Friday, June 22, 2012

A Farewell

Sometimes decisions come after a lot of painful deliberation and ambivalence. Others seem to present themselves naturally, all at once.

I've decided to shut down the blog, though the words will remain up. I should say that this has nothing to do with anyone other than myself; no authority figure in the Church has discouraged or prohibited me in any way from blogging. Rather, it just comes from an honest realization that I am most likely going to be extremely busy learning the nuts and bolts of being a priest, and the blog would, for me, simply be a distraction of something I could be doing, maybe should be doing...and if it's simply no longer an option, so much the better. My FB time is going to be severely curtailed, as well. I do plan on still reading friends' blogs, though, and commenting as able. Friends I've met in real life after meeting through blogs remain good and close ones.

I also suppose the close comes with the close of a phase in my life, which friends of mine and I have spoken about, regarding new converts' tendency to pontificate via blogs during their initial years of being Orthodox. While this can be helpful--I think this blog and my testimony blog actually served me quite well in articulating what I believed and have also led to several emails thanking me for help in coming into the Orthodox Church--I think there comes a time when converts in general have less to say and more to live. There are exceptions--Fr. Stephen Freeman and Steve Robinson both put out very regular, though very different, blogs that continue to challenge and inspire--but I think that, in my case, my move to seminary signaled a time when what was needed was less output and more input. Specifically, regular and personal prayer, study of spiritual and pastoral issues, and learning from experienced pastors about personal weakness and development as a man, a Christian, and a priest. Such exploration might make good blog posts, but when much of it is personal, and all of it is time-consuming, blogspot tends to go on the backburner.

I may start a new blog someday, once a "stride" is hit in the pastoral life. If so, I'll link to it here.

Thanks to all who've read over the past seven years. May God bless and keep you in your dedication to His Christ and His Church.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thoughts on the last two months

Greetings from the ever-sparser apartment in Crestwood.

Craigslist has been claiming one piece of furniture after another so as to make room in the POD for the move.  Boxes take their places; all the while we're helping dear friends from the last three years load up their belongings as well.  Good-byes, together with sober glances that confirm that, yeah, we're all getting ready to jump off into God-knows-what.  Prayer for someone becomes a lot more concrete when you're getting ready to walk the same road yourself.

I helped one fellow into his moving van in the rain, and we remembered it was raining when we got here.  The front hall outside our room was flooding; he and I had to go outside to dig a ditch to divert the accumulating rain.  Welcome to St. Vlad's.

We're leaving as priests, me and most of the guys I'm closest to.  I think that has to do more with age than with office--the ordained are already married, and on the whole older by seven to ten years than the single folks, and we just run in different circles, have different priorities.  It's strange, since in seminary you can't swing a stick without snagging a cassock, your office doesn't stand out hardly at all (Random Spanish trivia: Just like corporate bosses are known as "the suits," clergy in Latin America were known as "Las Sotanas"--"The Cassocks.").  But a few things...

I was ordained March 18th, as the last time I posted here attests.  Priests are ordained right after the Great Entrance in the Orthodox Church, and we stop, holding the aer (communion veil) over our heads in front of the center icon podium.  I did not do this, though I had seen plenty of other seminarians stand there--maybe I didn't stop because no one actually said "stop there," but when I kept going, Fr. John Behr turned and said, "Go and stand before the Cross" (in the center icon podium).  I don't know what it is about Americans and British NOT understanding things said straight to their face, but I would have sworn he said, "Go and sing 'Before Thy Cross.'" What, right now?! I'm thinking.  Another priest said, in American, "Go stand on the other side of the Cross."  Ah.  Right.  Snafu ended.

So I'm there, aer that usually goes over communion over my head, looking at the crucified Christ.  And so here's where I'd expect to think, "I'm going to be crucified like Jesus, horribly mistreated, martyred," or somesuch.  What actually came up was, in general, I am Jesus' man.  Exclusively.  Not in a Petrine, "Lord, I am willing to die with you" kind of bravado, but just that I'm marked for that sort of "scandal of particularity" that you read about, that confession of Jesus of Nazareth, specifically and explicitly.  And this was followed by, And my job is to help other see that they're Jesus', too.  How that plays out for them.

Then there's the preparation of communion.  I'd heard some new priests gush over how amazing it was to pick up the Eucharist with your hands, take communion that way, etc.  Well, we all used to do it that way centuries ago, but whatever--that's not what struck me.  What struck me was watching a priest--any priest, didn't matter--take the Lamb that we confess to be Christ Himself, and manipulate, turn, cut, and gouge it deeply.  I get angry and feel violated when somebody points a finger in my face or steals my daughter's bike (this happened earlier in the semester); here's God allowing guys who are all too human to handle Him and slice Him into pieces. That's divine stillness for you.

