Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

St. Consumo

November 25, 2017

I was walking around a big store in July, and I wondered how they made enough money to keep the staff around. There was almost no one in the store at that time. How could they keep the doors open?  A store clerk asked if I needed any help and so I asked her about it. She smiled and said that magical word – Christmas. She went on to relate that the store did 40-50% of their business during the Christmas season. So, if business is down during the holidays, then there is big trouble for the company.  With that in mind, things like Black Friday and putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving began to make some sense.

Even so, it seems sad that it is this way. I think about Scrooge and the fact that the night before Christmas day was a time to go to midnight mass or service (hence the name Christ-mass). Then on Christmas day, the shops were open and food and presents were purchased.  Decorations were put up and trees dressed and parties and banquets were held. (There was no long and concerted decorating before hand.) How long did they celebrate? See the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for an answer.  I heard or read somewhere that in Russia, gifts were given on the Feast of St. Nicholas, so that Nativity (Christmas) would be a time to be in Church. I cannot speak for all cultures, but for the one that I live in, all of these things are gone or have mutated. What is the force behind these changes?

The force behind this change is commerce, and this force has its own icon. It is the smiling face of “St. Consumo” (Santa Claus -The name of St. Consumo was first given to me many years ago by an old friend. Where he got it, I do not know).  Of course, St. Consumo is often referred to as St. Nick and in this we can see the confusing

transformation from this

to this .

For an Orthodox Christian, the loss in this transformation is great and the true story of this great man, St. Nicholas, is hidden and forgotten.

Sometime ago, I read an article about how the Jews stole Christmas. At first, I thought this would be some anti-Semitic work, but it wasn’t that at all. The author confirmed what I had noticed when I walked around the malls after Thanksgiving when the work of St. Consumo begins in ernest. I listened to the background music and rarely did I hear a hymn or carol that spoke directly about the birth of Christ. What I heard was the great songs written  by talented composers and are played so often that these songs have become the new traditions of the season (Songs like “Silver Bells”, “I’ll be home for Christmas”, “White Christmas”, and so on). These songs are wonderful pieces of music and many of them were written by Jewish composers not in some secret attempt to steal away the message of Christmas, but to catch some of the emotional and romantic aspects of the season. Now they have become the hymns of St. Consumo. The process has continued with new Consumo hymns like “Jingle Bell Rock” and sadly “Grandma got run over by a raindeer.”

All these kinds of things (Like refusing to say “Merry Christmas”) makes us think that there is a war on Christmas. Clearly, the commercial force is not intentionally anti-Christian, but for us there is another power behind the commercial force and this force is orchestrating the problem and creating a sense of war. Of course, the secular world knows nothing about this and laughs at the very idea.

What confuses us is that if there is a war, why are there  positive things about the present situation? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with giving gifts to people you love or receiving gifts from them. Those who follow the “Old Calendar” have the chance to return to the traditions that I mentioned before. We can give gifts on St. Nicholas day and even on December 25 (New Calendar) if we wish, and then on January 6-7, we can come to Church and celebrate the Nativity without any emphasis on buying or giving gifts. Since January 6-7 is actually December 25 on the old calendar, some Orthodox wait and give gifts after the Church services have ended.

Decorations and Christmas trees are beautiful to see and I am glad that at least for the present, the season is still called Christmas.  There is joy in the air, a sense of anticipation, and many participate in organizations that feed the poor. Families gather together and even speak words of forgiveness. Stores who employ thousands of people are able to raise enough money to pay their employees when the lean summer months come to pass.

All this happens in a fallen world where St. Consumo seems to reign and so it can confuse us all. What can we do? With respect other religions and if they have legitimate celebrations during this time, I am happy to say Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, or even Happy Holidays. But I also have the right to say and to hear Merry Christmas.  I should work to be sure that to my family and especially to my children, St. Nicholas is never absorbed into St. Consumo.  I will enjoy giving gifts, but may I never think that this is the reason for the season. May I never forget the poor. May I never be Scrooge.  May I always sing “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” more than “Silver Bells” or “White Christmas,”   though I will sing those too. Though it be a powerful struggle, may I fast in preparation for Nativity and anticipate the birth of my Savior more than the giving of gifts.  I understand what St. Consumo represents, so may I never allow him to dominate my world.

