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.

Some might ask

if God is judging America and if the truth be known I don’t think so. My thought is that God is just, after we’ve had our tantrums,  letting have what we think we want and  the chaos and trouble we experience are the result. At some point in the future when we realize the reality of our what our choices have made happen God will be there ready to receive us back from our prodigal travels.

To Be Honest…

I’m disappointed with America right now, what we’ve become, the lengths it seems we’ve fallen from the good and how what is happening with us affects the larger world. Our freedom is becoming more and more about license and entitlement, our wealth is less about charity and more about hoarding, and our technology is slowly changing from servant to master. Our chief exports seem to be war and moral decay. Our chief imports are whatever toys we can get the poor and oppressed of the world to make for us at a price point to occupy us while our hearts empty and the world around us burns.

Trump and Clinton, we like to point out their mistakes, their scandals, their moral challenges, but they are us and we are them. They are a mirror for all of us and yet we don’t seem to understand that the person we see as we look is actually ourselves. We’ve got some rough years ahead and we may never remember to pull the chute as we free fall because we’re so busy looking at our phones on the way down.

The sadder part is that while this has been happening the church has often been the chaplain for the whole process of decay. Many churches are deeply compromised and, in fact, have become places where there is a veneer of Christian ritual covering a substance that is deeply and profoundly disconnected from the actual content of the Faith itself. Where there is a substance of Faith there is often a mass complacency to the real nature of the times, a denial of what is really happening around us and a bunker mentality that increasingly isolates us from the people who need us most, the lost, the confused, the massive numbers of people who are victims of these times.

Someone, and I forgot who it was said “Americans will do the right thing, after they’ve done everything else.” I think there is some truth to this. Perhaps, in time, the pain we’ve brought on ourselves from our continuing experiments in selfishness and decadence will finally get to be so high that some of us will start to think the unthinkable, the possibility that we were wrong when we thought that getting rid of the standards tested in time and the crucible of real world experience, the traditions if you will, was a bad idea. Already the cracks in our new world order are beginning to show and eventually even massive doses of TV and weed will not be able to medicate the pain.

Until that time we in the church need to strive as best as we broken people can to live the gift we’ve been given and share it at every opportunity. The times call for courageous, loving, and transparent people to stand for something that is very unpopular right now, the idea that there are things in the human experience that transcend the individual, things larger and more true than any emotion, purchase, urge, or perceived need. Your culture will find ways, at the present, to punish you for this because you will be, wherever you are, the child that reminds the emperors of this world that they really don’t have any clothes. Your mere presence will be an irritant to those who plan on making fortunes for themselves while the culture goes bankrupt, forgetting of course that the bankrupt culture will eventually make paupers of them as well. The way you live your life will be an affront to people who believe that power over others is the way to their utopia by eliminating the dissent that reminds them of their own emptiness.

So, there is hope but it will be hope realized in long term, peaceful, and activist struggle. The struggle of those who are looking for sanity to achieve it for themselves and then the struggle to change the world around them by sharing that sanity one person at a time until it prevails. Those who choose to take on the struggle will need to understand that for years they may have to be on the outside looking in as they make the deliberate choice to live as exiles in their own land until the day its soul destroying tendencies can be healed. For the churches that remain faithful there will have to be an almost entire change of vision, a reorientation towards the understanding that this America is already a pagan land, as it were, and that, far from being acceptable and normal in these times, we are a community often at radical dissonance with the world around us, a revolutionary body who have been called to be salt and light in ways that will make us uncomfortable as we are torn from our isolation and complacency. In the end only the churches that have refused to baptize the brokenness of this culture will have any meaning, substance, or even existence and we have to daily make a choice what kind of church we will be.

I’m disappointed in America right now. While in the larger and eternal scheme of things nations don’t matter because they’re temporary entities subject to change they can, in any one moment of time, be part of the larger human good. Right now this America I live in is often not. The only remedy I can see is to be fully a citizen of my actual and permanent country, the observant Christian will understand what I am saying, and that by doing so transform my temporary one.

Long live the revolution!

 

Ecumenical Martyrdom

In these last years as we have heard, seen, and read the stories of Christians martyred across the world something interesting seems to be happening. The stories are being covered by all kinds of media across the spectrum of the Christian world and basically all of it speaks of these martyrs as Christians regardless of the particular label. The usual rhetoric that divides us has given way, in some ways, to an understanding that we have a unity, if not in doctrine at least in blood.

Of course we identify the people who are killed by their community, still there also seems to be a shared sense of commonality among all of us in the observant Christian community for the fate of these people and a realization of some sense of kinship in the growing sense that we, too, whatever out particular communion, could be one day the people in the cross hairs of some effort to eliminate us. If our shared faith doesn’t bind us our potential shared fate could.

My community is Orthodox and yet we have commemorated in our prayers of the Great Entrance the Catholic nuns who were murdered in Yemen not as “Papist Heretics” but as those who were killed for their faith in Christ. No, they won’t be officially listed on the “rolls” as it were of martyrs and if and when the Roman Catholic church recognizes their sainthood our recognition will wait until some far off council where, if it were possible, some kind of union between the Catholic and Orthodox communions could happen. I’m not holding my breath on that one but until then I can at least recognize that these nuns, and so many others like them, have served Christ to the end and that sacrifice can be something that binds us together, a shared experience, a shared threat even, that helps us to see the faith in the other, the reality of Christ in the other, in ways that comfort and ease have not.

 

 

It’s a Crazy World Out There…

and a lot of people are shouting trying to be heard. Only God seems quiet these days as our culture seems to find ways to the bottom and then start digging. Yet, is that so?

