Archive for May, 2008

Slave

May 23, 2008

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There were many myths floating around in the 1960s and 70s, and I believed most of them. At the top of the list was the belief that our generation was entering into “the age of Aquarius.” We were starting a great struggle for freedom. We would be nothing like our parents, bound to jobs, material possessions, and middle-class bourgeois morality. We would be free men and women and “love would rule the stars.”

It all fit so well into my psychology because I was a young man bound by fears and anxieties. My family was dysfunctional (the term has been used so often that its almost become trite to use it) and I had a lot of anger and self-hatred. I didn’t believe that there was anything that I could do well.

I discovered that if I used humor, I could feel a lot better about myself. If I could get a pretty girl to smile or laugh, then no matter how ugly I felt, at least I had a chance. If I made a group of people laugh, then I felt accepted. Of course, if it meant that my jokes became ever more crude, sexual, or racist to keep them laughing, then so be it.

This was the age of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, and so I didn’t leave it at humor. This sinful trinity became a way to escape from the fear, pain, and self-hatred that lurked in my heart. Oh, I didn’t know that I was self-medicating, but instead, I believed that all of this was my way of proving that I was a free hippy, a new age man who was “slipping away from the surly bonds of earth.”

In reality, I made myself a slave and the shackles by which I bound myself were terrible indeed.  Its funny how you can be in chains and think that you are free. Ah, Mr. Scrooge.

I read this verse of Scripture some time ago and it shocked me.  It shocked me because it was like a mirror in which I saw my whole life.  Consider:  “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”  (Hebrews 2:14-15)

At first, I found the idea that the devil had the power of death most objectionable. But then I realized that the power comes from fear, and by fear the devil is able to bind me to sins. When I consider the fears that ran rampant in my heart from my earliest years, it is now clear to me why I became such a slave.

Death takes on many forms. I can die spiritually, emotionally, relationally, financially, mentally, etc. Therefore, I am anxious and fearful about most everything. Here some examples: would any woman ever really love me; would I be smart enough to make good grades ; would I ever be fast enough, strong enough, handsome enough, thin enough, tall enough, rich enough, cool enough, religious enough, etc? The devil uses these fears to bind me to my sins.

My greatest fear was that when all was said and done, my whole life would have been a sham and a waste. Then I would face an angry god who would punish me for wasting the gift that he gave me. What to do then? Easy! “Eat, drink, and be merry: for tomorrow we die.”

The first thing that Adam and Eve did after eating from the Tree was to hide in the bushes because they were afraid. Well, we are all still hiding behind the bushes. I have my hiding place and you have yours. The problem is that when you are behind the bush, the demons beat the crap out of you and your sins tear you to pieces. The only thing that keeps me behind the bush is fear. After all, its my belief that if you ever really saw me in the bright light of day, you would run off screaming at the sight. That’s my fear, anyway.

In another blog, I will talk about how Christ changes all of this. It is interesting, however, that a Man nailed to a Cross will show me how to be free

 

Extreme makeover

May 23, 2008

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I remember some liberal bible scholar pointing out that Jesus must have been mistaken. Jesus said that there would be some of his disciples who would not die before they saw him coming into the glory of his kingdom. Obviously, the professor concluded, all of the disciples are dead and Jesus had not come into glory of his kingdom. According to the professor, Jesus had obvious delusions of grandeur.

Well, shortly after saying making his claim about glory, Jesus took three of his disciples and went into the mountains. There he fulfilled what he had promised, for these three saw Jesus shining in the glory of his kingdom. Oops! Sorry, professor!

So much has been written about this great Feast, but one truth is always clear and simple: when you look at Jesus, you see God. This is what he told Phillip in the Upper Room: “How can you say ‘show us the Father’ because when you have seen me you have seen the Father.” On this Mount, he shines in the glory of the Holy Spirit and the Father says, “this is My Son, hear Him.”

Yet, it isn’t only Divinity that we see on the Mount. We also see a human being transfigured and this teaches us something about ourselves. All of us are to be children of the light, transformed by Grace. In fact, the Mount of Transfiguration is the end and goal of all creation. The desire for transformation lies deep within our hearts and deep with the nature of creation itself.

