Couldn't resist...

Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says "Dam!"

Journalist poses as penitent...

Read the story of the Vatican's reaction to a journalist who posed as a penitent to write an expose on his experiences.

A question or two..

Everyone who believes in God probably has a question or two they would like to ask just to kind of make some sense of things.

My current one is this. I wonder why God allows humanity to get so crazy?

Whether its manic Muslims looking for nukes or people who think sex with animals is worthy of an investigative film the world has had its share of people, myself included, who sometimes just go off the deep end and have moments or even whole lifetimes of barking madness. Even whole cultures succumb.

I suspect there are more than a few people who watch the news or wander around online and just end up scratching their heads and saying "What the h---?" And just when you think it can't get worse someone finds a way to up the ante and get wierder, or madder, or more perverted, or more distant from sanity. Can anyone argue that a world where Parish Hilton is a celebrity and Hugo Chavez is a President is a world with a grip on things?

Now revelation tells me and faith accepts the existence of a plan. But there are moments when I can't get my head around how that plan is working out. Part of that, maybe most of it, is due to the fact that I'm not God (which by the way is a good thing for the universe). Yet a fair amount of it is really a matter of pity. I don't always understand where the mercy is in letting finite beings, fragile to the extreme and broken in body, mind, and soul, to their whims.

The Psalmist says that God "remembers our frame and knows that we are dust..." and that's probably the most provable statement in the universe. So what good can come from letting us descend to our depths and endure the pain and suffering that comes from that incoherence? Where does free will need to end for the sake of mercy? When is enough, enough?

God only knows. But I still wonder sometimes.


This week's sermon in advance...

Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
January 28 2007

February 19th is coming and the time for preparation is at hand.

Pure Monday, the beginning of the Lenten fast arrives on that day and in anticipation and hope the Church calls us to prepare even now with the most important change of all, the diet of the heart and soul.

It’s not that the food part of the fasting doesn’t matter. In fact in our consumer culture where everything seems to exist to cater to whatever appetite we have the food part of Lent is extraordinarily important. We Americans are almost always on the edge of gluttony and frequently leap over it with abandon. But since we often never travel far to see other places and other circumstances we hardly have an idea of how materially rich our life actually is. Often our fasting is a feast to the hungry of the world. What we consider asceticism is wealth beyond measure to many.

So the Church calls us to prepare and remember that to whom much is given much is required and the measure of our life at the end of time is not in the accumulation but in the generosity. The nakedness and hunger of the poor, and not our status, will be the standard of our judgement. And what we share with others will be the measure of our reward.

Prepare your kitchens now as the Sundays ahead call us to leave milk and meat behind. Store up humble food to aid your prayers and resolve to the greatest extent possible not to make excuses. All must fast unless they are children under the age of seven or those who for valid medical reason must take food with medicine or have a condition like diabetes which requires a unique diet. If you are asked to be a guest in the home of a person who is not Orthodox for the sake of humility you should eat whatever is prepared and not make a show of your fast.

There are no illusions about the ease of this holy work. In a glutted culture with messages of consumption all around us the temptations will sometimes be fierce. Cravings will emerge. You may not have been to McDonald’s in years and suddenly it will seem like a very good, even irresistible, thing. You may want to give in for a moment in the promise that you’ll do double tomorrow for the lapse of today. Rationalizations are temptations that appeal not to baser instincts, even thought they draw on them, but rather to our power to think and negotiate. At times they seem wise, but the truth is they are still the voice of an inner spoiled child screaming at the grocery store because they want that candy bar by the checkout.

The truth is you’ll need to draw on the resources of prayer, the Liturgy, the Scriptures and some good old fashioned gumption to fast well in the days ahead. And a hundred times a day you may ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” The answer is in our Gospel reading.

Many Christians believe that the real us is a spiritual intellectual being somehow housed in our body. How many times have we been to funerals where the preacher talks about how the “real” person is not with us anymore but in heaven and the “shell” of the body is here with us. People mean well by believing this, it allows them to avoid having to face the struggles that come with having a body that suffers from the brokenness common to us all and facing the reality that it must die. But its not Christian to see ourselves as a soul or a mind temporarily dwelling in a body.

