Getting to LaCrosse should be okay, just get on the road early enough in the morning and beat the storm as it crosses through Minnesota in to Wisconsin. The ride home, though, will be another thing, long, tedious, eyes always on the road, and everything at the mercy of the weather. The car is as prepared as it can be and everything will just have to unfold as it does.
We may think, sometimes, that we are, by virtue of our technologies and skills, the masters of the world we walk in. This may be true in a certain way. All along the river road I'll be transported by things that 200 years ago may have seemed like magic. But nature still charges her tolls and nothing, not even the best things we can design, escapes its grasp. If the weather says "Go slow" even the best car still must go slow.
So, we'll see how things happen, pray for the best, and head south along the Mississippi.
As fall fades into winter highway 61 empties of its tourists and all that are left on the road are locals, those who use the road for commerce, and occasional travelers south. The speeds have approached the posted again and the run to LaCrosse has shortened. All in all its a very good thing, except, of course if your business was about the potlickers.
Potlicker is a family term, from my wife's side, for people who drift along the road at whatever speed they choose, usually slow, as they gawk at the scenery. Along the river road they lead caravans of cars up and down the hills, people trapped by roads too narrow and winding to pass and the person leading the way at a speed somewhat less than posted.
They're a mixed blessing at best. For those who have places to go and things to do they're a nerve wracking obstacle. For the people who live along the road and make their living from tourists they're slow rolling cash machines prone to stop at every antique store and gas station on route. Avoiding them means traveling in the small hours of the morning or late at night. I choose the day as I never tire of the scenery and so I drive south and hope I miss them.
But these last few weeks the trees have gone bare, the sky has grayed, and the temperature has dropped. The summer tourists, the ones who sought vistas and a day on the river watch football games now. And the fall tourists, those who basked in the magnificent colors have trickled away. Only those who love the stark beauty of leafless trees remain and travelers with places to go and truckers carrying their wares along the winding river road.
And I drive alone with my thoughts and whatever is on the radio. Full speed ahead.
The feast, celebrated on November 21st, commemorates an episode in the life of the Theotokos recorded not in the Scriptures but in the Protoevangelion of James. In this story the young Mary is taken to the temple and presented to God. The tradition then records her living in the temple until such time as she was engaged to Joseph who was chosen by lot to be her husband and protector of her virginity.
The story records, as well, a procession of young girls, led by the Theotokos, into the temple where they are received by the priest Zacharias, the one day father of John the Forerunner, and her being taken to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the temple. While there God touches with her with supernatural grace.
The tale is touched with sadness as well. For even as they know they doing that which is right and holy the Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, follow behind the procession with tears in their eyes at their separation from their only child.
Like many of the pious stories of our Orthodox faith the central issue is not in the details so much as it is in the meaning. The details of this event are unique, there is no way to verify them outside of the sources themselves, and there is no need because it is the “why” that matters more than the “how”. These stories were treasured because they reflected a desire of the faithful to know more about this amazing and holy Mary , the mother of our Lord. They reflect the veneration the early Church had for her and it tells us the veneration of saints and luminaries of the Church was not some addition to the Apostolic faith but rather an expression of it.
But the veneration of the Mother of God is more than simple honor for its own sake. As is always the case the most sincere form of veneration is imitation. Our prayer states “Calling to remembrance our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious lady Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God”.
The story of the Presentation of the Theotokos records the child Mary coming to the temple in joy, and in a like manner we should come to this our own small temple not begrudgingly but with the desire to be in the presence of the holy. As Mary was dedicated to God throughout her life, so we should also live as people dedicated to God. Joachim and Anna knew that the greatest gift they could give their child was the gift of being in God’s presence and our children should have this gift as well.
Suffice it to say every detail of the story of the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, and indeed of all the feasts of the Church, could be unpacked with implications for own lives of faith and our call to commend ourselves and each other and our whole life unto Christ. Each one is far beyond a ritual thing rooted in centuries of habit. Each is a call to learn and grow and become what God wants us to be individually and as a parish and we do well to pay heed to them every day of our lives. When we do we begin to understand what it means to be Orthodox.
In 2005 our credit rating was over 800 and when our credit rating was examined yesterday it was in the high 700's. The culprit? We actually paid off and CLOSED several accounts and apparently paying off credit cards and closing accounts is NOT good for your credit rating! The loan officer told us it was actually better to keep a number of accounts open and simply slice up the credit cards and then proceeded to offer us a credit union card so we could BOOST our rating by having another account. Amazing.
And they wonder why there are credit problems in the US.
The day, the last Thursday of November, was set aside by President Lincoln as a day both of thanks to God and penitence for the sins of the nation as well as a call to care for those affected by the Civil War. Apparently the President forgot to check with the ACLU before he put pen to paper!
Our venerable old building, built in the early 1900's and on whose premises St. Raphael of Brooklyn walked, is getting much needed repair inside and out.
