At times I feel the anger as well. I even participate in it. From the thoughts that run through my mind when I see crazy things and people on the TV to the words that sometimes slip out of my mouth when the traffic runs foul I swim in this crazed sea and find myself struggling just to stay afloat. There are moments when I would relish being dictator of the world for just one day with the power to set the world in my image and secure harsh justice by the power of my word.
Some of that is natural, the world seems crazy and sane people will think insane thoughts just to have some sense of order in their world, some sense of being secure and in control of the ride. People voted Hitler into power and there are still folks who have sentimental thoughts about Stalin. Although most of me is repulsed to the core by the thought of it I can see, in that dark angry part of me, why that would make sense to a generation feeling lost and out of control and willing to take the risk of totalitarian rule to make it all go away. I suppose it could happen here as well, why should we be immune to the seductions of such ideas?
And though I sometimes come close to the edge I do not want to give in to the will to power, the angry mind, the treating of the other as an object of my will, to hate, and the rampaging emotions of our times. I am aware of these days and part of me wants to run away and hide and another part wants to engage the game by the rules that seem to be presently in play but the end of both is futility.
There is another way, a way often drowned out by the voices of a sad and broken world but still the way things must be if we are not to extinguish ourselves. It is the way of the child of Bethlehem, the One who came into this world to bring light and peace and a taste of heaven here and its fullness in the time to come. Some feeble poor number of us have to hold out for it, as tainted as we are, and risk being called naive, idealistic, or insane. Some few lights need to shine like candles in a great dark wind and take the risk of being snuffed out as the cost of knowing what light is, even for a moment.
What a task for imperfect people, for sinners, to assume yet how much more is its undertaking required when the world seem so crazy and the order of things struggles like a wounded animal. But to know this is to understand Christmas, the time of nativity, in its most basic and primal truth and the hope of the angel's song on that long ago night.
Here is the story of a judge's order to cover a cross deemed "offensive" (Christians know that the cross has always been "offensive in its own way 1 Corinthians 1:23-24) with a video about the action below.
Jesus said "I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33 RSV)
More than a decade ago I had family living in northern Minnesota minutes away from the border, so close, in fact that they often went to Winnipeg for shopping. In those days all you needed to do was hold up your bucket as you passed north and Canadian customs knew you were going to pick blueberries and waved you on through. You could wave "hi" on the way back as long as our customs didn't think you were smuggling in Cuban cigars.
That seems like a long time ago. Probably was.
Of all the things I miss about these times those kinds of things, a more trusting gentle way, seem to cause the most melancholy. Now we're screened in, screened through, screened out, and travel with documents and permits and the threat of search and detainment if we miss some detail. There will probably never again be a time when you can take a joy ride into Canada like I did when I was in college or be waved across any border with a berry bucket as your credentials.
I know its necessary. I know, too, that others (like the victims of 9-11) have been inconvenienced beyond my imagination and so I have little about which to complain. But the fact I can't hardly cash a check anymore, have to pre-pay for gasoline when the sun goes down, and now may need a passport just to cross into Canada, kills me not in one big fireball but rather by hundreds of little needles each taking a drop of blood. One by one they are inconsequential, together they can be fatal.
I guess if people don't have honesty in and of themselves they will make a law to enforce it. If people aren't going to allow morality, honesty, and trust be part of thier lives there will be a regulation to that effect. I've not changed but at least now I'll have the paperwork to prove it.
There can be a value to that. There are things that need to be exposed and the democratization of the media represented by the blogosphere means that people who are actually expert in thier fields, and not just pretty faces, get exposure for thier thoughts in a way the larger media would never allow. But sometimes its just about complaints.
At times I fall in to that trap. Something rubs me the wrong way and I want to gripe and have the tools to do it. Even if no one in particular is paying attention I still have the emotional satisfaction. There needs, though, to be more from me and from anyone else who occasionally taps out a paragraph or two on the web. We need solutions.
Part of what I hope to do (we have such grandiose plans when we start blogs!) is to point to one solution. I remain convinced over the years that the transformation of family, culture, and world, begins with the continuing transformation of the person. I believe, as well, that Jesus Christ presents the model to which humanity should aspire and if we wish to truly evolve as a species we have that example to measure our progress.
