Filed under "I couldn't resist..."

From the Green Bay Packers and www.packers.com

On the Prowl...

Got a ticket yesterday, actually just a warning.

Just north of Frontenac, Minnesota on Highway 61 I saw a State Trooper pull up fast and turn on the red lights. I was puzzled but pulled over. He asked me if I knew how fast I was going and I said, "About 55 or 60." "Oh, and did I know that I had an illegal license plate bracket?" (That would be the one the dealer put on the car).

When the Trooper came back it became clear that he didn't know my speed either but I had apparently passed someone on the road that had been going 55 and so I must have been going faster. Oh, and when I get home I should probably take that bracket off the car.

My guess? It's around New Year's and the Troopers are out doing some intensive checking for drunk drivers. If they stop you, even if they really have nothing (or something as silly as what they determine to be an "illegal" license plate bracket) they get to check things, your car and you, out and dig a bit. When he found out I was stone cold sober, and have been for almost three decades, hadn't had a ticket since 1984 and generally so boring that my local Red Cross calls me all the time to give blood, he gave me a warning so I got out of it and he saved face.

Better luck next time.

Sometimes its obvious...

You know when you've been staying at a hotel for a lot of weekends in a row when THEY send you a Christmas card! Got it in the mail a few days ago.


Nativity Eve Homily...

December 24, 2007

Many years ago around this time of year I would read the story of Christmas from my grandmother’s Bible. It was the King James Version, with all the “thee’s” and “thou’s” intact and words like “holpen” and the classic “my soul doth magnify the Lord…” There was something about reading that most wonderful story in a kind of English now far removed from the banality of every language. There still is.

And the story itself is wonderful, profound, full of angels, shepherds, and wise men coming from distant lands. Imagine what it must have been like to see the sky lit up with angels in the small hours of the morning! How can a heart not be drawn to that first cry, the sound of the king of glory entering his own world in a humble cave. Truly all the artificial and commercial trappings of this time pale compared to the simple richness and depth of that night recorded by those who came to know and love Jesus.

But the greatest wonder still remains, not in the details, but in the why of it all. Why would God do this? What compelled God to come to this little blue circle in the depths of space and pay us any heed at all?

Our faith tells us that God has no need we can fulfill. God is complete in His Trinitarian unity, fully self-sufficient, perfect within himself. To survive we humans need each other but God has no such need for any other than himself.

And frankly it should be noted that our record as a species on this planet has been remarkably less than stellar. Had this world been created without people it would still be a pristine paradise, it’s inhabitants living without preying on each other in a garden of plenty perfectly created and maintained for life. No one can argue that God would, having placed us here, be perfectly just in simply speaking a word and destroying everything to rid his creation of the pests we have become.

Yet God chose to create, and God chose to create us. And then when we had become the most serious kind of nuisance and by our sin infected the whole of what he had made, he chose again not to destroy us or abandon us in an endless cycle of brokenness but rather came to us in the most humble of ways, a million times more profound than a human becoming an ant, to save us from ourselves.

There is no reason for this that any human can fathom. But in the glimpses and shadows we do observe we can at least partially understand the existence of a kind of love, awesome in its magnificence, unsoundable in its depths, a love that the keenest intellects and holiest souls only see in the smallest of fragments but yet is real and perpetually reaching out to us from the very heart of God.

There simply is no human equivalent to this. It eclipses us. It shatters our feeble attempts to comprehend it. The appreciation of even the smallest bit of it can pierce our soul and tear every bit of darkness out of us. And if by some measure of pride or hubris we think we may possess it, it humbles us and we stand in a place beyond words, capable only of awe.

It’s the “why” of this night, as St. John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” This love is what makes this night holy. This love is the gift beyond all others. This love remains the song of angels calling us to the hope of hopes and the star that leads all who are wise to Christ.


A Bit of Christmas Humor...

Next Sunday's Homily in Advance...

Sunday of Geneaology,
December 23, 2007

When I was first seriously inquiring about Orthodoxy I remember attending liturgy and hearing today’s Gospel comprised mostly of a recounting of Jesus’ ancestors. I have to admit my first thought was probably, “What an odd Gospel,” difficult to chant, almost like reading the phone book. Certainly there would seem to be easier texts to preach from, especially this time of year.

