Archive for August, 2008

Muscular Orthodoxy

August 31, 2008

ArnoldRealTitlePic

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and I was cruising the TV stations. Back in those days, we didn’thave many channels, but we had just gotten the new sports channel, so as I passed by, I noticed that they were showing a Mr. Universe contest.I had never seen one, so I thought I would check it out.As the different competitors came on stage, off-camera, a reporter and a former Mr. Universe described the strengths and weaknesses of each contestant. When they came to a break in the action, the reporter asked about the training schedule. The former Mr. Universe replied that about 6 months before a major competition, a contestant will begin to lift weights for muscle definition. Within two months of the competition, the contestant will average 6 hours a day lifting weights. (Six hours? Did I hear that right?) Then the reporter wanted to know about eating habits. Again, Mr. Universe gave some startling information. Within three months of the main event, the contestant will switch to all protein, and then within about 90 days before the competition, he will be down to 400 calories a day so that there will little or no water weight or puffiness to obscure muscle definition.(Let’s review:400 calories a day plus 6 hours of weight lifting equals…well, in my opinion, a rather unnatural and grotesque body.)

The information startled me as a lay on the couch drinking my RC Cola and eating a Moon Pie. But as I got to thinking about it, the dedication and sacrifice that it took tobuild such a physical appearance was astounding. But what did their dedication and sacrifice accomplish? I can only thinkof one or two bodybuilders. Can youname any?So, what do they get for all that effort?Not much fame, but maybe there’s a lot of money in it. Few get to be the governor of California. Someone raised the question, “Is a body builder physically fit?” Well, they look fit, but then some of them die from heart attacks or they damage something internal because of their poor diets. Then there is the issue of steroids, but I won’t get into that.

Let me shift gears for a minute. I once heard a sermon on 1st Corinthians 6:9 and the speaker was talking about the word“malakoi*.” The root of the word meant “soft”. Jesus used the word when he spoke of those who dressed in soft clothing. In the King James version,the word is translated as “effeminate.”(The Fathers would also use words like thelubrios )The speaker went on to say that St. Paul did not mean that we should think that the traits and virtues of women are bad, but that basically St.Paul was saying, “Don’t be so soft! Don’t be such a wimp!”

Muscular Orthodoxy. I wonder what it would look like? I imagine that it’s something like this:

St. Paul: “..in labors, abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in peril of my own countrymen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…”(2 Corinthians 11:23ff) Now that’s a muscular Christian!

Now let’s compare. Me: “No, I can’t get to church tonight. Why? It’s raining, the wind is blowing, it gets dark early, its cold, there might be an early snow, its hot, the air conditioner make break down, the grass might get too high, the flowers will die, the cat will starve,I’ll be late for dinner, hardly anyone else will be there, the service is too long…”(a few selections from Fr. John’s book “Personal Excuses and Justifications”) Clearly, I am “at ease in Zion” and spiritually speaking, I still drinking an RC and eating a Moon Pie.

I’m such a wimp! Governor Arnold used the phrase “girly man” and a lot of people didn’t like it. I think St. Paul might look at me and say “malakoi”-softee! I need some muscle. I need to toughen up. Exercise. I definitely need exerciseif I’m going to be a muscularOrthodox Christian. What’s recommended? Well, there’s that low calorie business that the Orthodox call the Fast.Then there’s calisthenics: standing in church, prostrations, bows, and crossing yourself. What could I do for weight lifting? We have the “heavy-weights”, i.e., the Fathers and the Bible. If I actually read them, I bet I would get quite muscular.I can get rid of a lot of weight by going to confession. Serving the needs of others builds muscle. Why, I even have a personal trainer, my priest!Body building takes concentration and for this effort and I have prayer and a prayer rope. All and all, this is sounding very promising. No wonder they call monastics “athletes?”