I’ll end with this story. Once Matushka Elisabeth asked me what all children will eventually ask – is Santa real. Is he alive? I told her the story of St. Nicholas and then I asked her, “When you are with Jesus, are you alive or dead?” She responded that you were alive. I told her that Nicholas was a saint and so he was with Jesus. Therefore, is St. Nicholas alive or dead?  She responded that he was alive and so very real. “Now,” I asked her, “does he come down chimneys?”  No, he doesn’t because he is so much greater than St. Consumo.

Merry Christmas to all of you and may the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ bring light to all the dark places of the world and in our souls. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The Wasteful God

October 29, 2017

Waste! How we hate the word and the action. We work hard for what we have and we don’t like to waste it. So, we tell our children to eat what’s on their plate and not waste food; or we tell the wife to turn off the light when she leaves the room; or we hate the waste that is the hallmark of our local, state, and federal government. Most of all, it saddens us when it seems that someone has wasted the life given to them, and we even are haunted by the thought that maybe, in some way, we have wasted our life.

Now, I am not encouraging waste, but I want to share a simple, but profound insight with you: God is a wasteful God. This seems to be a terrible thing to say about God, but we find this truth portrayed in the parable of the sower which is found in St. Luke, chapter 5. Jesus explains the parable to his disciples. A farmer goes out to sow seed. Some falls by the wayside and is trampled down, some falls on rocky ground and dies for there isn’t any moisture, some falls among thorns and is choked out, and some falls on good ground and takes root and grows to be fruitful.

So, how is God wasteful? Well, the seed is the Word of God. The seed that falls by the wayside are people who hear the word, but like birds coming in and eating seed, Satan takes the seed away. The seed that falls on rocky ground are people who hear the word and even rejoice in it, but it doesn’t take root. When the heat of temptation comes, they wither and die. The seed that falls into the thorns are people who allow the cares, pleasures and temptations of life choke out the fruitfulness of the word. Finally, there is good ground and the seed is able to take root, grow and become fruitful. Jesus explains that the good ground are those who have an honest and good heart and bring forth the fruit of their faith with patience.

So, how is God wasteful? Well, think of this fact: there are four pieces of land, but only one plot is productive. That means that God wasted three-fourths of his seed. Three-fourths! What a wasteful God! Yet, the Father continues to throw out the seed despite the fact that three-fourths of it will not produce. This shows the absolute abundance of God’s grace to us.

To be honest, sometimes my heart is not receptive to the seed. Sometimes, I let the cares of life take away what was given to me. Sometimes, I’m just plain hard-hearted. Occasionally, my heart is soft and receptive and I prosper. Here’s the thing – whatever my situation, the wasteful God continues to sow his seed on me. I thank God that in his love for me, he never gives up no matter how much I waste.

I have heard confessions for 25 years. People come with all kinds of spiritual, physical and emotional situations and states. Often, because of habitual sin, folks are depressed or worried that their lack of progress has made God turn against them, or they are just completely unworthy. What can I say or what advice can I offer.  There is a theme that I work around all the time: trust in God’s grace.

The Saints convey this message all the time. The spiritual fathers counsel this all the time. They tell us to never despair and never give up, no matter what we say or do, or fail to do. They had a sense of the depth and scope of the grace of God and they bet their life on it.

Let’s work hard to make the ground of our hearts soft, and tend the plants of grace with patience. Maybe we should take the hint and become like God -wasteful in the love we show to our spouses, to our children, to our neighbors, to our brothers and sisters in the Faith, and to the world.  Even more, may we never believe that our sins are greater than God’s grace, for this will certainly choke out the seed. Remember and cherish this word: God is wasteful!

Thank God!

