Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Holy Week begins...

Tomorrow morning we will begin the most solemn week of the Christian Year. It is the week wherein we see our Lord voluntarily submit himself to spitting, scourging, slapping, mocking and crucifixion. It is a week that should cause us to give pause in all of our lives. But I think that we don't usually get the Passion anymore. I think it seems too abstract to most of us.
   I recall one person telling me, and being entirely earnest, that his mother suffered worse than our Lord did. He only suffered for several hours, while she died slowly of cancer for a long time. She did suffer and I would not make light of that at all. But is the Passion of Christ's just a grisly scene of physical torture? That is the opinion of many it seems. And that is what has often been thought to be the great defect of Mel Gibson's movie about the Passion. I for one, think that for a while we had become a little too gnostic and had forgotten the reality of Christ's physical suffering, so I thought the movie was a positive thing.
   But the suffering of Christ was far more profound and painful that we can possibly imagine. And I'm not speaking about a psychological suffering—although that was certainly part of his suffering too. The spiritual aspect of his passion is beyond my imagination. We don't think about that usually. So let's give that a little reflection as we come to the beginning of Holy Week.
   Try to recall the hurt that you have felt in relationships that seem to go just a little awry. We don't understand why someone is angry with us, or why they don't like us (gosh, this seems to be the angst of every teenager that I've ever known—including myself). Yet these pains don't end in our youth do they? We have pains and resentments and injuries that are largely caused by the fact that we are not all Saints and we don't live in a world of Saints. We break each other's love and friendship, and the only thing that can grow when we do this is emptiness and pain, resentment and hate. All of these things are sins. I don't know about you, but sometimes I can recall the memory of pains from my past and it still hurts even now. I'm sure we all do this.
   When our Lord suffered, he experienced every single sin in his own soul. He felt the universal alienation of humanity from God and from each other. I can't bear the thought of my own pain, and when I look into the eyes of those who have suffered far more than I have I, then I can't possibly fathom the depths of suffering. But even more dumbfounding is that Christ experienced and suffered the heartbreak of every mother, father, child, brother, and sister. He experienced within himself the untold suffering from sin of millions of people in his Passion.
   Our Lord is absolutely perfect God and perfect man, and he did not have to suffer at all. There was no death, no sin, no separation in himself from God (himself). Yet he voluntarily took all of our death into himself, and allowed himself to die in love for us.
   Let us recognize that we can in no way understand or plumb the depth of our Lord's Passion anymore than we can understand the mystery of his Resurrection. All we can do is try to enter into them both in our experience of his love for us. And that we begin tomorrow on Palm Sunday.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Should the Church be Involved?

