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Having the Talk with the Kids

Comfortable, happy-clappy Christianity is not going to survive what's coming

Father Andrew Damick, a friend who is an Orthodox priest, writes on his Facebook feed:

Just overheard an earnest conversation in which the speaker was making a serious argument that church attendance on Christmas and Easter was quite enough.

People do it, of course — lots of them. But I’ve never heard anyone actually defending it.

I wonder if they realize how much other people’s regular participation is subsidizing their twice-a-year appearance.

Also, I’m always glad to see even the folks who so rarely show up — and we welcome them — but I can’t understand what they think worship is actually for.

One of his followers commented:

Fr. well I think a few things are happening. The grey area on moral issues is being removed. That is a blessing and a curse. Consequently, people are figuring out that if they don’t think it is true then there is no reason to go to church anymore, so they stay home.

The problem is that this is by and large, as far as the Orthodox go, specifically GOA, a product of the unpaid bills of the church. People assumed things would continue as they have without noting the cultural change due to propaganda and pressure tactics, among other factors, and without doing what is necessary to preserve the church.

We aren’t going to combat privately accessed pornography with talk of values. And we are’t going to keep our youth with “teen talks” and babysitting sunday school. We can’t combat Hume, Kant and Co. with that stuff. It just doesn’t work.

That last line is so true. On Sunday, after church, Julie and I had a Full And Frank Discussion with our boys over inattention at the liturgy. We tried to impress on them that there are places in this world where Christians are risking their lives simply to do what we can easily do on Sunday morning. I told them about Father George Calciu, and what he and the other Romanian Christians endured in Ceaucescu’s prisons — and how they celebrated that same liturgy inside prison walls.

I told the kids that in their lifetime, they will all face pressure to abandon their faith, pressure much more serious than anything their parents or grandparents have had to deal with. I told them about Brendan Eich, a tech genius who was thrown out of his own company because he had given a small amount of money to a campaign to preserve traditional marriage, a cause that our faith teaches is just and right. I mentioned to them that Gordon College was being systematically dismantled by outside entities for a similar reason, and that this was going to get worse.

The liturgy, I told them, is not something we do on Sunday out of mere obligation, or because we have nothing more fun to do on Sunday morning. The liturgy is preparing all of us to live our faith with courage and joy. The time of testing is coming, indeed it is upon us every day. You kids are protected from a lot because your parents are vigilant, but we won’t be able to be there all the time. The liturgy, and the life of our church, exists in part to form your consciences and make you strong enough to choose the good when there is nobody around to make you do so. You can’t imagine how strong the forces are in this culture attacking your faith, and telling you it’s all a lie, I said. But you’re going to face this. In the liturgy, and in liturgical prayer, is our strength.

Later that night, e-mailing with an Evangelical friend, I told him that I had inadvertently ended up having a conversation with my kids about the kind of world they’re going to enter as Christians, and how they had to be prepared for degrees of martyrdom for the sake of Jesus Christ. My friend responded, half-joking with this first line:

I don’t think there’s any small group curriculum training parents how to have that conversation with their kids. You did the right thing, I am convinced. I said something similar to a group of homeschool parents this past weekend.

This is a conversation that Christian parents had better start having with their kids, not because They’re Coming To Get Us, as in the ages of martyrs, but because the middle-class softness of most American Christianity today — in nearly all the churches — will leave them extremely vulnerable to the acid of post-Christian American culture. Moralistic, therapeutic, happy-slappy Jesus-is-my-homeboy Christianity will not prepare anybody for what’s to come. Last night, after I read the usual story to my two younger kids (they’re on a Madeleine L’Engle kick), I lingered to read Father George Calciu’s testimonials about celebrating the liturgy in prison, despite the torture. Father George’s 2006 obituary from the Washington Post gives a short version of the two stories I read to the kids last night, from a book of his writings, sermons, and interviews. From the Post:

His clandestine faith was discovered by secret police in 1972. To save his life, Justinian appointed him professor of French and the New Testament at the Orthodox Seminary in Bucharest. He was ordained that year. For the next five years, Ceausescu’s government tolerated his anti-Marxist sermons. But after Justinian’s death in 1977 and the appointment of a hard-line church patriarch, conditions worsened.

Father Calciu announced plans to give a series of seven Wednesday sermons in the winter of 1978. The sermons attacked Ceausescu’s persecution of religion; after the third, he was thrown out of the church. He then preached on the church steps. The government closed the gates to the seminary, but the faithful climbed over the seminary walls to hear him. The new patriarch expelled the dissident priest, and, deprived of the church’s protection, he was arrested.

Prison the second time was much worse. “Ceausescu saw me as his personal enemy,” Father Calciu said. “For this he applied to me special methods of torture.”

When he did not break, the government decided to have him killed by two cellmates, convicted murderers who had been promised leniency if they would kill him. He was made to stand in a corner of the cell and not allowed to eat, drink, speak or relieve himself without permission, and he was often beaten.

After three weeks, the other two prisoners were summoned by the head of the secret police. When they returned, Father Calciu said, his tormentors were subdued. Taken to a small prison yard, his cellmates told him to stand in one corner while they conferred. Ready to die, Father Calciu confessed his sins and prayed for his family. Fifteen minutes later, the men approached him.

“And the youngest one said, ‘Father,’ — and that was the first time they called me Father — ‘we have decided not to kill you.’ ”

That Sunday, he asked their permission to celebrate Mass. He was making preparations and turned to see the two criminals kneeling on the cold concrete floor.

The kids wanted to hear more, so I promised to find other (appropriate) passages to read for them later. That boring Sunday liturgy looks different in light of what Father George suffered for it, and to be able to say it in prison. I could tell a change in my children’s view.

These are the stories we have to start telling our kids. They are the stories that belong to the church. Again, I don’t tell these as horror stories to convince our children that what happened to Father George will happen to them. Instead I focus on the faith and courage of the martyrs, and what that has to tell us about how to live when we are put to the test. If Father George can endure prison and torture for the faith, how much more should we be able to endure lesser forms of martyrdom (= “bearing witness”), like losing a job, being refused entry into professional societies, and so forth?

A Christian lawyer working at a high level on religious liberty issues told me recently that American Christians have no idea what’s about to hit them. He meant in terms of the loss of status, and the aggressive attacks in civil society against them and their institutions. He did not mean persecution in the sense that Father George and his comrades suffered. But then, he didn’t have to. When there’s a serious price to be paid for access to the mainstream, to maintain social peace, and to gain the peace of mind that comes with conformity, that’s a price that very many nominal Christians will be eager to pay.

The comfortable Christianity in which we were all raised isn’t going to survive this. Nor will the faith of Christians who have not prepared for it, who instead thought that everything would be okay if they just sat tight and stayed optimistic.

UPDATE: In 2011, Wesley J. Smith reviewed Father George’s book in First Things, saying:

Fr. Calciu lived what he preached. He did not hate his persecutors. Rather, he prayed for them daily and trusted in God’s mercy for their salvation. He also found joy. In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of Calciu’s spiritual children writes of Fr. Calciu, “He had a beaming smile. He was often amused by life, and ready to laugh . . . . Fr. George was joyful . . . . He was naturally affectionate, and would hold my hand or anyone’s . . . just beaming with a radiant smile.”