Archive for June, 2013

I’m so Blue!!!

June 26, 2013

Blue

I had an email exchange with an Orthodox mother on a number of domestic issues and how they relate to spirituality.  As she described her various problems, she told me that she was suffering a “blue martyrdom.” When I asked her what she meant, she replied, “It is an Irish tradition of martyrdom, mostly for married people, who cannot completely escape the world, wherein the cross is carried by domestic struggle, rather than by ‘red’ martyrdom involving physical death, or the ‘white’ martyrdom of monasticism. Blue martyrdom is accomplished through service to the  family and all that it requires. Thus, it must be an internal affair, less visible as martyrdom to outsiders.”

That made a lot of sense to me. Then she added, “Frequently when  I have a domestic scene, you know, one kid vomiting, another fighting, etc…I say to myself, ah…its the blue martyrdom. Why bother to get upset? What good does it do in the eyes of God? That helps me to have a little endurance…”

Indeed. I remember a word from my preaching professor in seminary. He told the class that while we would often preach on self-denial and bearing others burdens, we should remember that there are moms and dads in the sanctuary. Imperfect and sinful as they might be, they also were giving their lives to raise children and provide a loving home. We should be especially mindful of the mothers, many of whom would spend most of the hours of their day serving their children and husband.

Can such a “blue martyrdom” lead to salvation? As the Orthodox mother pointed out, it does help when you see your domestic life as the stage upon which you work out your salvation. Back to seminary – we had been studying the book of Genesis and we came to the stories of Jacob and Esau. The professor pointed out that we had just spent time dealing with huge cosmic issues – Creation, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and even the story of Abraham. Now, the stories seemed small by comparison. The story of Jacob dealt with things like spotted sheep, scamming a father, cheating a brother, and dealing with a crafty father-in-law. Compared to the previous stories, one might ask where God is in all of this small time domestic struggle.

That is precisely the point. God is certainly in the big things, but He is also in the small things. Eventually, and because of these small struggles, Jacob would become Israel. These struggles may seem small, but they were not small to Jacob.  I always think of Jacob’s lament to Laban. “I have been with you  for twenty years, fourteen of which I labored just to marry your daughters. The remaining six years I worked for your cattle, and you have changed my wages ten times…” Sometimes, the people of the Old Testament times seem so contemporary.

Today, the world is filled with red martyrdom. It is shocking to us, yet it is unlikely that most of us will experience a red martyrdom. I say this even as Most of us will not embrace white martyrdom, the life of monasticism. So, blue martyrdom it is.

If we can keep this in mind, then perhaps the struggles that we have in our families, in our homes, and in our careers will be lived out on a different stage. Like the Orthodox mom, it may help to perfect our patience and endurance. For example, a wife might say when the husband is being a jerk, “Father, forgive him. He doesn’t know what he is doing.” When the kids are in a jumble and the washing machine just broke, and the baby has colic, we can remember Jacob and the truth that God is at work in the struggle of small affairs of domestic life.

I remember a little plaque that my wife had over the sink. It read, “Lord, give me the patience to endure my blessings.”

I am so blue!

(This blog is dedicated to my dear blue martyrs, my daughter, Bonnie Elizabeth and my son-in-law, Fr. Thomas)

 

Protestant Orthodox

June 24, 2013

protestants

 

 

 

 

 

I spent forty years of my life as a Protestant and twenty of those as a Protestant minister. Sometimes I would ask,  “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” (This was long before I knew that there was a third option). If the reply was “I am a Protestant”, I would respond “Well, what do you protest?” Occasionally, the person was knowledgeable, but most often the response to my question was a blank stare. At least it meant that they were’t Catholic. I’ve been Orthodox for over 20 years. Now I ask “Are you Orthodox or Protestant or Catholic?”

A recent study conducted by the Orthodox Church of America and the Greek Archdiocese revealed some disturbing realities. When asked what was essential in Orthodoxy, the majority answered that belief in Christ as the son of God, and belief in his presence in the Eucharist was all that mattered.  I might conclude then that if belief is all that is essential, Orthodoxy differs little from Protestantism.

