Of course its Monday, the day when good Priests are supposed to take off and rest a bit but I have two jobs and so every day is a work day. The boss was sick today and will be tomorrow so it looks like I'll just keep moving until someone yells "Stop!" Busy is still better than bored.
There are the usual things on my mind, people in the hospital, all the calls I should be making but can't. This traveling thing has its own tradeoffs. We have more money now then ever and we're spending it on things that really need to be done but I'm away and so many of the normal pastoral things just fall through the cracks or I try to catch up on Saturday and Sunday if I can. As is usual I'm just plain tired but somehow I find a way to make it through. No complaints, though, because I knew this was how it was going to be when I signed on.
The truth is I have much for which to be thankful. Yes, it would be nice to have the money and people and facilities of a larger church. And for sure it would be great to drive a few minutes rather then a few hours to get home. But the people of St. Elias are good. Sometimes when a parish gets small the people do as well but there are a fair amount of folks at St. Elias who really do want something better for their parish and they're willing to work hard.
We're just in the process of refinishing the basement at St. Elias and the members who've worked on it have done a magnificent job. Everything up to date, walls fixed, new electrical, the works. I hope this is a more then just a renovation. I hope the people see what they, when they give their hearts to God and their hands to work, can do. There's more to fix and more to clean but the Ladies Group, just restarted this year, is getting busy on the kitchen and I anticipate this to be a summer of building and growth. Boy would I like to have a benefactor or a lottery win to kick it all into high hear!
My hope is that the people of St. Elias will keep on pushing forward. My fear is that somewhere along the line they'll lose hope. May angels protect us! Anyway I need to make calls tomorrow and start working on the Liturgy. There will be snow to shovel and lots to do at work. My cat is already asleep on the bed and I should be too.
Lord watch over your flock at St. Elias through this night and in all the days to come. Have mercy on their sinful Priest, and establish us by Your grace.
March 30, 2008
There are crosses, it seems, everywhere in our culture, on the sides of roads, around people’s necks, on bumpers and buildings everywhere. Rock stars wear them as bling, cemeteries have them for hope, and bikers wear them as tattoos. A cross inspires veneration in one and loathing in another. In art they sometimes become masterpieces and other times the visual expression of an artist’s contempt. They are simultaneously present in many places and banished from the public square. They are everywhere found and seldom understood, even by those who claim the faith they symbolize.
So what is a cross?
In its origins the cross was a tool of execution used by cultures before them but perfected by the Romans. It was a junction of two pieces of wood roughly in the shape of the letter “t” designed to promote a lingering death by torture and asphyxiation with a maximum amount of public spectacle for those sentenced to die under Roman law. Its effect as propaganda was immense because it displayed Roman authority and the consequences of rebellion and this is probably why the title “King of The Jews” was written over Jesus’ head in all the common languages of the region as a reminder of what would happen to those who defied Caesar. The savagery of this method of execution was so profound that it was inflicted only on foreigners, Roman citizens like St. Paul, no matter how great their alleged crime, were executed by a swift beheading.
And it was because of Jesus’ death on such a device that representations of it became the predominant symbol of Christian faith. To the early Christians the meaning of what occurred in that death transformed what the larger culture certainly saw as a representation of a dishonorable life and end into a symbol of victory, life, and hope. Although the earliest Christians already possessed an iconography of various symbols, lambs, fish, the good shepherd, none had both the power and depth of the simple representation of two lines crossed. We Orthodox continue this veneration of the cross because we see what the Romans had perfected for torture as the very place where our Lord voluntarily gave up his life and in doing so broke the ultimate power of sin and death and in doing so provided a way for us to be restored to union with God.
The cross for us, as Orthodox is not a place of punishment where an angry God, offended by our sins receives a sacrifice sufficient enough to turn away his wrath. The cross is not the place where Jesus stepped in to deflect the angry blows of God directed towards us. These images are understandable because this is what the Romans designed the cross to be; an instrument of punishment, but it is not our Orthodox understanding.
When you see a cross in the Orthodox setting you see Jesus, not flayed and tortured like in the movie “The Passion of the Christ” but already dead, peaceful, and remaining full of grace and power. Certainly the sufferings of Jesus were real but we, as Orthodox, already see beyond them as Jesus did and we are aware of the timeless significance of those hours on the cross even as we see Jesus’ body at rest.
We know that where others see defeat and death we see victory and life. Where some may see another triumph of the Roman empire and the religious leaders who brought Jesus to trial we see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the aftermath of conquering everything that has kept we humans broken and apart from God. Even as Jesus’ lifeless body is on the cross he is entering the realm of death and pillaging it, removing all who would respond from the grip of hades. The thief is already in paradise and hell shudders.