At times I have told my parish I would be a Christian even if there was no heaven, no life to come, simply because the way of life is one that makes for human contentment. And I think sometimes we in the Church speak too much about the life to come and too little about how following Christ makes for human happiness, a balanced life, even a physically healthier life. How many people have literally killed themselves in the endless chase for whatever the latest thing the world says is important when the rest they seek, for thier soul, thier body, thier mind, could be found in the way of Christ?
It's not about immunnity from the realities and problems of the world but perspective, a clear view even in our weaknesses of what really matters. A life with Jesus life and teachings at its core brings a kind of knowledge that allows all things to find thier true setting, thier optimal environment, thier real paradigm so the person who embraces them, embraces Him, becomes fully alive and as they grow in it all more and more human in the best sense of that word.
Therein lies, I believe, the single solution to the human question and I presume I will always struggle towards it.
Coming to terms with the fact that much of what the world out there calls "success" will always elude us is part of the maturing process, the understanding of life in panorama and not just snapshot. And there is a bitterness to that, no, more of a melancholy. Even when we know for a fact the hype is just that and those who have attained heights we can only imagine still carry the primal human emptiness we remain creations of what our culture values and the message has been force fed on us for so long and with such passionate intensity that we still believe we'll be the exception to the rule, the one person who can truly have it all with no regrets, no empty spots, and no loss.
But sooner or later the thinning hair or sagging this or that and the ravages of time bear undeniable witness and we have to choose. Do we wish to be some kind of caricature like those sad old people whose faces have been lifted to the point of distortion and whose energy is spent throwing themselves against thier own mortality like a "Jackass the Movie" stuntman or do we come to some knowledge greater than ourselves that allows us to place all the events of our life, including the future, in a context that understands life but is never conquered by that reality?
If only for coming to ask that question at all I am grateful for this hard year. Because the correct answer to that question is precisely the place where grace can flow in to any life and transform what in a more hopeless moment would seem to be a relentless grind towards the cemetery into a journey of hope.
I'm holding out for that, thinning hair, sagging parts, and all.
But let me state that there is no hate here for Muslims despite the efforts of some in that religion to portray any critique or analysis of Islam as "hate" or intolerance. I disagree with the understanding that Mohammed is a prophet of God or the Koran is the literal word of God. I believe the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ is true. True disagreement, as against unthinking bitterness, is part of the search for truth and when dissent is immediately labeled as "hate" and a topic off limits for reasonable discussion then all hope for discovering truth is killed and the world decends into night.
In that context I remain convinced people should always examine thier faith, know why they believe, understand the history of the outworking of their faith, warts and all, and come to a mature knowledge of thier religion. In the current times of turmoil such a mature understanding of religion matters more than ever and there are frankly too many people both in Islam and Christianity who have only emotional, cultural, or tribal understandings of what they believe, understandings that have become empty jars into which fanaticism can be poured. I am an Orthodox Christian not because Orthodox people, including myself, have always been shining examples of purity but rather because Orthodoxy calls me and the world to transcend brokenness and gives us an example in Jesus Christ of one who lived the fullest humanity to which we, despite our sometimes terrible deeds, aspire.
And quite frankly I believe that Muslims will find the rest they seek, the rest that has caused a number of them to resort to violence and fanaticism, in Jesus Christ. There is wisdom in Islam but it's fulfillment is in Christ who shines with such glory that even thier prophet revered Him. Christians have sometimes done terrible things to Muslims and Muslims to Christians and yet the light that is Christ, when allowed to shine freely, illumines all.
Ultimately that is what I wish. Light for me in my darkness and light for those in Islam as well.
So I speak and write and pray as a fellow traveler hoping for, as our Liturgy prays, the "union of all" in Christ.
The work continues at St. Elias as the Nativity Fast begins and end of year plans (that means stewardship drives) come in to play. It's actually good to be busy because it keeps my mind off from the encroaching darkness outside. The sun sets around 5 PM now and we're getting pretty close to the time when we drive to work and back in twilight.