We are a unity of soul, mind, and body that together make up the entirety of what it means to be human. Our humanity consists of all the parts of who we are in union with each other. Death is not the departure of the real us from the temporary shelter of our body but the unnatural separation of our soul and our consciousness from its natural union with the body. A soul without a body is incomplete and body without a soul expresses that fundamental loss of humanity by dying. One day that brokenness will be reversed in resurrection and our humanity will be completely restored as our soul, our mind, and our body will be reattached to each other and restored so that we can be fully human again in a way that we can only imagine in our current brokenness.

The point of this all is that what we do with our bodies affects our soul and our mind and all who we are. When our bodies grow ill all of us is affected. When we commit sins with our bodies the whole of our being is damaged and sometimes destroyed. When we discipline ourselves by refusing to give in to cravings and challenge the whims that come from that part of who we are that is broken physicality we begin to purify all of who we are, body, mind, and soul, and bring it in ways small and large towards its true destiny, being like Christ.

Humility in our consumption is part and parcel of a humility of soul and mind. How you choose to face this eating part of this fast will be directly related to the grace and joy and peace that will emerge at its completion. Fast well and you will, even in the struggle, begin to know a kind of grace and love that those who cut corners will not experience. Be humble in what you put in your body and you will know in a very real way the humility of the Publican in our Gospel but also the salvation he found as well. Resolve in these coming weeks to lay aside the whims and whinings of this present society and you will indeed have moments of great struggle but also see a bit of heaven as well and the joy that made the Saints blaze like fire.

A few weeks to go and the fast begins. Clean the cupboards out. Make your home ready. Tell the kids why they’re not going to have all those treats and why this matter. Remind yourself. Prepare yourself. Embrace the joyous struggle. Know that the humble will be, in God’s good time, exalted, the penitent forgiven, and those who engage the struggles and challenges will be given the victor’s crown.


The snow came down hard on Sunday morning and the 1 to 3 inches they predicted was already on the ground before we left the hotel. As it brushed off the car the snow was like feathers or dandelion seeds in the wind. Every snow has its character and wispy snow is easy for tires to grip but blows cloudy and renders you momentarily sightless when trucks pass on the road. And one did, even in the short trip to St. Elias Church, and we held on and hoped that the driver in front of us wouldn't suddenly stop.

Heat was just coming on in the church when we arrived so there was the kind of cold of cement bricks still lingering when we stamped our feet, turned on the lights, and set the copy machine to its morning warm up. The routine is always the same and the old building gradually takes on a kind of life as task to task prepares us for the Liturgy ahead.

LaCrosse is a city set on the only level ground around and pushes up to the eastern bluffs of the valley until the angle and height allows no other dwelling to be built. In the hills beyond the town there are cuts in the terrain called coulees where valleys, sometimes tight and vertical and other times gentle and rolling, have been carved into the land by the effects of water and time. Roads snake through these valleys and cling to their sides as they wind into the city below. Snowy days mean that travel will be slow and as morning prayers give way to the Liturgy one can tell people are arriving even if your back is to them by the sound of the door and the stamping of snowy shoes. When you live in the hills you arrive exactly when nature allows.

But the turnout is good for such a day and the faces are familiar. In a small parish no one is ever lost for long. If you crave the anonymity of slipping into the back row of a large and darkened cathedral you will not find it here. So, too, is the assurance that people are here because they want to be, especially when the snow is thick and full.

This old parish has been around for some time by local standards. There were a lot of lean times and decades when Priests came by only now and then to celebrate a wedding, bury the dead, or serve the Liturgy for the sons and daughters of the immigrants who founded the church. Lacking the money and importance that comes with a big city the church spent most of the last century drifting here and there. And the grandchildren, with no certain parish, drifted away to wherever lost generations go and we see them now only at funerals.

At times it seems like we're a clutch of birds huddled against the cold wind or the last remnants of a heroic regiment marching in a parade with tattered uniforms and old medals we bring out for the occasion. But not today. Because somewhere inside of us there must be some ember still burning, a smoldering wick, some flickering light that keeps us coming to this place on a day when lesser folk look out their window, roll over, and go back to sleep.

And as long as there is, it still matters.


This week's sermon in advance

32nd Sunday After Pentecost
January 21, 2007

I can be a pain to travel with sometimes because I like looking at churches. Jane and I will be driving through a town and I may see a steeple and off we go a few blocks out of our way just to drive by and take a look. I like the look of churches. I like the smell of churches. Every church is unique and every one has a story.

