I Hate My Country…

sometimes. We can be a very selfish people, self-centered, greedy, and given to violence. Often we seem like a culture with only goods and services and no soul, no heart, and nothing beyond the next gadget to buy. We can be promiscuous and vile, indulgent to our every whim as if it were the entire definition of our existence, and every feeling has become, for us, an ultimate truth to be defended at all costs.

I love my country…

because there is amazing beauty here, everything from the arctic to the tropical in one country. There is goodness here, as well, and if you understand that the movies, the TV, and the news aren’t documentaries so much as lurid attempts to get you to watch you’ll notice kindness, civility, charity, and friendliness in many places. We’re always among the most charitable nations on Earth and even though we could always do more we’re still moved by the poverty and tragedy of others. We forget them sometimes, but we really do have high ideals and there are very few countries that are as diverse of people, faith, and vision and yet have somehow still found a way to be together.

And because I love my country I recognize everything that’s wrong but still believe in what’s good and right and decent about us all. I enjoy traveling the world but this is home and I plan on fighting for the best of it, not with force or violence but by trying to be the best and most honorable person I can and by living my Faith to the greatest extent possible. I can’t control the past, but today, and the future, are surely something I can make better. And every time in the Liturgy when we pray for our nation, its leaders, the armed forces, every city and countryside and the faithful who dwell in them, I’ll mean it like I always have and perhaps even more.

There are moments…

black-and-white-pictures-phone-34252.jpgwhen I wonder if it’s too late. If the decline and fall has been too great. If the hate is too strong. If the sickness is too deep. If the case is terminal.

There are moments when I light a candle at church and just throw up a prayer for any and everything because I’m not sure what else to say other than “God you know and because you know you care and will handle things…”

There are moments when the world I knew as a child seems like a million years ago and the world I know now is a stranger to me, a place I inhabit like a permanent tourist seeing the sights but never really sleeping in my own bed.

Hearts have grown cold. Apathy is the cure for despair. And more often than I would like to admit, I’m tired. Yet I know there is Light somewhere and everything pure and holy may be deeply hidden but still visible to the discerning eye. So I keep praying, and looking.

Perhaps the only and best thing for me is to keep close to whatever Light I find and keep it lit as a gift to people yet born who will rediscover and rekindle it for themselves. If nothing happens in my lifespan it will at least be something to leave behind, a treasure infinitely more important than money.

Perhaps, too, in my journeys I will discover fellow travelers and for brief moments in time when our lives intertwine we can see what the future will one day be in the shared warmth of our holy flame.

Regardless, I have no intention of giving up. In a plan larger than my own I was brought into the world in this time and so everything, my purpose, my hope, and my reasons are all here. By God’s grace I plan to make the most of it and leave the rest up to heaven.

Perhaps that’s part of what they mean by the word “Faith.”

I was 17…

when I had my first encounter with death, not the movie or funeral home kind of death but the real thing as in a person without breath, without color, their mouth frozen open as they were when their soul left the body. That was my job in high school, a nursing assistant, and while others my age were figuring out how to ask someone to a date I was learning how to properly clean and present the dead while we waited for the funeral home.

In my early years in ministry death was there as well. The call in the night. The bedside vigil. Watching, praying, trying to think of something that would help as the person moved from this life to the next. Mostly peaceful, sometimes violent, always in the understanding that sometime profound had happened, perhaps the most profound thing of all.

The sad truth is that I don’t even remember all of them, the bodies I washed, the vigils I kept, the funerals I’ve done. The traumatic ones have stayed. Those I watched over who were close to me remain. Others, sadly, have been lost to time and only remain in God’s memory. Each has left their mark. The first was an older lady well into her dementia. The most violent was a man who died in front of me as he coughed up his lungs into a towel I was holding because it happened so suddenly we couldn’t even get him to bed. The saddest were the man who I watched die in the middle of DT’s in his middle 40’s and the old man I sat with in the Kansas nursing home who had suffered his whole life with both mental illness and the tragic stigma that it came with in those days. Lately, even though I work with Seniors and people who are dealing with sometimes chronic illness, I’ve largely been spared yet the memories remain because once you see death up close and for real everything changes.

Death is hardly ever like the old movies where a person sort of tips their head to one side, after a few last words, and then look like they go to sleep. Death is sometimes traumatic, violent, and bloody, where the life, by virtue of that trauma, is forcibly removed. Death from illness can be long and drawn out, sometimes taking years as the life slowly trickles out from the one who is sick. The body grows weaker and simply can no longer sustain itself. Sometimes death comes quickly with the first and last signs of its arrival only minutes apart. There are as many ways, and combinations of ways, for people to die as there are people and so even if the causes are identical the actual dying may never be.

