Too Fast…

I want things to happen too quickly. Good things, for sure, but at too fast a pace.

What difference would it make if even the very best happened but there was no love, no time to reflect, no humility and awe at things eternal? Rushed for the sake of rushed is still rushed, and incomplete, all the stress of an emergency without the actual event.

Slow down, good soul, slow down. Everything good need not happen to day. Recall that God leads but the devil stampedes and rest.

I remember Russell…

He was younger than I was, late 20’s, early 30’s. At least it seemed that way. A vivacious personality, quick with a joke, sarcastic in a funny way. Too young, though, it would seem, to be in a nursing home.

Decades ago, as a young Chaplain, I was part of the team that spearheaded a program to accept HIV positive Residents into our inner city nursing home. There was, sadly, a need in the 90’s for such services as the advanced meds that hold HIV at bay today didn’t exist. You don’t have to be old to be in a nursing home, just over 18 with a need for continual care, and our facility just south of downtown Minneapolis cared for everyone from young men paralyzed by gunfire to seniors living with mental illnesses, and Russell, our first known HIV positive.

And he brought a certain kind of life to the place. He was ambulatory, verbal, bright, witty, and more peer than Resident in many ways. Perhaps because he was living with death he wanted to make the most of the days. Perhaps it was just his personality. But I remember Russell as at least having a fairly bright public face even as he came to us for all the usual reasons people eventually live in nursing homes, being ill and being broke.

I also remember a certain sadness about him. He had the purple blotches of sarcoma, a symptom of AIDS, he tried to hide. The face is the hardest and even makeup fails to undo what has been done. I was told there were times when he would, in unguarded moments, weep as he recalled how the man who claimed he loved him, wanted him, needed him, also betrayed him, given him the illness that was taking his life. Whatever promise was to be had for the future erased and, in the quiet moments, that hurt could not be concealed.

My hope is Russell is with God now and at rest. He was a candle in the wind, but most candles in the wind are not like the lyrics of a glamorous pop song as the winds that extinguish can be very cruel and HIV was, and still can be, very bitter. There’s no judgement either, each of us has a path made up of things we do and things done to us and that synergy is our life. Every sin destroys each of us in its own particular way even as every little bit of goodness gives us life and, looking back, I’m reminded that Jesus is the only antidote for us all.

Still, I remember Russell and the others who came to us in those days. I hope we did well by them and gave them some comfort. I hope in our own way we became a kind of Jesus to them providing oil and wine for the many wounds. I hope they all, eventually, found the love they were craving, not in the passing sensual, moment but rather in the arms of God where all who seek the truest love, no matter who we may think we are, find it.

Homily, January 31

January 31, 2021

I stand by your side, sometimes, in front of the icon of our Lord and I listen.

Sometimes the words emerge with hesitance, the voice of a heart trying to find its depths. Sometimes the words have been planned, efficient, the reading of a list prepared with focus and direction. At times the words are afraid, a wall of embarrassment the speaker knows must come down even if it takes several good pushes.

Still, I stand by your side and listen.

Do you know this is hard for me as well? Do you know that as your confession gushes forth I say “Me too, me too” because I know that being a doctor exempts no one from illness and being a Priest exempts no one from sin? As hard as your words are to say they’re sometimes equally as hard to hear, not because of judgment or frustration or even sadness but because they’re a mirror to me and remind me of my own mortality, of my own need to have someone listen to me as well?

I close my eyes because I want all my thoughts to be directed to you, to really listen and I cover you with my stole because I want you to feel the shelter, and sometimes the words of help come quickly but, more often than not, I just stay silent. The truth is that’s its not about me really, never was. It’s about you coming to know that your darkness is not greater than God’s love, your sins not more powerful His forgiveness, and your brokenness not beyond God’s healing. For you, and me as well.

He was a sinful man, this Zacchaeus, a man who had made a good living at the expense of others, taking money by fraud and force. We’re never given his backstory, how he got into this sordid business, how he lived his life. We only know that one day, driven by something inside, he wanted to see Jesus and his wish was granted although it took a bit of tree climbing.