The world sees powerlessness but we see the most amazing display of power. The world sees brokenness but we understand that healing has come. The world sees the strength of darkness, but we know that in three days time a light will come that can never be overtaken by the night. In that cross we already see the seeds of the resurrection and so even in the middle of this disfiguring moment there is hope.
And from all of that a well of gratitude should spring up in us. God in love entered our world to teach us how to live and out of love voluntarily allowed himself to endure suffering and death so that its ultimate power could be broken and we could be restored. Even sin and pain and death are not so powerful that they could not be swallowed up in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. One day we will know this for ourselves because in union with Him even death can never have the final word on our destiny.
In this middle of Lent, when the novelty of the fast has grown cold and when, if we are facing our sins a kind of weariness may set in, we have this day to look into the distance and see the cross, the tree of life, and take hope. In a few short weeks we will be singing “Christ has risen from the dead trampling down death by death…” and knowing that alone you will understand the cross we venerate today.
Anti-war protestors interrupt an Easter Mass at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago by yelling and spilling stage blood on the nave and worshippers. Catholic churches have experienced any number of such assaults by activists of various kinds and as you watch the video note that the Cathedral, perhaps from past experience, had hired private security guards anticipating just such a possibility.
There are a growing number of people who feel it's their right to protest larger social issues or individual items of church policy or doctrine by using worship services as stages for their grievances. Interestingly this seems to be a phenomena, at least in this country, directed almost entirely at Christian churches. I've not heard of a story where a group of protestors, for example, stand up and interrupt Muslim prayers to make a point. Perhaps it feels "edgy" to invade a parish and desecrate the service (especially knowing the congregants aren't likely to fight back) or maybe these are just folks who see themselves as above the rights of others because of of their perception of the righteousness of their cause. Certainly there is a double standard at work. Imagine the outrage if a group of observant Christians stood up in the middle of a service of the Metropolitan Community Church and protested in the same way as the Rainbow Sash folks do every year in your local Catholic parish!
Regardless, we Orthodox should not expect that we'll be immune from these attacks and desecrations. We live in an amoral time when the basic common sense rules of decency don't seem to apply from Congress to classrooms so why should a parish be immune? The truth is that one day our own vision of faith and its implications for people's lives and the greater society, hidden for decades under our ethnic cloak, will become known and we will be a target as well.
Expect it but don't be afraid. Attacks like these indicate the desperateness of the attackers. Having failed to convince people, and sometimes themselves, by rational argument they seek ever more dramatic measures to make their point. Why would a mature, self confident, gay person feel the need to wear a rainbow colored sash and disrupt a worship service? Why would people supposedly arguing for peace feel the need to harrass the very people they are trying to convince? In that uncertainty action replaces introspection and inflicting onself on others becomes a form of validation when the normal channels are insufficient.
It may also be that God is allowing a little fire to come our way to burn away the flabbiness and help us to be who we were meant to be. Having been given all the priviledges of American law and society it is safe to say that we American Christians, certainly we Orthodox, have accomplished only a tiny fragment of what we should have with all our blessings. We, and I, remain self absorbed and in many ways identical to the larger materialistic culture around us. Perhaps we need some pressure, certainly I know I do, to help us put aside lesser things and direct our lives to things higher. In an off beat way these sad, desperate folks interrupting services may be a kind of prophet, their own actions and character warning us of things to come and calling us back to that which matters.
What do you think?
Some of you of my vintage may remember Ken Curtis who played the nasally deputy Festus to Matt Dillon in TV's "Gunsmoke". Well, that man had pipes and worked as a singing cowboy in the movies, with the Sons of the Pioneers, and as a solo. He's passed on now, but if you like cowboy music take a listen. By the way, are you as shocked to discover this as I am? The best equivalent I can remember is the magnificent voice that came out of Jim Nabors who played the nerdy hick "Gomer Pyle" on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC.
For the most part I am appalled at media's coverage of religion. There are few reporters willing to do the leg work to go beyond the stereotypes and many who seem to approach the topic the same way a child approaches a plate of brussel sprouts. The complaints, especially from the religiously observant, about bias and incompetence in the media regarding religion are mostly true.
This story is an example of that, although the ABC radio journalist did mention after the fact that the Catholic Church frowns on the practice of self crucifixion. What was important was not how many millions around the world were commemorating the death of Jesus but rather what kind of bloody freak show they could dig up combining both an attempt to snare the gullible into listening while also conveying contempt for Christianity. If you have the patience don't be suprised if a story like this leads the news next year as well.
That kind of shoddy work is why I almost always start my day with a quick peek at www.getreligion.org , perhaps the single best www site out there examining the way the media covers, or fails to cover, religious news. GetReligion asks the important questions and evaluates the data in a professional and thoroughgoing way and especially now in the Lenten season when mainstream media outlets deliberately seek out controversy, sideshows, and heretics to cover it can be a most valuable place to get some focus.