And the sinfulness of the priest--which doesn't affect the sacrament itself, thank God--does bring up another issue: The care taken in the altar (one hopes) towards the materials of the Eucharist, the liturgical instruments, the gestures, etc., reflect an understanding that it really is only in response to the faithfulness of Christ to the petition of the assembly.  I've often said that, the longer I'm Orthodox, the more I'm convinced that, if our liturgical actions somehow force God's meritorious favor towards us, He must be ridiculously easy to impress.  Communion is serious business because Christ said He would be there.  We have no guarantee or ability to prove that, but we seek to express our belief in His presence through solemn acts of worship and praise.

My wife pulled me to the side today and said, "Here's what I've learned in seminary: A priest needs to say simple things, over and over again, so the people get it."

I have visited our parish in Miami and served in Spanish, seeing how things are laid out, seeing what needs to be done, prepared, etc.  Our small, SVS mission group departs day after tomorrow--or, tomorrow, seeing that it's past midnight--for a week at the Guatemala orphanage.  We'll serve Pentecost there, of course in Spanish.  Your prayers are always coveted and welcome.

Monday, March 19, 2012

From yesterday's liturgy -- we're here listening to a brief word from Metr. JONAH. It was a beautiful service.

Thank you to any and all who've expressed kind words and offered prayers. Please continue to keep us in prayer.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Commandments of St. Basil the Great to Priests

Study, O Priest, to make yourself a blameless worker, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Never stand at the synaxis having hatred toward anyone so as not to banish the Comforter.

On the day of synaxis do not judge, do not argue, but remain praying and reading in the church until the appointed hour in which you will accomplish the divine and sacred ceremonies; and thus stand with compunction and purity of heart in the holy sanctuary, not looking around here and there, but standing with shuddering and fear before the heavenly King.

Do not, because of human weakness, hasten through or cut short the prayers, neither try to please persons, but look only toward the King who is present and the hosts of angels that surround him.

Make yourself worthy by the holy canons.

Do not concelebrate with whom it is forbidden.

See in whose presence you stand, how you serve and to whom you dispense.

Do not ignore the Master's commandment and those of the holy Apostles: 'Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw pearls before swine.'

See that you do not deliver the Son of God into the hands of the unworthy.

Do not feel ashamed before those who are glorious on earth, neither before him who happens to wear the crown at the time.

To those worthy of communion dispense the gifts freely, as you also have received. Do not dispense unto him who does not observe the divine canons.

See that you do not let moth, mouse, nor any other thing touch the divine mysteries out of negligence, neither allow them to be exposed to dampness or smoke or to be contaminated by the unholy or unworthy.

These things and such things preserve in order to save yourself and those who heed you.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Ordination, Mission

In your kindness, remember me in your prayers; on March 18th, 2012 (Sunday of the Cross), I am scheduled to be ordained to the holy priesthood by Metropolitan JONAH here at St. Vladimir's in Three Hierarchs Chapel. Lent is a difficult time for all of us; we have to face demons regardless of any title that might or might not be in front of our name. Dealing with your shortcomings when you're a week and a half away from this office is another thing. Thanks again for your prayers.

We will be graduating, God willing, this May--so strange that I remember this post so vividly (perhaps because there hasn't been all that much activity on the blog since coming here). The move, it looks like, is going to be to Miami. An opportunity in the Church for a Spanish-speaking mission has arisen; again, your prayers for us in this uncharted territory. I am thankful for having already met brother priests in the area who will help me with their experience and guidance; it's comforting to know that we're not going in alone, inexperienced (even though this is a new cultural context for the OCA to deal with).

As if this weren't going to keep us busy enough, St. Vladimir's is taking a small group to the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage in Guatemala for a week-long service trip in late May. I've been asked to go. Thus, in the middle of getting ready to move, there's a pretty substantial trip. Matushka and I have talked about how this will be a good experience (the parish in Miami has roots that go way back with the orphanage); nevertheless, it will be a busy late Spring/early Summer.

To that end, then, I'm having to switch back into fundraising mode (for the first time in 15 years, which was the last time I went to Latin America on a mission trip). If you are able and willing to help us in this effort, please use the PayPal button in the sidebar to the right. We will be catechizing recent Latin American converts and helping the nuns in the monastery move their physical location from an incredibly dangerous area of Guatemala City ("Zone 1") to a place further out--more conducive to a monastic life, yes, but even more so for raising orphans.

