Ghana Beckons…

like Alaska and Uganda before, their beauty, their people, the Faith we share and the service we can give.

The bags are almost packed, every vaccine has been given, and there are gifts waiting to be shared. It’s a week and change at a youth camp, the first of its kind in a country where Orthodoxy is young and the horizons are vast and broad. Everything we have is needed and much of what we carry will be left there.

In days the planes will take us from across the country to Florida for a brief stop to meet and make plans. Then on to New York, Amsterdam, and Accra, all in one airborne day. One night’s sleep and we’ll already be about our tasks, sharing our lives, and building relationships. Just servants, I guess, to something larger and greater than ourselves, and servants, too, to people we have yet to meet and whom we’ll never forget.

In time faster we can imagine we trace the route back, Accra to Amsterdam and then departing each back to our home in separate ways, one long last flight home to those who are holding the fort while we were gone. Yet having done this before I know all of us will never quite be home in our entirety again. A part of us will remain in Ghana, people, faces, emotions, memories, and a bit of our heart. Once having gone you can never completely come back but that’s how it’s supposed to be.

The bags are on my living room floor, just a few more things to pack before everything starts in motion. Nervous? A little. Excited? A lot. Ready? I guess as ready as I’ll ever be.

Godspeed, and in your mercy, Lord, watch over everyone I leave behind.

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.”

On Children and the Eucharist

There’s a child in your arms, or perhaps in front of you, a squirmy little person accompanying you to receive the Eucharist. With each step you draw closer to the Priest and now the moment has arrived. The spoon draws closer and…

People are sometimes surprised at the communing of infants and young children in an Orthodox church but it’s something we encourage and hope develops into a lifelong positive spiritual encounter. Yet people sometimes wonder what do with their child when the time comes to receive the Holy Gifts. As a Priest of a decade plus I have some ideas.

The first is that you, as a parent, be a regular communicant yourself. More than anything else your children will learn, not from your words, but your actions. If they see you receiving the Eucharist often they will become comfortable with the same. The youngest, especially, need to be assured that everything is “okay” and you can do this by taking the Eucharist often, and when they are with you, before they do so they know what to do and how to do it.

Never force a child to receive the Eucharist. I have seen parents tilt a crying child back and force their mouths open and every time that happens I cringe. That sends a terrible message about what the Eucharist is and, quite frankly, who God is and the trauma can be difficult for a child to shake. I know you want your child to comply and I know you want to child to receive the blessing of the Eucharist. Force, though, never helps.

You don’t have to lift the child up under the arms so I can reach them. I am more than happy to bend down and let them take the Holy Gifts standing up. If you have an infant, of course, you can hold them in your arms but toddlers are perfectly welcome to “toddle” up and I will go to meet them. In fact one of my great joys is to bend down to meet a child where they are with the Eucharist. It’s good for me, and them, spiritually. Me to reach to them and for them to stand as a person in their own right.

Don’t be embarrassed about crying, whiny, or wiggly babies. That’s what they do and I’m not bothered by it in the least. I will adjust to them and do my best. If they really don’t want to receive, for whatever reason, I will bless them and we can both move on. The vast majority of the people in the church won’t care about babies and their noises and if someone complains I can talk to them privately later. You don’t have to have a perfect kid to come up front, and you don’t have top be perfect either because I certainly am not.

Finally, always bring your children to church for any service. The seeds you plant in these days will bear fruit well into eternity. It’s okay if they’re being kids sometimes. It can’t always be helped. Do your best and know that our doors are always open to you and your children every time the church is open.

 

 

Of Cemeteries and Life…

old_headstone.jpg

The miles passed beneath our wheels as we headed west from the city to the Minnesota prairie. Among the towns that dot the rolling hills and open sky is Osakis, a small dot on the map with a life all its own, a town nurtured first by farms and then by tourists who come to the lake just off of downtown.

There were things for us to do in Osakis, possessions to clear away and graves to clean after the winter snows left them inaccessible. A family member had died in that same winter, just before Christmas past, and before the family went their separate ways for the summer there were things to handle. So back home we went past farms and fields to a place rich, like many small towns, with the memories of people who long ago left but somehow still feel they belong.