That was a question I was asked yesterday when I made a comment about the insanity of our Congress and its headlong move towards socialism. “Father, should the Church be involved in the affairs of the world? Shouldn’t it really focus on ‘the things of the spirit’?” It was a very sincere question from a very pious and gentle soul. We talked about it and he quickly understood that what I had said truly was part of the very essential of the Gospel when we were finished. But it got me thinking. How many others are confused about this? Shouldn’t I give some sort of picture frame to it so that we can all better understand it? I think so. I also think that the question is much broader than it usually assumed. The question seems like a miniature painting but it is much more on the order of a large landscape.
   Let’s look at some of the background concerned. When I was a young boy the 1960s were in full swing. Churches became wildly involved in social programs and the “social gospel” was the essence of all their works. It was so common that many people began to assume that this was the real purpose of the Church. Everything in the Church became oriented towards man, his needs, his desires, his political concerns. The social agenda was assumed by many to be the sine qua non of the Church. It was made visibly manifest in the Eucharist life of many of the Western churches by having the priest face the people during the Mass. This was a sign that the people were the focus of the worship. It was a community meal.
   There have been many tragic outcomes from this perspective. One of which is that if the Eucharist is a community meal, and if the community is defined as everyone present, then naturally anyone who attends should be free to receive the meal, holy communion. At its most broad use, I recently heard—from a clergy‘person’—that in the Methodist church, everyone is invited to receive communion when they offer it, even if they are not baptized! The unbaptized are not Christians, how could they possibly be admitted? They call this “the open table.” How bizarre.
   One of the other outcomes is that many of these churches have been so re-oriented by the social agenda that they have now completely confused it with the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel is thoroughly identified with their political and social perspectives. Homosexual unions, ordination of women, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the church as social reformer (in the modern political sense) are all absolutely inextricably bound to their conscience. They believe that all of these things are positive goods.
   I hope that it is needless to say that I have never been attracted to this sort of religion. I recall in the early 70s when the Episcopal Church had the green trial Prayer Book, that my father was absolutely sickened by it. Gone were the lofty and beauty phrase of Elizabethan English (which we Antiochians still enjoy). The majesty of language was substituted for a banal, lack-luster, shallow contemporary idiom. Daddy said, “I joined this church because of the beautiful worship and its love for one another, not this. All you need now are trumpets and a drum set to make it a complete travesty.” Little did he know then what was coming.
   The reaction of many people was to either become completely identified with the social agendas or to withdraw into a liturgical isolation as best they could. You found either a social crusader or a cranky rubricist. The Orthodox Church experienced something similar in her past because of its historic subjections to occupiers, like the Communists in Russia and Eastern Europe, or the Muslims in the Middle East and Greece. Orthodoxy’s life came to be profoundly identified with the liturgical experience that each ethnic group practiced. It is an historical fact that up until the mid-1500s the Eastern liturgical life was continually developing and changing. With the fall of Constantinople that ceased. Orthodoxy was a particular way of worshipping. There were no substantive changes until the mid-1800s following the independence of Greece from Turkey. Social concerns became an object of the ghetto (the community of “Romans” as we were called by the Turks, in Arabic you’ll remember that the Orthodox are called the “Rum Orthodox,” or “Roman Orthodox”).
   We could easily point out that historically this has occurred among the Protestants through state interference as well. There is at the very heart of this fallen world the desire to keep the Church from being involved in two primary spheres: 1) worship of God, the Holy Trinity, and 2) the transfiguration of this world. The prince of this world (Ol’ Nick, or Satan) is happy to have us isolated into either of these spheres. If we only focus on worship, then the world runs amuck. If we focus only on the world, then we have nothing with which to transform it because we adopt the world’s vision. Should we marry the world and this age, then we will indeed be a widow in the next. Where’s the balance?
Well, believe it or not, I think that a proper, godly humanism should be fostered.
   Humanism usually takes a beating from conservative Christians because they see the sort of humanism that has come to the fore in the last one hundred fifty years or so. The sort that says, “Man is continually advancing and becoming better and better.” This kind of optimism fuels a lot of the sympathetic drive of the modern liberal, but it is selectively blind to the horrors of what man does to man. Man has become more brutal and debased in the last two centuries than ever before. Two world wars, the holocaust, lynching blacks in the deep South just because they were black, an explosion of abortions, sexual license and perversions made public and “acceptable” instead of things that need to be repented of, children bringing guns to school and killing classmates and teachers, wide-spread disrespect and virtually the complete loss of civility and manners. Are these the signs of our continual perfection? We can only think so if we are deeply deluded... by the Evil One.
   That is not the sort of humanism that I think we should be concerned with. What I am promoting is what might be called an eschatological humanism. What does that mean, Father? Eschatology is the study of the last things, the second coming of Christ. This sort of humanism takes its vision of humanity not from this world and where we are now, but has as its focus what humanity is created to be in the Kingdom of God. Or perhaps even more simply and clearly our vision of humanity and proper humanism is the Saint. This is an essential point. We cannot take our current state of affairs as normative. They aren’t. Only the Kingdom of God can be considered normative for Christians.
   What then is the nature of this sort of humanism? Well, first of all it is concerned with worship. We know that in the Scriptures—especially in the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse) that the Church is constantly shown to be in worship of the Lamb who was slain. That worship is not directed towards the community. It is directed only towards Christ. Our orientation in worship is that of common focus beyond ourselves to the One who was, and is, and is to come. From a practical standpoint then, all of our life must be principally founded on our worship. Conservative movements that take up intellectual points that may well be correct, but which are not expressed and fulfilled in the liturgical worship of the Church are, in the last analysis, empty and worthless.
   Humanism that is formed by its vision of the Kingdom of God is also profoundly interested in every one around. Again the Apocalypse shows this by showing the prayer of the Saints for the faithful here on earth in travail. They ask Christ to aid and support us. We should aid and support those around us in many areas. We know we should clothe, feed, and visit those who are in need, prison or sickness. But we must also provide for them in the most elemental way of making it possible for them to be cared for in our country without enslaving anyone else.
   When laws are unjust, then we have not only the right but the obligation to speak out against them. When necessary we must become a political force so that the vision of the Kingdom of God might transform this world. This is very different from the political activism of the 1960s and the modern liberal churches. The foundation and principles are to be found beyond this age. They never contradict what has always been taught and preached and believed within the Church from the beginning of time.
   This is absolutely essential to recognize. We cannot proclaim something “new” or “more enlightened” because we are entrusted with the faith delivered down to us from the Apostles which is the same as that held and enshrined in the Kingdom of God to come. There is no new morality. There is no alteration in the essential worship of the Church. They have not and cannot change. And this is the only thing we can preach, or teach, or act upon.
   But surely this also means that we cannot retreat into a merely “spiritual” world. What does that really mean anyway? Yes the Church is the New Israel, the “Spiritual” Jerusalem, but that is not to say ‘unreal’, or ‘aerial, misty, mystical,or purely other-wordly.’ We have only one life, which has been spiritualized, or put in another way, it has been filled by the Spirit of God. The same life that we live at the altar, we live at work, in the voting booth, at home and in the shower. We truly have only one life. The dualism that many people have regarding the ‘church life’ and their ‘work life’ and their ‘family life’ is not Christian. And Christianity is about life. It is about our life in all of its arenas. So the Church speaks about it, and properly so. For Jesus Christ became a real life human being within a very specific time, place, and political environment.
   The Church first points out that we must pray. Our liturgy is the heart beat of all that we do. This is why I get so irritated when people don’t make it their first priority. If they don’t get to the Church to worship, then they are not behaving like Christians in the least. It is not optional. It is not whether or not we ‘get anything out of it.’ It is not whether or not it is ‘my cup of tea.’ It is the foundation of being a Christian to be at the altar of Christ. This is what makes us a Christian people and community, and it is focused on the Holy Trinity. Notice this, it’s very important. True humanity moves to Christ, and he makes us a genuine community, which is his body in time and space. Without this movement first (which he inaugurates by his condescension towards us and what is often called ‘prevenient grace’) we can never be a community at all.
   Then from this newly reconstituted humanity we strive to love others. We feed them. We shelter them. We care for them. We give them medical help. We visit them in prison. We lobby and vote in such a way that the Kingdom illuminates. We give them the life of the Kingdom. Everything starts at the altar and flows out into the universe from there. And finally, Christians move back to Christ in thanksgiving and adoration again. Everything starts and ends at the altar, but it includes everything that we understand as reality—both visible and invisible.
   So, are Christians to be activists? For the Kingdom of God, absolutely! Might that require political awareness and activity? Absolutely! Can we be quiet about it? Not if we are part of that Kingdom which Christ inaugurated and which will reign through all eternity. And we have guidelines that are seldom spoken. There are real solid foundation stones that we need to be aware of before we act. We cannot just act out of sentiment, but only out of our deep theological understanding which is first and foremost a summation of our prayer.
  As a priest I will not refrain from speaking the truth “in season and out of season.” If it is directly about politics, I will still do it because be assured that I am not speaking as a Republican or a Democrat, but as a Christian priest standing at the altar of Christ our God with a vision of the Kingdom and not of this world. I am not concerned with foreign policies and their intricacies, except to the degree that they reflect the Kingdom of God, the heavenly Jerusalem and new Israel. I could care less about any other social agenda. Everything else is secondary and negotiable, but it must be based on the essential understanding of what that Kingdom is.
   Let us all act and speak in this manner. And may Christ our God fulfill his Kingdom in and among us.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Incarnation and our World