I must remember that I have been baptized into the Body, so I am not alone in this. My church should be muscular too. What have I done lately to strengthen the Body of Christ?Have I strengthened weak knees and helped someone to stand. Have I fed anyone’s soul with the muscle-building protein of love, compassion, forgiveness, truth, and understanding? Have I “spotted” for any of my brothers and sisters as they try to lift their weights?Have I improved anyone’s cardio-vascular conditioning by speaking words of encouragement and hope, or do I knock the wind out of them with words of doubt and a poor attitude?It seems clear to me that if you and I aren’t Body builders, personally and collectively, we may forever be wimpsso that those who need us and who need the Church, may only see “malakoi.” (Church studies have shown again and again that in American Christianity, the top issues affecting regular church attendance and church growth are available parking and locality-how far people have to drive. Wow! Now that’s muscular Christianity!)

The world needs to see a muscular Orthodoxy where faith, hope, humility, love, service and sacrifice have made the arms and legs and minds and hearts Orthodox Christians strong and muscular in the Lord. They have seen it in the past; will they ever see it today? There isn’t much time to prepare because the main event is already here. We may be ridiculed as we walk around the stage because we have little muscle to flex.Hang on! With training, we will soon be flexing our muscles. Mr. Universe? Indeed!

* Note to students and scholars:I realize that the word “malakoi” has been used in a variety of ways, many of which are pejorative, and that some translations use the word to express moral depravity. For this article,I choose to stay with the root meaning of softness as did the translators of the KJV.

Another happy thought from the Redneck Priest….yeah, right!

August 23, 2008

 

Why are the Fathers always playing with my head? After all, I went to seminary and spent all that time with those high powered professors. I’ve been a minister/priest for over 30 years, so don’t I know it all by now? Apparently not because every time I read the Fathers, they rearrange my thoughts and force me to think differently. It could be that they are right and I am wrong? No, you think maybe? Take the mustard seed parable for an example. All my life I’ve seen it as a bit of a put down. I had always read that the Lord was saying that if I had more faith, even as much as one mustard seed, I would be able to move mountains. Well, I thought that if that was the case, then my faith had to be like a subatomic particle. (People do think I’m a bit “quarky” anyway). I always had to admit that my faith was small, but my problem was how to get my faith up to mustard size (I believe, Lord, help my unbelief). The Fathers put a different spin on it. It’s not a put down at all. The Lord said in Matthew 13 that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed, and then in Matthew 17, he says that I should have faith like a mustard seed. Jesus joins faith and the Kingdom of God together. So, it isn’t a challenge to the size of my faith, but to the quality of my faith. So, what is a mustard seed all about? First, a mustard seed is a very small seed. The Fathers say that the Lord is talking about small beginnings and not so much about the size of faith. The Jews had no idea that a carpenter from Nazareth could be God Incarnate. Walking around with a ragged bunch of fisherman and tax collectors, they felt that certainly this carpenter would never amount to anything. Of course, if you let a mustard plant grow and don’t pay attention to it, it becomes a nice sized bush that could shelter many different types of birds. In fact, mustard trees could become like a weed that is quite a hassle and an irritation. So it would be for this Mustard Seed of the Kingdom; this small group would grow into a mighty tree that would shelter all of the birds of the world. In a way, Jesus was warning them in this parable, though they took little notice of it. Sigh! Here’s the happy thought I promised you. The Fathers say that for a mustard seed to be of any use, it must be crushed. Being small, when a mustard seed is sown, the weight of the earth crushes it. To get the flavor of the mustard seed or to make mustard, the seeds have to be crushed. The Lord would be crushed and sown into the ground, but from Him a mighty tree would grow. In the near future, the little seed of the Church would be crushed by the weight of oppression (The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church), but from that crushing, a mighty tree would spring forth to shelter the birds of the air. So my faith must be like the mustard seed. I like the big tree part of the parable, but I’m not real keen on the crushing part. When I get squeezed by the weight of my life, I don’t ooze good flavors. I tend to ooze things like anger, irritation, resentment and cursing. You can’t make very good mustard with those ingredients. I usually tend to think of this crushing as a sign of God’s anger at me. I’m a bad boy just being punished for being bad. If my faith was like the mustard seed, then I would understand that the crushing is about breaking my pride and sin, so that life can spring forth. Someday, even I could be a great tree under which others can find shade and shelter. After all, I try to sit in the shade of the tree of St. John Maximovitch. If you read his life, you would know how much he was crushed, even to the end of his life. It is good news really, but I wish you could get there without the crushing and burying part. It is the way of the Kingdom of God, and that’s the way it should be with faith. Actually, I was more comfortable with the idea of my faith being too small, so I should try to believe more and do better. Now the Father’s have blown that idea out of the water. Maybe if I just stopped reading the Fathers, I could hold on to my convictions and beliefs with the assurance that I have it all figured out. Hmmmm…no, better not.