A rather packed, abrupt post after a few months of silence, yes, but there it is. A blessed Lent to all y'all.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"When one undertakes to examine Scripture in an idle, intellectual way, he creates hatred and quarrelling. Why? Because the intellectual approach to Scripture does not help us to turn and reflect on our sins, but instead makes us focus on problems and concepts related to the study of Scripture, with the result that our logical and intellectual faculties are aroused to no real purpose. “Knowledge” by itself does not add anything. On the contrary, it encourages the cultivation of the individual and his private sense of things; it fosters the self-sufficiency of his personal opinions, which he then seeks to justify and impose on others. This kind of approach to Scripture immediately places you in conflict with others; it opposes your will and opinion to theirs, prompting you to disagree and argue with them, and to make enemies of your brothers. Filled as I am with my own opinions about things, I am not able to receive anything from God.

"The correct way is to read Scripture with simplicity and to allow God to tell us what He wants to tell us. It’s one thing to read Scripture because you want to collect information, and another thing to read it because you want to acquire its true content, that is, the Holy Spirit. This kind of knowledge is the life of God (cf. Jn 17:3), the entry and extension of God into our life; it is God’s descent and dwelling among us. We can judge whether or not our study of Scripture is authentic based on the number of tears we shed when we study. To be sure, I can also read Scripture without shedding tears, and without a strong sense of my sins, but with the hope that God’s grace, through my reading of Scripture, will break open my hardened heart. Read Scripture, then, but don’t forget about your sins and reduce Scripture to an object of intellectual inquiry, for at that point it ceases being the word of God and you start seeing it as something human. The criterion for your study should be this: the way you read the Bible should bring peace to your heart, communion with God, love of neighbors, and the consciousness of your own sinfulness: the recognition of how unworthy and ill-prepared you are to stand before God."

Elder Aimilianos, On Abba Isaiah

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Be Thou My Vision by The Purple Hulls

One of my favorite groups (a trio of siblings) plays my all time favorite song (and lullabye to all three girls).

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Intolerant Tolerant

"...some of those who once called for tolerance and individual freedom have adjusted to the success of their programme and decided to shift the boundaries. But their new goal cannot be achieved by appealing to tolerance, freedom, or even diversity because they now seek to impose their own implicit moral system upon the whole of society."

From HERE. H/T to Fr. Gregory Jensen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Balance, Boundaries, Black Holes

I said I wasn't "inspired" to write about seminary. Perhaps one should make that claim after the year has begun.

The year has gotten off to a roaring start, much more than in previous years. The main word of the year seems to be "homilies," with three of them already written, critiqued, rewritten, and delivered within the first month of classes. In between all this, we've just taken a trip down to Miami, Florida, to see about a possible parish placement following this year. We're not really at liberty to talk about parishes, names, etc. at this point--really, things are in flux, and we spent most of the trip as "flies on the wall," being present in talks while things moved forward--but when you put travel on top of family involvement, all the reading seminary entails, daily services, community service (I'm working in the bookstore this year), and trying to work in regular exercise, the struggle to pray regularly has already mounted up...and fallen. And the offense was mounted again...aaaaaand failed. And again...aaaaand failed.

So, yeah. Object lesson in continued attempts at consistency achieved.

I've heard from several priests that seminary life repeatedly gives you more than you can handle so that you know what to cut. This attempt at striking a balance in life through daily, weekly, seasonal, annual, and multiple-year cycles, routines, and rhythms is crucial, not only to managing parish life, but controlling and managing yourself so that you can be the kind of man who can lead, who can hold things together because he is himself together, who can act (instead of react) when personality conflicts (in church or home) rear their heads, because he's aware of his own, internal reactions and impulses and aware of boundaries. We've actually been reading Boundaries (by Cloud and Townsend) in Pastoral Theology; this is a re-read for me, since our priest used the book with us in our premarital counseling, to great effect. Not only is the need for developing a sense of "where I end and you begin" is crucial to establishing a sense of personal identity, but also about a healthy way of dealing with people in any setting, You can attach when you need to, detach at the end of the day, and retain some sense of who you are and allow (and help) others to be who they are and have to be.

Thick skin; soft heart; steady pace.

