Well it appears that text messages, those little quasi-sentences like "r u ok?" cost the various service providers next to nothing but that doesn't keep them from charging you a tidy sum to thumb them along. Basically the whole thing is a fad created by the phone companies to make bundles of money. My generation had the "pet rock" and these crazy kids nowadays have text messaging. Some things never change.
I've never been much of a New Year's person. As a child we would go to church on New Year's Eve for a program and a prayer meeting so I never had the whole wild party thing as part of my experience. I often don't even stay up until midnight. After all the year will change whether I'm awake to see it or not.
When I served as chaplain at a care center for men with addictions and mental illness I learned the Residents, long practiced in the art of inebriation, called New Year's Eve "amateur night" the time when accountants and other assorted varieties of "straights" tried to make it as drunks. In the weird world of street drinkers there's a perverse kind of pride in knowing how to keep the buzz going, what things to avoid, and how to live through it all including the next morning, knowledge the average guy with a goofy hat and a tipsy girlfriend just doesn't possess.
Wisconsin, too, is a drinking state. Crossing the river from the scolding moral Lutheran universe one discovers a different world just east of Minnesota, a world where there are often four bars on four corners and all of them open long after decent folk should be in bed. If Minnesotans do bad things and then enjoy feeling chastised for it people in Wisconsin have no such issues. Folks are more honest about it on the LaCrosse side of the river but that doesn't make it more safe. I'd rather not have to drive south in the wee small hours of the New Year to take care of a parishioner who has, shall we say, suffered the affects or worse yet was seriously injured by an amateur with too much booze and too little sense.
So it'll be my wife and I, my mother, and the cats, watching movies eating pizza and doing our best to keep off the streets. Time will do its work and while the party animals sleep and dream feverish spinning dreams we'll be up and free of headache.
Up here in flyover country we just get kind of stoic about it all. Nature is in charge and there's a few things we can do (like furnaces and indoor plumbing) and a whole lot we can't. There's nothing like six inches of snow followed by below zero temperatures to get a person into the proper perspective about things.
Anyway, up here in Minnesota we always say, "Well we could use the moisture..." and beyond the fact that we'd be stuck with the snow even if we were as wet as a tea bag, the truth is we really do need the moisture. Rivers, lakes, and fields will all get a needed dose when this melts off in spring and this matters because if the folks out in the country have a dry year the rest of us don't eat so well.
So the shovel is out, the snowblower is ready, and we're getting psyched for the long commute this morning. Just no ice please and we'll bear up as best we can.
For the past week and change I've been looking for the perfect amplifier for my electric bass. I had saved some money and wanted to "step up" but invited myself, as well, to a nightmare of my own making. Time on the internet, purchasing and returning, starting out with one moving to two others and then returning to the first. What I thought was going to be like a kid going to a candy store was more about obsession, disappointment, and the hangover that always seems to come the morning after the great consumer party is finished. I actually like my bass and the whole idea of it less.
The whole thing has reminded me, again, how there is not "perfect" thing, ever, and that everything one can buy is about shades of better or worse. I'm reminded, as well, that if I had pursued holiness, virtue, faith, or any number of good things with the effort squandered in the pursuit of a few notes of sound I would be happier then I am now, and certainly not feeling like I'd been ridden hard and put away wet.
And hopefully they won't ban me for life from Guitar Center for being so neurotic.
There are times when the pairings of the readings for any given Sunday seem peculiar and a reasonable person looking at them from the outside may wonder “Why are this Epistle and Gospel together?” “What’s the point?” And those questions themselves speak to something important about our Orthodox Faith. In Orthodox Christianity questions are not a sign of a lack of faith but rather an invitation to look deeper, into ourselves, our world, and that which we believe.
Our Faith has existed for over 2000 years and during that time its been scrutinized, analyzed, probed, challenged, and examined by its adherents and opponents, the curious and controversialists. We’ve done okay. We’re still here. And in all that time its probable the questions you may be struggling with have already been addressed.
Its important to know, as well, that the existence of questions shows you’re engaged with your Faith, that what you believe is valuable enough to you to ponder. Questions indicate a lively faith. You should be reading the texts, learning about your religion, examining the evidence, and seeking to work through questions to new insights. Every Orthodox should have a healthy curiosity about their Faith, their Church, and how what they believe impacts their lives. Someone once said “If you don’t ask you’ll never know” and this is especially true when it comes to your Faith.