The truth be told I'd kind of like 2006 to be over. It's not been the happiest year personally with death being the main culprit and a kind of fatigue the other. I could use a few days in LasVegas right now which is strange because casinos bore the life out of me. But the warm dry air is a tonic. I'll put up with the general nouveau riche sleaze of Vegas baby just to get a dose of a cool summer night when the winter sets in here.
The next week will be Liturgy central with three planned on Monday night for the Presentation, Wednesday for our local pan Orthodox Thanksgiving Divine Liturgy and Sunday. This may sound strange but sometimes the Liturgy is the only place I can get some rest! It's very peaceful to be tuned into the flow of those ancient rythms.
The fast, of course, is just starting and I'm actually looking forward to it. I'm grateful for the chance to get things back in order, take care of unfinished business, and prepare myself for Christmas. What a wonderful gift to have, these special times when the Church calls for a renewed closeness to God and greater diligence in faith. The neat thing is that when hearts, including mine, turn away from the world and towards God they're actually happier and although I know its going to be a struggle I already have a sense, like other fasts, that it will be worth it. On the practical side its nice to feel like I'm truly celebrating the season and with grace may be able to avoid the gluttony hangovers that seems to have become part of this time. But the fast is young and I am a sinner so we'll see.
BTW, I have a little black book now so I can remember prayer requests and if you would like to be in it you can just write at firstname.lastname@example.org . I'm no great saint, not even a little one for that matter, but I'll do what I can.
As has been mentioned before in this blog there is always a certain amount of pain in speaking to the world about the health, life, and peace that comes from practicing a Christian sexual morality, a morality with both high standards and a place for self correction when sin fails the high calling. The pain comes from knowing there will be many people, not sleazes or whores, but people looking for meaning and love and touch and togetherness who will, in thier need, buy in to a values system that will hurt them and sometimes even take thier life. There are many of us who, by grace or just dumb luck, emerged on the other side in relative safety but many more who will still only come to see the value of the Christian sexual vision by virtue of traveling through some very dark valleys.
Read the book.
Of course, the first thing many critics will do is dismember the obvious illogic of this and expose Sir Elton's intellectual shortcomings. After all he's just one of a long list of entertainment celebrities who've bought into their own publicity and confused fame with depth.
But two things should be noted. First, there are more people than we know who share his thoughts despite thier obvious shallowness. Second, for Sir Elton and others to be able to believe and speak these things reveals a kind of something, or lack of it, in thier hearts which provides a rationale for irrationality. He himself may not even know what strange fire is burning inside.
But it's precisely for that dark and hidden recess in our souls, even the one that spews angry words to heaven, that Christ came and while there is life there is always hope, for you, me, and the "rocket man".
Homeless? No. Just waiting for Friday so he can be the first in line to get one of this store's allotment of 8 PlayStation 3's.
Don't know whether to laugh, or cry, or shake my head in disbelief. Maybe God wants him to be the first person I pray for in Nativity Lent.
Now people aren't looking for nuance in this, thoughts about faithfulness, the stage of life a parish is in, or the historical development of things. They want a number and the higher the better. Everything hangs on the number.
If the number is low it must be about the Priest not measuring up or the parish being dysfunctional or some other dark secret that keeps it from being higher. When Priests talk to Priests the issue is the same and even when we offer the nuances and they are listened to with the appropriate and well practiced techniques the one speaking and those listening know that only the number matters. The rest is small talk.
And there is a certain truth in numbers. Numerical growth is normal in the church and when it is not happening there really does need to be an analysis of the situation. Sometimes the answer is simple and there are conflicts or attitudes that have driven people away or closed the doors to people coming in. Language still is one of the largest and it remains an amazing fact that so many Orthodox parishes, even those that have been in this country for decades, still cling to languages and customs that they never use outside the walls of the Church. But there are more and sometimes its not about desire or struggles or ethnicity but about lack of support and direction for growth, the failure to plan that means the Parish has planned, sometimes without knowing it, to fail. Some parishes, too, need to die but no one has the desire to say that let alone act on it. Its never as simple, despite our wish, as the number.
Numerical success, too, has to be examined. Is it an accident of immigration where a large community of people was already present and the church simply filled? Has it been about the movement of converts from other Christian communities into the life of the Church? Is it a generational thing, a burst of fertility from years past that has now come to fruition? Success numbers are complex too and may not actually reflect a vital congregation but one that fate, rather than ministry, has favored with the numbers that shape our idea of success.