There's also that "black holes" bit in the subject...all the talk about boundaries, about those with toxic personalities, about maintaining a robust Christian identity...all this reminded me of a conversation I had with two of the faculty priests here shortly before being ordained. We had just gone through a "liturgical try-out" to see if I had certain things down, and things had gone well. Then the mood shifted from a professors-student relationship to a much more person-to-person, mentor-disciple tone; in particular, one of them asked a question that took me aback:

"What can you expect from your people?"

Several thoughts flashed through my mind--Does he want the 'spiritual' answer? A jaded one? Should I be practical and technical and give a parish-administrator-type answer? Finally, I just said the only thing I thought was realistic:


The priest smiled. "Absolutely. You are going to be responsible, not only for bearing their sins, their troubles, the struggles that they want you to help them with, but also with the attacks, the hostility, the ad hominem attacks against you and your family. You have to have a kind of black hole that all of that can go into and...not that you have to repress these things or act as if they didn't happen, but that you'll be able to internalize it, crunch it down, so that you'll be able to continue to function."

He went on to say how pastoral life also has great, amazing joys to it, rewards that aren't seen in any other vocation. But the need to emphasize that this is not going to be an "I'll be nice to you; you'll be nice to me" situation (which he said was probably the number one misunderstanding recent seminary graduates had upon arriving at their first parish placement) has stayed with me and underscored the need for regular prayer life and Scripture reading, regular time with the family (which entails screening calls and setting appointments for non-emergencies) and regular exercise and a consciously healthy diet (which, I have to brag on her, my wife has taken to the next level as of late!).

Please continue to keep us in your prayers. My starting up of a "Bible in a Year" plan has almost gotten around to Psalm 31/32 (where I left off from the psalms); I hope to pick up with those posts this week.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

An Update for August, Abp. DMITRI, and "Psalms of David," Revived

Greetings from the ravaged leftovers of a post-Hurricane-Irene Crestwood, NY.

Seriously: the photo to the right is the worst of our part of campus, as reports were (mercifully) overblown and the worst we got was a little wind and rain. Grateful for the mild evening. In anticipation for the worst, Divine Liturgy this morning was cancelled, but tonight's Vespers for the Beheading of John the Baptist went as planned, as did a Panikhida for Archbishop DMITRI, the beloved archbishop of Dallas and the South (and founder of said diocese) who fell asleep in the Lord this morning at about 2:00 am.

Vladika DMITRI ("Vladika" meaning "Master," or better put in today's parlance, "Teacher,") was the first bishop in Orthodoxy I actually got a chance to know, and whom I felt knew us as his children in Christ. This is not to say that Bishop BASIL of the Antiochians wouldn't have been such; simply, rather, that we did not spend enough time in our Antiochian parish in Tulsa to have that happen over the years. Rather, we moved to Ft. Worth and joined the local OCA parish, where this oily-behind-the-ears convert got all hot and bothered about how he had gotten baptized and whether that was Orthodox enough (he even went down to a monastery and poked his nose around, "just to ask about what they thought" about reception of converts, which can be a hot topic in some circles. Thankfully the abbot was sane and said I should go and--gee, I don't know--talk to my bishop. I was a bonehead, of course, and looking back I can only shake my head at my naivete. Thank God the abbot wasn't a power-hungry egomaniac looking to prey on starry-eyed neophytes in search of "true Orthodoxy" or some such).

So I went to meet with Vladika, who made time for me just a few days from when I called the Cathedral. It's true what the priest at tonight's Panikhida said: Abp. DMITRI definitely leaves his mark on you when you sit and speak with him for a while. His was the first voice I ever heard who spoke both dogmatically ("There are no sacraments outside the Church") and pastorally; his gentle, grandfatherly way reassured me that, yes, it would be OK, and that Orthodoxy is a faith where things can go this way, or that way, or sometimes both ways...and still come out keeping its balance. And yours. Vladika was a man very aware of the balance of the Church, and how it kept you.

His sense of mission was obvious, especially to me, since I'd already been looking to work as a missionary in Spanish-speaking areas. Every time I saw him it seems he had some Spanish-language translation of a liturgical service or catechism to press into my hand. His labor over the years has been remarkable, considering all the responsibility he has had to manage over multiple dioceses; "Roysterisms" aside, his efforts are the starting point for what I hope are coming revisions to his much-appreciated materials. I will always remember his anecdotes about the "washaterías," and how certain of his acquaintances would sign off with "Nos watchamos, Maestro," which he told me no fewer than half a dozen times as if it were the first.