Courage!

August 17, 2008

I’m pretty sure that you have asked the question. I know I have. My children asked me quite often. My church members ask me in conversations at trapeza or in Bible study. We all want to know why God takes so long. After all, it’s been 2,000 years since the Lord came to earth. Aren’t things bad enough? How bad do they have to get before He returns? Oh, I try to reassure folks with truths such as “those who wait on the Lord…”, or “one day is like a thousand years to God…”, or even “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons…” They smile and nod but I know the answer wasn’t satisfying.

Let’s move out of the Big Picture (apocalyptic end of the world stuff), and bring it down to daily life. Things can get very rough around here. There was a time when I was hanging on by my toenails. I literally cried out, “Lord, save me, or I will perish.” Then I waited a long time for God to make the scene. God resolved my issues and saved me from myself and the mess that I had made of things and even though the resolution was not what I wanted, at least it was finished. Still, why in the world did He take so long to do it? Why didn’t He come when I cried out the first time or even the fiftieth time?

My mom use to say to her impatient little boy, “A watched pot never boils.” Sometimes, she would say, “Good things come to those who wait.” When I got old enough to be a smarty pants, I would reply, “And wait and wait and wait and wait and wait, etc.” Sometimes she would smile and sometimes she would whack me, but she was right, you know. Anytime I’ve been in the kitchen and stood and waited for a teapot to boil, it seemed to take forever. If I left the room and did something else, it wasn’t long until I heard the kettle whistling.

When I cry out “how long, O Lord,” I take comfort in the fact that I’m in good company. Check the book of Revelation and you’ll find that even the Martyrs under the altar in heaven are loudly crying out, “How long, O Lord….” (Rev. 6.9) [Note: I have to be honest because there are times when I’ve been at the altar, and the service is in its third hour, I join the saints in wondering “How long, O Lord?”]

Of course, how you are waiting makes a big difference. Years ago, my wife and I went on a cruise to celebrate an anniversary. We had a beautiful room with a large window and so it was fun to sit and watch the waves. It happened that on the third day, we passed through a tropical depression and things got pretty wild outside. My wife and I sat in our cabin, drank our tea, and marveled at the sight. Of course, I knew it would be quite another story if I were out there swimming or rowing in a small boat. Then, fascination would turn to terror.

I had a friend once who was invited to go deep sea fishing. He didn’t know the rest of the guests, but when he arrived he found that it was all males. As they loaded the boat, it was clear that they planned to do a lot of drinking as well as fishing. These were young men, full of bravado and boasting of their fishing prowess. As it happened, no one had bothered to check the weather forecast, and when my friend began to notice that the horizon was darkening, he went down to check the weather radio. The news was not good. A hurricane was headed their way. When he went topside, he told the guests what he had heard as he pointed to the dark sky. He told me that you have never seen young men sober up so quickly. They were several hours from port and as they journeyed in, the men suddenly seemed very interested in religion and showed now interest in beer. The bragging and cursing ceased. These were frightened men and when they finally made it into safe harbor, one and all were singing God’s praises.

In Matthew 14, the disciples faced a similar situation. The Lord had put them in the boat and sent them out into the sea while he went into the wilderness to pray. Now, Matthew says that as they crossed, the wind was contrary and they could make no headway. Then the storm hit and the waves threatened to capsize them. Surely, having witnessed the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, these men would have no fear, right? No. They cried out for their lives. How long did they cry out?

I never noticed this detail before, but Matthew says that Jesus came to them during the “fourth watch.”Since it was customary to post guards throughout the night, the military divided the night up into four watches so that sentries could be relieved. The fourth watch means that Jesus waited until just before dawn to come to them. What? What could be the possible reason for this?

