A Passing Thought...

I was reading an article today from somewhere, probably a link at Relapsed Catholic (an interesting site for social commentary from Canada but like most social comment sites long on critique and short on solutions) and a question from one of the articles popped into my mind.

Why do we let everyone else tell us how to be Christian? I mean activists of all kinds who would fight tooth and nail for the right to be exactly who they claim to be and demand accommodation from the larger culture seem to have no problem demanding that Christians act in whatever way they determine is "christian" even if it has nothing to do with actual Christianity.

You've heard it before. "If you were really a Christian you wouldn't be so judgemental.." (which usually means you should shut up and not say anything about whatever it is they're doing). To which most Christians seem to say "You're right, I should be quiet because after all what I believe is private and personal and so on and so on..." Doesn't anyone ever pause a second and say "Hey, you want me to keep my faith, my ideas, my lifestyle private and personal but you have no problem at all with shouting everything you think and do from every street corner and working hard to enforce your life on me and the whole world and besides all that you have the chutzpah to tell me what it means to be a Christian?"

It just seems odd that we let folks who don't like us, don't know about us, or sometimes are very hostile to us define how it is that we should be "christian". No, we don't have to be a pain in the posterior but at the same time we've got nothing to be ashamed of either. The life that is offered in Christianity is good and right and healthy and makes things better for people and for societies that embrace its ideals. And we have every right to say "You know what, I'm not going to let you tell me how I have to be a Christian. I'm not going to give you the power to define my faith for me or tell me how I should act in the world because, quite frankly, you have no interest in my being a better Christian at all, you just want me to accommodate whatever it is you're up to and you hope you can shame or silence me."

It's called back bone folks.


A Little Packer joke...

A man went to a Green Bay Packer football game with a friend and noticed that the seat next to him was empty, a rare things since games are usually sold out years in advance. He asked the person on the other side of the empty seat why no one was there. He said the seat had been his wife's but she passed away. The man, feeling a sense of pity, asked "Isn't there any one else you know who could go to the game with you?" "No", he said, "They're all at the funeral."

That one is for my uncle who postponed his wedding date to make the Packer game...


Larry Norman Now and Then...

There are more Christian contemporary artists out there then you can shake a stick at and yet the man who pulled the load, endured the harsh critique of unthinking minds, and tried to reach people for Jesus by using music they would listen to is still at 60 (?) the best...

Thanks Larry.


Converts and such...

From time to time one hears in Orthodox circles that dreaded word "convert". Usually its used an adjective to describe a person in the Church for example "So and so is a convert Priest..."

In some ways its sad the whole idea of people coming in to Orthodoxy by conversion is still so unusual in many places that a term has come to be used to describe those who do. It's not unlike a scientist naming a new species. Yet I've never heard, for example, someone described as a "convert" to the Assembly of God, or a Baptist Church. While people in those communities and others like them are sometimes referred to as a "former" this or that I believe the lack of the word "convert" comes from the understanding that someone coming from the outside into a community of faith is normal operating procedure and so there is no need to use a special adjective to describe them.

Regardless, two things need to be said.

First, all Orthodox are converts. Having generations of family within the Church is a blessing but it means nothing for salvation if the person does not themselves embrace the faith. There are no grandparents in Orthodoxy, no special privileges based on heritage, and no guarantees that come with simply being part of a family or culture with a long history in Orthodoxy. Each person must believe. Each person must work out their salvation. No extra credit is given for simply being born into an Orthodox family whether that family has been Orthodox for centuries or months.

Second, when people come in to Orthodoxy from wherever they originate they are real Orthodox, as Orthodox as anyone who's family has been in the faith for centuries. There is no two tiered system based on longevity or ethnicity. Faithfulness matters. Longevity helps because it gives time to develop faithfulness, but it carries no value in itself and ethnicity can be valuable in the sense that a person lives with the advantages of Orthodox culture but without true faith it means nothing.

Some day, I hope, the word "convert" to describe certain people coming into Orthodoxy will simply fade away. One day we'll realize that Orthodoxy is a faith, a way of life and transcends all cultures, a universal thing possessed by all who embrace it and not limited to any group or nation, in fact it is the one lasting nation and people, the Kingdom of God. One day we'll return to our original missionary vision and see people coming into the Faith as the most normal of things, as normal as a tin of warm baklava. Some day no one will stare when new people walk in our door or find their way home in our parishes.

Until then we have this teaching moment, a window into the truth of our Faith in these matters thrown open by those who come in to our Parishes seeking that very faith and by doing so help us to grow in ours as well.

And then the rains came...

After a long period of hot, dry, weather the rains have come, several showers and then a whole weekend of near constant rain.

Driving down Highway 61 in the early hours of the morning I was just south of Rollingstone, Minnesota and headed towards Winona when firefighters and their equipment filled the southbound lanes. No one was getting through. Nearly a foot of rain coursing through the steep valleys had rendered many roads impassible and towns like Stockton and Minnesota City were flooded.