We know nothing of the conversation he had with our Lord that evening. Still, it must have been profound and touched the deepest part of his heart because the one who loved, even worshipped, money publicly spoke announced his deepest sin, promised to make more than restoration and, in turn, was publicly declared by our Lord, a former traitor to his people, to be a son of Abraham and worthy of grace and forgiveness.

Such things are one of the central themes of our Gospels, the desire, the willingness of our Lord, to seek out, to encounter, to befriend, and to forgive those who were caught in the webs of sin that so easily entangle us even today. To those who sought Him out in the midst of their brokenness he offered, not a glossing over of the things that had torn them apart, but a way out marked by a distinct and direct diagnosis coupled with a grace beyond measure that healed and rendered powerless the illness.

Although we are all bound by sin God sees His image within us and stretches His hands in mercy to restore that which has been marred. Although we all have moments when the sorrows and temptations of the world overcome even our best defenses, He pours oil and wine on the resulting wounds and resolves to care for us until we are restored.

Our Lord sees us as how we will one day be, not this broken and fading body subject to the pounding waves of life’s storms but as radiant, beautiful, the fullness of what we were created to be, the saint, the icon of His glory that is His plan for us. The name Zacchaeus means “pure” and our Lord saw the purity this man who others, even those who claimed a relationship with God, could not see. Our Lord saw not the cheat, the liar, the fraud, but the man who would one day be ordained by the Apostle Peter as the first Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the very same Zacchaeus, who others had given up hope on served our Lord faithfully from that day on and died as his bishop.

It is the same with us as well.

We are afraid. We are embarrassed. The thought of our sins may overwhelm us even as we are hungry, like Zacchaeus, to be rid of their burden, free of their sickness, and released from their chains. I know this because I share those same feelings, that mixture of hope and dread as I approach making my confession as a Priest at the altar. Still, as a sickness has to be named before a proper cure can be found so my sins need to be declared, like Zacchaeus, in the presence of my Lord so that I, too, may be restored as a Child of Abraham and even more as a servant of the One who was Abraham’s hope.

All I can tell you is this. Come. As you stand before the icon of Christ those of us sinners that God has, in His abundance of mercy, granted the grace of the Priesthood are not your judge, your jury, and certainly not your executioner. It is our great and holy duty to, in some small way, be present to and with you as Christ was on that long ago day with Zacchaeus, to listen, to help, to point the way as best we can, and assure you, not because of our worthiness but because of our Lord’s that you are restored and forgiven.

Before the icon of Christ there is grace, mercy, healing, and peace. Before the words of confession come out of your mouth love is already prevailing, wellness is flowing from heaven, and chains are being torn asunder. As you whisper, heaven sings. As you shed tears the waters of your baptism, refreshed by the Holy Spirit, clean you anew. As you, and I, admit where we have fallen, even before the sound comes from our throat our gracious Lord is already lifting us up.

Some say the health of a Church is in the number of people in attendance or the amount of the budget. Perhaps, though, the true measure of a healthy church is in the number of people who come to confession because numbers and money can be a formality but a true confession comes from the heart and reveals a desire to draw near to God that sets both people and parishes alight with a holy fire.

All I can say is “Come”. Don’t be afraid. Your secrets are safe. God’s love for you is undaunted by any of your sins. His grace is beyond measure. You have nothing to lose except those things that were already making you sick, the darkness that took the light from your soul, the guilt that made you miserable, and the chains, so unnecessary, that held you in despair. 

Homily, Myrrh Bearing Women

Sunday of the Myrrh Bearing Women – 2021

Jesus, in His public ministry, was hardly ever alone.

We often have a picture of Jesus and His 12 disciples wandering the Holy Land together almost like an extended camping trip, but even a quick reading of the Gospels reveals this to be a rare occurrence. As Jesus began to teach and heal, he soon attracted attention, and with that notoriety came a certain kind of celebrity, and, of course, the crowds of people who always seemed to be close to wherever He was.   

Jesus last three years on this Earth were often spent in the middle of a crowd. His attempts to have people not publicize the healings and good deeds he did for them were ignored. In the story of the woman with a bleeding illness the Disciples were amazed when Jesus claimed someone had touched him. How could He have known that when he was surrounded by people? To even see Jesus in the throng Zacchaeus had to climb up a tree. The blind man seeking healing resorted to yelling at the top of his voice to get Jesus’ attention. The paralytic’s friends cut the roof off from a house because it was the only way to get him to Jesus. On one occasion Jesus needed to preach from a boat in the Sea of Galilee to avoid the crush.  Several times Jesus was required to miraculously feed thousands of people who came to hear, and see, Him. Before Elvis and the Beatles, Jesus had to endure all the downsides of celebrity including people looking into every nook and cranny of His life for possible scandal.  

