I ask myself is “Do I love God?” I wouldn’t have been able to think of that question myself but over the years, and especially reading the lives of the Saints, I’ve found myself asking the question on more than a few occasions.
I think there were times in my life when I was afraid of God. There were times when I tolerated God. Some times I needed God like an alcoholic needs another drink. If the truth were told there were times when I felt like I didn’t much need God at all. As many possible emotions and states as there could be I suppose I’ve felt that way about God at one time or another.
But do I love God?
For the Saints and holy people of times past one of their qualities was a genuine love for God. They wanted to be in relationship with God. They wanted to be present to God. They valued God’s company and craved Him when they felt He was distant. It was at that point where they went from tolerating God, or honoring God out of fear, or seeing God as some kind of escape from the painful realities of life that they began to love. It was also at that point where they began to be transfigured into something numinous and holy.
So do I love God?
The answer is “I am trying.” I would like to move from lesser relationships with God to love and though there are often fits and starts I would like to think that one day, perhaps, I can return to God a tiny fraction of the love He has for me and for the whole creation. Even the attempt, I suppose, to do this is considered by God to be a kind of love but often it seems so little returned for so much given.
Still, the answer, however feeble it is some times is “Yes”.
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.
that the Church is full of hypocrites. To which I often reply, “If you were to join it would there be one more or one less?” In the the Orthodox understanding the idea that you’re not always what you’d like to be, not always living the ideals of your Faith, and even struggling, sometimes often, to just make it through the day in some kind of Christian manner is precisely WHY you are part of the Church. The Church is the place where we continue on the path of leaving our hypocrisy behind, a little at a time if need be, and find the wholeness, clarity, and integration of our lives by following and growing in Christ.
I do think about it sometimes, about what my work and life in music could be if I were not a Priest. Occasionally I ponder the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights that would be open, the Sunday mornings that could be used for travel or practice, and lack of sudden and unanticipated schedule changes that are part and parcel of ministry. I do admit, at times, to a little bit of envy when I see people who have shows on Friday nights in Lent when I am helping to serve an Akathist, or on those feast days when I need to be in Church. I know, too, that my status as a Priest can make it harder for me to be the right “fit” in a group and “fit” is so important to make music together. I do think about things like that from time to time.
Usually, though, the “what ifs” don’t last too long. I’m a Priest before I’m a musician and not just a musician that shows up at church a lot. True, there are days when I would like to be out on stage with the boys but mostly I’m happy and content on what I consider to be, for lack of a better term, the greatest “stage” of all, the altar of any Orthodox church. I love music but I know that the eternal things are of greater value and duration. A hundred years from now no one will remember my music but what I can do to bless people as a Priest may last that long on this earth and perhaps, by God’s grace, for eternity in the world beyond this.
I do get to make music, of course, for myself and the experience that comes with sitting alone and pondering the world with an instrument in my hands (an experience I highly recommend for others), the good folks I serve at my senior residence, and every so often a public performance. I love to make music in groups (something that comes from years of playing the bass, a very group dependent instrument), but slowly but surely doors are also opening up for me as a solo performer and hopefully as a songwriter as well. I simply trust that if there is a divine plan for me that includes music the songs and situations will happen. That being said I know there is a divine plan for me as a Priest, even if its only to show the world that God has a sense of humor.
In the end I wouldn’t really want it any other way. Jesus is just too amazing, too important, and too wonderful to be anything but at the top of my priorities. Although I’m far from perfect I believe what He is, what He has to teach us, and what He offers to us is the most beautiful kind of music, healing, and life for the whole of who we are. If I try to have Him front and center everything else will find its proper place. While I play a number of instruments I, as best as a struggling human can do, want to be His harp.
In the end that’s what really matters.
The most basic and important triumph of Orthodoxy, the one on which all other rests, is the triumph of Orthodoxy in the individual lives of its adherents. The formal externals of Orthodoxy mean nothing if they come from a heart that is distant from its graces. Holding an icon in procession is meaningful only to the extent that the person is in the process of becoming an “icon” themselves and ritual is lifeless when it is disconnected from its Life.
When you come into the Orthodox Faith from outside there is a kind of hope. You’ve read the material. You’ve kicked the tires a bit. In some vague sense there is an awareness of the reality that problems, struggles, challenges, and sin exists within Her yet they don’t seem to be at the front of your mind. The beauty of it all just sort of eclipses everything else.
You can run on that energy for some time, years even. Hope is a powerful force and even as you experience more of the humanity of the Faith that hope covers a multitude of things so that you can carry on even as you become more aware of not just the promises you read about in “Becoming Orthodox” but the everyday life in your everyday parish.
Somewhere along the line, though, the rose color will disappear from your glasses and you’ll discover that, well, your church, that shining city on the hill you had hoped for, is filled with people, regular people with every liability that comes with being human. You wanted something bright, beautiful, and glorious, and, while that occasionally happens, what you often get is something worn, tired, and less than the ideals that drew you to Her door.
At this point people will give up. When, as they say, the “Thrill is gone”, people do get up and leave, even the Orthodox Church. It happens all the time. Others give up while staying, marking time with lowered expectations and a kind of steady numbness that allows them to make do. Neither is particularly healthy. If you leave the Orthodox Church to “shop” a while for a new thing in time that new thing will, like your Orthodox experience, grow old as well. Count on it. If you decide to “Drop out” while still in the Orthodox Faith you’ll at least be present but it will largely be pointless, a whole bunch of Sundays spent going through the motions.
Instead, I think, the answer lies in being the kind of Orthodox Christian you’d like your parish and the larger church to be. If you want a dynamic, active, and living Faith, the kind of Faith you read about in the books, the kind that stirs your soul and challenges you to holy and good things, the only place to start is with yourself. The revival you are looking for begins with you. The grace you are looking for is the grace you receive, cultivate, and share. The holiness you desire will only be as vital as your own. The mission you want for your parish is the mission you undertake. If you want a lively parish you must have a lively faith.
Of course this is not easy. Orthodoxy is not easy because it is thorough, deep, and profound, even if some times, or most times, its collective and human forms do not live that way. If you want something better than what you see around you, don’t leave or spend your life of faith in numb despair. Resolve to be the kind of change, the kind of holiness, the kind of grace, the kind of beauty, that drew you to Orthodoxy in the first place and in saving yourself you will save others as well.
just in spending time in a church. I feel it when I step in, a sense of sanctuary from the craziness of the world, a physical reminder there are higher and more enduring realities in the world.
At times it makes no difference what is actually going on, what Liturgy is being served, or how I am part of things. Just to be there, to have my eyes completely captured only by holy things, a whole world around me where nothing profane can find root. This is a deep kind of joy.
Now there is precious little refuge to be found. The whole world is about signs and commerce and work and the endless pursuit of the next “thing”. Some who are called flee to the deserts and forests to find a place of rest but I am called to be in this world and so I need a place in the world, a place that calls me to what is higher, better, and more enduring.
It does not need to be a fancy, covered with gold and finery. Wherever people of true Faith come in humility to encounter God is already covered in the best of decoration. I have been to beautiful churches and I have been to humble ones and I can say that God is no respecter of persons as much as He is a respecter of hearts. The holiness of hearts is what makes a church a temple and such hearts transform a building into a refuge from a confusing and aggressive world.
If nothing else is to be gained the Faithful should be in their temple as often as possible simply because it is “other” than any place in the world and may be the one place, the only place in the world, where holiness and the deep peace it brings is welcome. To rest in such a place refreshes the soul and brings healing to lives numbed by the restlessness of this world.