I don’t know if you noticed, but transfiguration has become very vogue. Extreme makeover shows fill the media and this culture exults in transformation: we makeover houses and cars and faces and bodies and clothing. Everyone wants to be transfigured and transformed. Plastic surgery has become a billion dollar industry, and diet and weight loss ads fill the magazines.

Of course, the problem is that these transformations are only ‘skin-deep.’ Weight lost today returns two-fold tomorrow. These so-called extreme makeovers are hardly extreme at all, because they fail to reach deep into the heart.

Rather than a one-time makeover, Transfiguration calls us to an extreme makeover: one that causes light to emanate from within the very depths of our being. What Jesus is by nature, we can become by Grace. Of course, this means that we have to cooperate with that Grace. We have to embrace disciplines and practices that help to transform us.

And so we come back once again to the same old spiritual disciplines that the Church always places before us: prayer, fasting, and good works. Again we learn that doing these things has nothing to do with winning God’s favor, but has everything to do with us.

Someone said that the main purpose of prayer is the change the one doing the praying. Of course, what bothers us is that the change is not instantaneous. We are a rather impatient bunch. Yet, if we keep at it, each day we will see a little more light in ourselves. It’s a sure formula: the more prayer, the more light. Think of St. Seraphim and how he glowed with the visible light of the Transfiguration before his friend as they walked and talked in the forest. Of course he spent over 1,000 days in constant prayer and I can hardly manage 15 minutes in the morning! St. Seraphim, pray for me.

Transfiguration is considered by many Fathers to be greater than the Feast of Pascha. This may sound odd to us, but consider that Transfiguration shows us the very essence and direction of our salvation. Salvation is theosis, a process of transformation and a journey towards the Mountain of Transfiguration. On that mount we will be bathed with the uncreated Light of the Holy Spirit.

So, as they used to say in the 1970s, “keep your eyes on the prize.” We keep our eyes fixed to the Mount of Transfiguration. When we reach the top, it will truly be an EXTREME MAKEOVER!

A fish out of water

May 23, 2008

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Jesus said that our Father in heaven is merciful.  We are so in need of mercy and so we seek and we find the Father of mercy. The same Father that met the prodigal son also meets us. The Orthodox pray for mercy all the time. After every petition and prayer, we pray, “Lord have mercy,” and we ask in faith because He is indeed full of mercy.

Tertullian said that Christians are like little fish, born in water, and safe only by staying in water.” Baptism is not a one-time event. It is water in which we swim and which gives us life. If we live outside of our baptism, we are like fish out of water.

Though I like to fish in the ocean, it’s always tough to watch a fish pulled from the water. They gasp and flap around totally helpless and in shock. And you and I are exactly the same if we allow ourselves to be pulled from the life-giving water of Baptism.

Our enemies work constantly to find the hook that will draw us out of this water. How does this happen? As always, the Master gives us some examples in Luke, Chapter 6.

The first hook is judgment and condemnation. If God is mercy and the water of Baptism in which we swim is mercy, then how is it possible for the fish to be so merciless as to both judge and condemn anyone? The Lord shows how ridiculous this is – “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye?”  When I judge and condemn, basically I’m saying that I am finished with myself and now I have time to focus on the sins of others. In fact, the plank in still in my eye and the sins of others is like a speck by comparison. When I am judgmental, I am a fish out of the water,  flopping around and gasping for breath.

The second hook is pride. The Lord said, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, offer them the other.”  Is he kidding? I’m no wimp. Do you know what it would mean to my male ego to just turn the other cheek?  And when people hate me and say all kinds of bad things about me, well then, I’ll see that they get theirs.  I’m a fish out of water. Christ took all blows to His body and blessed his torturers. The God of mercy was evil spoken of, but blessed instead of cursed his critics. He did more than offer the other cheek and he did it all because he is merciful. Even in crucifixion, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” My pride pulls me and I am a fish out of water.