Even the hard questions, those birthed within us in a time of tragedy and suffering, demonstrate faith. If one reads the stories of the Saints we see people who are often engaged in profound struggle with themselves, with God, and the world around them. In fact these struggles were often the arena where their holiness was formed, the precursor to the glory they experienced. Questions are part of theosis.
In that light what do these texts have in common? What theme may unite them and why did the Church link these over the centuries?
If you notice you’ll see a theme of exile in both. St. Paul receives the revelation of God and then finds himself in exile in Arabia safely awaiting the moment when the main act of his ministry is to begin. In the Gospel St. Joseph receives a call from God to take the child Jesus to exile in Egypt, a time of waiting and safety in anticipation of what this child would bring in the future.
This is a common theme of the Scriptures, the idea that before we engage in the work we are called to do God takes us to a place of exile, rest, and safety where we can learn, grow, and prepare. Moses, before he stood in the presence of Pharaoh, had his time in the wilderness as a shepherd. Elizabeth waited in years of barrenness before the birth of her son, John the Forerunner. The disciples of Christ walked with Him for three years before they were released to the world.
God has a call on each of our lives, a call on our church, things we must do, a purpose to fulfill. But often before the full flowering of that time there is a time of exile, a time when the purpose becomes clear, vision becomes focused, and everything extraneous is sloughed away. The time of exile, far from being a time of passivity and weakness, is actually a time when God is transforming us in preparation for what will be.
Now ponder this in the context of your own life and the life of this parish and you’ll begin to understand.
Read it all here.
In recent years there have been many attempts, sadly, by Christian clerics and even hierarchs to distort the teachings of Scripture regarding sexuality and argue for an ethic of permissiveness by dramatically misinterpreting the texts to support their arguments. Unfortunately people of traditional and historic faith are often overwhelmed by these arguments because the person conveys the authority of their office and appears to be intelligent. Dr. Gagnon is a scholar, familiar with the original languages and cultures, whose special area of focus has been the Scriptures and sexuality. His material is generally easy to read and thoroughly supports the historic understandings of Christian texts in the area of sexuality.
A special feature is the availability of many of his works in PDF format which you may save and copy for your own use and to help you not be overwhelmed when the nice man in the collar and a business card full of initials wants to convince you that it doesn't say what it really says. Although Dr. Gagnon is not Orthodox he is certainly "orthodox" in his understanding of Scripture and sexuality and I recommend his work as a valuable aid not only to help Orthodox Christians get into the Scriptures, which they should always be doing, but also to provide valuable information on these hot topic issues from a historic/traditional perspective.
My only suggestion is that sometimes the people on the coasts might want to check in with us folks in "fly over country" about how we deal with snow because unlike Seattle, we get a lot of it and know how to handle it. In our neck of the woods, a blue as can be state with a long history of environmentalism and lots of fresh water lakes, we use salt and sand and plow down to the pavement whenever we can. We figured out a long time ago that this was safer and more effective then waiting for the stuff to melt, which in our case means waiting for April, or using snow tires and chains which can, by constant use, beat up the roads. Quality of life is irrelevant if you're stuck in your house for a week or the ambulance crew can't get to you because the city is afraid some salt might get into the salt water.
We may be rubes out here in the middle of the country but at least I could, despite about a foot of snow in the last week or so, drive over to Caribou and get a coffee.
The world and I have aged and grown cynical together, buried in the details, counting the cost, worried about the future. It’s the great sorrow of growing older; you can stay up as late as you want and buy a car with your signature but you learn too much as well: Too much about life, too much about the reality of the human condition, too much about how things really are, too much about yourself.
Early on we learn to pretend, talking about life, where we are, who we are, and everything else with the practiced happiness that comes when we get a really bad sweater for Christmas. We do our part to keep up appearances and take one for the team all the while hoping that somewhere along the line we get a taste of the real thing, a moment or two when we are who were supposed to be, when the joy is real, and our hearts are alive.
