Archive for October, 2009

Sitting on the Ash Pile

October 28, 2009




Let’s be honest. Whether you are Orthodox or not, there are times when life really sucks. At such moments, we wonder where God is and why He allows bad things to happen to “good” people. The philosopher Hume once said that the question of evil is the hook upon which all philosophy comes to hang. It seems that when bad things happen to us, we are often too ready to hang our faith on the same hook.

This scripture lesson came up the other day: “We would not have you ignorant, brethren, of the trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed beyond measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life.” (2Corinthians 1.8) “Despaired even of life”- now that must have been a really bad situation. I’ve been in some tough spots, but never any that bad. Why w ould God let such things happen to his chosen disciples? I can understand some sacrifice, some opposition, and a few nights in jail, but to despair of life? Isn’t that a bit much?

For philosophers, the Book of Job has never answered the question of the nature and origin of evil. Job, the righteous, not only suffered the loss of all of his material possessions and bodily health, he lost seven children in one night. In his terrible grief, he sat on an ash heap while his friends tried to comfort him by engaging in a theological debate. Certainly, since God is just and only punishes the wicked, they argued, Job must have committed some sin which resulted in his punishment. Job protested that he was innocent and didn’t deserve such treatment. At the end of the Book, God made an appearance and you think that we will finally get the answer to the experience of suffering.

Let me paraphrase the next part. God asks Job that if he had been around when He created the universe, could he have advised God on where to put the stars or how to set the bounds of the sea. Job replies that he could not have advised God.  God then concludes that even if he explained evil and suffering to Job, he wouldn’t understand it.

All right, I get it, but it doesn’t satisfy my intellect at all. Then Job says something interesting: “I’ve heard about you, but now I see you with my own eyes. Therefore, lI abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42) As I said before, this is not an answer that satisfies the philosopher, but it satisfies the Christian. It is the Presence that resolves all issues. It also gave meaning to the experience of St. Paul in Asia. “We had the sentence of death in us, so that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raises the dead…” I marvel at this statement and at the faith and understanding it exhibits. Again, this doesn’t explain why bad things happen, but it shows that when the Lord lives in our hearts, there is deeper meaning and purpose to all of life, including the bad times.

You learn this lesson when you stand beside a widow during a funeral reception. People come forward and say some of the worst things you could say in a situation like that. I know that they want to try and console the widow because they love her. I also know that they want the grieving to stop because most of us are uncomfortable in the presence of grief. We just feel that there must be something that we can say that will help. In the presence of profound grief, theological debates will have not resolve the pain. It is the Presence that makes the difference, and so, you stand by the widow and say nothing. You endure the uncomfortable feeling of helplessness, and your continued silent presence does more to comfort than any word that you could say.

We need not hang on the hook of Hume because there is One that hung on a Cross. He is with us even when we despair of life, and gives meaning to the ash pile.


October 8, 2009


The word “evangelism” makes some people nervous. It raises the images of  flashy big hair preachers with make-up laden spouses pleading for souls and donations. It might make us think of street corner prophets preaching about salvation, or knocks at our door by people wanting to give us Watchtower magazines, or even young men in white shirts with thin black ties riding bicycles around town hoping to tell us about their “reformed latter day church.”  Its no wonder that when I mention the word “evangelism” around the Orthodox, their eyes grow dim and glassy.

There have been times when I became aware of something really good, and I couldn’t wait to share the news with others. When the news is bad, I am a lot slower about sharing it. The word “evangelism” means “sharing the Good News.”  If what we have found in the Faith is truly good, you would think that it would be easy and natural for us to share it. I’ve often heard it said that Orthodoxy is one of the “best kept secrets.” I always thought this was more of a shame than a boast.

We can object that we just don’t know how to share the Faith. What if someone has some serious questions? I’ll have to be a theologian (but I didn’t go to seminary), or well-spoken (but I’m so shy),  or at least good looking (nope)!  We still labor under a false picture of evangelism, especially Orthodox evangelism. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt us to read and study the Bible and the lives of the Saints and works on theology, but Orthodox evangelism is different from most other styles of sharing the Faith.  Jesus said to Peter that he would make him a fisher of men, so let me use a fishing analogy to illustrate the difference.