He tonsured me a reader, and blessed me to go to seminary. It seems both he and the newly-elected Metropolitan JONAH were both of the same mind about me; my bringing up seminary to them and asking for their blessing resulted in their saying, explicitly, "I give you my blessing to go to St. Vladimir's." I had been wondering about St. Tikhon's as well; when I expressed surprise at so specific and immediate a response to my question, they both just waved off any discussion (with a gentle smile, mind you), and said something to the equivalent of, "No, that's where you should go." So off I went. The priest serving tonight's Panikhida mentioned Metr. JONAH's connection with Abp. DMITRI and how the latter had deeply influenced not only those at SVS now from the Diocese of the South, but also the Metropolitan himself. I am grateful that His Beatitude stayed at Vladika's bedside during his final days in this life. May my beloved archbishop rest in peace, may his memory be eternal, and may his soul dwell with the blessed as he awaits the Resurrection. May he pray for us, as well.

On a lighter note...this is L. (with K. in the background) at Sherwood Island Beach in Connecticut. It appears that L. might be just a bit fond of playing in the sand. And eating it. And hamming it up for the camera. That last part might just be from her Papi. Maybe.

Those of you who have been long-time readers of this blog (and those people have, with the advent of Facebook, probably dwindled down to a handful, due to the temptation to broadcast one's life through blurbs and links instead of lengthy posts) will remember a time both three and five years ago when I attempted to start up a series of posts reflecting on the psalms of David, my patron saint. Given that I have little interest in blogging about seminary life (some--for example, my lovely wife--have found it helpful; I am just not inspired to do so), I have thought about trying to revive the series during my final year here as a sort of spiritual discipline, and as something to write about. You can read the ones from several years ago by clicking on "Psalms of David" in the sidebar to the right; all subsequent posts will be tagged with this label, too. The work to the right, written by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon (whose knowledge of the Scriptures continues to amaze me -- subscribe to his podcast!), will be what I draw heavily from, along with my own reading. Hope you like it.

Blessed Feast of the Forerunner to y'all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Parish Assignment, Teaching, Conversion Stages

First off, a blessed beginning of the Dormition Fast to all on the Revised Julian Calendar.

A week ago today we went up to New Haven, CT and communed at Holy Transfiguration (OCA), which will be my parish assignment for the Senior Year. Good night, has it been two years already?! How bizarre to think that we'll be the "big men on the totem pole" in the student body. Audra says she doesn't want to think about it. It has been hard to say goodbye to so many good friends. Doing so after being together with folks for two years was harder than being with folks for just one, as was the case after first year.

I'm ambivalent about the shift in Sunday morning locations. We're supposed to be in training to be parish priests, yet OCA seminarians are in Three Hierarchs' Chapel for the first two of the three M.Div. years; it would be nice to do what the Antiochians do and have us in parishes all three years. Yet Three Hierarchs' is a community place of worship, and the first- and second-year students help make that run. There's a part of me that will miss the familiarity of SVS on Sunday, but I'm ready to be in a parish, learning.

Three Hierarchs' is also just a walk down the hill; Holy Transfiguration is an hour and a half away (needless to say, we anticipate Audra and the girls to walk down the hill some of the Sundays this year, while Papi drives to New Haven). Audra and I both loved our experience there, however--Audra so much so, that she's said she wants to try and make the trip out there as much as possible. We had to get there extra early, and during the period before liturgy started, Laura was banging on a seat in the nave. Not one person turned around in disapproval. This, for us, is one of our "litmus tests," as we have been in several churches that make a point of quashing any kind of activity that small children might engage in (outbursts, laughter, crying, running around--kids being kids with all their "holy noise," in other words). Coffee hour was similarly enjoyable, as Father Michael conducted a sort of informal back-and-forth with the parish--I recognized the basic format of what, as a Protestant, I would have called "prayer requests/praise reports" from among the people--what a great way to keep abreast of important events in the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ that, sadly, might not get mentioned in post-liturgy announcements because of their "insignificant nature." To top it all off, a former member of the parish who had moved to Alaska to teach at St. Innocent Academy was there that Sunday and gave us a couple of CDs of the kids' singing, but also earth from the grave of our family patron saint, St. Herman of Alaska--the earth from the bag is now in a case on a shelf in our icon corner. Very unexpected generosity, along with very eager people who introduced themselves and wanted to get to know you, plus the fact that Fr. Michael was conducting it himself...excellent. Our assistant dean of students told me that he is one of the best mentor priests our program has. Our first impression seems to back that up. Keep us in your prayers.