That's not unusual, though, because even as the daylight grows and the fierce northwest winds subside the snow still comes. Thick flakes today, wet with moisture and covering everything in a coat of white. By tonight most of it may be gone because the weather and the change of seasons cannot be denied but still in the small hours of the morning there is a kind of beauty to it all, a memory of the best of winter.
Being the stoic folks we are we often find ways to rationalize about the weather. In winter when the snow falls deep and travel becomes messy and the pace of our lives unwinds we often rationalize it all by saying "Oh well, we need the moisture." It's our way of coming to terms with a nature that's bigger then us and our own fragility in the face of it all but right now it's actually true as well. We're pretty dry. Most of the large snow storms this past winter have journeyed south of us into Iowa and through Illinois, nicking the edge of Wisconsin as they pass. We're below average, water wise, and every bit of wet we get will make a difference months from now.
There is a double blessing in a March snow. In a dry time it brings vital water and no matter how much we get in March there is a different sense about it. A March snow still brings things to a crawl, still messes up our lives, still makes everything inconvenient to us as defined by our current "gotta have it now " culture, but its different. A foot of snow in December means we have at least two months to deal with it. A foot of snow in March may be gone in two days. On occasion tulips will show their leaves right through a March snow, and our own hope emerges as well. Spring is coming and nothing snow can do will change it.
Apparently not, and therein lies a lesson. Some time ago I heard a Christians speaker named Tony Campolo and among his comments was his belief the Christian life would be worth living even if there was no heaven.The story above is a case in point. The ancient wisdom of those Christian traditions and texts stressing faithfulness, chastity, and marriage, far from being some less enlightened notion, are proving to be the way of health and wholeness as disease responds to our lack of inhibition. Nothing but the Christian life will ever stop the ills of our indulgent and godless culture and even if we don't see ourselves as "religious" thier truths are still inevitable.
That all being said it's been one of the discoveries of my life as I grow older, how the Christian path just makes sense, how it flows with the rythms of nature and how its call to live in the world and with others is the way not just to eternal bliss, but to true contentment even in this broken world. How realistic Christian faith is, how practical, how life enhancing, how deep a well it is full of life giving water! My life is most at rest when it flows within this Faith and most troubled when it flows away because these truths were built into the very design of things by the Creator. And so it is, or at least should be, for the world as well.
Throughout the winter as the deer and the animals cross the roads they can fall prey to passing cars and trucks. Thrown violently into pieces they die and freeze and often get covered with snow. In the woods beyond others follow their natural course and pass away. The God who sees sparrows falling remembers but we care little and soon forget; until spring. As the snow retreats all the places where these animals were entombed are revealed again, deer with lifeless eyes peering from shrinking snowbanks, raccoons resting places uncovered by the growing sun.
And it is at this point, when winter has come to the end of its course and those animals who have endured are gaunt with it's scarcity that the feast is revealed. In the course of things fresh meals emerge with the lengthening daylight and between the harshness of winter and the renewal of spring there is enough to make the final push through to the thaw. Coyotes and crows, eagles and weasels and anything from bear to bug are fed by an invisible hand as death gives life in its timeless way.
Such is the way of things along the bluffs and in a hundred hidden coulees where the roads and the land and the river intersect. Such is the way of things, death giving life, in a more profound and heavenly understanding, as Lent blankets the world.
I started this blog not knowing for sure what I was attempting to do and only certain there were things I'd like to say and perhaps it would be of some value to record life on the road and whatever thoughts came to me along the journey. I wondered if it were perhaps a bit pompous to think that what I had to say even mattered.
Along the way the blog has been kind of a diary that I share with whoever drops in, the book I intended to write but never quite got around to doing, and a log of the miles and people and miscellanea encountered on the road from St. Paul, Minnesota to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. It's rapidly approaching three years now of travels to St. Elias Church, three years of seven day weeks, three years of motels and its been an adventure. When I get older people make think I'm making it all up, some kind of "Fr John story" they can politely dismiss as an old man's fancy.
I've wondered, sometimes, what I will do if and when I ever actually live in the same vicinity of the parish I serve. What will I call the blog when there are no more travels? But right now its Monday night, I'm a bit road weary and getting ready for the First Sunday in Lent. Home seems like a long way off and I might have to make the run for who knows how long until I finally find it.
Until then I'll just keep traveling and writing and hoping that it blesses whoever comes along to read.
Privacy matters, the ability to know that your life is free from undue scrutiny is a bedrock of a free society. Quite frankly this current administration has, in my opinion, significantly eroded the protections that ordinary citizens have from government and corporate interests having access to all kinds of details of our lives whether there is just cause or not. The current strategy of protecting against "terrorism" by leaving borders undefended and large parts of our commercial infrastructure uninspected while increasingly invading the privacy of people just trying to go about their lives seems to have left sense behind.