The third hook is greed.  Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them back again…do good and lend expecting nothing in return.”  I don’t know. My response is “God bless the child that’s got his own.” No one had better take my stuff without asking and it better be returned in good order. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that God causes the rain to fall on the fields of the just and the wicked. He is benevolent to friends and enemies alike even when he knows they will give nothing back. Above all, He gave His only Son to die for all including God’s enemies, and He gave this precious gift to us freely. Well, not me. I only loan to friends, and even then, I want it back with interest.  I expect that what I give is to be given back. Give to enemies, expecting nothing? Jesus has  to be kidding.  I am a fish out of water.

I believe myself to be kind, considerate, and well-meaning. However, when I make enemies (and I do), the fishhooks come out. I feel justified to judge, condemn, and belittle anyone who I consider to be an adversary.

This is not the way of the Father of mercy. While we were the enemies of God, he did not condemn us, but sent his Son into the world to save it. Since we swim in the waters of his grace and forgiveness, then we must forgive and even more, love our enemies.

The Master told us that since God is merciful, we should be like our Father. A child of God swims in the life giving waters of mercy and never dares to leave it. But what if we got hooked and find ourselves flopping on the ground and gasping for mercy?  Confession and repentance.  When we confess our sins, our baptism is renewed and we are once again swimming in the waters of mercy.

My name is Moses. It means “drawn from water.”  It has a good meaning, but as I consider this blog, maybe I need a name change.

Swim, my friends, swim in this water.  Don’t get hooked by things like judgment, condemnation, greed, and unforgiveness (there are other hooks, of course).  If you get hooked, you’ll be a fish out of water.

Crooked

May 23, 2008

“There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.”

I first heard this poem as a child, and there is something about it that just stuck with me. I imagined what a crooked man would look like, and then I would imagine that I was the crooked man. I would try to walk a crooked mile, pretend to live in a crooked house. I had no idea what a crooked cat and mouse would look like.

Years later, I learned that I am in fact a crooked man. There is little in me that’s straight and true. Becoming crooked didn’t happen over night. I started early and it’s been a process; something like osteoporosis where the bones become weaker until your back is bent and you can’t stand up straight. This is what sin has done and now every mile that I walk is a crooked mile, and every house that I inhabit is a crooked house.

You can’t tell by just looking at someone. Some of the people who look the straightest are the most crooked. The reverse is also true. Look at an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov. Once, thieves robbed him and virtually broke his back. From then on, he walked like a crooked man, yet there was hardly ever a man who was straighter than he.

In Luke 13, we hear the story of a woman who had been bent over for 18 years. It is difficult for us to imagine, not being able to straighten ourselves and stand upright for 18 years. Yet,  it is not the woman who was truly crooked, it was the leader of the synagogue. His spirit was twisted and distorted with hypocrisy. He was indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. How crooked can you get?

That’s the problem with hypocrisy. It causes no noticeable pain. It’s a silent spiritual killer, that eats away slowly at the strength of the soul, until the soul is crooked and cannot stand upright. The interesting thing is that the straighter a hypocrite seems to stand, the more crooked he is. All is pretense, and  the garments of respectability are rags indeed. Crooked people will often speak long and passionately about the right way to do things, yet there is little true humility in them, and even less love. They will slay you over a calendar, and sacrifice you on the altar of their piety. They will feed the donkey of correctness, but will not lift one finger to ease your burden.

Well, as crooked as I am, all it takes is one touch from the Lord, and I will stand up again. I must approach Him as did the crooked woman-with the sure knowledge that I am crooked indeed, and not as the ruler of the synagogue-convinced that my piety has made me straight. If the ruler had truly been straight, he would have helped his crooked sister to stand up. In eighteen years of pious living, it had never occurred to him to do so.

I am a crooked man. I walk a crooked mile. I live in a crooked house. I’ve been this way for many years and I’ve fooled a lot of people along the way with my bright garments of piety.

It will be a great day when the Lord tells me that I am loosed and can stand upright. Then I can bend over like St. Seraphim, and walk the Way that is straight and narrow.