I am teaching for the Institute of Reading Development this summer, as I did last summer. Highly scripted, meticulously examined and very well constructed lessons that promote scaffolding for learning the steps of reading faster, smarter, and more. I do get that feeling from some folks I talk to on the phone that we're actually being talked to the way the supervisors are trained to kind of reminds me of the hackneyed catchphrases of CPE from last semester ("What I'm hearing you saying is..." or "Mmm [eyebrows furrowed and lips nostrils flared in what I hope does not come across as fake concern but sure feels like it], that must be really tough.") I always like to take the gist of such cliches and word them in a way that doesn't seem so contrived. Regardless, I just try to remember what they're trying to get across to me--on a whole, the program has proved itself very competent and unafraid to take a good, hard, critical look at itself to foster continued improvement. It's also been REALLY good to get back on the other side of the classroom for a few weeks, as well.

Hope and Kate are turning into quite the theologians, as well. Today's gospel was the healing of the blind men and the dumb demoniac. Some comments from the girls on the way to church this morning:

Audra: "How could Jesus heal people?"
Hope: "Because the Father let Him do those things, because they [the things] are good."

Audra: "Why did He do miracles?"
Kate: "Because He loved people."
Hope: "Because He knew His Father made them [people] and He knew they are good."

A good start to base further inquiry on, methinks.

Finally, there's this link ( that Steve Robinson linked to. The combox has a few mild naysayers, but this perhaps is due to a failure to see the exaggeration in the stages of conversion to another religious group. I was not this stereotype, but some things I did once upon a time fit these stages pretty well. All in all, I think I'm pegged pretty well. The antagonism my mother and I had during the first few years after my conversion was no doubt due (in part) to the stuff in Stages One and Two. I'm sure that several people at ORU would attest to my becoming the sort of "Orthodox Guy" that folks tolerated well enough and even bounced curious questions off of, but who seemed to be interested in little else himself. Reality of parish life has been anticlimactic, and necessarily so. The reality of being Orthodox in the American South very often means being resource-poor and creative; I do wonder if my months of classes offered at St. Barbara's was motivated by Stage Three. After ten years, two of which have been spent in seminary with a broad cross-section of the Orthodox Church as a whole, not only am I much more willing to work with the Church as a whole, as-is, but I'm much less interested in providing apologias for this or that aspect of the faith that diverges from Protestantism, which of course accounted for much of the "Best of Blog" category and the articles in the sidebar. Seminary may be "where blogs go to die, but mostly, I'm in Stage 5.3, as well, and just feel like there's much less to say in the way of spreading the faith through the blog. I'm convinced that this is the Church, not in spite of the people, but because of them. Seminary has helped further the process along in helping me see that learning to be a more approachable and likable human being goes just as far, if not further, than being a know-it-all Ortho-answer-man. The phrase, "you are, for the most part, much worse at being a decent human being than all those people too stupid and impious to realize how awesome your new religion is" cuts pretty close to home. Which isn't to say that I've "arrived" at that state of being someone who can relate as "all things to all people" and whose interests move well past things Byzantine, but perhaps the awareness is a start. Excellent post.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Forgive the lack of updates; just a brief note to ask any and all to lift up Leo DuMoulin and his parents Justin and Anna, who attended seminary with us and graduated after our first year here. Leo was born with hydrocephalus and underwent surgery yesterday to correct massive swelling in his head present since birth (months ago). He has experienced brain development that no doctor had predicted he would see and, though the surgery was a success, there is quite a bit of recovery to go.

Also, Hierodeacon Kilian, a student here, is to be ordained to the holy priesthood in St. Nicholas Cathedral (DC) at the hands of Metropolitan JONAH today. Please keep all these, and, as always, us, in your prayers.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


The final few days of school, followed by the last week or two serving here and there, the final days of hospital over the past few days.

Ordination was, all at once, glorious and ordinary. Never have I been in a service which required less brain power. Deacons in the altar led me here, pointed there, told me to bow here, kiss this, kneel like this, go here, etc. In the end, I was a deacon intoning the litany of thanksgiving for the Holy Eucharist. Fine. Glory to God. Since then I've served a vigil and a liturgy, both as third deacon (so very, very little fell to me there, which was fine by me) a couple of daily vespers service, and, then, today's liturgy. More on that below.

Notable to me on ordination day, though, was the large icon above the north deacon door (on the side facing the altar). It was a large icon of St. Herman of Alaska, our family's heavenly patron. I heard Kate jabbering; I heard Laura squealing. I knew that the thing I dreaded most about ordination--not being in the nave with my family (and leaving Audra to deal with all three of them, though thankfully there's always been folks more than willing to help, as my children are cute)--had happened. In addition to fast and furious Jesus Prayers behind my lips, I glanced up at the Kodiak acetic and asked him, "Watch out for us. Please."

