I am learning…

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there is no perfect place, no perfect job, no perfect church, no perfect life. In everything and everywhere there will be moments of joy and moments of challenge and nothing will ever be just the way you imagined it would be no matter how hard you try.

There’s a kind of disappointment in this. Surely one thing in this existence could be at least close to what you imagine it’s supposed to be. Yet, while some things may come achingly close, nothing will ever be “it”. In fact the closer they come the greater the disappointment when the flaw that mars comes to the surface. Just when you thought you won the prize, the reality of life does something to pull it from your fingers.  It’s, perhaps, one of the most maddening things about being human.

There’s also a freedom, though, in this realization. Accepting there is no perfect anything on this Earth and in this life gives the gift of wisdom, of patience, and a release from the tyranny of perfection into the cool waters of grace. One can be set free to enjoy that which is beautiful and release that which is less so when you realize that a normal life will have parts of both. The good can also become more precious and the harsh can be more temporary when you realize all things pass and see life through this window.

And then there is heaven which seems, as I grow older, to be less like any image I have of it and more like an existence where I can simply “be” as I was meant to be because the presence of God will fulfill all my expectations and heal the imperfections and unrealities of my life. One of the great gifts of getting older is that having seen so much of the world over the years one realizes the quiet ache in your heart on even the best of days is a sign there is more and better and it’s closer than you think. Stepping through that door you realize you’re more at home there than any place your travels in this world may have taken you. Every beauty here is a sign of a greater one to come and every challenge is a reminder of a larger day when all such things will pass.

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It's as Gray a Day…

as I can remember. The rain has been falling for hours while the cats sleep it all away on the living room floor. A ceiling fan quietly twists and hums through its duties and the irregular drops of water tap on the windows like lost children.

There are things to do today. In fact there’s a lot to do. Why people want to be in such a hurry to get out in the “real” world puzzles me. The chores, the things you do because you have to and the people you have to deal with are hardly any fair payment in return for being able to vote and walk into a liquor store. Work, at least work as it has become, is what happened when the world fell from its former grace. Its part of what some folks call the “curse” of the days beyond Eden and it has meaning only because the goodness of those days still somehow finds a way to shine through the cracks in the wall around the garden.

We were designed to be Farmers and Priests, caretakers of the good world given to us and singers of praise to its Maker. Now we live in cubicles, try to make our way through the gibberish, and if not by the sweat of our brow we make our way through the years by the sweat of our soul. Adam had no axe, there was no disfigurement to prune away, no death to remove from its place, no need even for a fire in the warmth of God’s life. Yet all that is past now. The tree could not be removed and we face the morning with a sigh.

It’s time to go now. Time to shower. Time to shave. Time to put on the best face for the day. In the car we go with the rest of the herd, crawling like ants in hope of sugar. It’s why people waste their money on the lottery and push their kids to be rock stars, the hope to be free of it all.

It’s a sign, too, that we were designed for something better and there is a place for us yet to go. The traces of Eden and the hope of heaven have not left us. They are instinctual, primal, and basic. They are why we sigh in the morning, fall into restless sleep at night, and think about what could have been on gray rainy mornings.

He was an older man…

slim in build with a kind face. I had never met him before, perhaps I will some day, but his face was on a picture in front of the cross and between the candied wheat and sweet breads on the table.

He was gone from us for now and we were praying for him 40 days after his death. We Orthodox pray even for those who are departed because in a very special way they’re still with us and we are with them. The Church, the life of Christ, it’s all bigger than even a cemetery. And as I was praying I was thinking.

This is the kind of person my government and culture tells me I need to be careful for, the kind of person who, with his rumpled suit and head gear, would be stared at in the airport. Amazing how the forces around us help us decide who people may be.

Yet in truth he was just a grandpa, a father, and man who lived in the area of Nazareth. He was a soul, too, a being made in the image of God. A person with children and a house and friends and maybe some kind of hobby when the work was done. His family was just a few rows back from where we were praying, the kind of folks you’d like to have next door.

Jesus tells us to “judge not lest we be judged…” and more than a few people trying to justify their own behavior fling that verse (perhaps the only one they know from the Scriptures) into Christian faces. There’s more to it, though, than that.

I think it’s about having wisdom, the kind of wisdom that looks below the surface and tries to make sense of the other not just from the superficial but from the true heart and soul. It’s also about withholding a final opinion on anyone based solely on how they immediately present themselves to us. It’s the knowledge that we are all fallible humans in a process called life.

The image may say “Man from Palestine wearing Arab clothing” with all that my culture tells me about what that means. The truth is he’s grandpa Shafik from Nazareth and one day I hope to meet him in heaven.

Lord always give me the eyes to see things this way.

Being Orthodox…

is like living in another world, not a particular ethnic world but rather a world that intersects with what we commonly understand as the “world” and yet at its core is very different and directed towards wholly different ends. I’m not sure that a person could understand Orthodoxy in its best sense and not be a little bit, or sometimes a lot, estranged from the everyday world. You are part of a tribe that ultimately belongs elsewhere and your travels have such a remarkably different destination.

To be Orthodox is to always be ill at ease, in the best sense of that phrase, with what’s around you. As you grow in your faith you begin to see the fallacies, the errors in logic, the terrible consequences of live lived without God. By seeing them you become “peculiar” as St. Paul would like to say it. How you process information. How you see and envision the world. How you actually live in the world. All these things begin to happen on different terms and those terms make you irregular in the usual course of things.

To be Orthodox is to wake up from a bad dream, a night vision of a world broken by its mortalities and subject to the unnatural rules of sin.  There is more. There is better. There is truth and reality and it’s not where your old dream told you it was but rather where your new vision leads you. It’s why people left civilization for the deserts. It’s why wealthy people gave their riches to the poor. It’s why you feel best when you’re closest to the Holy. You are being transformed from a citizen of earth to a citizen of heaven. New rules apply. Old patterns lose their charm. A new person is being built inside your existing body and one day you, body and soul, will realize its potential.

For now we have to be here. This is okay. There is beauty and truth and love and many good things, shadows of the perfect that cause us both to mourn for Eden past and to know, in part, what good lies ahead. Yet we, if we are true to our faith, will always be a little unsettled while we’re here, involved but not attached, alive but not totally belonging, present but not completely accounted for. There is a great freedom in this and life abundant as we grasp this truth.

Wisdom…

Are we all sinners because of the sin of Adam? Does the stain of sin pass from one generation to another? Does every man, woman, and child on this earth stand condemned by God unless they hear and believe in Jesus Christ? To most people this sounds utterly unreasonable and unjust; and indeed it is. To anyone who believes that God loves His creation, and especially loves humanity, it is inconceivable that He should condemn people through no fault of their own. The very idea than an innocent child deserves eternal punishment is monstrous.

Yet it is utterly reasonable that we are made good through the goodness of Christ. Although the sin of one person cannot condemn humanity, the radiant love of one man can transform humanity—and is doing so. God waits for our hearts to open to His grace; He waits for an opportunity to reveal to each of us His truth. Then when we are ready, He ensures that we hear about Christ and about his Gospel; and we find ourselves faced with a choice, which will affect the entire course of life and death—whether to embrace the words of Jesus Christ or to reject them.

If we deliberately reject the Gospel, even when we fully understand it, then we condemn ourselves; if we embrace it, we shall ourselves be embraced by God in heaven.

St. John Chrysostom