Protestant Orthodox?  Yes, we do protest a lot. Allow me to illustrate.

The word “Orthodoxy” means “right praise.” To be Orthodox is to be in worship.  The Church provides a cycle of worship experiences that are designed to teach us, to encourage us, and to draw us closer to God.

I protest! I have to work. I have children. Its the only day I have off and I need to do so many things around the house. I have company coming. The service is too long. I can’t come to mid-week services. The choir isn’t too good. Not that many people attend.  I’ve heard it all before, many times. I’m busy. I’ve been invited to a party. Its Superbowl Sunday. The garden needs work. Its easier for priests because that’s their job.

Prayer is intimate communion with God, and such communion changes the one praying. There can be no real spiritual growth without prayer. The Church has given to us a rule of prayer which contains the prayers of Saints. These prayers have proven to be effective in overcoming sin, defeating spiritual enemies, and deepening our communion with God. We should keep a prayer rule.

I protest! The prayers are too long. The rule is obviously meant for monastics. I can’t do them all, so I don’t do any of them. My mind wanders. I get bored. I get distracted.  It seems mechanical. I can pray my own prayers when I want to pray. A rule is just too confining and rigid.

Orthodoxy teaches the importance of fasting. Besides bringing great physical and spiritual benefit, it helps us to prepare for the great feasts of the Church. Many Saints tell of the benefit of fasting, and even the Lord Jesus spoke of the necessity for it. The Church has developed a rule for fasting that  provides a pattern that makes fasting successful. We should keep the fasting rule.

I protest! I have to work. I have to go to school. My stomach hurts. I get a headache. I can’t live without meat. I’m too weak. I always fail.  The children don’t like fasting food. Can we at least eat cheese?

Orthodoxy teaches the importance of study, especially the study of the Holy Scriptures. The Scriptures are inspired; that is, through them we experience the life giving breath of God and we encounter the light of Christ. We also have the writings of the Saints who teach us how to be a true disciple and how to walk the path of salvation. The Church offers opportunities to attend studies, and  libraries are filled with books. We should  study our Faith.

I protest! I don’t like to study. I don’t have time to study. I went to Church on Sunday, so I’m not going again. I read too slowly. Father is not a good teacher. I don’t understand what I’m reading, especially when I read the Bible. I know all I need to know. Besides, knowledge makes you proud, only love matters.

The Church teaches the importance of tithing, giving regularly to the Church. Such support is vital to the successful work of the church. Tithing is essential to our own spiritual well being and, if we believe the Bible, it is even essential to our financial well-being. For these reasons, the Church asks us to tithe.

I protest! I’m between jobs. Do you know how bad the economy is? I have too much consumer debt (I tithe to the bank).  I need a new car, new clothes, new etc. I can’t promise anything because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I’ll give when I can. Let me open my wallet. Ah… here’s a fiver!

There are other things that are a part of the Faith like regular confession, community, and service, but I think you get the drift.  Is it any wonder that the local parish struggles so much? Yet, if all that is important is that you believe, I guess none of the rest matters.

Protestant Orthodox.  It must be a large church.

My Monastery

June 7, 2013

monastery
Over the years, I’ve spent some time at the Holy Cross Hermitage, in Wayne, WV. I must say that going to the monastery has been one of the great joys of my Orthodox journey. Folks always comment that when I return from the monastery, I seem happier and more peaceful. It would be hard to say what has the most impact on me when I am there. Certainly, the liturgies are special, talking with the brothers is a blessing, and even doing work there seems to have a special blessing to it. But for me, its the stillness, the quiet spirit of prayer that pervades the monastery that affects me the most.

Yet, even with this spiritual benefit, monasticism is not my life and I  return to the “world.” It isn’t long until the cares and the noise of the world begins to wear on my spirit again. Would it better to stay at the monastery? Perhaps, but this is not my lifestyle. I say lifestyle because the monastics and I share a common calling: we are both called to be an ascetics.