And for the most part when preachers approach this text they do it for scholarly reasons, seeking out and explaining, for example, the differences between the genealogy in Matthew and Luke. Some focus on the order and number of the listing. It’s also very common to pull individuals out of the list and do homilies about their lives. Others will speak of how theologically and socially these lists were important to the authors of these Gospels.

Those are all good reasons to read the text and good reasons for the Church to include it in Her ancient cycle of readings. To know the Scriptures requires not simply reading easier texts and avoiding ones that take a certain amount of work. All the Scripture was approved by the Church and all is worth reading even if the message is not immediately clear and the first question is “Why is this important?” To be Orthodox is to be a serious and inquisitive student of Holy Scripture.

And my own ponderings of this text helped me recall something very important in this text, something that underscores all of the content of the New Testament and the stories of Jesus’ life. The scriptures contain many kinds of literature ranging from poetry to apocalyptic writings like the books of Daniel and Revelation, from love songs to historical accounts, ponderings on the nature of things to individual tales of courage and more. One can often see the form of the literature simply by reading it. The Psalms, for example, are poetry and liturgical hymns, the book of Esther is a historical tale designed to draw out faith and trust in God, while Job, not a historical book, is a drama of man pondering the meaning of tragedy and faith.

In this very beginning of the New Testament, of the stories of Jesus, his followers are, by placing this genealogy at the head of the text, locating the story of Jesus not in some mythical place and time but directly in human history. Jesus is a real person with a real family who really existed in time and space as we know it. After all isn’t our family our first and primary place in history? In the context of our family we enter this world and rooted in it we live our lives and in the end our family is more than likely the only vessel that will carry our memory through time. Our spot in the family tree marks the fact we were truly here.

Some decades after Christ’s resurrection there would be a group of heretics called the docetists who would deny that Jesus was real, a human being. He was, they would say, a kind of being that only appeared to be physical. Later skeptics would look at history and observe that in some places and times there were myths about women giving birth to gods and that perhaps the story of Jesus was just another one of those tales. In our time there are those who would say that perhaps there is a core of “history” to Jesus but most of what we know of him is the product of pious embellishment by people long distant from his actual life.

To each of these St. Matthew and the whole of the New Testament would say “No, he had a family, he walked among us and we saw what he did, heard what he said, touched him, saw him die, and then witnessed his resurrection. We knew his Mother, met his relatives, ate with him, prayed with him, traveled with him along the road, and our lives were transformed by it all. This is not about once upon a time in a land far, far, away, but about real time, real people, real places, and real history. It’s not, as the writer of the Epistle of Peter would say “cleverly devised fables,” but about what we saw with our own eyes, what really happened, this is history, remarkable for sure but ever so real. You can even check the genealogy”

And there is a confidence in this for us as we live as Orthodox Christians. In our day and age it’s fashionable to think of religious belief as a story we invent to help us become better people or perhaps cope with our fears and inadequacies. But our story is not a human invention. Those who witnessed it and passed it on were very careful to include names and dates and places that were easily verifiable to those who first read them and even to history. They did this so others would understand all of this not as something created in the desperation for answers but rather as the recounting of how God in mercy came to us and how we can truly be transformed because of it.

Next year, if our Lord does not return, you will hear this reading again. And when you do let it, in the recitation of the names, call to mind something far greater, the truth that all we will hear about Jesus, beginning with this story is real, and because of it so is our life of faith and our salvation. And as you ponder that everything about this holy season will change for you and you’ll never be the same again.


Death of a Church Mouse...

It is the custom for some at St. Elias to bring the Prosphora (the bread to be used in the Divine Liturgy) on Saturday evening and place it on a table in the sanctuary in anticipation of Sunday morning. In the past two weeks this has been the case and each Sunday morning as I came early to church to prepare the bread I have discovered the presence of our church mouse.

Apparently in the evening after Vespers is done and the church is quiet he (or she, who knows?) emerges from his home in our temple, climbs up the table and partakes in a single loaf of bread, eating his fill and then retiring for the night. On Sunday morning I arrive early to discover a small hole in a loaf with the evidence of mouse-like mastication. But this time I was prepared.