Notice that the building is very unlike the design of a traditional Orthodox Church and resembles, in fact, a Protestant country church. Even the older members of the parish do not know why the immigrants who built the parish chose this design. Speed of construction? Desire to assimilate? Cost?
All we know for certain was the land in this area was first used by lumber mills, lumber being the first large industry of LaCrosse, and then was the area of town settled by Middle Eastern immigrants who were gathered together into a parish by then Bishop, and now Saint, Raphael.
The times have ebbed and flowed and for some decades the building was used only intermittently by traveling Priests when there was a need for special services in LaCrosse. Over time a hodge podge of various projects were undertaken to clean and maintain the facilities and now, by the grace of God and the generosity of the parishoners our special "old lady" of a building is getting cleaned up, fixed up, and gussied up.
Oh if these walls could only talk!
Do I love God?
It’s a question I ask myself sometimes and it causes me to think.
I believe God exists. I believe God matters. I believe that God is uniquely manifested in the world in Jesus Christ. I know I need God and want God.
But do I love God?
I’m not talking about the emotional syrupy kind of stuff where people get together and sing pop songs with the word “baby” replaced by the word “God”. Emotions are part of love but they never define it, they are never its substance.
I’m not talking about needing God or wanting God. So much of our modern definition of love is about having someone in our life who can meet our needs or hungers, but that’s not love, that’s manipulation, and it doesn’t matter whether God or somebody else is involved.
I am talking about authentic love, the kind where those who love each other enjoy each other’s presence for its own sake, where they strive to grow together, make each other the center of their existence, and are incomplete when they apart. It’s the kind of love we all hope for, even for a moment in this life, a love beyond the emotion of a moment, beyond the meeting of a temporary need, beyond even the beauty of the erotic, a union as it were, of souls.
But do I love God?
I would have to say “I’m not sure, my reasoning has been so clouded that I’m often not certain what real love is.” If the truth was known it’s more than likely my relationship with God is 99.99 percent God loving me with very little in return. But I know I want to love God. And I know that something inside me says that it’s what I was meant to do.
I know that without a love for God my life, my faith, my religion is merely ritual without substance, like a marriage where everything is gone except for the routine. I know God created me with the ability to respond with love to His love and in its absence I am empty, I am less than human and all I do is meaningless.
I know, too, that my love is tainted with selfishness, ambition, an eye to my own benefit and the feeding of my never ending hungers. I rarely love for its own sake even though it’s what I know should be. I seek others out for my own needs and give back when it is mutually agreeable and even more so with God. My list of demands for heaven is long, my list of sacrifices miniscule.
Yet I know as well that God’s love is so profound that it can even enable me to love God truly in return. I can humbly ask “God teach me not just to recognize you, or obey you, or come to terms with you, but to love you” and God, in love, will work with me, overcome my faults, enlighten my darkness and slowly but surely guide me to where I can truly love God in return for the love that has been given to me.
I suspect in these days that God has many who claim to speak for him and act in his name, many who study him, many who poke through the tea leaves of time and history to discern his presence. All that may be well and good but is it possible that God is actually looking most of all for people who will love him?
I believe this may be true, and God granting me grace I am going to try.
After my brother died I told my remaining brother that in our family we have "big hearts but not good ones" and the shadow of these two early deaths, my father and brother, has become part of our life. A co-worker of mine is in her middle 50's and looks like she's in her late 30's with aunts and uncles well into their 90's but we can't seem to make it past 60, not my grandfather, not my father, and not my brother. And I suppose that even though I've inherited most of my genetics from my mother's and not my father's side, the clock is ticking for me as well.
Yesterday's reading for the morning prayers in the Orthodox Study Bible was Psalm 90 where the writer contemplates the brevity of life and asks God for the kind of wisdom that comes from understanding our days are numbered (v 12). I'm trying to learn this because that wisdom often comes at a very high price, a cost our family has incurred not once but twice.
I remember someone once joking about how religious older people were by saying "It's because they're cramming for final exams...". But the truth is that test is often a surprise test, a pop quiz that comes when we least expect it. The only way to be ready is to live as Christ would want and make every day count.
In a family full of bum tickers that's more than a platitude.
I call it the "chilling time" because for a week or two I literally get the chills as my body adjusts to the new lower temperatures and my brain gets used to the dark. The brightness and warmth of summer is gone and the color of fall has faded and now only bare trees, cold winds, and early sunsets remain.
Christmas (Nativity) saves this time of year with its preparations, its lights, and its joy. But I can see how my pagan ancestors would make the emergence of the sun at the winter solstice a holiday. After all how depressing could this time have been in the wilds of northern Europe in the days without either lights electric or the light of Christ? It must have seemed a dark vision, like the end of the world.
An irony of it all may be that this warmer climate cycle we're in actually makes it all a bit more bearable. I can recall in years past being snowed in on Thanksgiving but today the forecast is for nearly sixty degrees with sun and so I can at least take a walk and get outside. I may even do some chores outside the house after work so we can get things buttoned down before winter sets in with a vengeance.