People often make the mistake of thinking that ascetics must be monastics, and so a life of asceticism is not for those of us who live in the world. This is not right because the Lord said that each and everyone of us must pick up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him. There is no better definition of asceticism than this. The difference between myself and the monastic brothers is that I must live my asceticism in the world, among co-workers, family and friends.

I once told the brothers at Holy Cross that the Abbot m was a very easy abbot to live with. I had a much stricter and more demanding abbot than they. They looked surprised and asked what I meant. I told them that my abbot, my wife, was far stricter than their abbot. I mean if you want to live with someone who wants to know all your thoughts, and what you are doing at every moment, etc., then she was stricter! They smiled and agreed.

Those of you who know my Matushka know that she is a kind and gentle sweetheart. She really makes very few demands. What I meant by my words is that she is my monastery. It is with her that I must work out my salvation, and she must do the same with me. How does this work within a home and marriage?

Years ago, when I did some marital counseling, the couple said that they tried to have Christ in their marriage. I asked what they meant. “Well, we pray before meals, go to Church and read the Bible.” they would reply. These are good things, but as I listened to their problems, I would also hear stories of arguments, anger, grudges, resentment, unforgiveness, and so on.

I  asked the couple that as good Christians did they believe that what the Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount was true; that is, when faced with an enemy, should we go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil but meet evil with good, and answer cursing with blessing? They agreed that this is what the Lord said, and it is what we should do. Then I asked that if we were to do this for our enemies, how much more should we do this for our spouses and children? The response was something like “a deer caught in the headlights.” We seem to think that a marriage license allows us to be ego-centered and demanding and unforgiving.

My home is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. When I experience some supposed offense, I should see this as an opportunity sent from God for the salvation of my soul. Yet, when the offense comes from my wife or children, I think I am free to be angry, sullen, and resentful. Not so! So, if my wife “compels” me to cook dinner, then I should wash the dishes as well. If she’s had a bad day, and says an unkind word, then I should return a blessing instead of another unkind word. If she offends me, I must forgive her. Her needs must be more important than my own, and I must consider her as being better than myself.

I am her monastery as well. Imagine what marriage would be like if both spouses practiced this kind of asceticism. Marriage would be heaven on earth and there would be little room for the devil to sow seeds of discord. Consider this thought: if I cannot practice my asceticism at home, how will I be able to practice it in the world? It is because of this asceticism that we wear martyr’s crowns at an Orthodox wedding.

My church is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. Like living in any family, offenses will come from our fellow church members because all of us are sinners and imperfect in holiness. But instead of becoming angry or offended, I should see such offenses as an opportunity sent from God to perfect me and save my soul. Imagine what church would be like if we all practiced this kind of asceticism. Church would be heaven, the Kingdom of God on earth.

Work is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. Offenses will come from my boss and my co-workers. But instead of becoming angry or offended, what if I saw these offenses as an opportunity sent from God to perfect me and save my soul. Imagine then what work would be like.

I will admit that asceticism is uncomfortable. It is the cross that I am called to carry and no cross will be comfortable. I have a male ego, and it does not want to submit to my wife. I have pride, and I don’t want my weakness to be on display to church members (after all, I am THE PRIEST!!!). What will church members think of me if they knew what a bozo I really am, and that I am in fact I really am “the chief of sinners?” I remember a story  where a Bishop committed some sin. He stood on the amvon and confessed his unworthiness. He would not be a bishop anymore. The people would not hear of it, for they knew this man, and how he had loved them, served them, and protected them. So, they shouted to the bishop that he was “axios” -worthy. In his humility, the bishop said that he would only remain bishop on one condition: Until God told him otherwise, each Sunday at the end of the liturgy, he would lay across the threshold of the Church. The congregation would then leave by stepping over him. They reluctantly agreed, and for a long time the congregation did this and they cried as they stepped over their beloved hierarch. I don’t remember how long this went on, but eventually God brought healing to the soul of the Bishop.