People’s hopes and dreams used to be tied up in churches. In a culture where most people spent their whole lives in the employ of others the church was often the one place where a group of people could build something for themselves and create a legacy for the future. Even in an old church building you can still feel some of that spirit, the dreams and aspirations of people who have long since passed from the thoughts of those who serve and sing and worship in the present.

And I confess to a certain romanticism about it all. I may be naive but I do believe the world can be changed for the better by the Church. I do believe there is grace and power and life and light that resides even in the most humble parishes. Properly guided and allowed to flourish, it can change lives and communities and nations. It’s why I chose ministry and perhaps why ministry chose me and I’ve seen enough glimpses of the good stuff to know its real and there’s more out there and I’ve spent large portions of my life trying to help people discover it in themselves and their parish.

What you don’t know is that every time I come to St. Elias a transformation takes place inside of me. The church is empty when I arrive, the lights are off, and the only sound is usually Jane working on the bulletins downstairs. Almost every time as I go about the prayers before the liturgy I think to myself “Is it worth it?” “Am I making a difference?” Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m sad. Sometimes I worry. Sometimes I’m frustrated. But the prayers carry me along.

And without fail by the end of the Liturgy I am at peace and rest and any of the internal struggles have drifted away. I see your faces and feel your hearts and hope arises again. Every Sunday ends as it starts with the church dark, the sounds of Jane downstairs, and me standing in front of the altar one last time before I go. When I do I pray for revival here in the parish and I thank God for the privilege of serving you as Priest. The trip home passes in peace.

Everything in the life of the church can be taught except one thing. Our Orthodox history is full of examples for us to follow, saints to emulate, parishes who have modeled a life of holiness, service, and worship. There are a thousand techniques to make a church healthy, self supporting, growing, and thriving, and we can learn them together.

But only hope cannot be taught. It cannot be finessed. It cannot be sold like a product. It cannot be charmed. It exists or it does not and the very future of things is tied to whether it lives or has long since passed away. Everything can be taught except for hope.

If hope is present people will endure the struggle. When hope exists people will give of themselves for the sake of it. A living hope inspires. Hope gives wings to dreams, turns faith to sight, and transforms those who have it and those who need it. Hope is why this parish was founded and why it was restarted and it will be the core, if in God’s will we are to become what we were meant to be.

And what is hope?

For Christians hope is not just positive feelings or wishful thinking. Hope is not a disconnect with reality. Instead hope transforms the reality we experience in light of something larger and more real. Hope is a kind of vision that lets us see with the eyes of faith and know that God exists, God providentially has all time and history in His hands, and He will strengthen the weak, empower the powerless, bless the poor in spirit, work His salvation in us and in the world, and bring all creation back to His embrace.

Yes we must trust people and make plans but ultimately that is all secondary to this ultimate hope in God. This is the hope the Apostle Paul had as he writes in our epistle, the hope that allowed him to endure and work and see things yet to be as if they already were. Despite the troubles that often plagued him and the dangers he routinely faced he had a deep and abiding confidence in the love and care of God which guided every step he took and allowed him to come to the point where life, death, and all that we fear were swallowed up in the reality of God.

Hope in God can put a fire inside of us and give us the vision to see what we could be, what we were meant to be. Hope will give us the strength to bend our shoulders to the tasks ahead. Hope will give us generous hearts. Hope can motivate us to learn and grow. Hope stills our shaky voices and gives us the courage to stand and speak. Hope drives us to our knees to lift ourselves, each other, and our lives to Christ our God. Hope challenges us to stand together, work together, and be something greater together than what we could be apart.

In a little while we will be at our annual meeting to care for the business of this parish. Practical things must be handled but not as an end to themselves. My desire is that this meeting will be, above all, a place where hope begins to bloom, where we catch of vision of who God is that animates our future together and makes the nuts and bolts of things be filled with the life of God. Perhaps today can mark the start of our not giving in to fear, our temporary smallness, and the empty spaces in the pews. Maybe today will be the day when past struggles cease to haunt us, where our history gives us wings to fly, and hope moves us, in joy, to worship, prayer and action. Let this day be filled with an abiding trust in the reality of all that God is and because of it let us never be the same again.