There were, of course, times of rest. The Gospels record Jesus going to remote places to pray. Sometimes He took His disciples with Him and other times it appears He was alone. Yet it seems, for the most part, our Lord’s three years of public ministry were in the thick of the crowd, a near constant ebb and flow of people with private times few and far between and constant demands.

And all those people who came to Jesus, who surrounded Him, had as many motivations as there were multitudes. Some had deep needs and had run out of other kinds of help. Some were just curious about who this person was who had attracted so much attention. There was an occasion when the people, who had just witnessed Jesus miraculously feeding a multitude, wanted to make him King because even then there were folks who wanted the government to provide free food. Some, perhaps, wanted to see the “show” and hoped to witness a miracle. There were those who, jealous of Jesus’ teaching and power, followed Him from place to place trying to trap Him in His words and discredit Him. Every person in every crowd had their reasons to be around Jesus, and as famous people through history have often discovered, they mostly wanted whatever they could get from Him.

This, as an aside, is why we Orthodox Christians should, following the example of our Lord, never try to be famous. What seems, in an earthly sense, to at first be interesting and exciting can quickly become a burden and a trap and eventually destroy the person who seeks it. Public acclaim came to Jesus because His words and actions were remarkable, but He appears to have, at best, tolerated it and while He taught and served the masses, He also was remarkably unaffected by either their adulation or scorn. We can learn from this.

There was, however, one group of people who appeared to have been in Jesus’ life who traveled with Him, who followed Him, who served Him, not for what they needed or what they could get but rather for what they could give. We know them in our Tradition as the Myrrh Bearing Women.

The Bible gives us the names of some of them like Mary Magdalene, Salome, the sisters of Lazarus, and, of course, Jesus’ mother, but most of them have remained anonymous except to God. These women, from various backgrounds, became part of Jesus’s circle, something quite unusual for a Rabbi in that era, and provided support for our Lord and His ministry in a variety of ways. They were as essential as any of the Apostles and probably, as they could be, part of the traveling community that went with Jesus throughout the Holy Land. Their allegiance to our Lord was deep and unwavering, their love for Him was sincere, and their commitment firm.

And certainly their brightest moment was at the crucifixion of our Lord when they, unlike the majority of the Apostles, neither denied or fled Jesus but chose, instead, to be with Him, to hear the taunts against Him, to bear witness to His suffering, and to do what they could to support Him when the crowds that had acclaimed Him on Palm Sunday blasphemed Him on Good Friday. When the crowds abandoned Him they, out of a sincere love for Him, remained and when Jesus execution was completed, or rather when Jesus Himself made a completion of it, they took His battered remains and lovingly prepared them for burial.

In Jesus earthly ministry there were multitudes who wanted something from Him, throngs who were attracted to the idea of Him, and perhaps many more who followed Him not for what He was but their own projection of who He should’ve been. Even His closest disciples could fall into that trap. Few, it seems, truly loved Him and fewer still were willing to stand by Him when the fickle nature of celebrity had turned against Him and the crowds that had adored Him for their own reasons abandoned Him for the same. Perhaps this is why, in part, our Lord, after his resurrection, asked Peter three times if he loved Him

And in some ways, nothing has changed.

Jesus is still a kind of celebrity and people talk about Him, read about Him, and often follow Him for what they can get for themselves. They bend and twist His person, His words, His life, to their own ends. They use His name to justify their causes, their politics, and sometimes even their sins. Everyone seems to have their own idea of who He is, or at least who He should be, and what He could or should do for them.

But how many genuinely love Him?

How many of us have Jesus in our lives not for what we can get but purely for our love of Him? How many of us come to church simply to be with Him, to worship Him, and not as a kind of bargain where we trade showing up for His obligation to do nice things for us? How many of us love Jesus as much as our football team or our car? How many of us are perfectly content to bask in His glory but unwilling to share in His humility? And when the tough times come, as they always do, who of us will be willing to, for the sake of love, stand with Him at the cross while the rest of the world rejects Him?