I don’t live in a monastery, but God has made my home my cell; God has made my church my cell; God has made the world my cell. Like all ascetics, I must crucify myself to the world, but even more, the world must be crucified to me. There is no other way to salvation.

 

What a Drag!

June 6, 2013

Let me state what ought to be obvious to us all: in this life, we all struggle. No one can escape it.

I say that this ought to be obvious because we sometimes forget it and it ends up causing us a lot of grief. There are several reasons why we forget. First, there is a longing in our hearts for Paradise, for a place that is free of struggle.  We know that there are joys in this life and moments of peace, but we want more of it and less struggle. So we try to create our own paradise, often only in our minds and fantasies. We become bitter because life never adds up to the fantasy. Life is black and white, but in our minds it’s all “Kodachrome.” ( a reference for all my old Paul Simon friends.)

To add to this, there are people who seem to  “have it all.” They are smarter, better looking, drive a fine car, live in a paradise of a house, and have lots and lots of money and excellent jobs. We call them “stars,” and this culture just can’t stop talking about them. We make comparisons and so our life seems drab and dull and full of struggle. It irritates us and we ask “why not me?” We get angry at God because we struggle so much and think that if He really loved us, we would have a carefree life just like those other people. Yet, since this culture cannot take its eyes off of the celebrates, it isn’t long until we see that they too have not escaped the struggle of life. We see and hear sad stories of death, suicide, drug abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, broken families and divorce. You would think that at least people who have faith would see this reality and never forget that to be alive is to struggle and no one escapes. No one.  This is why the Fathers say that we should be kind to everyone that we meet. All of them are fighting a fierce battle.

Depending on the nature of my struggle and how hard it is, I come to think of this as my cross.  This must be what Jesus asked of me when he said, “Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me.”  Actually no. I came across a statement from the Blessed Augustine that flipped things around in my mind. In His Letters to Laetus, 243, he said the following: “For, when I noticed that you were being slowed down in your divine purpose by your preoccupation with domestic cares, I felt you were being carried and dragged along by your cross rather than that you were carrying it.”

I thought I was such a noble character, facing the struggles of my life (even if I really felt that as Shakespeare said, I suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous  fortune”). I tried my best not to blame God and to keep a “stiff upper lip.” I really do believe that the Father loves me and nothing can change that love. Yet, this made me question my struggles even more. Now, St. Augustine tells me that what is happening is that I am being dragged through life by my struggles. I am not carrying them at all. They are carrying me. I am like a surfer on the waves on my struggles.

Is that the last word? There is nothing we can do about it?  Actually, though suffering cannot be avoided, it can be both transformed and transforming.  Jesus said “pick up your cross and follow me.”  I noticed  that he said I should pick up MY cross, not his cross. I am to embrace my sorrows, pick them up and carry them. Yet, this alone is not enough. I am also supposed to follow him  with my cross and this is what really makes the difference.

In the face of struggle, I have a choice: deal with it my way or do it his way. I can think of several examples of this principle. There are people who I just find to be irritating and because of the situation, I just can’t away from them. I can’t say that they are enemies, but they certainly aren’t friends. It’s a real struggle, so what should I do?  I might apply the wisdom of the Lord and turn the other cheek or walk an extra mile for them. I might feed them and give them something to drink (literally or spiritually).  Another example: My wife is angry with me and says something mean. I struggle in my mind and I want to strike back. Yet, if I did it the Lord’s way, I would return a “soft answer.” I would not return evil for evil. One final example: I have a passion that just won’t go away, no matter how much I pray and repent. It begins to depress me and I find it so easy to give in. The Lord would tell me to deny myself, to ask for his help, and never stop repenting because no matter how often I fail, He will forgive me. I only have to ask.