Lies, damn lies, and statistics...

A recent headline in the New York Time proclaimed that a majority of women in the United States are now not married. How did they get to that conclusion? Why by playing fast and loose with the numbers of course!


Another conversion story...

Spent some time this morning reading the conversion story of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in this case from a generic and secularized Christianity to Catholicism. A good read and a story that is repeating over and over as well educated participants in all the best of secular culture leave that world for historic Christianity.

The reasons, of course, vary but the general thrust seems to be the same. At its heart a secular life is counter human, meaningless, and an endless journey of personal indulgences that destory the very soul they claim to liberate. Freed from history and its wisdom there is only spiritual, intellectual, and social chaos and those who embrace this liberated life find that for society, and their own lives, to work there must be either a veneer of the old ways to provide cohesion or an increasingly rigorous set of authoritarian principles designed, ironically, to enforce this relativism on those whose very instincts detect its emptiness.

Enter the Church as She was meant to be, a counter movement to the brokenness of the world, and radically transforming what we consider to be normal. And yet in Her life is to be found a kind of wholeness, humanity, and life that is deep and true and meaningful. Within Her people become truly alive, many for the first time, and only to the extent the Church embraces the values she was meant to confront does it become a partaker of their death. Wise people willing to ask questions and desperate people who have bought everything, slept with everyone, embraced each fad, and in doing so come to the end of themselves discover the value of this Faith, this life, and this hope.

And perhaps the greatest irony of all is that it takes incredible faith to live a life disconnected from something transcendent, where all is as you interpret it, and where your thoughts, your emotions, your will, and this moment is all there is. To do so you must ignore a lifetime of evidence, the pain of the world around you, and the screaming emptiness inside in the hope that just one more freedom, one more liberation, one more technique, or one more philosophy will finally make everything right. Certainly more faith then it takes to believe in Jesus and be well.


Gotta be kidding right?

Senior Islamic clergy in Saudi Arabia deny a businessman a trademark because it has the English letter "X" in it and looks, according to them, like a Christian cross.

And we're selling these folks advanced jet fighters right?


More amazing pictures of children in the womb.

Psalm 139:13-16

The day after...

Yesterday was the day after a blizzard and after living in these parts for most of my life I've come to appreciate the day after.

Blizzards are part and parcel of life here in the North. Snow falls. The Wind blows. The wise stay home but those who must travel find the normally hospitable roads have grown narrow, uncertain, and drifted with white. In long single lines we crawl to our destinations and keep moving even when we see lights backwards and low on the road, the unmistakable sign of a car in the ditch. Like a herd that keeps moving after the lions have struck the weak we keep driving, (everyone has cell phones now right?) the car smelling of heat, the radio droning on, and a million white dots of snow in the headlights.

But it passes, as all things do. When the weather breaks the world is white and clean, at least for a day, and people emerge from their shelter. From inside the house you hear the scratching of shovels or the puttering of snowblowers. Trucks are on the street and in their glory as they skim through the rutted streets. The condescension of hybrid owners is meaningless today. If you've been any kind of decent person at all there will be someone to help you push your car and the grocery stores are full of people with big jackets and funny hats and better than usual attitudes unless they were towed to the city impound.

You see on the day after a blizzard you have to be a neighbor. In the world there are jerks and predators and wierdos and politicians and most of us spend our time just ducking for cover from them all and hoping to keep the noise down. But on the day after a blizzard the good people come out, the friends, the neighbors, the helpers, and the doers and do what they do best, shovel a little more, make sure the older lady next door is okay, share a ride, and look out for each other.

The snow on the day after a blizzard is beautiful but what it can bring out in people is more beautiful still. Would that every day be like the day after a blizzard.


This weeks' sermon in advance...

January 14th, 2007
Leavetaking of Epiphany

It was said of the legendary George Halas, owner and coach of the Chicago Bears that he once described football as “22 men desperately in need of rest being watched by 80,000 people desperately in need of exercise...”

In the epistle reading today, and in fact through the whole New Testament and the early church fathers, we are presented with a vision of the church as a unity, a body, and a place where different people, united in a common faith, are given a diversity of gifts by the one Holy Spirit, gifts given to be used for the building up of the faithful and blessing the world. We claim, as Orthodox, that this Church is us, or at least we represent a fullness of this that is not possible outside of us.