I often ask myself if I truly love Jesus. Is my desire to be with and in Him motivated by anything less than a genuine love? Am I willing to be numbered among His faithful not for what I can get, but for what I can give? Would I be able, like the holy Myrrh Bearing women, to stand at the cross and make it my own? Do I His glory but not His humility? Does my heart truly belong to Him? The only answer I can give to those questions right now is “I’m trying, as best as I can.”

In the days to come as our culture changes,  and being a follower of Christ begins to increasingly carry with it more stigma than approval, more consequences than adulation, all of us will be required to really ponder who, and whose, we are and whether our commitments are rooted in convenience or in a true and living love for Christ.  There may be some very hard moments ahead for us.

And as we are challenged by the reality of our love for Jesus the lives, the works, the voices of these holy women from so long ago are calling out to us, and to me. They set an example we can follow, a path we must also walk, an attitude we must share, a love that must grip our souls and never let go. The spirit of these holy women, their courage, their devotion, their faithfulness even in the face of hostility, needs to become ours, to flow in and through us as Orthodox Christians and as a Parish. Let the crowds think what they want. Let our one love be only for Jesus and in so doing, and so being, may God grant us, even as we come to the tombs, to be filled with Christ’s resurrection.

Homily, March 28, 2021

March 28, 2021

Some thoughts for the younger people in the spring of life and worth the consideration of those of us in our autumn as well.

You’ll be amazed, when you reach 60 or more, how fast the years have passed. In the spring and summer of youth time can seem to stand still.  There’s s so much to experience, to know, to absorb, and to live, and everything seems to be in the moment. It’s an amazing time of life with the potential for adventure, romance, and horizons extending beyond the sky.

Somewhere in your 30’s, though, you’ll start to notice that when you were young and ambitious and busy time was also moving at that same pace. You’ll first see it in the face that looks back at you in the mirror, and then, perhaps in the realization you have children and are more like your parents then you could have ever imagined. When you look up from your work you’ll start to notice the carefree days have slipped into responsible adulthood and your body will remind you that just exercising without warming up is not such a good idea. These are the days when you discover the necessity, and the pleasure, of an afternoon nap and sometimes you may look out your window and wonder where all those kids you hung out with are now, what they’re doing, and if they’re happy.

Those introspections often don’t last too long. After all, there’s soccer practice and extra paperwork from the job, and a lawn needing to be mowed. Someone must pay for that boat you just bought, and the season tickets and that someone is you. As quickly as you begin to ponder about life, the journey, and the deeper meaning of things the thoughts are snatched away by a whirlwind of tasks to maintain everything you have and ensure there’ll be more in the future. Your mortgage is infinitely more effective in getting you up in the morning than any alarm clock. So in to the car you go and off to the office you race and every time you almost get the carrot you discover someone else further up the flow chart has just made the stick a little bit longer.

Over time a kind of world weariness can set in, the adventure begins to dim, and somewhere, in a place you dare not admit exists to even those closest to you, you’ll ask “Is this what it’s all about, is this life?” Is this why I’m here to work and pay and buy and work some more and maybe get a weekend at the cabin every so often? And the possibility the answer is “Yes” can leave you empty inside or even scare the hell out of you because so much has already been invested, so much energy given, so much time spent, so many inevitabilities taken for granted even as we discover a restlessness within, the caged animal feeling of being trapped in a space that tires us even as we feel bound to it hand and foot, body and soul.

Yet within each of us is also a quiet place, a sacred garden, the remnants of a lost Eden, a place of quiet, of peace, a holy ground where God, if we wish it, can walk with us in the cool of the evening and we can be naked and unashamed. And in many moment of solitude, of quiet it will call to us like a distant homeland or the breaking of a morning’s dawn.

This is the place which was washed clean, set right, and returned to its primal holiness in our baptism and filled with the Holy Spirit in our chrismation. It is our heart and soul, a sacred garden and  the true home of the person God meant you to be, the deified body and soul God breathed his life into at the dawn of time and the one your destiny when time gives way to eternity.