A few points here, for a digression regarding the growth of Orthodoxy.
First certain areas of Orthodoxy in the United States have experienced growth but the context has to be examined. Orthodoxy, when placed against its own context of ethnic isolation in this country is experiencing a growth and flowering, but when placed in the larger Christian context of this culture is still a minor player. We speak, for example, of the growth of 200 plus new parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese in the past few decades which is admirable given the ethos of American Orthodoxy but miniscule in comparison to say, the Assemblies of God, who will probably put up 200 new parishes this year alone. Our will to evangelize and build is still in its infancy.
Second we have to understand that we still are not doing a substantial job of reaching the unchurched. So much of our "growth" is really a reshuffling of the deck as other Christians leave thier churches for ours. While that, from our point of view (and thiers) is a movement from something less to something more it hardly marks an actual growth in the Kingdom. We're just swapping folks around and frankly there are Orthodox who have left the Church for other Christian communities as well. There are few, to my knowledge, models where hard core unchurched are being brought in from the streets into the communicant life of the Church.
And although we have taken great strides, for us, in relearning and remphasizing evangelism and growth in our parishes and clergy we are still a long ways from recovering the Orthodox vision of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed as an integral part of what it means to be a normal Parish and parishoner. Imagine where our churches would be if half the energy spent on festivals was spent on evangelism?
Where should this lead?
Perhaps the hope should be that one day numbers will matter as they truly should, within the actual history and life of the parish and as a tool to help us direct the life and ministry of our churches. Not numbers for the raw impact and idea that a lot means things are going well, but numbers that tell us where we are strong, where we are not so strong, and where God still wants us to change and become what He desires us to be.
In the end, after all, its the "why" of the numbers, that middle place between worshipping them as indicators of success and ignoring them in the pretense of piety, that matters most of all.
On the longest scale of things I remain, like Christianity, optimistic. The shining city of God with the beauty and purity of a bride remains within my sight and the political junkie riding the emotional roller coaster with every newscast has long ago slipped away into the night. I slept well on November 7th and last night as well.
I'm not naive or locked in some pious delusion. I read the papers and know it's a troubled world. I'm tempted sometimes, like everyone else, to seek refuge, to hide away, to go to some far away place where the world can't get at me but I know it's no use. I feel bombarded sometimes and sometimes I even envy those who are already asleep in the Lord. But that never makes what is here and now less then what it is and somehow I and we have been providentially ordered to be in this time and place.
I know, too, that the world has always been troubled. It is our lot since the first broken day of exile from Eden and only the technology, and not the human propensities, have changed. The Romans would have used tanks if they had them and the Babylonians would've have had porno movies in hotels if they could. The biggest difference, I suppose, is that in our modern media age we are force fed a bigger portion of it all and find less and less of what is good and right and pure in the cultural hog wallow.
As the larger and superficial supports in this society that have propped our vision of the world up in at least some lip service sort of way are weakening and collapsing I wonder if God is asking us a simple but profound question in all of this. "Do you believe in me?"
Sometimes all the passing things in which we have placed our hope need to be taken away, or at least threatened, before we see what matters most. And in thier departure we see ourselves as we really are and whether what we claim to believe really matters or was all just fluff.
The ascetics knew this, those holy people of long ago who left the world to pursue God. And perhaps this time, this epoch of history, is a time of asceticism for the Church, a time when God is making for us the choice the desert fathers and mothers made for themselves, and bringing us into the wilderness so we, stripped of everything else, have only God and in realizing that come to understand that we have everything we need, aways did.
Just a thought from a sinner pondering things to vast for him to understand.
They don't matter.
What is God saying in all of this?
That's what matters.
And pray we will even as St. Paul admonished his fellow believers to do for people as dark, pagan, and corrupt, as the Roman aristocracy. We do this because we only see moments but God sees the whole span of history and so we believe.
Only those who have forgotten that our national motto is "In God We Trust" will succumb to fear today.