Someone once said that those who choose to give up their freedoms for security will end up with neither and government, with corporate cooperation, is in the process of making that nightmare come true. Sadly very few in the political class seem to care about this and the issue still hasn't made it above the horizon in the current campaigns. Too many people are focused on the details while the foundations are slowly being hacked away. What 's actually more important, that people have some help with a mortgage or have the freedom to live their lives without some government hack taking a cruise through your private life whenever they feel like it? Do the math.
He called the Council President and in his best hacking, sneezing, sick, voice told him that he was sorry but he was just so ill and although he really wished he could be there he just needed to rest and so he couldn’t serve that day. When the call was over he got into his clothes, slung the bag over his shoulder, and headed to the golf course.
Meanwhile in heaven the angels were watching the whole thing and reported the matter to God questioning Him as to what he was going to do about Fr. Peter. God calmly replied, “Don’t worry, it’s handled.”
Arriving at the golf course Fr. Peter stepped to the first tee, placed his ball, and swung. The ball exploded off the tee, straight and true over the entire length of the fairway, took three hops and plopped into the cup, the shot of a lifetime. At this point the angels were deeply puzzled. Didn’t God see what had happened and had He forgotten about what Fr. Peter had done? Sputtering and incoherent they asked God why he allowed a hole in one as a reward for such deeds.
God replied “So who’s he going to tell?”
It's important to remember that whenever you read about a lawsuit the coverage will be about the initial charges, the claims of the plaintiff packaged to make the most emotional impact possible. It's a strategy to gain publicity, sympathy, and in effect make the opening arguments of the case long before it actually comes to court. This effort is enhanced by the fact that many defendants, unlike plaintiffs, are bound by privacy laws which don't allow them to divulge information that would exonerate them before trial or the simple fact that a news story can come into play before a defendant has even read through the first documents of the case.
My guess is that in a couple of years when both sides have been heard the claims, as they often are, will be much less dramatic, hammered down to size by the cool process of law.
First, in the matter of sheer body count its probable the officially secular and athiestic regimes of the 20th century probably have the honors. The mechanized and systematic killing of the century past simply has no counterpart in human history and resembles something more like an epidemic illness in its gross killing power then the battlefields of even the prior century and certainly less then the supposed "dark ages".
Second, one needs to do some critical thinking and analyze the actual causes of war. There are many cases where religious belief was used by the prevailing authorities as one way to legitimize a particular war, and certainly people who were personally devout have fought in wars and perhaps even seen their involvement as a form of devotion, but not nearly as many cases where religion itself was the actual cause of the conflict. It is probably a fair criticism to say that too often religious groups have lent uncritical support to governments as they embark on wars but even that support does not mean a given war's source is religion, just that religion has allowed itself to become a tool of the larger effort to support a war. A small bit of rational investigation yields the conclusion that war is the sad result of many causes and effects and rarely is it so simple to say that "religion" is the single source of any conflict and often its not even a contributing cause.
The point in this is to help a person think beyond the sound bite and if you can they usually see the complexities of history and discover that a phrase like "More people have died in wars caused by religion..." is simplistic and functionally useless. It's also good for Christians to not be afraid of people making such claims because many who make them are simply regurgitating something they've heard over and over and assume that the repetition of an idea is related to its veracity. A little information beyond the sound bite can sometimes make all the difference.
As for the antagonist who just like to throw things like that in your face to justify whatever it is they're thinking at the moment just remember pearls before swine and such and walk away. That they feel this is some kind of conclusive argument against religion indicates a kind of shallowness of thought that should only be encountered if there is some reasonable hope of growth. If not, you just argue in circles and time and energy go to waste. Let your life do the debating and the Holy Spirit do His work. The harshest critics of our faith often make the best proponents when grace comes calling.
This past evening I was reformatting and loading my own IPod, a 30gb U2 signature edition I purchased because it had a last generation price. A quick look at the playlist shows I have a lot of Mozart, a whole bunch of Orthodox chant, and then anything goes from the Ramones to Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers, and Nat King Cole. What does that say about me? Maybe I'm a bluesy sort of classical chant guy who every once in a while likes to rip it up with best punk band ever. Who knows?
Some things, though, are certain. I find the playlists on most commercial radio to be garbage, whiney pop singers or rap music, country singers who haven't a clue and millionaire rockers complaining about the darkness in their lives. So I like the ability to pick and choose, to not have to take what they think is best for me and like it. Perhaps its that, and not the songs per se, which reveals the most about me. Somewhere in all the craziness of the world I want at least some little world where I call the shots and control the switches. Maybe that's why IPod s are everywhere.
And so it is with the Kingdom of God.