Death strikes fear in us. Death is the ultimate threat. Yet death is not without its wisdom and the discerning can learn from it if they’re willing to spend the time contemplating it. As people get older, of course, they do this simply by looking in the mirror but one does not have to wait for the obvious signs of their mortality staring back at them to begin to get the larger picture.

You will die and so will I. Outside the intervention of God every single human being will die. It may be sooner, it may be later, but the fight for life will end and you will lose, at least in the short term. I remember seeing a tee shirt that said “Eat right, exercise, die anyways” and that shirt is 100 percent correct. A thought like that can make one morbid, obsessively introspective, and prone to despair because there is truth to it. Life really is short, often troubled, and eventually ends. Or it can set you free if take it just one step further and realize that since life really can be short, often troubled, and does end, there are so many things you think are important, things you’ve been told or tell yourself, that just simply, in the bigger picture, aren’t. As you come to realize this they lose their power over you, they lose the ability to compel and imprison you. It really is true, you can’t take it with you, so why get too upset if you don’t have it now and if you do have it why tie yourself to the chase of getting more instead of sharing? Death will take everything from you that doesn’t truly matter, that’s not eternal, but everything that matters is both good in this life and remains.

The Psalmist asked God to teach him to number his days so he could increase in wisdom. In Orthodoxy we talk about this as the contemplation of our own death not as a morbid thought rooted in brokenness and despair but rather as that which can, properly understood, be the wings we’ve always wanted to fly high and clear from the sad, broken, gravity of the world as it is. The wisest of people live life as if they are dying because, quite frankly, they are, but they do this not as simple thrill seekers trying to pack in as much “life” before the end but rather as souls who realize where, and in Whom, life in its fullness actually occurs and, that in finding that eternal “more” they find life here as well.

 

If You Care…

as an Orthodox Christian in America, about your country, there is something you might not have considered. If this country is to change we must evangelize and plant churches everywhere we can.

Yes, voting and being engaged in the political processes with a fully informed Orthodox Christian conscience is important. Still, healthy cultural change almost always comes from the bottom up and not the top down. Remember, the Roman Empire, consumed like our culture with bread and circuses,  was transformed by everyday people of Orthodox Christian faith long before St. Constantine embraced the Faith as emperor. Often, in truth, it is the leaders in a society who are the last to change because their power and their livelihood is rooted in the old order.

However, each person who is won to Christ by our loving and truthful witness is a seed of change and each community we create, each church, becomes a collective expression of that change, the Kingdom of God, providing hope, sustenance, and witness to the light of Christ. The more of each the greater potential there is for not just personal but national transformation.

And so, despite the temptation, and we know the source of that temptation, to hunker down, see to only our own needs, and minimize what that temptation identifies as risk, we need to do something different, higher, and better. The whole thought of our Church in this land needs to be redirected towards mission and evangelism.

Long gone are the days when we could gather ethnics together and hope that they would have children enough to start and grow a parish. Indeed, many of the children we counted on to make this work have left the Faith entirely. Also gone are the days when we could hope to concentrate our people and resources in one large pool often at great distances from the actual or potential faithful. Those models have left us with a faith that is a distinct, and often largely unknown, minority in this country. Repeating those models won’t  change that.

Please also understand that this country has long ceased to be a Christian country in any meaningful sense of the word. Ask yourself as you look around “Are the things you see happening indicative of a culture where Christian ideals are norms?” Don’t  let the many churches you see lead you to overestimate the actual presence of the Faith. A good number of those communities are deeply compromised by the spirit of this age, others, including Orthodox ones, are asleep in the light and their lukewarm life means little even within their own walls. The truth is that America is a mission field, the largest English speaking pagan country in the world and a place where the practicing Orthodox Christian community is a small fraction of the whole.

Yet God is good and there is always hope.

It starts with prayer, the mere act of which draws us closer to God and helps us to see reality, as it were, through His eyes. As we draw closer to God we begin to understand the world around us as God does and when we begin to act on that vision we become transformed and in that transformation other lives begin to change as well.

For example, in drawing close to God we can begin to understand that the people around us, like we ourselves, have needs that only God can meet. The things of the Faith, things which our culture often sees as curiosities at best, become deeply meaningful and profound as we put them in to practice and our sharing them with others, even if they’re  not from our tribe, becomes a joyful overflowing of the water of life we discover within us.

The changes will come in small doses at first, little flickering lights of people who desire God and who, in desiring God, begin to pray and live our Faith. In time the joy of this becomes contagious and person after person in even the most dry parish begin to be transformed and in that transformation the love of God within starts flowing out to others in word and deed. Eventually whole parishes awake from their complacency with a new vigor, a vigor that includes sharing the Faith with others and transforming communities. With many small nudges even the largest of ships can change direction.