Blessed Theophylact has an answer. This waiting means that we should “not ask for a swift resolution to our misfortunes but to endure them bravely.” (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, Chrysostom Press, 2000) Wait a minute! On top of everything else, the Lord wants us to be brave? When Jesus approached them He did say, “Take courage; it is I; be not afraid.”

I’d like to believe I’m a brave Christian or could be one if the situation demanded it. Oh, really? I don’t even have the courage to cross myself when I pray over meals in public! I’m afraid someone will mock me! When someone at work is crying out that life has no meaning for them, I don’t have the courage to even mention the word Orthodoxy. I’m afraid someone will think I’m a religious fanatic. There are moments that demand that the truth be told, and I am muted by my timidity. Frankly, I’m ok in big cruise ships when a small storm hits, but I don’t do well in big storms in little boats. Its no wonder that the bravery of the Saints simply amazes me.

I can’t go to the Wizard of Oz for courage, so what can I do?

I must remember two things. First, as I look back on my life, the Lord often waited until the fourth watch to save me. Second, I know that my Lord never puts people in a boat to drown them. Matthew says that the Lord “constrained” the disciples to get in the boat. Obviously, He had something in mind and it wasn’t the death of his disciples. He puts us in the boat and comes to us late to teach us courage. Therefore, courage is not just something that wells up from within you, it must be learned. Every time the Lord comes on the winds and the waves in the nick of time, he again tells me to have courage. Now if I can just keep this in mind, maybe the next time I’m in my little boat and the wind is howling around me, I’ll show a little courage and trust that He will save me, even if its in the fourth watch.

The Lord is coming walking on the waves and stilling the winds. It may be a while before you see Him, even just before the dawn. Have courage, my friends.

Doulos

August 12, 2008

We are free people and we have certain inalienable rights, among which is the right to pursue happiness. Our government is by the people and for the people. My state seal has a man with his foot on the neck of a tyrant. I am a self-made man among self-made people. I am a new world, 21st century man and I have a manifest destiny. Something like slavery just isn’t in my vocabulary. It’s more like “Give me liberty or give me death.” (Thanks, Patrick!)

St. Paul seemed to be in love with the idea of doulos. A doulos was a servant or bond slave. St. Paul said that the Christian life was one of liberty, but not as we think of it. It is the freedom of a slave who does not live to please himself, but to please his master. And so, in Romans 14, he says, “Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Our whole life is supposed to be about one thing – pleasing the Lord. Our life is not about finding ourselves, or discovering some hidden purpose to our being, or even to pursue our idea of happiness. Fundamentally, we aren’t here to please the boss, or the wife, or even our priest. We are “oi douloi” – slaves of God- bought with a price beyond value and we are to please God and not be men-pleasers.

You can see how this doesn’t sit well with a free man. Yet, I wonder if there is any wisdom or any power in it? Let’s take St. Paul’s example in Romans 14. He is speaking about a variety of customs in the Church and he says that some observe them and some don’t. Apparently, the result was that everyone was judging everyone else based upon whether they followed the customs or not, or in the “proper” way or not. St. Paul makes this note, “Who are you to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” You see the slave imagery here? But imagine what this would do to all of the judging that goes on in the Church if we believed that we were in fact, slaves of Christ. We would not dare judge another man’s servant, whether they be male or female, young or old, lay or clergy.

Let me digress for a minute and say that in the years ahead, it will be difficult to refrain from judging your priest. Being human, they will fail you from time to time. Please remember, that a priest sees what you cannot, not because he is smarter, but because his position gives him a unique vantage point. Also remember, that often, when accused, a priest cannot defend himself because to do so would be to betray the trust of the confessional. He simply cannot give you all the facts, even though to do so would exonerate him. Don’t judge your priest, for he is a doulos and he has chains around his mouth.