Do not pass me by

May 23, 2008

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A certain blind man sat by the wayside, begging.  – St. Luke 18

 The Blind Man

Sometimes, stories about the miracles of Christ don’t move me much. It’s wonderful that the Lord had the power to do things like heal the blind. The question is what does this matter to me? After all, I’ve been illuminated by baptism. I’ve studied the scriptures and the writings of the saints for many years. I’m an ordained archpriest. Surely, I can’t be counted as being one of those who are still blind? (A little voice tells me to remember that Jesus called the pharisees “blind guides”)

I ran across this statement: “But none easily sees Jesus, none standing upon the earth can see Jesus.” (St. Ambrose of Milan) Well, if Jesus is the light of the world, and I cannot see that light, then I must be blind. St. Gregory agrees: “Anyone ignorant of the brightness of the divine light is blind.” If this is true, then the words of Jesus have been realized. I am blind priest trying to lead a congregation: the blind is leading the blind.

What hope is there for me? If I am blind, I must be lost. There is hope. Scripture says that the blind man was sitting by the wayside. Since Christ called himself  “the Way,” there is something good about sitting by the wayside. “If he believes and knows the blindness of his heart, if he begs to receive the light of truth, he is sitting at the wayside begging. If anyone recognizes the darkness of his blindness, if anyone understands that the light of truth is wanting in him, let him cry out from the bottom of his heart.” (St. Gregory)

So, all is not lost. Though I am blind, if I know my blindness, then I have at least come to sit beside the way, and that is a good thing. The thing is that I can get quite comfortable with my blindness as I sit by the way. Since I cannot see the brightness of the Lord as he passes by, the depth of my own blindness does not disturb me. How can I measure the darkness if I don’t have light?  It’s like the old saying: “How do you know what you missed, if you missed it?” There is a way to measure it. You have to meet the crowd.

The Crowd

The blind man cried out, but the crowd around him told him to shut-up. Don’t you know this crowd? When we come to pray, this is our time to cry out to God. At that very moment, the crowd appears yelling that we should shut-up.  There’s boredom that tells me prayer is repetition. I should hurry or stop because there’s an interesting  TV program that I shouldn’t miss. There’s laziness that tells me I should cut things short because I need my rest. There’s my bodily needs that suddenly seem so important. My stomach cries out for a snack or my feet that ache and tell me I should stop and get off of them.  There’s fantasy that puts up image after image into my mind, seeking to join me to distraction. There’s remembrance that calls up past sins or pleasures so that I lose heart and stop praying. A big member of the crowd is fear.  Fear has too many faces to discuss here. There are others, of course, because it can be a rather large and noisy bunch.

I think I’m such a wise man, so enlightened and aware, but like Zacchaeus, I am so short of stature. Since the crowd of my passions sways me, I give up on prayer easily and readily. It’s just easier to just go with the crowd and let Jesus pass by. The crowd didn’t stop Zacchaeus, who wanted to see Jesus so much that he climbed a tree. It didn’t stop the blind man, either. The louder the crowd protested, the louder he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Gaining Sight

We know that prayer can do a lot of things. St. Gregory points out something that had never occurred to me before.  The Scriptures says that Jesus was on the road to Jericho when he heard the blind man cry out. Above all things, prayer makes the Lord stop. “ But when we persist ardently in our prayer, we fix Jesus to our hearts as he passes by… He revives the light, because God is fixed to our hearts, and the light we have lost is restored.”  (St. Gregory)

No wonder the crowd wants me to stop praying, for when Jesus stops, the crowds disperse. In fact, it is a clear sign: when the crowd begins to shout, the Lord is near. The louder they shout, the nearer He is to me. When he stops, Jesus will ask me, “What do you want?” It’s a daunting question, and I am not sure that I am ready to answer. I have so many “needs” (I use quotes here because most of my so-called needs are always nothing but wants). I hope that when the Lord stops and asks me, I will only answer, “I want to see.” Solomon heard the same question and he asked for nothing but wisdom.

I had better be ready for the consequences. When the blind man received his sight, he followed Jesus. When I am given my sight, I too will be asked to follow Him. Am I ready for what that will cost me? I don’t think so, because so far, I give in easily to the crowd. I let Jesus pass by and I say little. I remain a blind man sitting by the wayside.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord, do not pass me by!

(My thanks to St. Gregory, a man who could see the Light. The quotes came from Forty Gospel Homilies, Gregory the Great, Homily 13.)

Wretch!