So why don’t we look like this?

If these are truly the roots of our Faith how come Orthodox parishes too often look like George Halas’ description of football and too little like the exhortations of St. Paul?

Somewhere along the line we’ve lost something and we see Church as something we go to and ministry as something that Priests do. Neither of them is completely true and both ideas have brought us to the point where we often have a select few people performing in the front for the benefit of those who sit silently in the seats. And that hour and a half is what constitutes “church” for the vast majority of Orthodox.

Is it any wonder that people drift away from the Liturgy because they see it as a service rendered to them and are disappointed when they can get a better show on TV?

Does it suprise anyone that our Orthodox pews are filled with people who are either spritiually frustrated because they feel like they can’t use their faith or those who have just grown cold and silent and accept that deadness as what being an Orthodox Christian is all about.

And why does it seem that so many Orthodox leave the church and find another where, despite their being baptised and chrismated as Orthodox, they feel like they have been “born again”?

We often complain about the ethnic clinginess of Orthodoxy and there is a great deal of truth in that. But we should also be glad because there are times when only ethnic and family obligations, and not the lure of a living relationship with Christ, kept people walking through our doors.

But it was never supposed to be that way.

Yes, Orthodoxy has hierarchy and structure and liturgy and sacrament. The church always has and there was never a golden age of apostolic simplicity where everything just kind of went along with the flow. There’s not way to read the history of the church without seeing that all these structures that are part of our life were there from the beginning. We have more now but they are not different.

But they were given by God not for the purpose of endowing and enriching a caste of professionals to rule the masses and provide necessary services. Instead they were to bear rule and teach and handle sacred things correctly to the end that all the people of God would also be able to exercise their various callings and ministries, their priesthood, in the life of the church and the world.

In return it was understood that the people of God would respond to the teaching and leadership and service of those in authority by seeking to be as fully active, alive, and serving in their faith as possible. No spectators were allowed, all were called to be on the field, playing the game as it were, and seeking to bless each other and the world with all the riches that are found in Christ.

And in a continuation of that it is our Orthodox understanding that this active life of faith, nurtured by sound teaching and the sacramental life of the Church, was never simply a matter of Sunday morning worship. Our Divine Liturgy is most certainly the height of what we do but it is not the extent of what we do. Strengthened by sound teaching and nourished, healed, and forgiven in the sacraments we are to go into the world and be Christians not as a convenience but everywhere, always, and completely. Church never ends at our door, and if it does we are not truly a church no matter how nice our Liturgy is, how beautiful our icons are, or what great kibbeh we can make.

What is needed in our Orthodox churches is not some new fad or program but rather a return to some long forgotten roots of our faith, to an understanding of who are as people of God endowed with spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit which we are commanded to use for the salvation of our souls and the world.

If you’ve ever asked yourself why you don’t feel fulfilled as a Christian maybe its time to make your faith real, alive, active, and more than Sunday morning. The bottom line is you get what you put into it and too many Christians are missing out on incredible things simply because they’ve been hanging out on the sidelines.

If you’ve ever thought how come churches sometimes turn on themselves and people get nasty just remember that idle hands are the devil’s workshop and people with nothing else to do have a vacuum inside that can be easily filled with dark things.

If sometimes you wonder how the world got to be the way it is stop complaining, light your light and make a difference.

If you think Liturgy has become routine try getting involved, sing where you can, follow the prayers and make them your own. Come expecting to give and discover that in doing so you still receive.

None of what has been said is about condemning you or making you feel guilty. I struggle too but that doesn’t mean what the Apostle Paul said to that church in Ephesus so long ago isn’t true, then or now. There is so much more to this faith, this Christians life and more than anything else I want you to know even a taste of it because if you do you’ll never want anything less again.

When I was a Baptist and it was time to move ahead we used to say “It’s time for us to get off our blessed assurance..”

Is this our time?

Moments in time...

It's annual meeting time again in the Orthodox world, the time to take stock of things, go through the numbers, and plan for the year ahead.

