we drastically reduce the severity of the penances, and  under some circumstances, we might not impose a penance at all... all depending on the circumstances, and the individual. You could argue that one priest or bishop is too lenient on such things, or that others are too strict. All good shepherds of Christ's flock are motivated by a common desire to see their people grow closer to Christ and to be saved. Practical applications of Church discipline are questions of wisdom, and spiritual insight. What is not open to debate, however, are matters of principle. A person who is engaged in a sin (any sin) and who refuses to repent of that sin cannot be given absolution by the Church, because sincere repentance is a necessary ingredient for absolution to be given. I have had people, who, when I ask if they have forgiven those who have offended them, will respond "No." I then explain why we need to forgive, and what that means and does not mean. However, if all of my efforts to get them to choose to forgive those who have offended fail, I cannot give them absolution. It is just not possible, and that is not a question that reasonable priests might disagree on. The same thing is also true of a heterosexual who is actively engaging in fornication with his girlfriend, and it is true of a person who is engaging in homosexual sex.

As far as your other practical question goes, of finding a faith-community for your son, I think he has two choices: 1. He can “suck it up” in your present community, like the woman wearing a scarlet letter. It’s not the worst thing in the world, because I can tell you from personal experience that it is liberating in many ways, to be the odd man out and OK with that, even if (and this might shock you) you are denied Holy Communion. (I am not homosexual, but I have been “the odd man out” in other ways). Your son’s humble presence in your parish could benefit both him and others, in unexpected ways. Just like the story of Mary of Egypt has been beneficial to all of us, even though she had no Holy Communion for over 40 years. 
St. Mary of Egypt did not have Communion for 40 years because she was living a life of repentance, which is not quite the same thing as being excommunicated because you are living an active homosexual lifestyle without any intention of repenting of that.

An Orthodox Christian Biblical Scholar commented on Sister Vassa's post, and asked why it would be better for a 14 year old to abstain from communion and to continue having homosexual sex, rather than for him to abstain from having sex and continuing to receive communion. Sister Vassa responded, "Have you ever met a 14 year old boy?" The woman she was responding to is a mother and a grandmother, and she pointed out that she was once 14 years old too. When did it become acceptable to assume that a 14 year old boy cannot control himself, and must have sex (either heterosexual or homosexual)?

Also, even heterosexual couples can be separated for lengthy periods of time. A husband might go to war, and be gone for many years. Should we just accept that he cannot control himself, and will have sex with whoever happens to be available? The Christian answer to that question would be "no."
The other choice is 2. Find a parish that is acceptive of your son’s particular gift-and-cross. There are parishes like that, here and there, but I don’t know where you live and whether you have one nearby. 
Encouraging someone to go to a parish that will ignore their sin, and commune them anyway is a shocking piece of advice from an Orthodox nun. There is absolutely no justification for taking such a position. You could not find a single example in the lives of the saints of such a thing, nor could you find anything in Scripture or the writings of the Holy Fathers that would support it.

St. Paul in fact warns against this very thing:
"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth..." (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
And in case anyone thinks St. Paul does not consider homosexuality to be contrary to sound doctrine, they need only look at his First Epistle to St. Timothy to see that the opposite is true:
"knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites [i.e. homosexuals, Greek "αρσενοκοιταις"], for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust" (1 Timothy 1:9-11).
Then Sister Vassa concludes:
Frankly I find the first option the better one, as shocking and insensitive as that may sound. But here’s what I would NOT suggest: to leave the Church. Our church is our family, and as a family, we are called to learn from one another, to love one another, and, as a result, to suffer to a certain degree, from one another, that we may grow. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I don’t believe in jumping ship when it comes to church-belonging. I think we don’t grow that way, I mean by jumping ship, but rather stunt or (best-case scenario) delay our growth. Please forgive me if this wasn’t helpful, but it’s all I’ve got. Love to you and your family from all of us in Vienna, SV
It is good that she encourages the mother to try to keep her son in Church, and even if a person is struggling without much success against their sins, the Church is the best place for them to be, because it is the place where they should be best able encounter God's grace, truth, and love. However, going to a parish that actively suppresses the truth, is another story entirely (Romans 1:18-32). Going to Church can help if the person hears the truth there, and God opens their heart to receive it. That is why we have to ensure that it is actualy the Truth that they hear in Church, and not the lies of this world.


Unfortunately, if there was any hope that Sister Vassa might back off from her comments, or clarify them in a more Orthodox way, she has dispelled them by doubling down on them, and doing so in a way that it would be charitable to call strident. There is no acknowledgment that she should perhaps have suggested that the mother in question encourage her son to refrain from sodomy. There is no awareness that being a childless nun who teaches Roman Catholic seminarians in Vienna has perhaps not made her an expert on child-rearing. Only the assurance from her zillions of fans that she is right.


In the course of the discussion that has followed, she said (on her personal Facebook page) in response to a deacon:
"I never said, in that post or in any other one, that I "often" disagree with the church. Please don't change my words. What I said, in black and white, was that I do not agree with some of the "proclamations" of my Church, today. If you read attentively, you will find that there are important nuances here, which point to the fact that I do not, actually, state that I am in disagreement with The Church. In fact I do not think that the dust has settled on what "The Church" actually thinks on this topic, in our today. But in the Orthodox Church we don't have the unified voice to discern and state what we think, because of our crippled state of (dis)unity. But regarding what I said in my little post, unfortunately most readers today do not read anything attentively, looking only for soundbites and lacking the patience to read deeply and prayerfully. That's all I've got to say, in addition to what I've already tried to say, in part unsuccessfully, on the matter."
So the Church may yet, in her opinion, take a very different view of homosexuality.

Another problematic aspect with regard to what is going on here is the fact that those who have disagreed with her have often been blocked and their comments deleted, while pro-homosexual activists have been free to promote their views and attack those who hold to the teachings of the Church. Here pro-homosexual fans seem to think they know where she is heading, and she is doing nothing to dispel that belief.

And with regard to Pope Francis being "the real deal," I think the folks at Lutheran Satire have him pegged pretty well:

Also, one homosexual activist on Sister Vassa's Facebook group took issue with my referencing the propensity of homosexual's to commit suicide, and suggested that this is because of religious people like me. The problem is that this is not borne out by the facts. Denmark is one of the most secular countries in the world, and yet studies there show that homosexuals in domestic partnerships in Denmark are 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide then those in heterosexual relationships:

Only 3% of Danes attend church at least once a week:

And homosexuality is widely accepted in Denmark:

For more information:

A 14 Year Old Boy (a Sermon on this subject)

What Sister Vassa Should Have Said (Replying to Sr. Vassa’s Mail), by Fr. Lawrence Farley

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth

Stump the Priest: Shrimp and Homosexuality

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Same-Sex Marriage: Separation of Church-State Issue, or a Moral Problem We Must Oppose? (a Live discussion on Ancient Faith Radio)

Statement on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality, by the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas

Sexuality and Gender: Finding from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences

Robert Gagnon had an informative debate with a Lesbian Anglican on Homosexuality which you can watch below (if you only listen to 15 minutes, go to the 49:00 mark):