May 23, 2008

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But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience…”  I Timothy 1:15ff

I am a priest and I say it every Sunday when I come out of the altar with the Body and Blood of Christ: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art the Christ who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” I’ve  wondered if anyone believes it, including me. Oh, I certainly know that I’m a sinner, but the chief of sinners?  I hear confessions, so I have an idea of what others are doing or not doing. I know I’m a bad sinner, but the worst of sinners? I think not! When I read St. Paul’s statement in Timothy, he must have been using hyperbole. St. Paul had his problems and quirks, but he wasn’t worse than say Herod or Judas or Pontius Pilate.

I have an idea about the title “chief of sinners.”  It has to do with the story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:12-19).  Jesus tells them to go to a priest and on the way they are cleansed. When the lepers were cleansed,  only one returned to say thank you to the Lord. The Lord points out that the one that returned was a Samaritan, someone that the Jews considered to be the most unworthy. Think of it! To be healed of leprosy and you can’t even take the time to say thank you to your healer.

Now I know why I can claim the title as chief of sinners. The Lord has forgiven me and has sent me on the way to be cleansed of my disease. He has provided everything that I need for the journey. I have seen healing in my life. I am loved, I am warm and safe, I am fed and clothed, I have money, and every day I am given time to continue on my way. I have the Church, the Saints, the Theotokos, the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, Vigils, the Sacraments and the Liturgy, and my Orthodox brothers and sisters.  I really am a blessed man and  I have all I need or want.

I am the chief of sinners because I am such an ungrateful wretch.

I grumble over giving the Lord a few minutes each day to pray. I grumble over giving up hamburgers during the fast. I grumble when the Church needs more time and money. I grumble when someone calls and interrupts my trivial pursuits. I grumble when its time for another “long” vigil service. Most of the time, and despite the abundance of my material blessings, I grumble and complain because life just isn’t going the way I want it.

Clearly, I am the chief of sinners because I am such an ungrateful wretch.

There’s only one thing that is positive about being the chief of sinners: it serves as an example to others. I mean if the Lord is patient and refuses to give up on a self-centered, self-righteous, and ungrateful wretch like me, then no one needs to despair. It is a great mystery that in his patience and love, he raised this wretch up to be a priest.

Go figure!

So, take heart my friends. You salvation is sure. If the Lord is patient with an ungrateful wretch like me, the chief of sinners, how much more patient will he be with you? Observe my example, but don’t follow it. Don’t be an ungrateful wretch! Take time every day to express your gratitude to the Lord who heals and sustains us all. Show it not only by what you say but also by what you do. Then my job is secure; I will remain the chief of sinners.

RSVP

May 23, 2008

 

“…I cannot come.”  Luke 14:20

Sooner or later, that day comes to all of us. We have an epiphany and it either brings us great joy or great sorrow. That day is the moment when it dawns on us – “Oh Lord, I’m just like my father (or my mother)!”  Marriage counselors talk about the “domestic moment.” The romantic bubble pops, and you realize that your wife is just like her mother, and your wife realizes that you are just like your father. This moment can occur at any time in the relationship. It takes patience and love to get past this event and realize a deeper commitment that will carry you through the rest of your relationship.

Our family wasn’t something that we chose for ourselves. We were joined to our families, and the impact upon us proved to be more powerful than we imagined. Whatever we join ourselves to will affect us for good or for ill. Over my life, I have joined myself to many things and each one influenced me, changed my way of thinking, and set me feet on a different path. I now realize that I have to be more careful about what I join.

Someone said to Jesus that the Kingdom of Heaven would be a great party.  Well, most parties begin with an invitation to friends. To know how many to prepare for, the invitation usually includes an RSVP, It is expected that those who receive an invitation will respond quickly so that the host will have time to properly prepare. Since you invite your friends, though a few may decline, you expect that most will accept your invitation.

In the parable of the Great Feast, the host is shocked to find that everyone one that he invited declined the invitation. Every one! Each invitee had an excuse why he couldn’t attend. One had family obligations; another had business interests that needed his attention. All these excuses were legitimate, but how often do we receive an invitation to a great banquet. Banquets are sumptuous and are meant to bring great joy. We rarely pass up an invitation to a banquet no matter what else is going on. If the invitation is to some small party (you know, to buy Tupperware), then excuses seem right. This was an invitation to the Great Feast, a party above all parties, and no one could come? I imagine if we got an invitation to visit the White House to meet the President and sit at a great dinner, no one would refuse.