The truth is most Orthodox would rather do a hundred prostrations on broken glass than go to the annual meeting. They can be painful, protracted affairs where every bit of dirty laundry, simmering feelings, and lunacy may surface. People who haven't given a dime or a moment to the Parish can suddenly show up with "deep concern" over something their slightly more devout cousin or uncle or somebody said was going on. To get out in under two hours is a distinct blessing from heaven.

Part of that, of course is our own fault. We Orthodox have created a church in this country that is hyper-clericalized with lauds poured upon overworked clergy and passive spectators taking it all in like folks at a football game or a show. Into that idle void the devil contructs a workshop and the annual meeting is one place where the spectators feel like they can give their opinions and fulfill their need to matter in a most perverse sort of way.

I do believe if Orthodox people were truly knowledgeable, involved, and growing in their faith 99 percent of our problems would disappear. They would understand by doing and being. They would be learning and growing instead of watching and stewing. They would feel fulfillment in their calling and not be so quick to wreak havoc on the work of others.

We Priests would benefit as well. We could be what we were called to be, a player coach of the team rather than the performer behind the screen. By our teaching and prayers we could help those we care for be the best they can be rather than spend our days smoothing over pathologies (including our own). I have seen both sides of the coin, the hyper individualism and anarchy that marks so much of the life of protestant churches and the lock step hierarchy where a few lead and hope others follow. Both miss the mark.

It's time for change and a return to balance and the revolution starts when all the people of God turn back to the sources and learn again from our Tradition what it means to be a church.

Taint so McGee....

You know that whole story people tell to warn people about ignoring danger, you know the one about a frog who will jump out of a pot of boiling water but won't if the temperature is increased slowly until its boiling? It's bunk.

I suppose that makes the sacrifice of the frogs worth it.

That being said it still takes a disturbed mind to even think about casually boiling a live frog.


A little too much exercise...

Started to get back to exercising this past week with the whole herd of lemmings now flooding the health clubs (most if not all, including me, will be gone by July) and decided to do the rowing machine (piece of cake for a kayaker). Well I did a number of my back and every morning I look like the picture above left to right as things stretch out and I begin to walk upright. If I had been so injured due to prostrations then maybe it would have been worth it...


Couldn't help but laugh...

As quoted from the Dick Staub www site.

"Outside of a dog, books are a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
Groucho Marx

First Things...

I think I need to give up the Drudge Report for a while.

I like the links to various columnists but the whole site is turning in to an online version of the National Enquirer. I suppose that's what happens when you turn your web site into a business. You have to find and attract customers and so you mix up a little hard news with a little wierd stuff to make it happen.

It's sad but true. Being a journalist in the major or mainstream media doesn't mean you're any brighter or more enlightened than others (although sometimes they like to think so). It basically means you look good for whatever group the consultants say must be attracted and can read well. But actual expertise is not necessarily required. This is very true in religion coverage where reporters with college degrees and time and money on their hands still consistently make errors of the most basic kind.

Many bloggers are actual experts in a particular field or have an ability to gather information and learn that puts the make up encrusted TV types to shame. The big guys like to derisively paint a picture of some of the these folks as sitting in rooms with the shades drawn in paranoid delusion hammering out feverish column inches wearing tin foil hats. But often that's just about fear of not being the great OZ of information pulling levers behind the scene to inform the hapless masses. For years no one caiught the condescension that dripped down on us every time Walter Cronkite closed his newscast with "And that's the way it is..." because there were no alternatives. Now there are and OZ is not happy especially when people expose them clumsily trying to manipulate reality in a way they routinely took for granted in the years past.

So the www and blogs are a form of media democracy where voices that don't fit the narrow vision of larger, more established, media (or state controlled media) are made available to the public. The lady on the TV is now only as important a transmitter of news as she can prove herself to be and it may be that the voice of some person in a far away land actually has something more important to say and now finally has a chance.

The problem, of course, is that there really are people wearing tin foil hats typing out feverish column inches out there and active on the web. And people with axes to grind, deviancies to advance, or just snake oil salesmen out to make a buck are lurking in the hidden corners of the internet. Their very anonymity allows them to purge themselves in a public sphere with little consequence.

So reader beware! You may think something is the way it is rooted only in how it plays on Google without remembering that Google can be manipulated by the skilled for their own ends. Behind that nice page layout can be a person barking mad or just trying to make you panic for their own ends.