Seeking an alternate route I drove through Rollingstone to Altura and then south, essentially attempting a loop around the flooded area. Traveling on Winona County highway 33 I came up over a hill and discovered the road below flooded with a torrent of water the color of coffee with cream, depth unknown, and cascading into the valley like a small water fall. Back in Altura they told me there was no place to go, the roads were closed.

I decided to head back towards Highway 61 and hopefully go north to Wabasha and then cross over and travel down the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River to LaCrosse. A stop again in Rollingstone confirmed, though, that a small road, Winona County 25, was still open. Steep and winding it had not yet been flooded and following it I could make it south to Interstate 90 and then east to LaCrosse. My car, which whatever flaws it may have is a champion in foul weather, climbed the winding route out of the coulee to the top of the bluff. Police in Lewiston just north of the Interstate guided us through a a road still under construction and then on to the highway.

Traveling along the Interstate through the rain and fog I could see the trees in the ditch. Trees have this amazing ability to cling to the sides of bluffs at times sticking out nearly horizontally. But the constant rain had loosened their grip on the thin soil and once loosened gravity did its worked and took them, and any stone they held in place, to the side of the road. They really mean it when they put "Beware of fallen rock" signs on this stretch of the road.

Arriving in LaCrosse behind schedule I discovered the power was out, but the people still came and we served the Liturgy "old school" just candles and no way to heat the water. The fervor of faith was in our hearts. With Liturgy completed I returned on the Wisconsin side crossing over to Wabasha in Minnesota and on to home. For my part all was well but at least four people had died, washed away in their cars.

And its still raining.


Another good reason...

Another good reason to visit Jihad Watch, perhap the best site on the net for news and analysis of the ongoing efforts of some Muslims and Muslim groups to establish, by many means, a global Islamic culture. Jihad Watch is probably the only place where you can get news from around the world on this topic, links to resources, and scholarly analysis.

There is a caveat, of course. Comments are often unmoderated (there are so many and it would be impossible to handle them all) so there are folks who really are "____ the towelhead" types and they should be ignored not only for their factual ignorance, (the majority of Muslims are not Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims), but also for their attitude which is not Christian. We are called, as Christians, to pray even for those people who would violently challenge us and perhaps condemn us to life as second class human beings and racism or hate denigrates who we should be.

That being said the site is a real eye opener and a treasure house of much needed information that has often not been found in the mainstream media for many reasons. We need to face the threat of an armed and militant Islam with knowledge, wisdom, and a commitment to our values and this site gives us not simply news but also scholarly insight into the history and teachings of Islam that is sorely needed.


Two years on the road...

Yesterday as I concelebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. George Church I also marked the second year anniversary of my ordination as an Orthodox Priest.

In one way its not important at all. It's not that the grace of being a Priest is unimportant but rather that I was not a person who absolutely, positively, had to be a Priest and would hold my breath and turn blue if it didn't happen. The truth is that I was very happy as a Deacon and if tomorrow my Bishop chose to laicize me I would simply go back to my local Orthodox church as a layman and find a way to serve. Being a Priest is a great gift but it was never a necessary thing for me to serve or minister. If for some reason I couldn't have or chose not to be a Priest I would have just done something else so in that sense its not that important.

The truth is that being a Priest is more about having tools to serve in a way that I couldn't without those graces. That's what makes the difference. Grace has been given to me that I can, in fact that I must, share and so I can, for example, travel to Fargo, North Dakota and baptize and go to LaCrosse to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in ways that I couldn't as a layman or even a Deacon. Whatever I've been given is so it can be shared and if, for lack of a better term "more" is given then the potential for service expands. While that makes it sound like I view the whole thing in a sort of utilitarian way it would be good to read between the lines and know that to serve requires a certain sense of passion for it all and that flame still flickers inside even on the days when I am most tired and the road wears long. I believe that what I've been given matters and that often makes all the difference.

That being said the hardest thing about being a Priest is internal. The calling is so high and I am very aware of the myriad of ways that I don't measure up. People say nice things about me and kiss my hand but many times I think "If they only knew..." No I haven't killed anyone or run off with the choir director but to be in the presence of holy things is like shining a huge flashlight into every dark corner of my soul, the places where the dirt gets swept just out of sight of most people. I cannot claim blissful ignorance and I know how far I have to go. That is disconcerting.

The best things about being a Priest are the moments that touch your soul. Standing in the presence of holy things can be powerfully convicting but at the same time there are moments of great peace and heavenly calm in the beauty of the liturgy. There are, too, those unscripted moments of interaction with people in which they minister to you and express their gratitude for what you have shared with them. A few days ago I was speaking with a parishioner and they told me how they were making the letters for our outside sign. I said "If you want why not just buy the letters commercially" but they said that when they make the letters by hand (and this person is skilled in craftwork) they pray for me. I can go for days sustained only by words like those.