For those not from these parts you'll need to know that as the weather cools the local population of mice seek shelter, some finding it in outdoor burrows but many coming to reside in any building they can find. For the most part they're pretty quiet about things, running in the walls and shadows looking for scraps of food and pretty much staying to themselves. They do,however, leave little shall we say, "calling cards" wherever they live and being mice have the ability to settle in, adapt quickly, and respond to it all by having a family, a very large family. So I knew they had to go.

The truth is I'm not crazy about killing anything. Yes I know the chicken at the restaurant didn't commit suicide but I see the taking of any kind of life as something that's necessary but not part of the orginal plan if you get my drift. So when I have to I try to make it quick, painless, and never wanton. For mice that means what I call a "snappy trap".

There are sticky glue traps out there that snare a mouse and then hold him fast while he struggles to death. There are live traps that capture a mouse but then what do you do with it? Unless you have a fair plot of woods around any mouse you release just becomes someone else's problem and not many people consider giving a live mouse a definition of "loving your neighbor as yourself." The old fashion snap trap solves much in one fell swoop. No suffering on the part of the mouse and no wondering what to do with a live one. Just a swift second, a "snap" and then everything is done.

So before liturgy this morning I set the traps in the area where I thought our church mouse might be and since he had already developed a taste for holy bread I took a bit of it from the loaf he had already sampled and placed it in the trap. I didn't have to wait long.

About a half hour after everything was done and the upstairs of our little church went silent our devout mouse scampered out from wherever he was living and lured by the scent of prosphora stepped on to the trap. A quick inspection on my part of the traps just before leaving filled out the details. Now a new question emerges. How many mice are still with us? Being socialable critters the answer is probably more than we know. For even as our little church mouse may be, in his own unsuspecting way, devout he is no hermit.

Only time, it seems, and the two other traps laden with prosphora, will tell.

Highway 14...

Took a detour on the way south just to see some new country. From time to time its good to change the route to make the journey interesting.

By pure chance we found ourselves on Highway 14 in Rochester, Minnesota, heading east and decided to follow it all the way to Winona. For most of the run the highway was unremarkable, rolling farmland broken by small towns with names like Eyota, Dover, and Lewiston. But a dozen or more miles from the river the topography changed as the highway plunged down from the prairies and through the coulees.

For those who live in mountain country coulees are nothing much, not hills at all but rather valleys like the hollows of the Ozarks. But in our flat state they're the best most of us will do, our own little piece of pseudo-alpine country, a chance to drive the scenic twisties normally reserved for folks farther west.

Highway 14 winds out its run clinging to the sides of these coulees, stark in winter beauty, inaccessible for human use, and refuge for any creature who can adapt to them. At some points along the way you can see for miles as the valleys break steeply from the road leaving nothing but space between their sides. A few miles back the road snaked through farmland, domesticated, servile, and long broken by plows. But here there is still a memory of the wild, a place too steep for lumberjacks, too difficult for miners, and unsurrendered to any human implement. Rattlesnakes live in these valleys as they have since the last ice age and no one has ejected them from their towers.

In too short a time the houses reemerge, a few here and there, and then as the valley levels to the floodplain more and and more. Soon we're in town again with all its lights and comforts but curious minds can wonder what things have yet to be discovered, what caves remain hidden, or what wild thing remains wild just a mile or so back up the road.

At least I do.


Cold night...

6 below farenheit last night, looks like real winter is coming back. The weather report says snow today in southeastern Minnesota and Iowa. Could be a long drive to LaCrosse.

I remember winter like this. As a child I recall snow banks tall enough to require cars to have a bright orange or green ball on their antennas so we could see them from the sidewalk. On nights when the snow was deep and the sky clear the temperature would drop, sometimes well below zero, and everything became still. In the darkness houses with lights on glowed warm and the snow underfoot crunched beneath your boots. Every so often you could turn, look over your shoulder, and see the remnants of your breath floating through the air.

There's a romance to that but there is a truth as well. The truth is that I get older the charm of winter decreases. What was beautiful and serene in my childhood grows colder with each passing year. I can still endure it but the childhood joy of winter and snow only rarely resurfaces these days. I do what I have to do.

Some years ago I served a parish in Kansas and on the whole it was a sad experience, a small church that wanted nothing of the future, good people trapped in something they could not understand. But the weather, dry and clear, only occasionally dipping into the 20's, spoiled me, perhaps for life. I was willing to pay for the hot summers with an easy winter and even if that time was not typical it was set inside me as the way I wanted these months to pass.