Alas, the busyness of life too often takes over. The brokenness, the tasks, the sins, the good things twisted into darkness, and the noise of the world have left our sacred gardens unvisited, untended, choked with weeds, and a remnant of their former beauty. And in the quiet moments, the time away from chasing carrots on sticks God allows us to get a glimpse of that place, and as we do we may, in a moment of sanity, despair at its disrepair even as we long for its glorious holy presence.  We know there is an Eden within and when we come to our senses we weep because we ourselves have chosen to wander away from its pleasantness for the sake of an illusion, a mirage in the desert, a dream that wakes us up shivering in bed.  In the busyness of life we have neglected our salvation, the promise given by angels and reality revealed when Christ walked among us.

Yet all is not lost.

Even in the busyness of life we can, if we wish, return to that sacred garden within. We can still ourselves, our lives, our thoughts, and, in those moments when we reflect only on God, and our life turns from noise to holiness, begin the journey back to what is both our ancestral and heavenly home, the normal that should have always been.  In our Liturgy, before we receive the Holy Gifts we ask as Priests on behalf of you all God’s help in laying aside all earthly cares so we can receive the king of all who arrives on angelic wings and becomes the bread of life. This great grace is not just for the moment of sacred liturgy but also for every day of our life.

We don’t have to be a monastic to seek out and live in the presence of God, to reside, again, in the sacred garden.  We can do so now if we choose, but we must choose, to be still, to set the present aside for a time and to look at ourselves as we really are, how far we’ve come and how far we need to travel, and resolve to become not what the world has told us we must be but rather what a loving God has called us to be in the still, small, voice we can hear even in life’s chatter if we are ready to listen.

We marvel at the words, the lives, of great saints, mothers and fathers of our spiritual life and yet we’ve forgotten these gifts were given to them because they chose to seek them, these miracles were part of their lives because they were open to the possibility, and they could hear the voice of God because they chose to be quiet and listen. They did not neglect their salvation and in return they were lit from within by a holy light.

As we travel through this Lent please understand it’s not the giving up of food and drink so much as making space, again, for God in our lives, to return to the sacred garden within and having a vision of its possibilities and perfections, commit ourselves to pulling out the weeds, watering the ground, and rejoicing in it’s beauty.  One can follow the diet to perfection and if there is no time or place to be present with God it’s futility at best. That time with God, without agenda, without any other purpose than to be with and in Him is Lent’s object and the source of all holy endeavor. Without it even the good things we do are just that, things.

And the truth is, once having returned to our inner sacred garden everything else finds its perspective.  The things we often thought so important because the TV told us they were will lose their value. Every bauble that once caught our eye will fade as we gaze on the face of our Savior. Yes, we will live in the world as we must but we will live differently because we’ve already found our place, our destiny, and our home. The world may scream and holler at us but in the quiet holiness of our recovered Eden the power of those voices will dissolve. We may labor for our daily bread but that labor will be filled with joy as it becomes absorbed into the greater heavenly labor of prayer, worship, stillness, and the holy. We may question the meaning of our lives because this is a human thing to do but within our hearts we will know we need no longer be restless because we have found our rest in God.  We may wonder sometimes who we are but in that sacred garden our Lord will tell us the only words we need to hear on the matter, “You are mine and I am yours, forever.”

Those who seek will find. Those who ask will find answers. Those who knock will have the door opened. And those whose only and basic desire is to know and love God will find themselves and eternity as well.

When You’re a Young Man…

you want to love and be loved but to find someone to teach you how requires wading through a world of rock stars, pornographers, and people as clueless as yourself. Under their twisted supervision earnest seekers become victims and then victimizers as everyone is doing what the movies, songs, and buddies tell them they’re supposed to but no one is really happy and more than a few are broken in the process. The only escape seems to be more of the same, the illusion that the next one will be the real one yet it never seems to be ever happen that way.

If I could speak back through time to my younger self I would tell that person the hunger to be loved, to be touched, to encounter another, is perfectly real and good. Still, great care has to be taken with that fire so that it warms without consuming everything in its path.