Arriving, we sat for a while and filled the air with small talk first putting boxes of knick knacks together for a rummage sake and then gathering in the car for the trip to the graves. In a small town nothing at least the cemeteries are not far away and in the time for a sentence or two we were at the graves of grandparents on the Protestant side of the family. We stood for a while and retold a few stories about who, and when, and where, put the flowers in place and then returned to the car. Next was a brother of the family, by himself in a cemetery west of town, a new one because even if prairie towns don’t grow their cemeteries can and do. Arriving we repeated both the rituals and the stories as we looked around the cemetery.

Here there was a stone for a baby who lived just over a week. They would have been in high school and driving now had death not intervened. A few feet away was the grave of a young man around 20. Pulling aside a metal cover you could still see a color photograph of a boy, really, who’s journey stopped for reasons that weren’t shared but at the bottom of his stone was an inscription “Mike, my friend, my friend.”

In what seemed like no time at all after leaving we were at our final destination. My father in law had died in 1985, his wife just before last Christmas. After decades apart they were finally next to each other in presence as they had been in spirit for all those years. There were flowers for that grave, too, and thoughts among us because the memories of her passing were still so fresh. Around that grave there were others of the family, each of them eliciting a story. For the most part they were pleasant but some were hard because lasts longer than death but so do some kinds of wounds. No one cried, though, because I suppose we all felt some pang but we also knew that this was the way things are.

Not too far away from these family graves are the graves my wife and I will one day inhabit. They sit on a hill overlooking a lake in the farm country a few miles south of Osakis. I know there are more years behind than ahead of me and that perhaps, one day, some members of the family will visit my resting place, clean the headstone, and put up some flowers. My hope is that anyone who comes will hear what I hear when I visit the graves of those I love, a voice of hope from heaven and the insistent whisper of God reminding us all to live holy, true, and well.

 

 

It’s in the Book…

and that’s part of the reason we Orthodox Christians call Mary the Theotokos (God bearer) and venerate her.

The Reading is from Luke 1:39-49, 56

In those days, Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” And Mary remained with her about three months, an d returned to her home.

As I Limp…

from place to place, not in agony but rather with the kind of nagging awareness of the disintegration of my right knee over the past few years, there are times when I wish I could be one of those fortunate souls that is miraculously healed.

I imagine standing at the Liturgy or in some moment of prayer and feeling something change, a warmth maybe or some kind of sign and then feeling the pain disappear with the later befuddled confirmation of my doctor via MRI. I know it can happen. I believe it can happen. There’s still time before my operation in October for it to happen. Yet, it hasn’t happened.

It’s not that I haven’t thought of bargaining with God or one of the Saints about this. I have. It’s also not that the whole thing hasn’t been frustrating at times. It has. I’ve had doctors shove needles deep into my knee with chemicals they hoped would help. I’ve had moments when I felt the whole thing on the verge of giving way. Sometimes its even hard to find a way to hold my legs in place to sleep. If there was a test to see how much ibuprofen was in my blood I’d be interested in seeing the results. How wonderful it would be, I think at times, if one day, one moment, God would grant the mercy of a miraculous healing to me and I wouldn’t have to face surgery, weeks of rehab, and the realization that in 10 or 15 years I may have to do it all over again when the replacement needs replacing.

Still, I have no intention of cursing God and dying. My osteoarthritic knee is a reminder of my own aging and mortality and I need that from time to time to help sort out the really important things from the junk. My bum knee has also made me much more aware of the reality of life for many of the Seniors I serve in my “day job.” It’s one thing to theorize about their pain and challenges and it’s quite another to have a little direct experience. It’s also a great reminder to try to stay in some kind of reasonable shape if, for nothing else, to just be able to walk.

Still, I miss dancing and I don’t like being weak from time to time. I regret not making better use of those days when all was well. Sometimes,  it just stinks for no reason in particular and my patience with the whole thing can quickly wear thin. As the date for surgery looms closer and I’m really not looking forward to those days when I’ll need to force myself into therapy and be stuck at home while the rest of the world goes by.

So yes, I suppose there is still time for a miracle. Yet God will also be with me in all the times ahead, a presence I don’t deserve yet one freely given to me out of a love beyond my depth and that, in itself, is a miracle I’m already experiencing whether or nor the unction “takes” in the way I had hoped.

 

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.