What it'll take is more than a pious prayer thrown up once. It'll take a crucified mind, able to respond with grace under pressure and avoid unnecessary distractions that keep daily work from 1) being a "grind," and 2) from getting in the way of family. The tightrope one SVS alum told me about (he's currently a priest in E. TX) is one I'd do well to heed: Know what to cut and when to do it. If y'all are so inclined, keep the Dcn. David, the Matushka Natalia, and Elizabeth, Katherine, and Laura in your prayers.

I was surprised, a day before commencement, to be named the middler class salutatorian. SVS has an odd tradition of having the (ahem, sorry) highest GPA in the middle year "Salute" the outgoing graduates. I now know I can put together a speech in 24 hours that 1) is short, 2) has enough jokes that get good laughs in it to be interesting, and 3) is delivered well enough to come across as sincere and heartfelt, which is what I meant it to be. I wish the seniors well.

I was able to finish the final hours of Clinical Pastoral Education just before leaving for our road trip to Kentucky, Texas, and all points in between. My initial desire to go on with further CPE has been tempered by the potential reality of having to be a full-time rector in a parish somewhere following seminary (such would preclude full-time CPE internship), but there’s also the issue—it’s short-term, admittedly—of just being worn down by the sadness of it all. Watching long-term patients deteriorate, seeing them go from sweet and jovial to emaciated and moaning that they don’t want to die while drifting in and out of consciousness; watching hard-nosed, streetwise people break down and cry in my arms, rejoicing in people’s seemingly miraculous recoveries only to see them back in the hospital a week later…it has been difficult. I have had to rely much more consciously on the Jesus Prayer in order to keep emotions and thoughts in check. Recent reading of Vlachos has brought this to mind as a means of emotional and physical stability, almost as an engine and a steering column for my energies. “I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (Ps. 16.8). Such is the prayer of the chaplain, the father, the Father, the Christian.

We have gone through West Virginia and have stayed the night there, following which we have spent about four days in Kentucky w/Audra's family. We will head out tomorrow to see our eldest's godparents and, the morning after, leave for a week in TX. The return trip will see a few more days in Kentucky and Pentecost spent in Ellwood City, PA (Lord willing). I will be blessed to serve as deacon for Ascension and the Sunday of the Nicean Fathers in Ft. Worth. If the nuns will have me, perhaps I'll serve in Ellwood City on Pentecost.

Now, lest you think me the overeager, newly-ordained young deacon...well, you'd be partly right, but this will all come on the heels of today's quite humbling experience. My family and I make a point of going to St. Michael the Archangel's Church in Louisville when we're with her folks, and today, when I asked about coming in to commune as a deacon, they wondered why didn't I just go ahead and vest to serve.

As, um, second deacon. Sunday of the "Blind Man," indeed. There were moments where SVS' and Englewood's differences were quite apparent, even without my nerves. Most glaringly, however, was when the second priest brought over the chalices for communion in that very large parish.

There were four. I was clergy number four in the altar. Which meant I would be distributing communion.

I pretty much consider it a miracle the Vatican has overlooked that I did not drop the chalice, I did not spill the all the relatively minor, "Now what exactly is that kid doi--oh, he doesn't have any idea how we do it here, does he?"-type errors were secondary to that very nerve-wracking part of the service. My hat is off to Frs. Alexis and George and especially to Dcn. Andrew for making the newbie feel like he wasn't a total moron.

So, yeah. The next few services should prove interesting.

I will say this, though, about my wife. She misses me in the nave, yes; she's told me so in the days following ordination. But she won't lay on the guilt. She's not up for my second guessing myself about this (that would annoy here more than my being in the altar makes her miss me now). Ultimately, we both knew this would be a sacrifice put upon us, and that it's not the last or the smallest one we'll have to make. I am well aware that I've got a one-in-a-million woman here who's willing to grab a hold of this life I've led her to with both hands. That God is in it remains, ultimately, for time to tell, but that I need to always keep sight of her, of her sacrifice, of her generosity, is a given. God help me do so. Never have I been so aware of someone in my life for my salvation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


God willing, this Saturday, May 14, 2011, I will be ordained by Metropolitan JONAH to the Holy Diaconate at St. Sergius of Radonezh Chapel in Syosset, NY.