Such is life in the frosty white broken world of these times. The sad truth is that its been that way since the first swallow of Eden’s fruit. We who were born to shine like the sun have few moments when we live as we were intended; the joyful creation of the maker of the universe. More often we pass through life as a mixture of thoughts, actions, hopes, dreams, struggle, and the nagging sense there is more just beyond our grasp.
And I want it back, that kind of primal innocence, the sense of meaning in the world, the joy of life. I want to possess what has always seemed to elude me. I desire to be somewhere in time before trees and snakes and walk with my Maker in the cool of a summer night. I’m weary of my brokenness. I tire of my frailty. I am exhausted by the restlessness of my spirit.
I must travel, not in the wanderings of life carried by the winds of fate, but directly, with intention, with perseverance, undistracted. No matter how the world as it is shouts at me, discourages me, or attempts to turn me to this side or that I must follow that star and travel straight on until morning. I must see Bethlehem in my heart and when I get there I will stand with the shepherds and see this great thing, this birth, this Christ that has come into a cold dark world so that nothing, and no one, will ever be the same again.
Then I will rest for as long as it takes, forever even, and my soul will be quiet, my innocence returned, and my heart released to live where no winter, of body or soul, can ever settle and the child I was meant to be fills even the oldest frame.
Read the rest of the article here...
December 21 marks the swing from dark to light, that is the daylight gets longer, incrementally of course, surely and steadily through June. Whatever cold lies ahead will, one day, have to give way because the sun cannot be denied. A local radio host likes to talk about the 21st as the first day of spring and calls people who appreciate this day "21sters". Regardless its kind of a coping mechanism up here and perhaps in the order of things is God's way of allowing the coldest part of the year to at least have the blessing of increasing light.
December 21, 2008
Sunday of the Genealogy
For many years performing at Carnegie Hall in New York was the sign of accomplishment as a musician. A concert at Carnegie meant you had made it into the highest level of your craft and showcased your skill at one of the most prestigious venues in America. Musicians and performers would sometimes just stand on the stage at Carnegie and take it all in because they knew they had arrived. Whatever else happened to them in life they had played Carnegie Hall.
It’s always been this way in every human endeavor. Excellence comes from the continual growth that emerges from constant and effective practice. The constant repetition of solid fundamentals forms the foundation for the development of an increasing level of skill. A great musician is made not when the spotlight is shining on the stage but in the hours of reading music and practicing scales. A great quarterback is built when they get up every day and throw footballs, again and again, until they can do it when someone is tackling them. Every carpenter of note was created by thousands of hours of being with wood.
And it is the same way with faith. Faith grows by practice, the repetition of the fundamentals, prayer, worship, study, praxis (which means the application of ideas to real life) and from that repetition the building of a foundation for increasing skill and technique. There are no shortcuts. If you wish to excel at your job or vocation you must practice. If you wish to develop a faith that matters you must practice it as well.
Now there are communities of faith that offer shortcuts. Some give in to whatever is prevailing in the culture and avoid the difficulty of practice and discipline by saying “Do whatever you want and be whatever you want to be.” But it’s the spiritual equivalent of saying “Eat anything you want and you’ll be healthy.” Others will point to a kind of experience, an emotional happening, and say “If you have this moment everything will be fine.” But that’s being a “one hit wonder”, great when your band is on top of the charts but not such a big deal ten years down the line.
For whatever else Orthodoxy is, it is honest. It tells us, ahead of time and always that the key to a living, growing, faith, to spiritual fulfillment, lies in the transformation of ourselves into the image of Christ and this requires a conscious and deliberate effort on our part, a willingness, empowered by grace and energized by love, to put in the time and effort it takes to be Christian. There are no shortcuts, no half measures, and no quick fixes. We must practice our faith, not just the glorious and wonderful things, but the everyday things, the repetition of the fundamentals that separates the adequate from the excellent.
Yet the irony of it is that when these things are practiced, these basics, prayer, worship, study, and praxis, the process of doing these things releases the joy and power of our faith just as the practice of any skill moves the task from drudgery into art. It’s one thing to go to church service and get your heartstrings pulled for an hour or two but imagine having a deep joy unrattled by the world around you. Practice your faith and in time it will come. It’s good to be here in worship, even if you don’t feel like it all the time, but as you grow in your faith by practice you’ll start to discover why you should be here, why these hours on Saturday night and Sunday morning are the fuel for your life. Practice your faith now and when times of trouble come, and they come to us all, you won’t have to learn important lessons in the fire of adversity because you’ll already have a reserve of strength and purpose to see your way through difficult days. If you wish to have a faith like the kind we’re presented with in our Epistle reading for this Sunday of Genealogy, a faith that can endure, empower, and even transcend death then start with the everyday practice of the basics.