The Unavoidable Law of Life

October 6, 2017

(though this is written for the Church, the law of life applies to all, believers and non-believers)

Here is an easy rule to understand: “He who sows sparingly shall reap sparingly; and he which sows bountifully shall reap bountifully.” St. Paul will also summarize: “As you sow so shall you reap.” We might put it this way: you only get out what you put in. Now I understand that we have had several decades of TV preachers who have taken these ideas to proclaim what we might call the “prosperity gospel.” They have used this idea as a fund raiser and it has been quite successful. Sadly, by focusing on money and the promise of a prosperous lifestyle, they have missed the real richness of these words.

Now let me speak as a man, though these ideas can apply to women as well. I have always been amazed how some men sow sparingly when it comes to their wives and children. Some men have been misers when it comes to love and affection. Men seem to believe that because they work and are faithful, and mumble a rare “I love you” that this should be enough for any woman. I have counselled with women who were starving to death for meaningful affection and conversation. I have known children who grew up with an emotionally distant Father whose attention was difficult to obtain or was unwanted because attention was not given “with a cheerful heart.” There are even some Orthodox men who do not pray with their wife and children. Sadly the day comes when these men are surprised by broken marriages and distant children who leave the Faith. Then the law becomes clear to them: what you sow is what you reap. If they had sowed abundantly, they would have had abundance in their family life and in their emotional, spiritual, and intimate life.

As a priest, I have been amazed at how some people sow so sparingly when it comes to the health of their own soul.  We believe because we are Orthodox and have been baptized that this should be enough for the Lord. We are spiritual misers. Prayer is an occasional nod to God. The Bible is rarely read and never studied and we know little or nothing about the Saints who surround us. Confession is rare and when done is poorly done. We do not prepare for the Eucharist and fasting is haphazard. Sadly, when the day of testing and adversity comes, there is no strength of soul. We are saddened at our weakness. The law then becomes clear to us: what you sow is what you reap. Had we sowed abundantly in spiritual things, we would end our days in spiritual fatness and no adversity would be able to overcome us.

I have been amazed at how little we sow in each other. We believe that because we see each other on Sunday, it should be enough to call ourselves “the Church.” Clearly, the Eucharist is, among other things, an expression of our unity. How then is this unity lived out on a daily basis? Imagine that on the day of your marriage, you turned to your spouse and said that from that moment on, she would only see you every Sunday! Oh, Sunday time together would be happy, but that would be all. How long would this marriage last? So, let me ask: when is the last time you had another Church member to your house for tea, especially those that you don’t know so well? When is the last time you saw a member under a burden and tried to shoulder that burden with them? Well, if I only see people once a week, I won’t know what they struggle with anyway. There are times when I need help, but there are no volunteers. Everyone is too busy. Then the law becomes clear: what you sow is what you reap. I sowed little in the lives of my brothers and sisters and I did nothing to strengthen the bond of love between us. Now there is little to reap.

I have been amazed at how little we sow in our Church. We believe that because we drop in a few dollars this is enough. After all, there are others who are better off financially, so let them carry the budget. We know there is a trapeza, but we bring no food. We know there is clean up to do, but we are busy with our own affairs or have to leave early. We know that our children need a Sunday school, but we couldn’t volunteer to help with that. There are bathrooms and floors to clean, but that is not for us. Though it is better to give than receive, we come to Church not to give, but only to receive. We sow sparingly and then wonder why our Church seems small and weak. We face the law: if you sow sparingly, you will reap sparingly. If we would sow abundantly, our Church would grow in abundance.

I would add one other thing. If we sow little back to the world, then we will never know abundance. By this I mean that we as a Church must engage with the people around us. What Jesus said to the disciples applies to us: we are to be fishers of men. Any Church that does not cast its nets into the world will surely perish. We can be misers who think that all of this is just for us, and if anyone just happens to walk through the door, then good for them. No, this mentality is called “fortress Orthodoxy.” We raise our flags, but do not venture out as we wait for the casualty reports. No, we cast our net by being living witness present among the people of the community around us. We do this by making ourselves known by community events, acts of charity, and being where the people are in soup kitchens and ball games and work. If we sow sparingly in this, we will reap sparingly. We will be shocked or saddened when the doors close.