Of course, in its original context, those invited to the Feast were the Jews, and since they refused to come, the host told his servants to go out and get everyone they could find, even the poor and the ill, and bring them to the party. The sick and ill are the Gentiles who have been brought to the Great Feast. We Gentiles have been much more responsive to the invitation, haven’t we?

The Fathers tell us that we join ourselves to our passions, and each time we do, they place a claim upon us, and we are changed. What changes most is our ability to respond to God’s invitation to dine with Him. Each Sunday, he prepares the Great Feast and invites us to attend. Married to our passions, burdened with the cares of life, we cannot come! Even worse, we come to the House, but will not eat or drink what is set before us. I guess that for most of us, we would just quit inviting such people. Thank God, he is more patient than we are,

Is there anything in this world – pleasures, relationships, business, family, schedule, hurts, depression, sins, etc.- that could serve as a reason to miss the greatest Banquet of all time. Surely, by declining, we must believe that its only bread and wine, a mere symbol that we need not participate in, a small party that we need not attend. There’s no way that we can believe that it is really Jesus, His Flesh and Blood, that is being offered, and refuse to accept. How can it be so? After all, this is but a foretaste of the Great Feast that is coming.

Sadly, we have joined ourselves to things, and they have laid their claim on us and changed us so that we no longer respond to the invitation with any enthusiasm.  God help us that we will never hear Him say, “None of those who are invited will taste of my dinner.” Tell you passions, your friends, your business contacts, and your family that you cannot attend to them right now because you have a previous engagement. You are to be the guest of the great King at the party of all parties.

Respondez s’il vous plait!

Johnny has fore-fathers

May 23, 2008

 

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Someone once made a joke that the way Einstein discovered that time was relative was easy. He observed that when he visited with relatives, time slowed to almost a standstill. I can relate. When I was young, there were times when the extended family would gather. Boring!  I would think that the old folk would never stop talking. The minutes seemed like hours.  Of course, I’ve noticed the flip side of this phenomenon – when I am having fun, time passes quickly.

Kinfolk and family is a great blessing from God, and what would we be without them?  But with kin comes a family history, and this history shapes us and molds us. In almost every family, there are good people, kind and generous and funny. There is also ugliness and tragedy and sinfulness. Both the good and the bad weave into our history to make us who we are. Naturally, we are uncomfortable with the bad. We either deny that it is there, or work mightily to overcome it. Sometimes, family seems absolutely toxic. 

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, the genealogy of the Lord tells us about His family history. By this history we know that by taking on flesh, Christ took upon himself a family tree. And what a tree it is – filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly! Here is the glory and the mystery of the Incarnation. When I was born into the Moses and Owens family history, I became aware of the good and the bad.  In my lifetime,  I’ve tried to overcome the power of that history. The history of Christ’s family is also a mix of  good and bad. Yet, in Christ  that history was redeemed.  This gives me hope that the dysfunctional history of my family life is not an irresistible force that will go on forever. By my own salvation, my family tree can be pruned of its dead branches. 

This is wonderful news. Besides attaining my own salvation, all of the generational mess that has been passed down to me can end with me. It need not be passed on to my children and their children’s children. This gives me hope and encourages me to try harder to attain the kingdom of God.If I fail, then my children will have to overcome this family history themselves. 

Christ is descended from Adam. This means that not only is Christ my Lord, He is also my brother. The family tree that he has come to claim and redeem is my own tree, and so I have a powerful ally whose grace can help me in this most difficult work. It also means that all of you are my brothers and sisters, and whatever history you bear, good or bad, is my family history. Therefore, You and I am not alone. We have quite an extended family, and we can struggle together, and help each other to prune the family tree.

I heard somewhere of an old tradition that when someone becomes a monastic, several generations of the monk’s family are given a special grace to help them achieve salvation. That seems right to me.