We might say that all this is too hard. We just don’t have the strength to do it. Surviving our struggles is tough enough. Also,  there are struggles that are more profound than the ones I have mentioned.  Let’s not forget that we have a powerful ally, the Holy Spirit, that is greater in us than the struggles that we face. He is the Lord, the Giver of Life.  This Spirit strengthen us and can  turn the water of our struggle into wine. The Spirit reminds us of the One who stood before his accusers and was quiet; the One who went to the Cross and said “Father, forgive them…”; the One who said, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

The result is that by doing it his way, we are doing it for his sake and the Gospel.  We save our souls.

We have a choice. We can picked up our cross-we can carry our struggles and following  him, doing it His way, the Cross becomes the source of resurrection and life.  If not, then our struggles are our own and most probably, they are carrying  us. Where they will carry us is anyone’s guess. This being so, then the old sixties slang applies – What a drag!

Hanging with Q

June 6, 2013

Q

I used to pride myself on the idea  that I was very counter-cultural.  I could present the evidence, but you wouldn’t find it to be very edifying. After all, I was a true 60’s boy, and if you don’t know much about that period of time, I invite you to do a little study on it. You can start by watching  the film Woodstock and follow it with the film,  Easy Rider.  When the mid 70s came, I did a big turn around. I entered into the Methodist ministry and became a representative of a very conservative and middle class  lifestyle.  I lived in that life for 20 years until I became Orthodox.

My mother accused me of becoming Orthodox so that I could be a hippie again. Maybe there was some truth there because I did get to grow my beard long and wear a pony tail. Talk about being counter cultural!! Imagine walking into Walmart on a Friday night in my black dress and cross! Folks in this part of the country just don’t know what to do with me. Of course, Orthodoxy is more than beards and robes. It is truly a call to be not of this world, even though we live in the world. It can be quite a struggle. So often there doesn’t seem to be much black and white in life, but a whole lot of grey.

Is it just a function of age that one moves from being a dreamer to a curmudgeon?  I promised myself that I would never let that happen, but the recent course of this world has made me somewhat pessimistic and scornful. Lately, I find that I’m spending a lot of time hanging with Q.  We talk about many things and he always seems to come to the same conclusion: its all vanity and foolishness.  We review the many paths in life that we have taken. There was a time when we sought glory and position, but it was all vanity and foolishness. There was a time when we sought the company of beautiful people, and it was vanity and foolishness. There was a time when we considered the philosophies of humanity, and it was vanity and foolishness. There was a time when we trusted in politics, and this was especially vain and foolish. There was a time when we bought into the American dream and labored  In the end, all that we labor for will be given to someone else, and this seems especially foolish.

Q is a preacher, you see, an orator, a speaker of truth. My Jewish friends call him the Qoheleth.

Q has a lot of wisdom, and I agree that there is truly nothing new under the sun and that all is vanity. Yet, there is something not quite balanced with Q. There is a Preacher greater than Q and he has shown that God  loves the world so that he has even given his only son that we all can have true and eternal life. This is something new under the sun and beyond anything that Q could even imagine or understand.  Of course, this Son has told us to be not of the world, and so Q has a point. Yet, he also said that we would be in the world just as he was in the world. There is nothing vain, nothing foolish about this love. The final conclusion that Q could reach is “to fear God and follow his commandments.”   The Son says to love God and to believe in Him, and to love my neighbor as myself.

I wonder if Q heard this from the Son he would still say vanity and foolishness.  Probably not.

So, I still like hanging with Q especially when I daily hear of the religious, political, and economic vanity of this world.  Yet, I cannot be a curmudgeon and sit in the seat of the  scornful and live as one without hope. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. That ought to impress someone like Q and keep him from becoming a bitter old man.

Pho

June 6, 2013

Photini

She is the kind of girl you might meet at Walmart or Target. She has tattoos and piercings and maybe two or three colors in her hair. If you get a chance to talk to her, you find that she’s not stupid and she even has some things to say about God and religion. Though she’s had a number of relationships, she’s not married but living with her boyfriend. She has several children and there is a third one on the way. They call her “Pho”, which is short for Photini.