Perhaps all of this seems a bit “preachy.” Well, blame on St. Paul. I would only add what he felt obliged to add. All of this is to be done, not out of compulsion or obligation, but with a cheerful heart. How do we get a cheerful heart? In part because we do all of this not to be successful or even happy (as the world thinks of what happy means). We do it for Him which means we do it for love. Wherever there is real love, there is real joy. It is true that if we cast our nets, someday the number of fish we catch will amaze us. If we sow well, someday we will feast with those who sit in the Kingdom of God where the sound of their festival is never ending.

Aquila and Priscilla

September 2, 2017

You will have to forgive me because what I am about to tell you, I learned this many years ago while I attended college. Therefore, I can’t give you a reference. I do know that I heard this in a New Testament class.

There is a professor who has so completely studied Rome in the first and second centuries, that he knows each section of the city, who lived in them and on what street. His insights has helped to illuminate some of the references to the early Christian communities that existed in ancient Rome. His knowledge of Latin and Greek is profound. He even knows what names were given to the various levels of society and what names were not allowed to slaves or the lowly and poor.  These insights help us to understand who Paul is greeting in Romans 16.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house.”  Let’s see what the professor’s insights can tell us about these two and their house church. Priscilla was from a rich family on the posh side of town. Their estate was by the river and the family was prominent. Apparently, she had created a bit of a scandal because she married a slave. How do we know? Well, Aquila was a slave name. Excavations of the family estate revealed some interesting things about their “house church.” On the grounds of the estate, they recovered the bones of slaves, the bones of merchants, the bones of professionals, the military, and even the bones of the elite and senators. Those from the lower classes lived in the house church. After breakfast and morning prayers or liturgy, they would go to work, or to beg, and then would return for the evening meal and prayers. When they died, they were buried on the grounds, with no consideration for their station in society.

There were other house churches in Rome and each faced its own kind of difficulties. For example, there was a group of men called “the brothers”, who lived in a very bad part of town. It was so bad that even the Roman soldiers hated going in to it. The people were packed into high rises, three stories tall. On each floor, the rooms were separated by cheap cloth curtains. It was a veritable fire trap and there was no sanitation. You can imagine how difficult it was to live there. Yet, despite this sad situation, the brothers lived there and witnessed to their faith and love.  Thinking on the situations that these Christians faced, you can understand St. Paul’s words to Christians: “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, and be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” He was speaking not only to individuals but to the communities of which they were a part.

What can we learn from this?

It seems to me that in our present religious culture, community is a secondary concern (or maybe even farther down the list.) Many go to Church and attend every Sunday, but they avoid or even oppose activities and programs that are designed to build community. You hardly ever see them a trapeza, or bible study, or fun evenings.  Certainly, caring for my own salvation is my highest priority, but the first century Christians knew that if they were to be successful in life, in faith, and in witness, they needed the protection of the Christian community.

To be a community means to share a life together. I realize that this goes against the Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett fantasy of self-sufficiency, but this is part of the problem. The idea of sharing a life with someone else outside of our immediate family seems anathema to us. Now, we do not have to recreate the house church of Aquila and Priscilla, nor do we have to live in the poor side of town in humble dwellings, but our need for community is just as profound.

The Church that formed after Pentecost (Acts 2) shows us what is needed. They were committed to the teachings of Apostles (Bible Study), in the fellowship in the “breaking of bread” (Communion), they had all things in common (a shared life) they went daily to the Temple (regular attendance), they went from house to house and ate with gladness and simplicity of heart (a shared life), praising God (Worship). We know from other sources that the Christians did acts of charity for the poor of Jerusalem. The result was that they found favor with the people, and the “the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved. Later, community would help them face persecution.  When they found themselves in poverty, the larger Christian community would extend help to them, and St. Paul would collect funds for them.

I would contend that if we don’t strive to realize each part of this, then our experience of community is skewed and our experience can be deadly. Again, it does not mean that we have to recreate the exact way in which the early Church lived their life in the Spirit. Sadly,  I have known many who began with love and faith and zeal, but were later shipwrecked in part because the full experience of community was absent (some even called it abuse.) Large or small, the size of the Church and the membership did not matter.