Well, I have to be really honest. I am absolutely sickened by what our Congress is doing to us right now concerning the health care bill. It is truly only the tip of the ice-burg. The government desires to take over 1/6 of our national economy and give us a program of socialized medicine. There are a large number of persons who are in favor of this because they are sensitive people with genuine concern and care for those who are less fortunate. That is laudable. But socialism is evil (so is unchecked capitalism for that matter).

I become angry and anxious about how our Congress is trying to pass its revolution (without and up or down vote) and the horrendous bribes and maneuvers and arm-twisting that has been needed. I am even more so by the very plain, bald faced lies that have been told to the American people.

However, I am not surprised that there are unscrupulous politicians who will work their evil on our state. We all tend to take that for granted, because unfortunately we have seen it so often in the past. But there is a silence that is worse than all of this. I have tried to be quiet hoping that some voices might utter some sanity and direction for us, but they have been as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. The silence comes from us, the Orthodox Church. It comes from our hierarchs, our clergy and our faithful. We seem like the mute and blind.

I am not by nature a political activist. I generally don’t talk about politics with my parishioners because I believe that my principle job is to give them the Faith, to teach, to guide,and to confect the Sacraments for their salvation. I don’t wish for temporal concerns to stand as obstacles for their salvation. In other words, I’d rather not have parishioners take offense at my politics—which is probably more likely here in Michigan because I am, after all, a Texan and all that that means—and thereby decide not to listen to the Church’s teachings when it comes from my lips. I am very sensitive to this. But something needs to be said now because we are facing a profoundly theological problem for which the Church does have a word to speak.