It's good, too, to see those moments when people "get it" and start to make sense of things or themselves or the world. I believe that Jesus is who He said He was and that he offers the only real sanity and salvation in the world. I believe that people will not just be fit for heaven by encountering Him but also live a better life in the present. When they see that, when they understand that and the "lights go on" it makes the hours and travel and such worth every bit of it. The world can be crazy and dark but the light is never overpowered by the night, never, not now or ever,

Sometimes I wish I'd get a phone call from the Bishop saying "Fr John, I've decided to return you to the Diaconate..." But that's mostly just my fatigue coming out, my body and soul saying I need a vacation (and one is coming in late September). On the whole its been a good thing and I'm glad that I circled the altar even as I am amazed at how quickly time has passed. I'm grateful for the prayers that have been offered on my behalf and the patience that people have shown me as I learn my craft and perfect my calling. I look forward to the day when my travels end even as I am convinced that they were and are what is needed for my parish to become what God would have it to be. The vestments still sometimes seem to weigh on my shoulders like a ton of bricks but my heart is often light. One step at a time I'll just keep walking...

Miscellaneous Thoughts...

I took a look at the date for the last post and realized that it's been a while.

Most of it has to do with just being busy. Things at work, things at church, life.

We filled half a ten yard dumpster last Saturday with excess stuff from St. Elias. It's amazing how much stuff accumulates even in a building that's tiny by the standards of most churches. Some of it was about being frugal. Some of it was about being afraid of offending people by throwing stuff they gave or made away even if it was broken or had long since stopped being useful. All the toys are still there even though a good deal of them are in tatters because who wants to be the one to tell our handful of children there are less toys even if they'd probably never notice? Some of it is also probably a kind of cluttered way of being that comes with being a small church in a run down section of LaCrosse.

It's interesting, though, to see how people positively react to clean up and getting our little building back into shape. For its extremely small size and complete lack of functionality for a modern, and by modern I mean anything after 1950, parish it still has a charm buried beneath a pile of stuff that once unearthed is revealed. A few flowers here and there, a coat of paint, a repair or two and the place looks at least serviceable and reminds the older members of better days. Regardless, its a step in the right direction, a mark of progress to be able to root around inside and lighten the load.


The past few days have seen some welcome relief from the high temperatures that mark a typical July / August in these parts. It's normal around here for it to be hot for a few days and then to have a good sized thunderstorm come through and wallop the place while trailing cool air in its wake. But for most of July we had the heat without the storms and things were getting brown. A couple of thunderstorms later and even the grass is starting to recover, and so are we.


My boss at work retired this past Friday after nearly 20 years service. That in itself is unusual in the human services field. Normally we stay in the field but just swap companies every few years when stress or corporate politics or sheer fatigue burns us out. At conventions its usually the same old faces and only the name tags are new. 20 years in one place is amazing and with her departure an era ends and the time for corporate policy changing has begun.

Sometimes it really is necessary but I think a lot of times policies are changed not so much for greater efficiency, although that's given as the reason, but rather because in this world there is a hunger to leave a legacy and absent a way to truly do that or the understanding of eternity that undergirds so much of the Christian sense of what really matters, we settle for a few lines of policy in the company manual as our mark on the world. But its still just treasure on earth where moth and rust do cause decay and where the next person in your office will undo everything you worked so hard for the second they get your office.


I've been noticing, too, how tired I've been lately. Part of it is the heat. Much of it is the work load.
Tired is now the baseline for me and I barely remember what it was like to be refreshed and completely awake. Yet I've been sustained and that makes all the difference because the cause of St. Elias is a worthy one and with just a bit more work we can start to find our way up and out and on our way...


Hedonism and disease...

An article from England where research is showing increases in illness due to our increasingly pleasure seeking lifestyles.

Could it be that all that stuff about moderation and morality is actually true...?


Pure Minnesota...

A story about the Minnesota Gambling Board and the regulation of "Cow Pie Bingo".

Yes, its real!

A Bridge Too Far...

As you probably already know a bridge through central Minneapolis collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River. The 35 W bridge is, perhaps, the most traveled bridge in Minnesota as commuters from both the northern and southern suburbs cross it to get to downtown Minneapolis or simply to pass through town. Apparently the years of heavy duty in all kinds of weather extremes were simply too much and at 6:05 PM it gave way. As morning breaks in Minneapolis we'll get a more exact number of dead and injured and our hope is the figure is small.

At a point in the past I don't recall something changed inside of me. I don't get rattled by tragedy in the way that people sometimes do, demanding that God give account for why He didn't prevent this horrible thing or that from happening. Bad things happen and I've simply come to realize this and even as I wish it weren't so I've stopped shaking my empty fist at the sky.

The world is broken, and I don't always know why, and may never know why. Things people make, things people do, people themselves, are flawed and mortal at a primal level and yelling about it seems to be as helpful as bashing your forehead against a brick wall hundreds of times. Your efforts will yield no answers and your pain will only increase.

What matters seems to be my response. Will struggle and tragedy make me hard and brittle or will it transform me into something better, something more human, something more like God designed me to be? In the face of chaos and the struggle for meaning in it all that's one thing I can control, a little bit of sense when things seem to be off the hook.