So, talk with your brothers and sisters and include your priest. Talk about community and how we can growth together in faith, hope, and love. Invite others, even if they seem prone to be absent, to enter into the conversation. Someday (and now it seems more likely than ever before), the world will again wield the axe of bitter persecution. When that happens, we will need, our children will need, and our grandchildren will need the community of the Holy Spirit if they hope to survive.

If you think that a greater sense of community is too hard to attain, then let me leave you again with St. Paul’s admonition: “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, and be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” To this I will also add his words: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

You Stink

August 18, 2017

I was sitting in the hallway waiting for my wife to get off from work. I heard someone coming down the hall, but then I had an unusual experience. Before this person turned the corner, I could smell her. When she turned the corner, it was a supervisor who smiled and said hello. I responded nicely but wondered at how such a nice woman could smell so bad. Later, my wife told me that the supervisor loved ramps, and ate them almost every day. (a ramp is a wild strong garlic). Now the fragrance was seeping through her skin and preceded her by a few feet! I thought that she must never get sick. No virus could stand to come near. I know that you’ve had the experience of sitting next to someone who hasn’t had a bath in a long time.  You don’t want to be judgmental, but you wonder if the problem is financial, social, or mental.

When I watch movies about past times –long before soap, shampoo, or toothpaste-I wonder how people kissed or were intimate or social. My mom said that in West Virginia, miners would wash regularly, but it wasn’t until they started using deodorant, that the smell worsened. You may know about the pilgrimage to the church of Santiago de Compostela. On the great feast day, hundreds of pilgrims would fill the church. A huge censer was swing through the Church and it was said that this was done to cover the smell of the unwashed pilgrims.

Despite personal rituals of cleanliness, in the past people had their own peculiar smell and they could be known by it. With modern chemistry, all of our natural smells have been eliminated. We now add perfumes and colognes to make an impact. I’ve had some people walk by whose use of perfume or cologne hit me like the woman eating ramps. You wonder if they had bathed in it.

Here is what I want you to remember: Orthodox Christians are supposed to stink.

“Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.”  2Corinthians 2.

Though us, God diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge. Talk about aroma-therapy! We are to stink with the smell of truth! What do people smell when we walk around the corner? Certainly, if they smell our human nature, it can turn them off, but it’s more than that. St. Paul says that when the fragrance of the Gospel is present to people, some smell life and some smell death.   The Gospel is life to those who are being saved and it is death to those who are perishing. So, it shouldn’t surprise us when we diffuse the fragrance of God’s truth, some people rejoice while others hold their noses in disgust.

Sometimes, in Orthodox literature, you read about the “fragrance of holiness.” So now you know that it has nothing to do with our personal hygiene, but with the spiritual smell of the knowledge of God. The saints reeked of it.  During the services, when the censer comes around and you smell the fragrance, remember the “fragrance of His knowledge” that is to be “in every place.”

So, do you stink? I hope so.

Love without hypocrisy

July 16, 2017

Hypocrite

You don’t need to hang around social media to hear the oft repeated criticism that the church is filled with hypocrites. Well, in the Orthodox Church, we know we are sinners and we know that we do not live as we should. Yet, if we take Orthodoxy to heart, we do not claim anything more than that we are sinners and our Church is a hospital. Being in the hospital, it is our hope to get well, but we are not there yet.

So, I wondered what it would be like if we did get well; if we could live a life free from hypocrisy.  Paul admonishes that “love should be without hypocrisy.” So let’s see what that might look like.

In Romans 12, Paul begins by saying that love calls us to be “living sacrifices.”  That sounds about right since He who was love incarnate sacrificed himself for us. Yet, practically speaking, what does this mean?

How do we think about ourselves versus other people? Paul says that we should not be high minded. Everyone is different, especially in terms of what they do in the Church. Grace is given to us all, but how we receive it, and what we do with it varies from person to person. Faith informs how we think so that we do not live with hypocrisy.

How do we serve? Do we serve with faith, or with doubt? St. Paul says that if you minister, do it with diligence. If you teach, teach in proportion to your faith. When you give, give liberally. If you show mercy, do it with cheerfulness. Faith informs our service, if we are to do it without hypocrisy

How do we behave? Paul, admonishes us that we should behave like a Christian. What does that look like?

