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.”

When you realize…

everything you could possibly own is temporary and often unnecessary

science and technology are full of amazing things but there is a reality of human life which science and technology cannot define in and of itself

your discontent in this world may be a sign you were meant for something more than just the here and now

when you realize things such as these you begin the journey through knowledge to wisdom.

 

Of Cemeteries and Life…

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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.

 

 

Since Childhood…

my mind has been filled with many thoughts from the sublime to the ridiculous and often more than one at a time. There is a beauty and creativity to it and a frustration as well. It’s also why I truly enjoy the focus of performing music live, of sharing homilies, and of serving at the Altar. In each of those there’s a need to be in the moment as completely as possible and when that happens there is for me both great challenge and a great peace. Someday, presuming that heaven is my lot (and for this I trust God and not myself) I believe that one of the greatest joys of it will be having only one thought, that being God. That for me will be a most sublime rest.

 

 

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.

 

Tomorrow…

marks the 11th anniversary of my ordination as Priest in the Orthodox Church but there’s more to the story. I was first ordained as a Baptist pastor in 1989 so, in fact, I’ve been in ordained parish or chaplaincy service for over a quarter century and what a long and interesting trip it’s been!

I remember those days late in my last year of seminary, contemplating the future as a fresh, new, and young minister. I had hoped to do good things, many even great ones, through the best way I knew how namely the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. I had studied. I had tested. I had taken psychological tests. I passed the various boards and gatekeepers. I had arrived.

Two parishes followed in reasonably quick succession, parishes with good people but also malignant and vocal minorities who really did plan and scheme and attack and make life miserable. I remember being curled up in a ball deep in my tears in the hall of the parsonage of the church in Kansas that had just fired me without even a clue or a specific reason that I could recall. Somebody somewhere didn’t like me and they had the votes. Everything naive left in me died in those days as we packed our stuff and made plans to head back to Minnesota. All I knew was that I wanted to leave that little town and never go back to a Baptist church, ever, and writing about this even now hurts a bit.

Yet the hurt of those days led me home to Minnesota, older than my years and much wiser through pain. I found a “day job” and then a chaplaincy position in the environment where I started my working life, the nursing home. My studies, too, had taken me far from where I had been. I left the American Baptist Churches, became an Episcopalian, and briefly considered holy orders in the Episcopal Church. I knew then, though, that this community had already gone too far too fast from everything it had cherished and there would be no home for me there.

Instead I discovered in a magazine about a new movement called the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a group of evangelicals and charismatics who had embraced Liturgy and their understanding of the ancient Christian Faith through an Anglican ethos. There were trips to Kansas City to visit the Bishop and, in time, I was ordained Priest and sent back to Minnesota to plant a church. While this was happening I came in greater contact with Eastern Orthodoxy and began to explore its life and ethos. In that time of discovery my heart began to become Orthodox and when I, and then we in our tiny mission, discovered the Western Rite we made the plans to change. Our hope had been to continue our little community as a Western Rite Orthodox Mission (Up here in Minnesota where about 80 percent of everyone who claims a Christian title is either Catholic of Lutheran there is still great potential for such a thing).

Yet it was not to be. Our mission was fervent but larger things were at play and, in time, we chose to leave the mission behind and become part of St. George Orthodox Church. I was eventually ordained Deacon and then two years later Priest and sent to St. Elias Orthodox Church in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The parish was full of good people but needed money for repairs and the necessities of life so, over the years, I served bivocationally, living in St. Paul and traveling to Wisconsin on weekends. It was good work but the travel and the time left me exhausted and my feeling was to move on and let someone else build on a better foundation so I could rest.

My hope was that I would take a sabbatical year and then be picked up in the “draft” my term for the assignment of Priests that usually happens in the early summer. It never, for reasons I still don’t know, happened. Six years from St. Elias I am still in St. Paul, attached to St. George in West St. Paul, and in a mobile ministry of helping parishes in transition while I work my day job. I am a circuit rider of sorts but instead of a horse I have a Nissan and while the Apostle Paul made tents to keep a roof over his head I plan programs for Seniors in an Assisted Living.

I still dream of planting a church here in Minnesota. There is a great potential for this area but, at the present, the will is just not here. This dream, and its deferment, have been a constant in my heart and while I understand that it was not possible while I was in transition to Orthodoxy I may never understand why the dream has been given but its fulfillment has been rendered impossible to date. I still believe in Jesus, as well, even though there have been times when the people I trusted to care for me have provided plenty of evidence to the contrary. There is sin in me and sin in the Church and I’ve tried to be wise and forbearing in it all. Sadly, I’ve also learned through hard experience to be careful with my trust. They say “Once bitten twice shy” and there is some real pastoral wisdom in that phrase. A Pastor without an escape plan when things get hard places themselves in a very vulnerable place so have a solid amount of cash in the bank if a church board or Bishop changes their mind. If I would say anything to current seminarians it would be to love everyone but also be wise because some of the people you love won’t even try to return the favor.

It’s also been a great privilege to serve and help people which is part of the reason I got into the “business” in the first place. A good Priest can make a significant difference in people’s lives, a difference for the good. While pastoral ministry can be painful there are also many moments of joy, of the true satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference, and those moments are the fuel that keeps that original spark burning. For every hurt there are many more happy moments and when I doubt that I simply look back through my file of cards and letters and pictures to remember everything, good and bad, in its proper context.

Right or wrong, sinful or forgiven, at my best or worst, I’ve never lost the awe of serving at the altar and I suppose that if there is anything that could be salvaged from these years it would be just that. There have been moments, of course, when I just wanted to quit, to retreat from the battle and rest for a while. Somehow I always find my way back which either means I’m crazy or called. I’ve also never stopped believing in Christ, although sometimes that belief has come through tears or clenched teeth. Nothing that’s happened to me, good or bad, as a Priest and Pastor has changed my belief that Jesus is exactly who he and his Church claim he is and, because of that, everything he is and says is of the utmost importance.

As the 11th year comes and goes the truth is I have no idea what is going to happen or where this long, strange, trip will take my wife and I. Sometimes I wish I did but that seems to be about me learning the lessons of trust. There are things I would change, of course, like never moving to Kansas, but for the most part its been good and for that goodness the glory goes to the God who has enough of a sense of humor and even more of grace to let me ordained not once, but three times (Baptist, Anglican, and Orthodox) as a tender of his flock.

 

 

 

 

A Blessing in Aging

To me there is a kind of blessing in growing older because, in some ways, as our physical vigor diminishes so does the ability to actively sin. Surely our thoughts can be hot beds of temptation at any age but to turn that temptation into action can be more difficult as our bodies age. Quite frankly there are some checks, as we get older, that we just know our mind may be able to write but our body can’t cash. Perhaps aging’s limits of our physical ability to do what our mind contemplates can be a kind of gift when it comes to living out our temptations, a grace that keeps us from doing, by virtue of age, that which would deface and destroy us if we had the ability.