You've heard the talk show host who asks people on the street simple questions like: "Who is the Vice President of the United States?" After watching his subjects stumble around he comes up with the next question: "Who won American Idol last year?" In a heartbeat they have the answer.
Recently I asked some young people: "Can you name five Orthodox saints and tell me something about their life?" Only 10 people out of 100 had an answer. Then I asked: "Do you know the steps to at least five Greek line dances?" Over ninety participants raised their hand.
The ignorance isn't limited to teens. At a parish council meeting I posed the question: "Does anyone know what the church celebrates on September 8?" Not one of the ten adults knew that September 8 is the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, one of the major feastdays of the Orthodox Liturgical Year.
They say that knowledge is power. The more knowledge you have about something, the more influence that knowledge has in your life.
Time and again I encounter the ignorance of many Orthodox Christians. Too many Orthodox believers think that they understand their faith when in fact they know hardly anything. Even worse is when the ignorance is seasoned with arrogance. They close their minds to learning because they think that they know enough.
It reminds me of the Parable of the Ten Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13). Five foolish maidens knew the Bridegroom was late in coming so they didn't bother getting extra oil for their lamps. We can get it later, they thought. When the Bridegroom (who represents Christ the Lord at the second coming) came however, they discovered their lamps had run out of oil. They begged the five vigilant maidens for some of their oil. Too late. The five vigilant maidens left with the Bridegroom. The five slothful ones were left behind. Think of the oil here as faith and knowledge.
Who is to blame for the lack of knowledge? Is it our grandparents who dressed us in ethnic costumes instead of choir robes, pushed us to learn the language of the old country instead of how to sing God's praises, and spent hours helping us memorize poems to recite at ethnic holidays but never insisted we memorize Scripture?
Is it our parents, who never understood the concept of "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" and made Sunday the day of work, athletic contests, or golf?
Is it our Sunday Schools where crafts and games predominate because those who are entrusted with teaching our children about Christ and the practices of the Church lack the requisite knowledge, or even more seriously, do not have a regular prayer or sacramental life and so teach by direction, rather than by example?
Is it the secular world, which emphasizes immediate gratification so that a two hour Liturgy seems too long and any awareness of the silence and stillness necessary to encounter with God goes out the window?
Are we at fault with our children whose short attention spans compels us to cater to every immediate desire, whom we fail to teach patience and how to look beyond themselves, especially toward God?
For the past six summers I have run a summer camp for Orthodox teens. I disengage from the noise and demands of everyday life and I spend days getting to know the kids. The joys and sorrows are plentiful. Our teens are no different than any American teen. They have the same problems, the same temptations, even the same sins.
No cell-phones, Ipods, MP3 players, boom-boxes, are allowed. Why? It forces the teens to interact with each other. They can't become solitary zombies interacting only with the ideas that the rock stars and others put into their mind through the machines.
At first it seems impossible to let the music go but in short order the teens are talking and having fun with each other in authentic ways. Self-absorption diminishes. Superficiality loses its dreadful pull. Laughter comes more easily. We design activities that encourage fellowship and sometimes even force the teens to work together. Some counselors call it team-building but I like forced-interaction because the purpose to compel the teens into honest face to face encounter with each other.
And it works. Teens find it easier to talk to one another; some even let their emotions out more readily when the noise is silenced. Tears come more easily as well. Electronic media allows teens to bury emotions because it provides a quick and solitary escape from reality. Take the electronics away and the emotion comes to the surface and underlying problems are revealed.
With tears comes the revelation of some deeply felt pain. Lots of kids are lonely. They feel like they have no one to talk to. Many have superficial friendships and are afraid that their confidences will spread like wildfire in school gossip circles. Seniors in high school are afraid of going to college and they don't feel that they can discuss these fears openly with their parents because it may disappoint them.
Some teens are sad because of a break-up with a boy or girlfriend. Some wish they were better athletes while others tire of living out daddy's dream of becoming a pro-athlete. Some are uncomfortable with the way they look, a few dabble in self-destructive behaviors (like eating disorders and cutting), others have fallen into the pot-holes of drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual activity, and pornography.
Often we are able to empathize, show compassion and love, and even bring healing to the teens. This progress centers on worship, prayer, and confession. For example, everyday we spend ten minutes "alone with God." Campers sit on the hill overlooking the lake either praying or with their own thoughts. I can't count the times I heard them say, "I can't remember the last time I was quiet for 10 minutes."
I've seen miracles happen at camp, not only in confession, but also in conversation. Four things make it happen: 1) no electronic devices encourages conversation; 2) being away from the normal life activities puts people in a place where they are more vulnerable; 3) peer influence encourages sharing and growing; 4) almost everyone takes the risk to go to confession.
Returning home is like descending into a valley. Our parishes are supposed to places of spiritual healing but in fact the healing is almost non-existent. Meetings, cultural, and social events dominate the calendar. We have become so secularized that our parishes become indistinguishable from the other organizations to which our members belong.
Most parishioners are afraid of showing any kind of vulnerability. We can't show weakness because we don't want to be perceived as a weak person. People avoid confession because they are afraid of "what the priest might think" and thereby rob themselves of the healing their soul desires. Some of the older generation even scoffs at confession.
The grace of God gets lost in the "business" of the parish. The practices that contribute to a stronger encounter with the Savior like frequent communion, retreats, religious education, confession, are less important than the next fundraising luncheon in the interminable series of luncheons every parish thinks is necessary.
Coarseness afflicts our souls. In the weeks since camp I have spoken about confession and spiritual renewal. Many eyes glaze over and I can hear in the silence, "Here comes Father again on his spiritual renewal kick." The body language reveals an attitude that says, "I know what I know and I don't need to know any more. I'm essentially a good person, haven't killed anyone lately, no need to change. Father isn't talking to me."
This attitude is antithetical to the message of Christianity. Matthew 4:17 offers the first words preached by Christ, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Repent (metanoia in Greek) means to change orientation and direction, to turn ourselves towards God. Life requires continual repentance. To approach these words with an attitude of "I know what I know and I don't need to change" shows we don't really understand what repentance means and our need for it.
The Apostle Paul did not set up his churches as cultural enclaves, museums, or social clubs. They were places of healing, a fortress and place of refuge where we are reoriented toward God. The encounter with God that our teens experience at summer camp is meant to be lived all year long in the Church. All that is required to get there is repentance, a change in direction, a change in attitude.
Knowledge is power. Without knowledge of the spiritual things, our lives won't change. Until we throw off complacency and adopt authentic repentance and stop making our church into a social or cultural organization, we will not know the power of God to complete what is lacking in each one of us.
Do you know how often you should change the oil in your car? Do you know how often you should be receiving Communion?
Can you sing the song, "The 12 days of Christmas"? Do you know the significance of the 12 Major Feast Days of the Orthodox Church year?
Do you enjoy reading the confessions of movie stars in tabloid magazines? When is the last time you went to confession?