I would say do things in the reverse of what the rock stars, pornographers, and clueless tell you. Seek out the spirit of the other, their goodness, all the qualities that attract you to them. Seek that first and let the physical, no matter how demanding it may be, rest, for later, for better. Any two can, in any moment, produce an ecstasy but there is so much more to love than that and becoming the soul mates you want, you need, takes time, takes genuine engagement with the other, and a willingness to build a life, and not just a moment, together.

I would also say “Look for the beauty of the soul” because the time of smooth skin and youthful vigor is very short indeed while a good heart lasts well beyond those days. If all that matters is physical charm your days of “love” will be very brief. Aim, instead, for everything that matters, everything that lasts.

Finally, find the “sweet spot” and let your teachers in all of this be somewhere in between those who are obsessed with exploring and engaging every possible passion and pleasure and those who see love and sex as necessary evils. A wise person is somewhere between a prude and a pervert, someone who understands the great gift of love, of sex, but also sees a much larger picture, the goodness of it all and, indeed, the holiness that is possible. If your teachers are those who truly seek out the Creator, the God who created us to love and touch and be sexual they will often naturally be in that “sweet spot” and their knowledge can save your heart, your soul, and your life if you are willing to accept it.

This, I would say to my younger self, will help you find not just what you want but what you need.

If I could…

go back I think I’d only wish to change the times I did hurtful things to others or said unkind words. Everything else could stay the same.

The difficulty with that, of course, is the impossibility of it happening. Hard things done and hurtful words said are released into lives and can never truly be retrieved. Three things, though, provide some hope.

The first is that from time to time a person actually does get the opportunity to apologize and at least try to make things right. Seize those moments whenever you can.

The second is that time, the medium into which hard deeds and hurtful words is cast, is also a potential healer. Time gives people, even the hurting, a place to reflect, to understand, to grow, and to overcome. Time does heal, not always, but it can.

The third is heaven. For those wounds inflicted for which there is no possible apology or those which time cannot heal there is a place where, as we often say, “All sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away…” If life takes those I have hurt beyond my reach and time cannot heal I, at least, can pray fervently that those who I, in my own brokenness, have inflicted myself upon could at know and find heaven after the brevity of this life and perhaps there we both can find what eluded us along the journey here.

The Truth Is…

most of us, almost all of us, will eventually be forgotten.

We’re born into a moment of history in a place and a time. Things happen to us and we change things ourselves in ways large, sometimes, but mostly small and then, when our time is done we exit. We go one way and the rest of the world another. The dead rest and fade away, even the tombstones will one day crumble to dust, and the living keep on living until their turn comes.

For a while we’ll be remembered and missed. But as the years march on the people who recall us will themselves be recalled and each generation that fades away dilutes the recollections. A fortunate few will leave something behind but most will not and all of us will become anonymous as time does it’s inevitable work. Even the Beatles will one day be forgotten.

We humans know this somewhere inside, in a place we don’t often visit and basically never want others to see. It makes us afraid, sometimes, to think of being extinguished or sorrowful in the recognition of our, sooner than we can imagine, disappearance. Indeed we rage against the dying of the light.

It would overwhelm us, it does overwhelm us, except for the possibility of Pascha, of something more, of resurrection. One can choose, I suppose, to be outrageous, to be affluent, to be infamous, to embrace celebrity even at the cost of our soul for the sake of being remembered, of being something more. Yet there may be more.

What if our memory, everything we will ever be, could be placed not in the human hands but God’s? What if our treasure, everything we could accomplish, could be stored away in a place currently invisible but most certainly real? What if this is just a beginning, this life, and not the sum total of everything there is? What if Pascha, resurrection, was not just an event of the past or a hope for the future but a way of life where existence is not measured in months and years but in eons and stages and everything we are, if its given to God, remains in His memory forever?

Tonight it will be Pascha again. Easter. For those who understand the Sun will rise at midnight and for those willing to grasp it comes the truth that there’s so much more, so very much more indeed.

January 23

Only you, Lord, do I seek,

My haven, my rest, my constant in change.

Only you, Lord, do I seek,

My spring in the desert, my gentle snow.

In the night when my soul is tired I find your rest.

In the day when work encompasses me I know your strength.

In my broken moments you are oil and wine

When I am deceived you lead me home.

Only you, Lord, do I seek,

My calm on the ocean of life.

Only you, Lord, do I seek,

My life stronger than death.