Of course this is not always easy, being excellent in anything is rarely easy. But ask the musician who hears the applause from Carnegie Hall if it was worth all those hours of playing scales and reading music. Question the quarterback in the afterglow of victory whether it was important to get up every morning, watch film and throw passes. Think about the times in your life when people have extolled your skills and then ponder whether it was worth developing them. Then ask yourself, for the sake of strength for each day and in anticipation of heaven’s audience, if the practice of your faith will matter.
I think you know the answer.
It is a recurring theme, that so much of what you do as a servant of the church is out of your hands. You can do a marvelous job, and I can't always say that I have, and still see the same people staring back at you with the same glassy eyes. You can paint a picture for them of what they could be, where they could go, and what God could do through them, and the next Sunday you will see them, physically and spiritually, sitting in the same pew as last week.
All you can do is pray, hope, and do the best you can, and serve with whatever strength is left. Your average parishioner is a good person, sometimes a great one, who struggles with trying to be a faithful person in a decidedly unfaithful world. The spark that lights them never comes from you, it would be preposterous to think so, but only from the Holy Spirit who touches them as they allow and always works with them, as with you, by taking them from where they are to where they should be.
It just out of your hands, and in better ones for sure, but that doesn't always make it easy.
December 13, 2008
When we Orthodox come to a funeral we understand two things at once.
First we see in vivid detail the fleeting nature of life and the sin with its mortality that touches us all. Even the best of us, the most sainted, must die and every work of our hands is slated to pass away. We all, as our funeral prayers say, will be one day “bereft of form, disfigured…lying in a tomb.” We discover again in moments like these that truly “All things are but feeble shadows; all things are most deluding dreams; yet in one moment only, and Death shall supplant them all.”
For the Orthodox Christian death is not a natural thing, it was not something we were designed to experience but rather something we chose when we rejected the life God had for us. Death is the separation of the soul from the body and comes to us in trauma or sickness, by stealth or after long struggle but none of us would prefer it if we had the choice and always within us, no matter how hard we rationalize it, is the nagging sense that this mortality in our bodies, this aging, sickness, struggle and the end of our life is not how we were meant to be and none of the formidable skills of our morticians can change it. An Orthodox monk once said that all of us should keep a jar of dirt with us in our home or office so we remember what we will one day be.
And so we mourn for the passing of life, for the loss we feel, for the presence of one we loved that is taken from us. Our hearts are broken for the good things lost, and the emptiness of a future absent from the ones who shared this short journey we call life. Our love reaches out to the object of our affection and because it is gone our heart feels empty and our feelings become tears. This has been the lot of every human from the mists of time and in this moment we experience it again.
Yet it is not, for we who are Orthodox, the completion of the story. Death is real and we feel its sting but even as the pain flows through us so do the still small voices of hope. We have no life in ourselves but we understand that the God who gave us life came to us in our Lord Jesus Christ and took on every bit of pain and darkness there is in the world, including the greatest of them all, death, and in doing so broke their ultimate power.
This, for Orthodox Christians, is also real, and even more real because at a day of God’s choosing it will have the last word. We do not put those we love to rest in the ground merely for sentiment and a place to visit in the days to come but rather we commit them to their grave with an intense and real hope. We believe, always have, in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. We believe that when God is ready our graves will be emptied, our mortal remains transformed into immortality, and the fullness of who we are, body and soul, will enjoy the presence of God forever. We believe that the faithful enjoy a taste of this glorious reality already. We believe this not out of wishful thinking or our own fears but rather because we have the fact of Our Lord’s own resurrection as the pledge of ours and the validity of all that He is as the proof of his promise.
So truly we see death here but the discerning eye, the eye of faith, will also see something greater. For now we cry but the tears will not have the best of us. For now we will mourn but we will not be forever in despair. On this day we will place the mortal remains of the one we love in the earth not as a permanent fact but rather as a place of rest until the angels call out “Arise!”