I’m no prophet but the signs of the times in the United States appear to point to an era where observant Christians will no longer find support from the most of the major institutions of this culture, including many churches. Corporations, media, governments, and academia in many places are either not supportive of our lives, our visions, or our lifestyles, and often can be directly hostile. Truly the world of my childhood when towns were basically closed on Sundays is long gone and, in my lifetime, will never return.

So its a wilderness life for us until our culture cracks and breaks under the pressure of the many forms of brokenness that come to pass when people ignore the lived experiences of people over time we call tradition. It’s already starting as our nation, having jettisoned any idea of an overarching narrative informed by the graces of Christianity is becoming more diseased and turning on itself. Sanity will come, of course, but not after some years of tribulation while the old lessons being ignored are relearned through pain.

It can be all quite frightening to watch. Sad, as well. What kind of person can watch a society come unraveled without having some kind of compassion, especially a Christian? Yet, is it possible that in all the storms and hubbub God is not silent, but gently calling those who still seek Him to something beautiful, real, and holy. Stripped of all the trappings of the world’s support, could it be that we are being called back to our first loves, not the least of which may be the simple rediscovery of God?

We American Christians can make such an idol of our country, so much that we mistake its values for what should be our own, it’s ideals for ours, and it’s way of life for the life of Christ. That might be why so many of us are actually shocked and traumatized to discover that this culture in which we had put so much hope is starting to turn on us and one day might even use its power to make us outcasts in our own land.

Yet, our home, as observant Christians, was never truly in this land or any other for that matter. We belong to a Kingdom that can live in this world but ultimately is beyond it. If it is our lot to be exiles in this country the blessing in it may be that we rediscover Whose we are, who we are, and the very core of Truth about God, ourselves, and this world that’s been buried under the weight of an increasingly consumer and decadent culture.

The world is crazy, and I think, sadly, that we’ve not even come close to the end of the shouting all around us. Still, God is there, alive, present, and quietly inviting us to come to Him and find the real rest we’ve been seeking. In the end that still, small, voice, may be just exactly what we need to hear and the one place of true rest in a world of storms.

 

 

Many Years Ago…

guns were available at hardware and sporting goods stores, no background check and all the ammunition you could afford. Walk in, buy, walk out. You could even order them via catalog if you didn’t want to leave the house. My grandfather, as a young man, even had access to dynamite to help remove stumps from the ground.

Yet, no mass shootings basically anywhere. So what’s the difference between then, in the freewheeling bad old days of virtually no gun control and now? I don’t think its the guns. I do think its us.

The one difference I can see between then and now is that back then there was a larger moral framework rooted in a Judaeo Christian ethic where “Thou shalt not kill (murder)” was still taken seriously, and even the mobsters took care to follow it in their own way by trying to minimize “civilian” casualties.

Leap forward to now and that narrative is largely gone, done in by a culture where even some sense moral and social caution is identified as repression, where human identity is entirely divorced from any concept of the image of God and reduced to a basic consumer equation, and violence as a routine solution to human challenges has filled the moral vacuum with a hundred little deaths and, from time to time, explosions of death that make the headlines.

Politicians, bathed in this culture, see only more and different kinds of laws as the solution because they have forgotten about, or deliberately sought to undermine, the law inside a human heart. A moral human, properly formed, encouraged, and supported by a larger spiritual and ethical imperative, will hesitate to do violence even when its tools are close at hand but a person who has no  proper morals, and lives in a culture where there is no larger context than how a person feels at any given moment, will use any tool at hand and no law can, or will, stop them. Witness the couple in San Bernadino who obtained the weapons used in the horrific crime outside of the existing laws.

No, I’m not advocating a weapons free for all. What I am advocating is something that most politicians, pundits, and sometimes even preachers have forgotten. We need a moral revival, a return to a larger moral narrative that affirms human life, impresses a moral responsibility on its members to strive above all to do no harm, and calls us away from our consumer driven, violence saturated, world. That revival will start when Christians decide to be Christians again and churches do the same.

 

 

 

 

Pray for Charlie…

Pray, first, because we are more alike than different. Given the money, fame, and access, which one of can say with certainty that we could have kept the powers of sin, struggle, and addiction away from our lives? Even without them we often fall so it is perhaps a grace that we don’t have more and thereby increase our risk.

Pray, again, because more than likely that wealth and access will be quickly gone and the fame will grow very shallow. There will be lawsuits by those who were deceived and damaged. There will be opportunities lost and expenses incurred. When the good times stop the good time friends may disappear, replaced by a kind of loneliness softened only by the discovery of those who were true and good all the time.

Pray, some more, because these wonderful drugs that keep people alive also rule the lives of those who take them. Life is measured by the dates and times and doses and everything must be done with great precision and little spontaneity Far away from the lights and the public persona there will always be a Charlie who knows that his life hangs by a pharmaceutical thread and even the lowest of viral loads doesn’t mean that this infection is gone, just hidden somewhere in a quiet spot where the current tests still can’t reach. This will be his life.

Pray, as well, because the potential of his life is still enormous. Sanity, health, and wholeness are often found through difficult circumstances and as long as there is life there is always hope. Truly, as St. Augustine is reputed to have said “There is no Saint without a past or a sinner without a future.”  God is not done with any one of us and neither is he done with Mr. Sheen.

Pray, finally, for ourselves. Seeing someone struggle and bear the consequences of that struggle should never elicit any thought or emotion in us save for humility in knowing that we, too, are capable of our own kinds of struggles, sins, and darkness. Yes, perhaps this was not our particular sin but we each have our own and in their own way they are deadly to us as well.

If he were here, I guess I would say only this to Charlie,  “God loves you more than you can possible imagine and His grace is greater than any darkness you or I may wrestle with in our lives. There is better for you if you want it and God’s door is always open.”