There is an old proverb mentioned in the Bible: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Yes, I have often puckered up on the tangy history of my forefathers. Now, the sweet taste of the wine of heaven has begun to remove the flavor.  May God help me so that my children’s teeth will never be set on edge. May their mouths will be filled with the sweetness of God’s praise. 

I ask the Lord that help me so that I will stop eating sour grapes, and that His love will completely drive the sour taste of my family history from my mouth.

Cracked Pot

May 20, 2008

 

 

It’s nice when our local Church begins to feel like family. We can walk in without wondering if we will be accepted or not. It’s a pleasure to feel comfortable in Church. 

Priests like to see the congregation living together as a family, but he can never be comfortable. Hearing confessions, he knows the church is filled with hurting and broken people. He sees people struggling with habitual sin. Some are on the brink of financial trouble. Marriages are struggling and children are a problem. Work is hard and the boss is a terror. Teens struggle with peer pressure.  Health problems abound and everyone is getting older.

You don’t hear the priest’s confession so you can’t see behind the robe and the beard. Personally, I always thought it odd that God called me to priesthood. I have quite a history in this part of the world.  I was involved in almost every human vice and foolish act possible, and then I mixed it all with religion. Besides living as a rocker and general hell raiser, I tried to live as the head of a religious commune. I gained a reputation as a bit of a crackpot.

Look around and you wonder why God didn’t call the strong, the beautiful, the rich, the powerful, and the got-it-all-together people to fill the Church. There have been some who converted that were smart, beautiful, rich and strong, but most of them were cracked pots. St. Paul said that we are “jars of clay” (2nd Corinthians 4:7). Clay jars are nothing remarkable, very common, and very easy to crack. Of course, they are also very useful and necessary household items.

Hopefully, we are all cracked pots and not just crackpots.  Being a cracked pot is not the end of it. Into these jars of clay, God places a great treasure.  It is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Light, knowledge, glory, and the face of Christ – truly an incredible treasure to have. Are we worthy to contain such a thing? No, of course not. We are clay, common, fragile, earthen vessels.

Are we to remain cracked pots? No, because this treasure glorifies and transforms us. This idea is demonstrated by the way the Orthodox decorate their churches. It is theology in form and architecture. It preaches the truth that when God and matter are joined, matter is transformed and glorified. So, it was in the Incarnation, and in the Theotokos, and in the Eucharist, and in iconography, and so it should be in each one of us.  The treasure transforms the pot.  The prophet Zechariah said that one day, “every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holiness to the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 14:21)

 It is this reality, a heavenly treasure in a clay jar, which shows to the world that this power comes from God and not from us. For if we had it all together, if we were beautiful, rich, and successful, and without a care in the world, then no one could be sure if it was God at work, or just us “fine” people. 

 My ambition is to go from crackpot to cracked pot, and then from cracked pot to a vessel of honor. Like Paul I can glory in my weakness and take no pride in anything that I do.  Yet, I also want to know the transforming power of the life of Christ in me. Someday, I can join with St. Paul and proclaim, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  (Philippians 4:13)   That would be a sweet deal for a crackpot like me!

Someone once said that a person must decide which is more powerful – the grace of God or human nature. I am either optimistic about the ability of God to change me, or I am pessimistic about the possibility that my human nature can change.  Is it that a “leopard cannot change his spots” and “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; or do I believe that even the most broken pot can be mended by grace?.

St. Paul writes, “…we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus…so we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  (2 Corinthians 4) Faith is trust and the most fundamental trust that I can have is to believe that despite the reality of my brokenness, God will finish what he has started in me   I do believe this, but the part that bothers me is that this renewal is “day by day.” Its a gradual thing. Man, I was hoping to get this done right now! (After all, I am an American cracked pot!) 

If I have moved from being a crackpot to a cracked pot, I am happy for now.  My joy is that at the moment of my baptism, God placed a heavenly treasure in me. My hope is that this treasure will heal this cracked pot. 

The light of the glory of God in the face of Christ!   What a treasure.