Comfort each other with the pleasant memories. Call to mind the good deeds she did while she was with us in this life and better yet emulate them. Be together as family and friends and keep the bonds strong. Knowing that life, even the longest one, is short in the greater flow of history resolve not to live in fear but to live well, cherishing and doing those things that truly matter. Remember her and each other in your prayers.
But more than that direct your hearts, your mind, your souls, and your lives to God in this time and always. Seek refuge in Him. Find rest in His presence. The world is often uncertain, but God remains sure and steady. All things and every one of us will pass away, but God remains. A life lived in God endures beyond time, a hope in God reaches out and grasps eternity, and those who truly journey with God, will always find their way home.
Anyways, I enjoy the alternative Relevant Radio provides, although I, of course, have disagreements about some of the theological underpinnings. What I enjoy about it is the practicality. People can call up on the phone and get answers for real questions rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition. Again, I don't always agree with the answers but I do agree with the idea that the faith should speak to not just some theoretical world but rather the world, for better or worse, that most people inhabit.
Now we're getting better at this in Orthodoxy, largely, I think because we've had such an influx of people from outside of Orthodoxy who take the idea that faith should matter for everyday life as normal. But we have a long way to go. We have to face the fact that our people, about ninety nine percent of them, are never going to be monastics and that the information, the truth, the help they need is not so much going to be about how to live in the desert for decades but rather how to survive in their ethically challenged cubicle farm today.
That would seem simple enough, take people where you find them and help them become what God would want them to be. But it seems to elude us because we want not just to have answers but to also control the kinds of questions we face as well. The result is that too often we talk right past people and use high sounding words that manage to completely avoid dealing with what really matters to those in our embrace. Out of politeness, or habit, or loyalty they will travel with us for a while but on that one occasion someone pays attention they'll be out the door.
The truth is that we don't necessarily need more dissections of the Fathers, more papers on so and so and their relationship to the post modern dynamic. Those things are not bad in themselves but we should always ask "To what end?" What our Orthodox people need are answers to questions like "How do I talk to my kids about sex?" and "How can my faith help me in my job as a plumber?" Now we as Orthodox have, in my opinion, the best resources around to draw on for answers to such questions. But they need to be in language people can understand, milk first then meat.
The folks at Relevant Radio are at least making an attempt to do this. Now it's our turn.
And when I was a kid I thought owning a transistor radio was a big deal!
Well, duh! Smile.
Now the presentation wasn't specifically evangelistic in content, I merely presented the history of St. Elias and a broad strokes painting of Orthodox Faith to people who I presumed knew little about it. Then I followed with a number of points about St. Paul. You can read it if you scroll down or head to the archives. There was no altar call, no debate, just information. But I suppose its "feel" was unusual. Imagine that, an Orthodox Priest presenting Orthodoxy to others as if he actually believes it! I guess its the spirit of this age, calculated (and self promoting) doubt as a sign of enlightenment.
If that's the case it won't be the only time I fail to live up to expectations.
The days are filled with snow and cold as fall turns into winter and the season moves towards Christmas. We spend more time in our living room after work, providing rotating laps for our cats, and hibernating in that way that only those who’ve lived up here know.
This year has been marked by routine. We still make the trips to LaCrosse on the weekend to take care of St. Elias and Jane and I often commute together to work at Parkshore Senior Campus. Our days are filled with work and rest, church and home. The normal patterns of life prevail but there’s a blessing in that kind of ordinariness, especially in these interesting times.
We have jobs. We have a warm house. We have friends and family. We have, outside of the normal colds and such, good health. I still engage myself with music, writing (travelingpriest.blogspot.com), and study, and Jane has her books, computer games, and trips to the health club. As I write this I have a cat keeping watch over me and grooming my arm. Of course it would be great, I suppose, to tell you that we had won the lottery or that our careers were on the fast track to that corner office but these simple things are treasures in their own right and for this moment they’re all we need.
Our hope is that you experience all the enduring riches of life in these days and always. There will always be change in this life but some things endure over time. May you discover and cherish them in this holy season and always.
Always, John, Jane, Kahless, and Kira, Chagnon