When I started this blog I had a purpose. Tired of the endless reporting of scandals, the half truths, the revenge seekers, the manipulators and the just plain wierd I thought it might be nice to have a blog that pointed to solutions other than the usual "give me money or power and everything will be alright." I believed then and still do that the core answer to the human dilemma is a matter of basic alignment. Human beings, myself included, have aligned their lives to things that cannot heal, cannot make whole, and cannot satisfy. We need a teacher to help us, a savior to rescue us, and hope to enlighten us and all can be found in Jesus Christ.

I've never been under the illusion that the Church, or more specifically the people within Her, have always been the best, the brightest, or lived Her greatest ideals. I haven't and the older I get the more I see how hard it can be sometimes to live the Christian faith. But that being said the ideals still matter, they're still worth the struggle, they still are the hope of the world. When I stand before people and serve the Liturgy or preach the Word I stand not as some perfect example of my own teaching but as someone who has fallen often yet still believes and tries to transcend my own limited understandings of things by seeking the life that is found in Christ.

If you see this in my blog I'm doing my job.


This week's sermon in advance...

January 7th, 2007
The Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner

This Sunday marks the feast day, the synaxis of St. John the Forerunner, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the bridge from the old covenant to the new.

For Orthodox Christians the word “synaxis” simply refers to a gathering together of a group of people or the people of God gathered for liturgy. Thus we will have a synaxis of saints where a group such as the Saints of America or a group of martyrs are venerated together or a special day, like today, when the people of God gather together to collectively venerate a Saint.

Today we call to mind St. John the Forerunner, popularly known in the west as John the Baptist although he has no specific connection as founder or theologian to the group of Christians who identify themselves as “Baptists”. He is also not to be confused with St. John the Apostle.

He was, instead, a prophet identified by Jesus in Matthew 11 as the greatest human born of woman and the person who embodied the spirit and ministry of St. Elias thus confirming the word of the angel recorded in Luke chapter 1 who appeared to Zacharias while he served in the temple and predicted the future ministry of his yet unborn son; the announcement of the arrival of the Messiah as predicted by the prophet Malachi.

St. John may have been a Nazarite all of his life. The first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke records that the angel Gabriel who announced his mission also said he was not to touch anything made of grapes, which was one of the ascetic practices required of those took the vow of purity and dedication to God as found in the book of Numbers that identified one as a Nazarite. In addition Nazarites did not cut their hair or touch the dead. After St. John the most famous Nazarite of the Bible was Samson, the judge of Israel and legendary strongman.

St. John’s family was Priestly and his birth was, like Samuel’s, the product of a supernatural intervention by God as his mother Elizabeth was past the normal childbearing years. As the words used to identify family members in the New Testament do not have the same precision as those we use we are certain that St. John was related to Jesus through Zacharias and Elizabeth’s family ties to Mary but we are not sure of the precise details. It is likely that St. John and our Lord were cousins.

At some point in his life St. John left his family and went to the wilderness where he urged people to repent of their sins and be baptized to purify themselves in anticipation of Christ’s return. We know he had wide influence and was known not simply by the people but by the religious leaders of his time and the political rulers, especially Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who feared his condemnation of his illegal marriage even as he respected his prophetic ministry. St. John also had disciples including St. Andrew and some even thought he was the Messiah although St. John vigorously denied it.

After the baptism of Christ, which we celebrated on Theophany, St. John’s ministry begins to fade away. Numbers of his disciples begin to follow Jesus and in the final year of Jesus ministry St. John is jailed and then executed. The man who was born six months before Jesus, his task being fulfilled, dies, according to some traditions, six months before our Lord’s crucifixion. His small group of disciples take away his remains and bury them. Various Christian groups and even followers of Islam claim to have relics of the Saint in their possession.

The details, though, of his life are significant only to the extent they capture the spirit and the life long focus of St. John. He himself understood his mission when he said of himself in respect to Jesus “He must increase and I must decrease…” In that he shows the deep desire of his heart for Christ and a profound sense of humility which allowed him to lay aside his own renown.

The life of St. John the Forerunner also reminds us of one of the central teachings of our Orthodox faith, namely that our lives are supposed to be in a continual process of being transformed with a goal of being so filled with Christ that the line of separation between Our Lord and us grows smaller with each passing day.