Alexandra, my wife, loves to fish. Her idea of heaven is sitting by a creek or pond and wetting a hook. I don’t have the patience for it. I once brought her a fly rod. Now some people think this is a great sport, but I don’t get it. Why would I want to stand in cold water constantly whipping the fly back and forth so that I can land it in front of a fish in such a way that the fish will bite it? Are you kidding me? I have neither the skill or the patience for it. Deep-sea fishing is more my style: throw it in, wham, and pull it out. Then repeat and repeat for hours.

There’s good news for us reluctant fishers of men. The Lord didn’t give Peter and Andrew a fly rod. These men fished with nets. Now that’s how to fish – throw it in and drag it out and count the fish! Unlike fly fishing, this is not something done alone. Peter and Andrew were not the only ones in the boat. To cast the net of the Kingdom, it takes a good crew working together for a common goal.

Our local Church is dedicated to the Saints of North America, especially the men and women who evangelized Alaska and the west coast of the American continent. This work demonstrates the wonderful and peculiar way that the Orthodox evangelize. We call it “Incarnational evangelism.”  The Saints would begin their work by finding ways to serve the people. They would learn the language and get to know the ways and traditions of the people. They would start orphanages and build hospitals. They would visit the sick and feed the hungry while they built their churches and chapels. In other words, by their service, they made Christ a reality, and this drew people to the Faith. After all, the Lord said that if He was lifted up, He would draw all men to himself.

It is this same kind of evangelism that we are called to embrace. Certainly, it is vital to our witness that we have a full liturgical life. The holy Eucharist is truly making Christ present.  Yet, it will not serve us well if we just build a church, have liturgy,  and  hope the people will drop by. Our Alaskan Fathers, and many before them show us the way and we will do well to heed them.  I know of once vibrant Orthodox churches that are now closed because there was never any attempt to serve the surrounding community. As the faithful of the congregation began to grow old and die, young people went away to school, and others left to find a new job or career, there was no one to replace them. It would be wrong to say that the faithful of that congregation did not trust in God. They simply forgot that they were called to be fishers of men, and fisherman have to go where the fish are. Peter complained that they had fished all day with no success. This can be a common experience, especially in mission churches. The Lord challenged him to out into deeper waters. Sometimes, because past efforts were not successful, faithful people refuse to go deeper. Despite having a bad day with no evidence for success, Peter obeyed and the catch was great.

So, relax. You don’t have to be a great talker, a deep thinker, a scholar, or even a skilled fly rod  fisher of men. It’s good if you have these skills, but what is needed is that you are in the boat and willing to pull with the rest of the sailors.  This work takes the full crew with each one doing his part to make a successful run. One or two faithful sailors cannot get it done. The great Gospel net is woven when we join hand to hand in love, faith, devotion,  and in service. When we live the Christian life together as servants, we drag the net, and the Lord brings the fish to the net.

We should all study the Faith, but more than mental skill or oratorical eloquence, it takes determination, combined with  faith, courage and a strong back. I guess that’s why the Lord chose fisherman because they have strong backs (and idiots like me). They knew how to work through plenty and want.   They never give up when the catch was low because they knew that  tomorrow there might be an abundance of fish. You never know until you cast the net, and cast it again and again and again, or go out into deeper waters.

“I will make you fishers of men”, the Lord said. We don’t have to be skilled fly fishermen. Just grab the net, my friends, and pull. Pull with the Patriarchs, Archbishops, bishops, clergy, monastics, the brotherhood and sisterhood and many other loving souls. Trust in the Captain of Ship, especially when he calls you to deeper water. He knows where to put down the nets.

Once we were caught in the great Orthodox net and now the fish have become fishermen. Let us be patient as we cast the net and then to pull with all of our might. If we don’t catch anything today, then tomorrow is another day to fish.