  • Abhor evil and cling to what is good.
  • Be kindly affectionate to each other.
  • Honor others above your own honor
  • You shouldn’t be lazy
  • Your faith should be fervent (passionate), so that you rejoice in hope and have patience in times of trouble
  • You should be steady in your prayer life.
  • You  should have compassion so that you rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. You strive to meet the needs of others above your own needs so that you feed the hungry and clothe the naked and comfort the broken-hearted. You should be especially mindful of the needs of the members of your own church.

The last part is that we should overcome evil with good.

  • Live in peace with everyone, as much as you are able.
  • Avoid vengeance. Never repay evil for evil.
  • Attain humility.

Well, that is a pretty demanding list. Love is certainly more than a feeling, if it is to be lived without hypocrisy. The heart of the matter is love, a love that must be lived to be real. How we think, how we serve, and how we behave is to be guided by faith and love. Then we will be living sacrifices, and there is nothing hypocritical in that.

I guess that until love is perfected in us, we will just have to live with accusation that we are hypocrites. Well, we will work on it.

A Good Rate of Return

June 11, 2017

rich-banker

The words of Jesus are without compromise: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”  My Protestant friends have asked me if I have ever confessed Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I replied that I have but when they ask me when that happened, I tell them that it first happened at my baptism when I confessed not once, three times, and then it happens every week when I confess the Creed. I don’t know if this satisfies them, but you get the point.

Let us not be blithe or casual about confessing Christ. It can cost you. Today, for us, it costs most of us little to confess the Lord in the Creed.  However, remember that this is the Sunday of the Saints and if you know anything about the Saints, you understand what it can cost to confess Him. There is an ideology in the world today that will take off your head for confessing Christ. We don’t worry about this too much. Our persecution is more subtle. According to the unfortunate senator Bernie Sanders, it’s fine to be a Christian just as long as you don’t promote it or practice it in public unless you have compromised it into nothingness.

Jesus expressed the cost in this way: “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and follows after me, is not worthy of me. He that finds his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it. That is a high cost indeed.

So given such a cost, why would anyone follow or confess Jesus? The pagans wondered at the Saints. Often kings would offer them riches and honor if they would just worship an idol? How could you pass up such an honor? We might ask the Lord what Peter asked: Lord, we have given up absolutely everything to follow you. What can we expect in return? We might imagine that the Lord would have told them to expect nothing but tribulation or that they should just do it out of love. Yet, he said quite the opposite: “You who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”

A hundredfold!!! No banker, no stockbroker, no financial investor can come near that rate of return. The Saints knew this and so they smiled, laughed and even mocked the offers of wealth, position and power and life. Such an offer was a “low ball offer” compared to what Christ had for them in the time to come.  So my friends, invest wisely. Don’t settle for low interest returns. No matter what sacrifice you think you must make, it is nothing compared to what the Lord Jesus has prepared for you.

A Good Death

May 27, 2017

electric chair

I have this enduring memory. When I was young, I was fascinated with a real life news story about a man on death row. I was young enough that the thought of knowing the time of your death was new to me and filled me with dread. The story went to the moment of his electrocution. They often interviewed the condemned man to try and understand his fears and anxieties as the day approached. They often asked if he was really sorry for what he had done.  It was as terrifying as it was fascinating. Since then, I have read many stories or watched movies where death approaches a person, a town, a nation, or even the world. It is always interesting to see if such a threat was faced with courage or fear and anxiety. In literature, there developed the idea of “the good death.”  The person in danger of death would be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. Though slipping into death, this person would say final words of wisdom and comfort to his grieving family and then peacefully go to sleep.

While we all hope for a good death (painless and blameless), modern medicine has made a good death very difficult to attain. I’ve had the privilege of being with people facing the moment of their death. More times than not, they were in twilight, or a drug induced coma. Often, a decision had to be made to end treatment and shut off the machines that kept them alive. So there were no final hugs or kisses exchanged, no words of comfort or wisdom were spoken.