Let us first of all say that yes, the Church does believe in caring for those who are in need of medical help. As a matter of fact, Christians founded the very first hospitals to care for the sick. Caring for the sick is one of the seven corporal works of mercy and we should all be involved in this in some way, even if it is only done domestically in our own homes. Although the Church does not say how this has to be done we can look to our past and see how we have done this for centuries. What we will find is that it is primarily done through the free will of the faithful. The faithful built and supported these works of mercy that we call hospitals.

At the very heart of our care for the sick is the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. Man is created in the image of God, so every one bears that image and should be cared for. There are no throw away persons on the face of the globe. We know that by caring for others, we are giving care to Christ himself, whose image they bear.

Christians are unique in this world because we are incorporated into Jesus Christ himself in our baptisms, we are “divinized”. We are also in this world (though not ‘of this world’). The material world is a responsibility as are all those who bear the image of God around us. The Church, then, must speak out about anything that perverts our image and twists it into a vessel unfit for the Holy Spirit.

There are two scores that I see are tremendously problematic for the Christian in regard to the Senate’s health care bill. The first is that abortion will be funded by tax payers through it. I don’t want to be forced to give one red cent to the murder of innocent children. Why should I be forced to do so? I am a Christian. The second problem is that of creeping socialism.

I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot the other day that said, “Socialism Works”. I wish I could have met the person who owned the car. I would have liked to ask, “Where? Give me an example of where it has worked.” There are no examples. As Orthodox Christians we know all too well what happens in a secularist (atheistic) socialist country… remember Russia? There were 20 million Orthodox Christians martyred in the span of about 70 years. Socialism (and modern secular liberalism) are both incredibly restrictive and narrow minded systems. They desire tolerance for everyone, unless you disagree with them. Then they bring out the long knives. An Orthodox priest from the former Soviet Yugoslavia said he can remember hearing the exact same description of health care that the Congress is putting forward in Soviet Serbia. It gives one great pause, does it not? Is that where we are headed?

The major media already attacks Christian principles openly because the Church teaches a fundamentally different dogma. We teach love, redemption, salvation and transfiguration. They teach conformity. It’s a short distance from attacking principles to imprisonments. There are currently Catholic priests in prison in Canada because they plainly spoke about the Church’s mind regarding homosexuality (a view we Orthodox share). We already have the “hate crime” laws of the sort that imprisoned these modern North American confessors in the faith being crafted here.

We cannot be silent if we are truly Christian. And while we may legitimately disagree about legislative matters, there can be no disagreement that we must stand up for life, stand against any attempt to establish socialism and curtail the full preaching of the Christian Faith. We need to write and call our congressmen and senators to back away from this impending nightmare. I'm going to make it simple for you.

To contact your congressman, go to:

To contact your senator, go to:

Let us not be silent. We have responsibilities to act. Let us also ask our hierarchs to speak out too. Christianity is involved with our entire lives not just “churchy things” like Sunday School. To fail to speak out is to become complicit in the sin of others. This is just as true on the larger scale as it is on the personal scale. Failure to act is actually heretical. It is form of the heresy of Nestorianism (perhaps we can call it ecclesiological Nestorianism), which seeks to divide the humanity from the divinity of Christ and by extension to make the Church purely “spiritual” and not involved in our daily activities and lives.

Then, once we have acted, let us pray with fervor and depth of conviction that God can and will save us. We should never be discouraged, nor despondent because Christ has already conquered this world.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

We’re at Mid-Lent now...

We’re half way finished with the Great Fast, so I’m sure that we can get through the rest of it. But just to let you know what we have waiting for us at the end of the Fast—since none of us are eating meat—I thought I’d show you a picture of the all-you-can-eat plate of beef ribs from Risky’s Bar-B-Q in downtown Fort Worth. Hmmmmm. Ribs and lots of sweet iced tea (or cold beer) and life is complete. Golly, I can even smell it now. It's probably a good thing that I'm about 1,200 miles away so I can't really fall into this particular temptation at this particular place. I hope this doesn't tempt you too much!

I just had to share this…

I saw this on one of the other blogs that I follow. It is written by an Englishman who was able to travel to Texas for the first time. He had titled his entry “USA”, which I’ll forgive. Actually, he visited my area of Texas and everything he did is so familiar to me. It’s nice to see than an Englishman shares my biases. [I have been called the un-official Ambassador of Texas, or of Fort Worth. I take that title with pride!] Enjoy... (The picture is of the Tarrant County Courthouse in downtown Fort Worth, Texas.)