Orthodox GQ

May 20, 2008

 

It never ceases to amaze me. Whenever you walk by a magazine rack, it is simply filled with the faces and bodies of women. Obviously, the female form sells products. Yet, I know that many women feel intimidated by these images of models with perfect face and form. But ladies, you are not alone-men get anxious as well when they thumb through the pages of magazines like Gentlemen’s Quarterly, or GQ. In those pages, the men are handsome, athletic, confident, well groomed, and perfectly dressed. Now, if a man is dressed fashionably, someone will say, “That guy is really GQ.”  I will use this phrase, GQ, a lot. When you hear it, think, “perfectly dressed.”

 I don’t think that there has ever been a time when I was GQ. I’ve always had this odd body shape and nothing ever seemed to fit me. In fact, among many childhood memories, one of the most consistently unpleasant experiences of my youth was going shopping for new clothes. My irritation and embarrassment grew with each new pair of pants that just didn’t seem to fit. There was one moment in time, when dressed in my Beatle boots and Nehru shirt, I thought I looked GQ. Others did not share that assessment.

 Orthodoxy has resolved the problem for me. Now, all I have to do is choose from either the gray or the black podrosnik (robe or cassock). Add black socks and sandals, pull my hair into a ponytail, and I am perfectly GQ. I should say that I am perfectly Orthodox GQ.  Precisely, I am Orthodox priestly GQ.

 What should Orthodox Christians wear to church?

 The parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) has a greater impact on me than before. When my daughter  got married,  my wife and I had to be the hosts and financiers of the wedding feast. It was a wonderful, happy, and joyous time. Everyone was dressed very GQ. It would have been very boorish to have had people show up in tank tops, t-shirts, and ragged jeans!  So, I  wondered about the guest in the parable who was not dressed properly, and was asked to leave. Apparently, he was not GQ and he paid dearly for it. The language is fierce. He was bound and cast out into the darkness. Well, then, since we also have been called to this wedding feast, we should get a clear idea of the  garment that makes for a well-dressed wedding guest. How can we be sure that  we are Orthodox GQ?

 We talk about putting on a new garment at  our baptism., Its important but that is how we get into the feast.  It is in fact our invitation and our entry into the banquet. Once inside, there is another garment to put on. I read somewhere that in ancient times, a king or some wealthy person would actually provide garments for guests. That reminded me of a time when I was invited for dinner to a country club. I was dressed well, but the head waited informed me that I must have a coat and tie. So, he brought me one. What could this wedding garment be?

 St. Gregory describes Orthodox GQ: “What then must we understand by the wedding garment but love? That person who enters the marriage feast is present in the holy church but without wearing a wedding garment, He may have faith, but he does not have love. We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment because this is what our Creator himself possessed when he came to the marriage feast to join the church to himself.” (From the Forty Gospel Homilies, 38.9)

 So, the wedding feast is the Church and love is the garment that we must wear when we enter. It sounds pretty simple. I mean I love “love” and I’m all for it. The problem is that we can get pretty sloppy about it. I can say I love my wife and in the next breath talk about how much I love my new car. We think more of love as a feeling, and certainly our poetry and music reinforce that idea. So, if we feel it, all is well. If the feeling is gone, then love is gone, or so we think

 St. Paul was not so romantic about love:  “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13)  In Galatians 5, he tells us that the kind of love we are talking about is not a biological function, or a temporary hormonal imbalance. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.   Notice that there is not one word about feelings. Instead, St. Paul speaks of how love acts. For example, if love does not keep a record of wrongs, then there must have been wrongs committed, but no record was kept. If love is not easily angered, then there must have been reasons for getting angry. If love perseveres, then there must have been something challenging that invited love to quit and give up.

 When it comes to love, I’ve found it easier to talk the game than to walk it. The garment of “love” that I wear to church is a rag, filled with holes of pretension, and stained with feigned affection. I don’t think it will pass inspection. If God is love, as St. John says, then I am to be clothed in God. I am to “put on Christ” (St. Paul), and in such a garment there is no pretense. Love, for Jesus, was not a nice feeling or a pretty poem or even a deep philosophical discussion. The way Jesus lived demonstrated his love for us.  Jesus said it very plainly. “He who loves me keeps my commandments.”

 Love.  Its what the best dressed Orthodox are wearing this year. It is what keeps you in the bright light of the wedding party. It’s really Orthodox GQ!