The media love this stuff and a lot of readers/listeners/watchers do as well. If a prominent person seeking to speak out on moral issues falls (and there is no final word yet on whether or to what extent this may have happened) it allows people to justify themselves and avoid answering the questions posed by those speaking out about the moral decay of our culture. If every accusation provided to date is 100% true how would that affect the truth of the problems associated with the "do everyone you want" sexual mores of this society? Would it make the disease and death go away? Would the broken homes vanish? Would it mean that somehow the attitgude and actions which are making this all a reality are now okay? Or would it mean that one more person, one more family, and a whole congregation are added to the long and growing list of those broken by the sexual sickness of our times and, in effect, prove the point at a terrible cost?
Of course those of us who are serving in ministry are painfully aware of the nature of these times. We bathe in the same cultural waters as everyone else and wearing a collar is hardly a protection from the darkness. We are humans and we make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones. Our hearts are broken when we see one of us fall and we pray to God that it won't happen to us and sometimes just hang on by our fingernails in the face of it all. We know that the standards in these things are at a different level for us and a plumber or business man accused of seeking out gay sex wouldn't even merit a single line of newspaper copy while the mere innuendo of clergy scandal ends up above the fold on the front page. We know there are people who delight in exposing us and relish the idea of tripping us up. And its all complicated by the reality that deep inside, behind the faces we present on Sunday morning, are the common struggles of all Christians against the darts of the Evil One and the power of our own brokenness.
My prayers go out to Pastor Haggard, his family, and his parish, and doubly so if these accusations are in fact not a political stunt and have some merit. I hope yours do too because there will be suffering either way and perhaps a long road home if they are true. How we treat this man, this pastor, in the coming months will reveal the reality of who we are and the Gospel we proclaim. How we treat his accuser will as well.
But for too long there seems to have been a silence from those who are trusted to teach the faith as to how to approach our role as citizens and live as Orthodox Christians in the civil environment. In this silence we have abdicated the development of attitudes about politics and the political aspects of culture to the whims of popular culture and their septic mouthpieces in the media, and not by our faith. The result has been a decided lack of understanding about how our Orthodox faith, a faith which claims to touch all of who we are, speaks to the political life.
And perhaps there is where we should start, the idea that Orthodoxy is not simply an addition to life or an accessory but a unified vision, a participation in a reality that touches all of who we are and reaches out to transform the culture as well. We have too often created neat little compartments in our lives, with names like politics, business, religion, and family, and put a wall between them as if they are unconnected from each other. But to be Orthodox is to have all those neat little compartments demolished in favor of a life where all is directed towards Christ and the reality of who he is transforms those parts into a new kind of wholeness. To refuse to talk about faith and politics is to say there are areas in our lives that are off limits to the power of the Gospel, that what we seek to know, proclaim, and live is only for certain small parts of us and not the whole, and that is a small and powerless Gospel.
As Orthodox Christians we live in the hope of a day, we seek the transformation of our selves and the world in the knowledge that all things will be changed. We believe that one day the humble Jesus who came to us as a child in Bethlehem will return as King of Kings and rule the world with perfect justice, peace, and harmony. We believe that one day the government, as the prophet Isaiah said will be “on his shoulders” and our Creed affirms that Jesus will be the one to “judge the living and the dead” the ruler of a Kingdom that will never end, one that even now exists wherever hearts are turned towards him and people worship in spirit and truth. We understand that this rule will be one in which even the natural order itself will be returned to its pristine state and the lion will lay down with the lamb and people will turn their hearts to God and each other and reshape weapons into peaceful implements of agriculture.
Until then we understand that civil government has been given by God to ensure, as best as is possible with fallen humans, the good of all, the restraint of evil, the stewardship of the earth, and as our Founding Fathers would say “the general welfare”. We are called, as Orthodox Christians, to render honor to the state and its officials and live by the laws of whatever land we find ourselves to the extent they do not conflict with the higher moral law of God. We are called, as well, to participate on those same terms in the greater civil life of our country as we can.
In that light we also understand that there is no one form of civil government that can lay exclusive claim to encompassing the fullness of the Kingdom of God. There are better or worse forms, and even evil ones, but they all are shadows and are good only to the extent they reflect the perfect Kingdom of God. We also understand that nations are not permanent entities, but human constructs necessary for civil order but not an end in themselves. Our passports as Orthodox Christians, come from many countries, but our final hope is still in that heavenly country, the new Jerusalem.