Starting in St. John 15, Jesus faces the moment of his death and we see what a good death truly is. Christ instructs his disciples and prays for them and for the whole world. He speaks words of comfort when he says that he will always be with us. He “lifts up his eyes to heaven” and prays that all of us might know the joy and ecstasy of union with Christ and union with the Father. We are to know the name of the Father and this is no small thing, for the name is more than a title. It expresses the nature of the eternal God. He shows us that eternal life is not something that just lies in the future. Eternal life is now –“and this is eternal life that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” He speaks of joy, real joy that he wants to be with us always as we live in the unity of the Church. Finally, he asks that where He is, we will always be with him.

Talk about a good death! Even though he faces torture, death and betrayal. He does not face it with fear, anxiety, and dread but with prayer.

Now, I have to ask myself, am I ready for a good death? Well, for the Orthodox,  the scene of a good death is quite different from the world’s. For us a good death is repentance. I have always been amazed at the stories of saints who despite having attained union with God, still repented at the moment of their death. Did they repent because of fear or dread? No, they repented because of the beauty and joy that they had missed, and they had a sense of the beauty and joy that they were about to embrace, a beauty that despite their piety they knew that they were not worthy to behold. Jesus said in his last moments that we would behold the glory that had been with him since the foundation of the world. Such glory, such beauty, will bring the entire world to its knees in repentance someday. Count on it.

I pray for a good death, painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ. May my last words not be of fear, sorrow, or anxiety. May it be one of repentance. That will be a good death, indeed.

LOAD

March 19, 2017

load

I have never met anyone who did not struggle with someone or something. They struggle at work, or struggle at school. They struggle with a friend or with an enemy. They struggle with the bills and they struggle with debt. They struggle with their spouse or their boyfriend or girlfriend.   They struggle with Democrats and liberals or they struggle with Republicans and conservatives.  They struggle with loneliness and depression and they struggle even more as they watch those they believe live without depression and seem to have it all. They struggle with mental, physical, and emotional illness and again struggle as they watch the rich and the young and the strong and the beautiful who seem to live above it all. The list could go on and on, but surely the Lord sees our struggle as we bear the cross that life has placed upon us. And now we come to the Orthodox Church that tells us that to be Orthodox is to struggle.  Given all my other struggles, maybe this is why I don’t attend as much as I should.  I carry enough burdens as it is

Jesus said that we must pick up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him. Surely all of my burdens and struggles fulfill this command (at least they do to me).  Well, not so fast. I came across a statement from the Blessed Augustine that flipped things around. 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.” 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 this what Jesus meant? Not really. After all, if just carrying your own life burdens is carrying your cross, then everyone is fulfilling the Lord’s command. No. Carrying our burdens is not in itself carrying a cross with Christ.  What does it mean then to carry a cross and follow Jesus?  It means death and it means life.

As always, St. Paul puts it very distinctly: “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me.”  So often, my burdens come from the fact that I judge myself by the standards of this society. The world defines what is necessary for happiness and I believe it. The world defines what is beautiful and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is moral and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is rich and what is poor, and I believe it. The world tells me what is brave and what is cowardly, and I believe it. The first work of the cross is to crucify me to this worldly propaganda and lunacy.

It is a two way street. I am to be crucified to the world, but then the world must be crucified to me. If in my heart I still envy the rich, the proud, the beautiful, the successful, etc., then even if I dress plainly, and live in a modest house and walk to work, I am still alive to the world. The Church attempts to help us. Today, we lift up and remember the Cross of Christ and the command that we follow Him.  In Holy Tradition, we have all that we need to break this inner worldliness so that we can not only be crucified to the world, we can also follow Him.

So, the Lord seeks to kill us; that is, He calls us to put our worldliness to death, inwardly and outwardly. How this is possible since surviving our personal struggles is tough enough? Remember these words:  “Cast your cares and burdens upon me….my yoke is easy and my burdens are light…I came that you might have life and have it in abundance.” We may find that when we let The Master tell us what is true, what is beautiful, what is strong, what is successful, what is rich and what is poor, etc., we may find that the burdens of the heart will roll away and we will find life everlasting.