It get’s even more personal. If I am a slave of Christ, then it is Christ who tells me who I am and what I am. I am not even allowed to judge myself. By that, I don’t mean that I am unaware of my sinfulness, but I mean that it is not up to me, the doulos, to define my self. Here lies the power of the idea of slavery. Since only the Master can define me, the devil cannot do it no matter how hard he tries. That nagging internal and accusing voice of self-hatred and self-condemnation cannot define me. My past does not define me. The victories and the tragedies of my life do not define me. My wife, my children, and my boss do not define me. The amount of money that I have or don’t have does not define me. Even my sins do not define me. No one but Jesus defines me, and being able to look upon the heart, his judgment of me is true. The wonderful thing is that He never judges without offering a remedy and he never condemns me. The other voices judge and condemn, but they do nothing to help me.

So, there is power in being a doulos. No wonder Jesus pleaded with us to take His yoke upon us. When I think of the yoke that I have carried, a yoke heavy with the expectations and condemnations of all those who seek my life, the yoke of Jesus is light indeed. It is a sad thing that all of my ideas about my freedom and liberty have been illusions that have bound me with the chains of slavery. How sad that I have avoided the yoke of Christ because I thought it was a yoke of slavery when in fact it was true freedom.

Master, make me a doulos so that I will be judged by no one but You, and I will judge no man’s servant, not even myself.Ah, blessed freedom!

Green

August 9, 2008

 

green

I live in the Shenandoah Valley and it is a virtual paradise.  It is a place filled with forests.  No matter where you look, the basic color is green. Green is a symbol for life and I live in a riot of life and biology. You would think that one would live with a profound sense of gratitude to God for living in such a place. Yet, as it often goes with human nature, we take it all for granted so that after a while, you don’t notice the green very much.

In the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to go to desert places. Its fascinating topography and I enjoyed my time there, but when I returned home, I had a profound experience of green again.  This must have affected the nomads of the desert in the same way.  After spending months in the sands of the desert, coming into an oasis must have had a profound effect on them.  The desert is a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to live there. Yet, it is the desert that helped me once again to appreciate the color green.

We often wonder why God allows us to enter into desert places. Sometimes a job can be a real desert where you can find little there that can make life happy. Sometimes, home has become a real desert where there is little life and little love. For some, school is a desert place where there are few friends and the educational work seems fruitless. Is it possible for there to be desert places in church, or desert places in spiritual life?

In the latest DVD from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross, entitled “From the Little Mountain”, Fr. Seraphim makes the observation that when men first come to the monastery, God gives them many consolations. He does this to draw them to himself. Yet, inevitably, the consolations pass away, and there comes a time of dryness. Prayers are difficult; the mind wanders during worship and the reading of Scripture; it’s hard to stay awake. This is a time of real struggle. Yet, as difficult as it may be, this is a spiritually beneficial time and can bring great rewards.

We may not like the idea, but God wills that we enter into the desert from time to time.  Being in the desert serves several purposes. I have already alluded to one – that we do not take God for granted. Is this really possible? Fr. Seraphim noted that if we were to receive consolations from God all the time, we would stop growing spiritually.  We would simply grow accustomed to it and take it for granted. Being in a desert place makes us long for the color green, and when we finally enter the green again, it has a profound effect upon us.

There is another reason for being in the desert. There we have a chance to see the miracle of Christ feeding us from a few loaves and fish. The people followed Jesus to a desert place where there was little or nothing to eat or drink. The disciples wanted to send the people away to find food for themselves. The desert is a place of scarcity, so what could be done there? They didn’t realize that they stood in the presence of the One who lead Israel through the desert and fed them with manna. They didn’t know that he was the One who sent the ravens to feed Elijah. He who is the Manna from heaven fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fish.

The desert is a place of struggle and great difficulty. I have never found it to be a pleasant experience. But with patience, you will see Christ break bread in your desert. You will know then you need never fear that there will be any place in you life where the provisions are so scarce that you will die. Even in the driest and fiercest of deserts, Christ will multiply whatever ever you have though it is small and seemingly insignificant.

Even forests can become deserts. Many of the Russian Saints fled to the forest wilderness of Russia and there amidst the trees made the Northern Thebaid their monastic desert. So, Fr. Seraphim is correct because it is in the desert that God purifies his people and makes prophets and saints out of sinners. And when you return from your desert place, the color green will simply overwhelm you.