Well, I'm not sure I know much more about the US of A as such. You see, I went for just a few days to stay with Craig and Terry Southard in Arlington and have a look at Texas; thinking that it would be a typical bit of America ... in my ignorance. Now I appreciate that The Lone Star State is really quite different and special; acute, intelligent, and with natural good taste. For example ...

[Now he speaks of Fort Worth—eat your heart out Dallas!] One afternoon we spent a happy couple of hours looking at "the West" ... as seen through the eyes of painters including C M Russel and F Remington, both of whom seemed as miraculously adept in at getting a horse into bronze as into oils. I found myself wondering whether Russell (who just about lived late enough) ever saw the art of the Irish hippophile Jack Butler Yates, and whether he ever saw theirs. Then we strolled down across the lawns (where with my own eyes I SAW A MOCKING-BIRD!!!) to a gallery (the Kimbell) which would be the envy of any city this side of the water ... where Tiepolo and Rubens and the rest of the Big Boys were on show (to the sound of live music); but also a modello by Bernini for his fountain in the Piazza Navona; I could have walked slowly round it for hours. Then ... good heavens ... Michelangelo's first painting, done when he was an adolescent: horribly feely demons surrounding a delightfully indifferent and supercilious S Anthony. And, just round the corner, a late fifteenth century German silver statue of our Lady imperially crowned and standing upon the moon. I wonder if her wearing the Imperial crown was common on the continent at this time; there is a stone carving of Maria Assumpta thus crowned near here at Sandford upon Thames, which I suspect might have come at the Dissolution from the Oxford Whitefriars - but I have been having trouble paralleling the Imperial crown in other Marian iconography in England. I also wonder when the crescent moon (which we of course associate with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) became a common motif in England.

Then, however, I made a mistake. We went to a nearby Dairy Queen, where I had ... Oh dear, I can't quite recall the name ... a sort of massive Ice Cream and Chocolate and Brownie volcanic eruption. Temptations, temptations. But I disgraced myself. I couldn't finish it. Fortunately, a charming and well-read seven-year-old called (apologies to her if I'm spelling this wrongly: spelling never was my strong point) Mikayla very kindly assisted me by finishing it off.

Texas has got just about everything except that I didn't get to see Boss Hog [Boss Hogg was from Georgia, not Texas.].

A Response from Senator Stabenow...

As a citizen of this great land, I take it a privilege to write our Congress and Senate and let my voice be heard. As a Christian priest abortion is one of those areas that we are required to stand up and speak. [If you voted for the current administration it is even more necessary lest you be guilty of overtly supporting its policies on abortion.] I received a letter from Congressman Ehler who also condemns abortion. From our Senators I have only received a note from Debbe Stabenow. I reprint it here for you with my emphasis and comments.

Thank you for contacting me to express your views on the issue of abortion.

The issue of abortion is unquestionably the most difficult issue I have had to deal with during my years of service. I have struggled with all sides of the issue to determine not only what I personally believe, but, more important, what I should do as a legislator representing a diverse state of people who hold many different religious, moral and personal beliefs.

Abortion is a serious issue that has divided many sincere and honest people. [No one has ever said that those who support abortion are not sincere. What we would say is that they are wrong. Hitler was just as sincere about extinguishing the Jews too.] Many believe that abortion is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, while others feel it is acceptable only under certain limited conditions. Unfortunately, when the issue of abortion is debated in legislatures and in the Congress, representatives are often forced into choosing an absolute pro-abortion or anti-abortion stand. [There are only two possibilities here. Yes or No. It the real problem here that one must really do some logical reasoning on this to find out what is right?]  However, the questions I must decide as your Senator are not whether I am for or against abortion, but rather, what is the appropriate role of the government, [So, if something is logically shown to be wrong, then it is okay for the government to still have a supporting role? Then why the great difficulty in “struggling with all sides”?] and should government be making decisions about this intensely personal family matter. [Here is the code language here, it is an intensely personal matter.]

Because of the diversity of perspectives and the intense personal nature of the abortion issue, I have taken the position that the choice of abortion is not a decision government should make or deny. [Hence she will de facto support abortion.]

I also feel strongly that although it is not the proper role of government to decide whether abortion is right or wrong for individual families, [This is disingenuous. Where does the Senator think our laws come from? It is the purview of the legislative branch to make law. That is what they do. Very often they make law that will be followed more in the breach than in the main simply because the law itself expresses the nations vision of right and wrong.] the government does have some critical and important responsibilities as it relates to this issue. [Indeed!] As a Senator and a mother, [this is not pertinent to the argument, it is a fallacious appeal to emotion. Stay on the topic clearly from a position of reason.] I have a personal and public commitment to those policies that support and sustain children in healthy and loving families. [Do you know how long the waiting line is to adopt children? These parents would given the children a healthy and loving family. Abortion only kills the child. My, doesn't that shown concern for children?]