I don't want to go to Kansas again but some day I'll retire to some place where winter is like that, not Florida warm and muggy but not frozen hard like here either. In time, everything in time...


Dhimmi Watch...

I've included in my list of links a site called "Dhimmi Watch" which is the product of the same folks who produce jihadwatch.org.

The term "dhimmi" refers to the status of non Muslims in a Muslim dominated society, generally a status of existing as people whose fate, for good or ill, is largely in the hands of the dominant Muslim culture. Dhimmi Watch documents things that you'll probably not see in the mainstream media, instances of Muslim cultural intrusion or dominance around the world and the effects it has on non Muslim peoples. Perhaps out of ignorance, laziness, fear, or that strange part of American culture that identifies with forces seeking its destruction the ongoing efforts of some in the the larger Islamic community to establish Islamic law and practice globally has often been ignored.

But we as Christians need to be aware of both our faith and what is happening in the world in order to respond in a Christian way and so I provided the link with a few caveats. The main person behind these pages is a scholarly type named Robert Spencer who appears well versed in Islamic culture, the Koran, and while honest is remarkably moderate in tone. Some of those who post comments on his site are not so gracious and this needs to be taken into consideration.

It's also not about instilling fear and hatred. The greatest defense of Christian faith is for those who hold it to know it and practice it. When we do we have nothing to fear and no one to hate. The stories presented in Dhimmi Watch are not to inspire racism or revenge but rather awareness and the call to pray for those in the Muslim world, for they are as much as we people God loves and for whom Christ died and rose again even if they consider that and us as blasphemous.

So read and be aware.

Interesting quote...

Picked this up while browsing over at Dick Staub's blog. "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future"

The Way of a Pilgrim..

For some time now I had been reading, in short bursts, "The Way of a Pilgrim" a tale of Russian Orthodox spirituality centered on a wanderer seeking a life of continual prayer. I actually found the book several years ago in a used book sale at a local public library and its been close by ever since.

At times when I read the book and others with collections of the desert Fathers or biographies of illuminaries like St. Macarius a part of me wishes for the same life of contemplation and ceaseless encounter with God. I suspect that I'm like many who feeled pulled in too many directions and would give much to be simply focused and directed. But even as I do I realize two important things.

First I have to recognize that some of this is just an urge for rest. It's not easy, sometimes, to live halfway between here and there, caring for a parish in one town and living in another. At times I wonder why God simply doesn't fill the people of St. Elias with such hope and inspiration that all their fears and struggles would vanish and their tenativeness would disappear. But to get to that place of peace and joy, a place where their hearts would naturally respond to the care and nurture of the parish, will take time and time means that for now I still need to travel. So the normal rest of proximity, of being in the place I serve, of returning home in minutes rather than hours following Liturgy will have to wait. And sometimes that desire for a time in the desert is just my body and my soul's way of asking for rest.

Then, too, I believe I would make a terrible monk. For a while it might be novel to live in community and pursue the life of a monastic but I know that it would wear off and then what? As much as the larger world has its shares of sadness and stuggle it is still, for lack of a better term, my home the place where I belong. I respect the conviction that causes people to flee the world but I do not share it. So what am I to do?

The truth is I'm not sure. In these issues of prayer and contemplation and the ascetic life I am an amateur acting almost entirely on a combination of scattered writings and instinct. Seeing the value of constant prayer and the call on my life in the world I have been trying, and mostly not succeeding, to fill in every open space with, if not formal prayer at least the Jesus Prayer or thoughts of godly things. I try to go to sleep at night with prayer and wake in the morning with the same. If I cannot fill all my day with prayer I feel I should at least attempt to fill all the cracks, the open spaces in a day's business, with heavenly things or at least to see the holy in all things. I presume that over time, as the Bible says, a little yeast will leaven the whole lump and what I do in bits and pieces will eventually become just the way of my life.

This all may sound pious but the truth is that I'm just at the very beginning, the point where I see the need and I'm trying to find a way. Most of the time I miss the mark, and that's not just the kind of "humble speak" we Orthodox are often so good at, it's the truth. All I know is that I need a different kind of life and by grace I want to find it, or have it find me.