She is a member of a growing group called “Nones.”  If ask to check a box about religious affiliation, she marks, “none of the above.” She is a product of her time and like so many of her generation, she  a “spiritual” person. She wants little to do with organized religion. When you try to explain Orthodoxy to her, it sounds to her like the epitome of organized religion. What do you say to such a girl? How do you reach her?

We might take a clue from the Master. He met a Photini at the well and it changed her life. From the story, we can figure out a few things about her. She came to the well at a time when the other women were not present. Obviously, she was not well thought of due to her lifestyle and the pious women avoided her. She was a hungry soul, hungry for love and a meaningful relationship. After all,  she had five previous marriages and they all had failed. Even in the present relationship, there was no clear commitment. They were just living together, or shacking up as the modern Pho might say. This Photini was a spiritual person, and knew her theology, but she realized that she was in the presence not only of a Jew, but a true Rabbi. The Master let her know that he was aware of her situation, and perhaps she switched to a religious discussion to avoid embarrassment.

Here is what impresses me about the Master’s way of evangelizing Photini. Before any discussion began, he asked her for water. This is a curious way to evangelize someone, don’t you think? No, it is the right way to reach out. You make a human contact; in this case a contact that acknowledges a shared human experience-thirst.  Once this contact was made, the Lord let her know that he understood her thirst not only for water, but for love. So he told her that he had a different kind of water,  living water,  that would quench her thirsty heart. Brilliant!

So, I look at Pho and I wonder how I, an old man in black dress, can make contact and share a common human need. It’s a challenge, for sure. I have to tell you of an event in my life that mirrors this idea. The family and I were visiting the inner harbor of Baltimore. Matushka and Elizabeth were off in some store and I was standing out side in my black priestly garb and hat. I look off into the distance and i saw a group of Goth kids coming my way. I smiled wondering how they would react. Sure enough one of them saw me and then told the rest. They stood there for a minute, and then suddenly ran up to me. “Man,” they said, “This is radical! Where can I get a hat like that. And where did you get that robe? You are blacker than we are!”  I can’t say that I converted them, but we did have a short talk when I told them I was a priest so I tried to plant a few seeds.

Sometimes, it amazes me how conservative I have become, not so much in my dress as in my attitude. Is it just the way things go  as you get older? I want younger people to behave themselves and act like me. I want them to come in and take care of things for me. I deserve it after all I have done and sacrificed. Let some young person clean the church, or cut the grass, or take care of the money, etc.

The problem is that while we throw open our doors, few young people are coming through those doors. This is a truth that we must hear. If we do not get out  there among the Phos’ of this world and bring to them the glory of Orthodoxy, we too will perish with time. Of course, God will not forget all that we have done, and closing is not necessarily defeat. After all, the Church that Paul founded in Corinth or Ephesus is no longer there, but we would never say that St. Paul was a failure.

What I am saying is that we must be ready to meet the Photinis of the world. We need to be where they are and learn how to speak to them. You remember the story of the strict nun who terrorized everyone in the Church about their behavior in the service. Then one day, a Photini walks in, and the nun rushes to her side. The congregation trembles at what Mother will say to her. Surprisingly, Mother smiles and puts her arm around her and quietly answers her questions. Later, when they get a chance, they question Mother about this. She replied, “With ourselves, we must be strict; but those outside of our faith, we must always show love.”

My friends, let us learn from the Master. Everyday, as we live our normal lives, God brings people into our world with whom we share a common human need or experience. If we would recognize that God is at work in this, maybe we would not be so shy about it. We may fail many times, but we will learn how to speak to the Photinis that come our way, and offer them the living water of Holy Orthodoxy. It will be impossible to reach them if we sit in judgment of their piercings and tattoos, so that they sense our rejection of them.

May the Master help us or this generation may be lost to us. We will age out until someone comes and buys our church. As I look at Pho, I wonder if I should ask her for a drink of water?