As a country, we must do everything we can to provide support and encouragement to women who are pregnant and to promote responsible family planning when a woman does not want a child. [Seems as though time for “family planning” is already over once the mother is pregnant. This is not about contraception, it is about abortion. Chronologically the issue regarding contraception has already occurred. But, of course, the problem is that abortion is being used as contraception.] Support services need to be available for pregnant teenagers and single mothers so they do not feel abortion is their only choice. [These things exist but Planned Parenthood fights them greatly.] We also need to provide better prenatal care, nutrition services, childcare, adoption programs, and economic opportunities for women. [Yes, we do. You're right here.] I believe that many women would not choose abortion if other help was available. [I don't believe that at all. It is being presented to our children as a viable option at schools. Why would they not choose it?]

I know that our country will continue to struggle and debate the abortion issue in the years ahead. As this debate goes on, I will continue to listen to and respect the views of others. I am hopeful that those who are divided by this issue can focus on areas of mutual agreement, [then take our federally funded abortion so that we don't have to face these issues and can focus on what we might agree on.] because only by working together can we effectively strengthen and improve the lives of children and their families.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and concerns with me.

Debbie Stabenow
United States Senator

Please write our representatives. We are not in a dictatorship and it is our civil responsibility to give our Christian values to this fallen world.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Liberty... Freedom... What are they really?

Okay, we’re Americans. It seems so clear that surely we must know what freedom is, what it means to have liberty. But I really don’t think we have much of a clue and it is killing our society from the inside out. Now this death is not new to the American scene. It’s not new to humanity. In fact, it goes right back to our first parents.

We equate choosing with freedom. That is a freedom in a very limited sense. That kind of freedom get “used up” pretty quickly. The more choices I make, the fewer options there are for me. For example, when I chose to go to seminary in hopes of becoming a priest I willfully gave up many other possibilities. Or again, when I got married I closed the door to becoming a monk. Every choice we make ultimate narrows our options and that doesn't seem like freedom as we usually define it.

One of the difficult components of this sort of freedom is that we are simply picking and choosing, which ends up being a slavery of its own. We’ve all experienced the pain that the slavery of having to choose creates. Haven’t we all had times of angst when we just can decide which course to follow? Choices seem so easy when it’s between a right and a wrong, but what if the choice is between a good and a better good? or a bad and a worse? The later sort of choice can be anguishing to make, but unfortunately necessary. Of course we seem conditioned to always want to choose pleasure over pain. It seems so obvious. But far too often the choice of pleasure reveals itself later as only a different face of pain. Haven’t we all overeaten occasionally? The Thanksgiving Day dinner looks soooo good. And we eat far more than we should and then we feel awful and unable to move. The pleasure becomes pain.

There must be something else. We know that God gave us a free will, but we have just pointed out that picking and choosing limits our freedom rather than increasing it. So what is real freedom that cannot be limited or caught in the pleasure/pain cycle that Saint Maximus the Confessor writes about?

Real freedom and liberty is to be able to move to what completely fulfills me and does not diminish me. What is that then? The answer is the same the one to the question: “What must I do to be saved?” Salvation is becoming a person who is free from dominance of sinful passions, who is filled with the Holy Spirit, of Love himself. It is being what God has truly created me to be. This ought not to be confused with what our passions tell us we are (for example, I am a homosexual, or I am “just that way”—whatever that might be).

Our self-definition must be greater than what we do or what we are impassioned about. It must be our very essence. We are created “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) We are created in the Image of God, or more accurately, we are images of the Son of God, who is the Image of the Father. True freedom is to freely move to God without hindrance or obstacle, either exterior or interior. That we might have to pause to choose stops our movement, and therefore limits our real freedom of being.

So what does this mean in our daily lives? Well a couple of things. We don’t give anything of real value to our children by giving them lots of options and choices and entertainments. In fact we are enslaving them far more than we ourselves were enslaved. They are taught to choose pleasure and ease, hoping to find satiety only to find that they are more hungry and empty than when they started. We not only learn to limit choices given our children, but to move their hearts to the only thing that will truly fulfill them. As Christian parents if we don’t do this, we are not acting like Christian parents.

It also means that I won’t get too worked up about adding choices for everyone and myself. We write ridiculous laws all of the time in the desperate attempt to give freedom (all the while we are actually taking it away). After all if we passed a law that would allow fish to breathe air, it wouldn’t add one jot or tittle to him being a fish. We should be quick to eliminate things that take away from us our real freedom of moving towards God in all that we do. We should also be quick to move to protect those same freedoms for others.