As this holy fire spreads people, like the early Christians, will become unafraid of lovingly sharing the gift of Life they’ve  been given. When the request comes to support a good work or plant a new parish they will respond with generosity and fervor. Large and wealthy churches will be embarrassed, in a good way, if they don’t support missions and church planting. Those who truly understand will actively seeking out people from within their own ranks to form the nucleus of new communities. Men who attend our seminaries to become Bishops and Priests will not be trained so much as maintainers of institutions as missionaries because, in truth, mission within and without the parish walls is both the command of Christ and at the core of life. Parish councils and leaders will include, as this wind of God blows free again, outreach to the world as part of the core of everything they do and the souls of their neighbors considered as worthy of time, effort, and resources, as their own.

I know some folks will be the first to say this can’t  be done. I have no intention of changing their minds because only God can do that. At the same time there will be people reading this who understand and hope for exactly what I’ve been talking about because in truth none of this is original or exclusive to me. To those people I say this “Your hunger for God, for beauty and holiness in yourselves and the Church, and your compassion for those outside the walls of your parish is natural, normal, and, in fact, a mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.” Spiritual apathy, deadness, and accommodation, even if they are prevalent, are not the normal lot for Christians. Without judging others nurture the holy fire within you and give it away as often as you can to everyone without regard for what you see in them in the present. Lift up your church and your leaders in prayer and be the change God wishes you to be wherever you are.

Things are dicey now, for sure. At times it may seem hopeless but with and in God there is no such thing as hopelessness. We need to get busy, to lovingly reach out to our culture in crisis by sharing the Gift we’ve  been given and as we do we ourselves and the world around can never be the same.

 

Kids These Days…

It’s kind of “in” these days to speak about the millenials and snowflakes and kids in college who need “safe zones” so they won’t hear “microaggressive” things that may make them have an emotional reaction to whatever doesn’t agree with their world views. They’re really low hanging fruit, actually, when it comes to critique, yet we’ve forgotten something.

Whose kids are these? Who taught them to be this way? Who raised these “snowflakes” to be the kind of people we now love to mock?

Well, actually, we did.

It’s just a natural fact that a generation gets its cues from the ones prior to it. How to live, love, learn, grow, and how to face the world are not something that comes instinctually to humans, someone in the years it takes to make a mature human has to show the way and the product we see in the present is the result of what happened along that way.

Now it’s easy to be aghast at some of the people we see at campuses around the country, adult in body but childlike in the worst sense of that word when it comes to emotions, expression, and the logic needed to function in reality. Some of these people really are a kind of horror. Yet they are also a mirror that exposes us as well, the people who raised them and the people who have taught them to be what we now see. These perpetual adolescents didn’t come from outer space, they came from our homes, our schools, our houses of worship, and our families.

And that’s where the restoration has to start as well.

Welcome Chreasters…

About this time of year (Orthodox Holy Week) we start seeing people in church who seem unfamiliar. Some, of course, are people looking in to Orthodoxy. Because the Western and Eastern Holy Weeks are often on a different  calendar people from other Christian communities interested in the Faith will take advantage of the opportunity to visit and learn.

Others, though, will be people who’s connection to our Faith is only partial, those who occasionally visit especially on days like Christmas and Easter (Pascha). Some of these “Chreasters,” the Christmas and Easter attenders, learned this from their own less than fully engaged families. Some have been hurt in the Church and can only bear to be present a few times a year. Others may have a hidden guilt or sense of unworthiness that contributes to a feeling of not being good enough. There are as many reasons as there are people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter.

As a Priest who sees these unfamiliar faces around this time of year I have only one thing to say. “Welcome!” I’m glad that you’ve  come to be with us even for these few holidays. Of course I’d  like you to be with us more often, there is a great blessing in regularly being with people seeking God, but however and whenever and in whatever place you are in I’m  glad you’ve chosen to be with us and we are blessed by your presence.

Something inside inspired you to come to church and you listened to it. That’s a beautiful start. Keep on listening to that still, small, voice calling you to seek God because that’s  the voice that’s been at the beginning  of many powerful human transformations. It can be the voice of Love calling you to discover love. It can be the greatest need of your heart seeking to find the only One who can help you find rest.

Whether you come a few times or often, from devotion or curiosity, in brokenness or vitality, God loves you and welcomes you to a journey of being taken from wherever you are to the good place He wants you to be. Our doors will be open as often as possible and our hearts as well. If the Easter service is your first of the year you are invited. If you only come to church when there’s  trouble, the invitation still stands. Of course we’re  open throughout the year but whenever you come you are still God’s, and our, honored guest.

Don’t  be ashamed. Don’t  be frightened. Don’t  worry about being perfect. Just come, and know that some of the greatest and most blessed things happen when you take walk in to an Orthodox church.