And set in it will...
When the saleman from the paint contractor came to us he assured us that it could be done quickly and even in this cooler weather. And I wanted it done. I wanted it done so it would nice for my next door neighbor who plans to sell his house in the next few months. I wanted it done so that I wouldn't have to cram the work into my own crowded schedule. I wanted it done because in the Priest business your house should always be in good repair as you can be one phone call away from it being on the market. I wanted it done because I wanted it to look nice.
And I spent a good amount of money on it all, more than I paid for my first few cars. Now its mostly done but the upstairs windows are still covered with plastic, the window frames are unpainted, the basement windows are still undone as are some of the soffits and all of the facia. Yesterday it snowed, just a tiny bit, and that means time is running out and so is my patience.
I still struggle with the balance between speaking my needs and patience. Where is the line between not being anxious, trying to see the big picture, and trusting and making that phone call to get things that need to be done completed? The truth is it takes a while for me to trust. I've been burned too many times and that history has made my window of trust very small. People have a short amount of time to follow through before I close the door and when that door is closed it's more often than not nailed shut. I'm on the edge with these folks right now and I want to see some paint on some places without it before too long or I'll take that big step over.
And I know I need to be better than that. I need to be wiser, more discerning, less vulnerable to being jerked around by people and events. I hate the part of me that relishes the opportunity to send a nasty note and make someone's life a living hell by badgering them. I hate that when it happens to me and I hate when I feel like doing it to someone else. But I hate being played for a chump as well, of being marked as a person to whom things can be done and considerations not given because they won't do anything about it. And all of it has made this encounter with the paint contractor just a pain when I had hoped I could just send a check, wait a few days, and have everything handled.
I guess that's why we always pray "Lord have mercy..."
It was an early morning (4:30 AM) drive yesterday, south on Highway 52 to Interstate 90 through deer country. It's fall and deer are in the rut, moving across the countryside at sunrise and sunset. It's hard to drive for any distance without seeing a deer splayed on the side of the road, the victim of a car.
Something puzzles me. Whitetail deer are swift, possessing of keen eyesight, an enhanced sense of smell, and the ability to hear a twig snap at distance. Hunters seeking deer must be stealthy, cover their smell, and often spend long hours in a single place nearly motionless. So what is it about cars, loud, fast, and bright with lights that seems to defy them? What makes this normally hyper vigilant animal such easy prey for something so obvious?
I'd like to think that somehow after more than a century of cars they would have figured it all out. And I have a picture in my mind of a bambi kind of scene where the wise old deer speaks of the dangers of cars in hushed tones to a rapt audience of fawns. Alas it is not to be and as the road descended from the prairies into the river valley on the shoulder lay a buck in full horn and strength, dead. Sad.
But here's an idea, perhaps a radical one. What would happen if devout Christians simply opted out of our culture's notion of Christmas and practiced the Church's?
"Impossible" you say and I would respond "Why?" "Well, there's too much hype, to much commercialism, too much of that syrupy music." And I would say "Are you that weak that some advertiser somewhere can so easily pull your strings?"
Now in some parts of the Muslim world people would riot and kill off a few dozen people to respond to a challenge to their sacred days. That's off the option list for Christians even through we do have some folks trying to ride the "the culture is attacking Christmas" bandwagon to notoriety and financial success and ironically aping the commercial culture's desecration of this day by still making the season all about their needs. The truth is that if we feel strongly about this sacred season being hijacked by a morbid commercial culture we simply need to start actually approaching it as Christians and not Americans.
Start slowly by cutting down on the gifts and ramping up on giving to the poor. Decorations don't have to go up right after Thanksgiving and if you can't find your way to fasting at least say no to a cookie once in a while. It's about a change of focus towards the One whose arrival we celebrate and away from ourselves. towards the truly hungry and away from our own shallow cravings, towards the celebration of Christ and away from self indulgence.
You see the reason the holiday has been polluted is that for too long Christians have been willing dupes in its desecration. Oh we may gripe a bit when Christmas displays are up in October, or earlier, but we're there shopping with the rest of folks and buying in to it all. What difference does it make to complain about the holiday being removed from the schools or government offices when the true spirit of the holiday has long ago been removed from us? What right do we have to expect the pagans to be more faithful then we are?
The actual truth may be that we really do enjoy the chaotic consumer mess that Christmas has become in this country. We have come to accomodate ourselves, as we have in so many things, to the dictates of a broken world and that brokenness has become normal, even desireable to us in the same way that addicts enjoy their terrible pleasures. But if there is a part inside of us that still thinks something is wrong about it all, that there must be a better way, we should quiet ourselves and listen. Perhaps we may discover in that silence a still small voice challenging us to something better, something more holy, some more real about the season soon upon us.
That may make all the difference.