Like St. John the Forerunner we must decrease and Christ must increase. In an age where self-fulfillment is the be all and end all of existence this call to die to ourselves and live for God is starkly countercultural and often places us at a radical discontinuity with the world around us. Yet it’s also the source of human fulfillment at its deepest and most basic level.

Every day a new thing comes into our world promising to fulfill the need we have inside and very few of us ever get the irony that whatever else this new thing is it is most certainly the replacement for the last thing that made the same claim and failed, an endless line of broken whatevers extending back to the dawn of human history and the first piece of forbidden fruit which promised much but left the bitter taste of death in our mouths.

The whole world has the jaded, tired, look of a race that’s “been there done that” and still finds itself hungry and thirsty and needy and broken at its very core. Yet as hard as it may be sometimes to swim against the current the secret is still the same “He must increase and I must decrease…”

We struggle with this, of course, because we fear the end of ourselves even as we wish for something better. But as in our prayers, our worship, our acts of mercy, love, and justice we take small steps towards the light we also begin to understand in some small way that the reality of Christ in us is what makes us most alive, most real, and most human in the best sense of the word.

The world has changed in many ways since St. John, looking rough, ready, and very prophetic wandered the hills of the Holy Land. But that truth remains. Jesus must increase. I must decrease. And as this happens I will know life beyond the illusions of this world.


Just a reminder...

Just a reminder.

Pat Robertson doesn't speak for Orthodox Christians, in fact he doesn't speak for the majority of Christians of any kind. Some in the media like him for the same reason they like car wrecks and so his public pronouncements on his alleged conversations with God about this and that make it into the news.

If they'd bothered to actually ply their craft and do a little leg work they would have discovered that Pat Robertson's views reflect a tiny and shrinking sliver of Christian thought in this country and most of us just cringe when we hear him talk or take on the same attitude of polite understanding we'd use when granpa farts really loud in the living room.

Enough said.


Oh by the way...

On the other template there were what kind of looked like upside down crosses on the right side of the design.

I changed the template so people wouldn't think I'm some secret member of the Illuminati.

Really, I'm not.

Like Groucho Marx once said "I'd never join a club that would accept me as a member."

Another year...

I think I was in bed around 10 pm on New Year's Eve as is my tradition. A nice conversation with my mother at her house, a phone call from my sister freshly arrived in Italy, and then home, chips and dip, and bed.

New Year's Day, or as we Orthodox call it the Feast of St. Basil, was a day of rest and more food although I do very much enjoy the Liturgy of St. Basil and wish there was a way to serve it in LaCrosse.

Regardless these past few days have been a time of discovery about myself. What a real piece of work I've turned into!

Case in point. I've purchased a comfortable car that we can afford with space to haul and upright seating that allows me to travel without the bursistis in my hip acting up. The car is even nice looking. The ABS stops it straight and true and the traction control makes it nearly impossible to slip on ice unless you actually try. But all I can do is obsessively stare at the gas guage. No use my wife telling me its okay and the financial work out. Even more useless is having a Priest friend of mine explain how cars are tools for Priests and a certain amount of comfort and safety is a good idea even if its doesn't get Prius like numbers on the road. All I can do is stare at the gas guage and find the one questionable thing in the whole vehicle, and even that number 25-30 mpg is great for a small SUV.

I'm afraid I've lived so close to the bone, so tight, so much in fear that I have no way of accepting a blessing or enjoying a good thing without freaking out over some small detail. Thrift is a virtue but I've become so untrusting, so ungrateful, and so ascetic in the worst sense of the word that I'm beginning to become the worst kind of Scrooge, the one that thinks combining thrift, guilt, and morality is some kind of godly thing.

I always tell people every sin is a good thing twisted and yes its a good thing to live simply, and share your wealth but I feel like I'm turning into a joyless, compulsive, nag who can't take a blessing without beating myself up or trust for the future when its out of my control anyway.

Just pray for me.

I sometimes wonder...

I noticed the other day I had a visitor to this blog from Iceland, a country, by the way, I really would like to visit.

I wonder what they, or the folks in Brazil, or the www surfer in Tasmania think about all of this.

I suspect they're probably just surfers who hit the "next" button and arrived at my little soap box, but still all are welcome, even if they're just passing through.