Let’s not forget that we have a powerful ally, the Holy Spirit who is greater in us than all the struggles that we face. He is the Lord, the Giver of Life.  This Spirit can turn the water of our struggle into wine.

It is our choice. We can pick up the heavy load of our own struggles and cry as we carry them under the whip of our task masters; or, we can pick up the Cross of Christ, and being crucified to the world, we can follow Him.

TREASURE

February 25, 2017

long-john

In almost all cultures, there are stories about treasure. From my youth, I remember King Midas and Long John Silver on Treasure Island.  In my young mind, I could envision having a golden touch or digging up a treasure chest. How amazing it would be to have no financial worries and to live like a king.

However, treasure has its problems. It is difficult to keep. Jesus said that moth and rust will consume it and thieves will break in and steal it.  King Midas learned that having a golden touch was more of a curse than a blessing. Long John comes back to his treasure chest, but it is empty. In the movie “The Hobbit”, the Dwarf Kings are driven mad by the hoard of gold in their keep, and even after a dragon drives them away, they dream and long to return to it. They would have agreed with Jesus when he said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

As I consider my life, I look to see where my heart has been and where it is now. This shows me what I really value and what has priority in my life. Here lies the root of the problem and it shows why I do not repent and do not forgive from the heart. Here are some of the things I treasure.

I treasure my body.

I have spent a lot of time on my body, caring for it and pleasing it. It really is quite shameful how much time and money I have spent on it. An elder was sitting in the marketplace with some of his disciples, when a woman appeared with an entourage. She was a great beauty dressed in the finest apparel. Her hair was perfect and her makeup flawless. The elder began to weep and his disciples asked if her appearance had offended him. “No,” he replied, “she shames me.” The disciples were quite puzzled. How could this woman shame so great an elder? Seeing their confusion, he said, “Consider how much time she must spend on her appearance. By comparison, I spend so little time in prayer. She is more dedicated to her “god” than I am to mine.”  This is one reason why the Lenten fast is so troubling. My body does not like being denied of time and attention. Yes, where my treasure is, there has my heart been also.

I treasure my pride.

We know that pride is a terrible sin and that “pride goes before a fall.”  Despite this, we cling to a deep sense of personal pride. In Church, we sing “Lord, have mercy” many times. However, a theologian recently wrote that many in the Orthodox Church do not really believe that they are sinners. This is demonstrated by how little they go to confession. We say the words, but truthfully, we believe we are good people, and think of ourselves as loving and kind and intelligent and right. This prideful reality shows why we cannot forgive “from the heart.” We are offended when anyone by word or behavior challenges this inner prideful sense of goodness. We might even say that we forgive, but we cannot forget. Most times, this means that we have not really forgiven at all.  Yes, where my treasure is, there has my heart been also.

I treasure my mind.

          I’ve spent a fair amount of time in book stores. I am always amazed at the amount of information humans can manufacture. I have spent a lot of money on books, and often I only read part of them. They remain in the bookcase as silent reminders of my mental laziness. I treasure my mind, but I do not fill it with knowledge. I fill it with junk and then I am surprised when all I get out of it is junk. The food of my mind is trivial entertainment. There is no way that I can measure the hours spent on music, TV, magazines, movies, etc.

I can only imagine how I would be if I had spent that time not in trivial pursuit, but in gaining true knowledge. This is one reason why the development of my spiritual life is so slow and incomplete. As. St. Paul notes, I am to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. That renewal is not of the grey matter between my ears, but my inner spiritual mind (nous) by which I would know God. That spiritual mind I did not treasure. I did not believe that a true theologian is one who prays. I thought a true theologian was one who was smart. Yes, where my treasure is, there has my heart been also.

There are other things that I have treasured, but this is enough for now. It is my prayer that someday my heart will show that I came to treasure that which is in heaven. Such a treasure cannot be taken away even by a dragon.

desolation-of-smaug-movie-dragon

If I have offended anyone, I ask for your forgiveness. As much as my pride will allow, I do forgive you and I know that God forgives.

Fr. John