There are several things that come to mind. Do we add to people’s freedom by creating laws that let them buy homes they cannot afford? Heavens no! We create a dreadful economic problem that we might not see the end of for many years to come. We haven’t help the poor or ourselves. What about the freedom of a woman to choose her reproductive life? She is certainly free, but we believe her choice comes about nine months sooner than a birth. Once there’s a conception, we have to think of a child’s right to live and become a full human being created in the image of God. Availability to abortion does not increase freedom at all. It enslaves the woman and kills a child. And the gentleman responsible (I use the term very loosely) should also experience the loss of some of his ‘freedom’ because of his choice too. I wouldn’t dream of putting the blame for a bad decision solely on one of the two persons involved.

But at the most fundamental and primitive level this means that I must constantly choose to bear the image of God as he has given it me. I must constantly conform my life to the Scriptures (and reading them regularly is absolutely necessary). I must take advantage of the rules of the Church that help me conform my life to the pattern of Christ, because these rules allow me to just live the life of Christ. The less I have to choose, especially in the realm of the Christian life, the more free I am. The more I become a person that joyfully basks in the light of Christ. I become one in whom salvation—true healthfulness of body and soul—lives.

Spring seems to be coming

There are signs that spring might just be trying to peek through the winter now. Admittedly winter was not that hard here this year, but it was still a land of snow for a little while. Now I can see the grass being revealed from beneath the blanket of white. There is little that is more unattractive than snow that has started to melt along the side of roads, discolored by road grime to a dark patina of gray. It's more depressing that snow itself I think. But spring is trying to come round.

And there is perhaps a spring that might be coming within the Orthodox Church in the United States as well. It would seem that the Ecumenical Patriarch met with the heads of other autocephalous churches (which are also "mother churches" of American jurisdictions) to begin the correction of our canonical anomaly of multiple and overlapping jurisdictions. I have heard rumors that there is now a desire to form an American synod of bishops to govern the Church in the United States.

All of this is good news so far. Multiple jurisdictions with multiple disciples and guidelines have caused great difficulties for us in parishes. The laity are not the only ones to blame for seeking out an answer that the prefer best by comparing different jurisdictions, the clergy have often been just as bad.

No one really knows how such a correction will look in the US. After all we have a very different situation than that which was ever imagined by the ancient Fathers of the Church. They never envisioned immigrants coming from many diverse backgrounds to form a new local church. But, of course, not even the history is so clear. A large number of the Greeks never intended to become Americans originally. Many came the the New World to earn money and then go back to Greece and retire. I have known many Greek clergy who still own homes in Greece for their retreats and future retirement.

Will the bishops have a liberality of spirit and charity of heart to suggest multiple over-lapping jurisdictions for different ethnic groups? This would allow specific oversight by bishops within the cultural norms that are desired and needed. The point of unity would be the American Synod of Bishops. This would necessitate a slight modification of the mindset that we have had heretofore from that of a strictly territorial jurisdiction to a modification of a personal jurisdiction with territorial character. This would be little more than giving structure to the situation in which we find ourselves now, while adding the necessary administrative unity that is so desperately lacking. Our own Archdiocese (the Antiochian) has been publicly calling for Orthodox unity in all of our Conventions for years now. Well, we might see if we really want it. Cynically, I think that many of the jurisdictions and bishops may well love Orthodox unity as long as they are in charge of it personally.

But I hope I can be forgiven if I see a dark lining behind this silver cloud. I fear that the Western Rite Orthodox will be left out in the cold, and perhaps will virtually cease to exist overnight. Let's consider the numbers. There are at least 600 Orthodox parishes in the United States (there may be many more, I just can't remember off-hand), but there are only about 27 or so Western Rite (WR) parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese. ROCOR has another 5 or so. The number is terribly small. The bishops will come together and necessarily speak about the most pressing problems, and the WR is not one of them. Even more problematically, some of our bishops are not inclined to "go to bat" for the WR because of personal experiences that are not necessarily due to the WR itself, but with some of the surrounding and attending problems that have been forced upon them.

Tragically there was a brief moment in time about one and a half years ago that would have resolved this upcoming problem. There was a movement to get a bishop for the WR. That's what is really needed. And it is needed for a large number of reasons. But when a new Synod is being formed, the WR will be left completely out in the cold if it does not have a bishop. If the US is divided into strictly territorial areas, then I rather doubt the the WR will be able to continue much longer at all, perhaps a couple of years until those parishes adopt the Eastern Rite. The Orthodox bishops' meeting of North and Central America in May will be a watershed moment for all Orthodox, but I think that perhaps more is on the line for WR parishes.