So knowing this how do we live and act as Orthodox Christians within the political processes of our times? Here are some practical thoughts.
First and foremost the greatest political act of all is to know and live our faith in the world. Too many Orthodox simply do not know the essentials of their faith or practice them on a continual basis. We are people who have often drunk too deeply at the wells of our culture and occasionally sipped the living waters of Christ and we cannot know what is good and right if we have not sought it out ourselves and the world will not see it if they have no examples to observe. Imagine how different the world would be if just the Orthodox actually practiced Orthodoxy!
We also need to understand that what matters is not so much power or the attaching of ourselves to a single person or party but a commitment to unchanging truths and values.
Political structures change, truth does not, and our involvement in the political process should first and foremost reflect our witness to truth. If we believe that the Christian vision is the first and best destiny for humanity it is to that vision we must be true and understand that political structures are means and not ends. We are to be salt and light seeking the best we can in a world of imperfect structures and people.
Our Orthodox faith also gives us the hope of the Kingdom that is with us and that which is to come and so we have, despite the often chaotic nature of the world, an unchanging hope that should color all we do as Christians in the political world. If one only has this day, this election, or the current politics to provide meaning for their lives a descent into bitterness, anger, and violence will almost always result in the hopeless void that occurs when an election is lost or a process fails. But we have an eternal hope and our welfare can be affected by, but is not forever dependent on, the changing political world. We always keep eternity in mind and if we truly believe that one day Christ will rule with perfection then the anxieties of any given time lose their ability to terrorize us.
Yet we should also be cautious about as people used to say “Being so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good…” It is no act of piety to see the pain and struggles of the world and do nothing, or as some who claim Christianity do even rejoice in the sufferings as some sign of Christ’s return. We must be involved in the world as a sacred duty to serve and heal and witness and call the world to something better. If we do not our Lord will ask us, some day, why we failed to be who we were meant to be and claiming a pious detachment won’t count as an answer to the one who has said “as you have done this to the least of these my brethren you have done it to me…”
So what do we value as Orthodox Christians called to be witnesses in the political arena?
We understand that government should reflect, as best as is possible, the desire of God for the human good, the restraint of evil, the welfare of all, the care of the earth, and the pursuit of justice. In that light we are called to involve ourselves to transform all government forms and structures to those ideals.
We value all of human life from natural conception to natural death and even beyond and have always seen abortion, war, degradation, murder, and the desire of the strong to be predators on the weak as grave moral errors. People are never to be means to an end, are never disposable, and always have a dignity by virtue of being God’s creation.
We see the Earth not as a thing to be exploited but as a gift to be managed. We are all tenants and responsible to preserve and maintain what God has given us to the greatest extent possible.
We desire justice, to see evil restrained, the good promoted, and the power of law used for the greater good and without partiality. We see wealth as a divine call to charity and great power as a call to responsibility.
Our hope is always, first and foremost, for peace and we are called to engage in the destructive use of force always and only as the final option and then and only then with good reason and with mercy always in mind.
We believe morality ensures the well-being of society and that there is a natural order of family that allows for health, stability, and the well being of children. Orthodoxy, despite its accommodation of some divorce as a necessity in a fallen world, affirms only the union of one man and one woman for one lifetime or chastity in singleness as that arrangement desired by God, beneficial to the order of society, and promoting physical health. Orthodoxy would stand against any attempt to experiment with or transform this arrangement as inconsistent with the divine and natural law and the greater good.
Finally we believe that our first and foremost allegiance is to Jesus Christ and that all of our involvement in every part of our culture must be for the purpose of His glory, the salvation of our souls, and the transformation of the world. Power is for service, the ability to rule for the benefit of all, and our involvement in the world as the desire to enter the imperfect and call it to greater things.
That being said I simply ask you to pray always for our leaders, as we do in every liturgy, regardless of their party or whether they reflect your values. I encourage you to be involved as you can in the processes of our civil society with an informed Orthodox Christian mind and the heart of Christ. I ask you to stand, even as imperfect people, for those things that are always good, right, holy and perfect, not in the expectation of never ending success but because it is the good, right, holy, and perfect thing to do.
And in all things may God be glorified.