This to me would be an enormous loss. Though the WR is small and has little impact in the wider circle of affairs, it still represents a moment of clarity in the mind of the Orthodox Church. It allows people to be grafted into the Church without having to lose their own ethnic identity. While I love the Middle Eastern culture and people, I can never be one myself. Not with a name like Winfrey. I am of English descent and I treasure that heritage and culture as much as my Arabic parishioners do theirs. That is good and proper.

The very existence of the WR—even though I don't serve a WR parish—is critically important. It says that those of us from European extract are truly welcome as we are. If it ceases to be, it rather says that, “You are welcome so long as you become a Greek, …or an Arab, … or a Russian, …etc.” It can’t happen. How could I turn to my father and say, “Dad, I have to give up our family heritage, our family traditions that have made us who we are and guided us to Christ. I have to somehow learn to be something that I can never really be from the inside, but only be by imitation in external ways.”

The Church can only truly be the Church if it is strictly about Christ, not about our ethnicity (which is how our jurisdictions are variously divided). The only antidote to this is to allow all ethnicities to function in their fulness as authentic expressions of the Church. If the WR is eliminated, by direct action or indifference, then the very catholicity of the Church’s vision will be revealed as fatally flawed and those of us from European ancestry will not really be welcomed.

I hope that our bishops take a broader and more eirenic approach to things. I hope that they will not only allow the WR to flourish, but even give it its own bishop who can grow it and give it stability. As long as it is merely a plaything then it is really a disservice and quite disingenuous. No one should be forced to spend their spiritual life in an ecclesiological sand box. Either the WR is real and true, and therefore must be supported and given the means to grow, or it is false and should be stopped.

If it is considered false then I will have to think long and hard. It will be very painful, but it will be absolutely necessary for me to do so. I became Orthodox in 1991 in a WR parish with every intention of serving the WR for my entire priesthood. I dreamt of planting such a parish and then pouring my life out for it. Well, necessities altered my service but not my love. If the WR is abolished, then I would have to question many, many things. Was I brought into Orthodoxy through a lie? If the Church is willing to lie about something so fundamental as the way in which people pray and offer the Eucharist, then is it still “Church?”, or is it “a church?”

Spring is hopeful… usually. I am hopeful about the Bishops’ meeting. I only hope that we don’t end up with a summer that is so hot that it scorches young plants trying to take root. Let us pray for our hierarchs and for the grace of God to guide their every word and decision.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Do you remember when...

I was remembering earlier today what it was once like on Sundays throughout America. Folks would get up in the morning and get to church. I can remember a humorous illustration of that done by Norman Rockwell. There was no competition for the Sunday services. Jim Crowe laws made sure of it. But there was more to it than blue laws. What happened?

I think much of the blame for this has to be directed at the Roman Catholic Church’s Saturday evening “Vigil Mass” to fulfill their obligation. No one would have dreamt of scheduling school events on Sunday until after then. Because of the large Baptist presence in Texas it’s still more like it was in the good ole days, but I suspect that that will change too as time rolls on.

The loss of the sacral quality of Sunday is a great loss in our culture. Sunday has been set aside in the secular world since the Emperor Constantine in the early 300s. It was, of course, kept as the principle Christian day from the time of the Apostles. But we don’t live in two different worlds—one Christian and one secular—because we don’t have two different lives. We only have one life and so both arenas will impact each other. I’m rather sad to say that these days the secular is certainly overshadowing the Christian for most folks who call themselves Christian.

It is harder to be a genuine Christian now than it was thirty or forty years ago. At that time our culture generally helped and encouraged our faith. I’m told that here in Grand Rapids there was a time, not so long ago, that if one were to mow one’s lawn on a Sunday a group of neighbors might well come by to talk about it. Manual work on Sunday just wasn’t done. Now it’s all fair game. Schools schedule events at times that Church’s traditionally have services. Yes, it is much harder to live a faithful Christian family life now rather than then.

But there is also a little bit of a silver lining too. When Christians actually live this life with any sort of faithfulness at all to it, then they stand out in stark relief to the rest of the world. It is easy to become a “stand-out Christian” these days. That might not be too comfortable for many folks because it also means that to do so will absolutely make us targets. The world will only love its own. If we are not of this world--and our life truly shows that in its internal rhythm and activities--then the world and those in it will hate us.

Maybe the good ole days weren’t really that good after all. Now we can truly “stand up for Jesus”. We can become confessors for the Faith simply by living it in the ancient ordinary dailiness of it. Maybe this is the good ole days right now because the Kingdom is perhaps a little closer to reach with so simple a life.