Please keep us in your prayers.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Raised for Judgment - A Homily

The following is the gist of the homily I delivered this morning in chapel; this is a speech-to-text version from last night.The gospel reading can be found HERE.

in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Christ is risen!

We've worked our way through about a week and ½ of Paschal celebration. We’ve heard beautiful hymns like "The Angel Cried," wherein words such as "Christ has raised all the dead" have been sung, our church is decked out in white, we’ve censed everything imaginable, we’ve shouted and sung "Christ is risen" in every conceivable language and--maybe most noticeably--we’ve put the paschal icon of the Harrowing of Hell in the center of the church and see that Christ has trampled down death and given life to those in the tombs.

But brothers and sisters, he has not just raised the dead. The dead will be raised, we hear in our reading today, in order that one day the Son of God would judge all mankind. We hear that "all those in the tombs will hear his voice: those who have done good will be raised to life, and those who’ve done evil we’ll be raised to condemnation."

What we're called to do today is to unlock our gaze from just looking at the Paschal icon, and to look up here [points to the icon to the right of the royal doors] to the icon of Jesus Christ as the one who will judge us. We all know about the parts of scripture that talk about our judgment--Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats--we talk about doing the things to the least of these--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison--and after all of this, along with today's reading, we know that it is not just about evil that we’ve avoided doing--I know I hear arguments of "I'm a good person, I haven't killed anyone, I don't cheat on my taxes, I don't cheat on my girl" all the time when I'm in the hospital--but it’s also about good that we actually do or have failed to do.

But what this means, of course, is that if God, as we pray in Vespers, would be strict in marking iniquities with any of us, none of us could stand. God has as all dead to rights.

But the beautiful thing about the reading today is that we’re not just of dealing with a judge who is the Son of God; we’re also to look at the One who is the Son of Man. So we don’t just look at the icon of Christ as judge, but we also look at this icon [points to the left of the royal doors] of Christ as the Son of Man. We read in the Hebrews that we don’t just have a Judge who is the Son of God, but we have a High Priest Who is sympathetic with our weaknesses, Who’s been tempted in every aspect of our lives--yet without sin--so that we can come confidently before the throne of grace and have mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. So there's hope as we strive to fulfill the commandments of Christ, for we come to the One who has suffered with us to help us in our failings.

So brothers and sisters--as we continue on in our Paschal celebration, let us remember that the Paschal icon is still the focus in the Church; Christ is still risen, but let’s remember why he’s become a man: He has become a man to die, to trample down death by that death, to rise from the dead, so that you and I can be made to bear fruit, to be made into to those who will be judged as good and faithful servants, and thus pass from death unto fullness of life. Amen. Christ is risen.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Wonder and Truth, Fair and Balanced?

The following is the second written contribution for my Systematic Theology class. It is almost double the maximum word count; I apologize in advance to my professor. However, as with the first entry, comments have been turned off until the entry can be graded.
Much in Orthoblogdom has been devoted to two often-competing blogs, OCANews and OCATruth, regarding current conflicts in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Rather than engage in more of the personality issues, I want to discuss something hitting closer to home.

Recently OCATruth took issue with the most recent issue of OCA Wonder, which dealt with Christianity and partisan politics, and published a review of it. The editor of OCA Wonder is a friend of mine and classmate here at St. Vladimir's, where discussions have gone on recently--in class and in school fora--regarding how or if Orthodox Christians should engage American politics. The emphases of both the OCA Wonder issue and its review on OCA Truth provide interesting insights into how different parts of the national church engage hot-button political issues of the day.

The first article in the Wonder issue, a piece by Abp. Lazar Puhalo, takes issue with those who would "manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law"; the well-known adage of "You can't legislate morality would apply here. He equates man manipulating man via legislation to man using and abusing his environment and decries both actions as a person sinfully taking his passions and directing them outwardly against the Other, rather than inwardly for the salvation of his own soul. Given the example of ecology, however, I find it interesting that he would most likely have no qualms about legislation designed to regulate Big Business through higher environmental standards. Is this legislated morality? Assuredly so--I would personally agree with such legislation--though one could say that Orthodox were engaging American politics to impose their morality on hard-working, industrious entrepreneurs and, as such, were not "loving" them.

Yet all legislation is morality; it cannot help but be so. Anything a body puts into practice, it does so out of a conviction that what it states is correct, and that which it opposes is incorrect. Our own Archbishop Iakovos marched with Dr. King out of a conviction that Jim Crow laws were immoral and unjust; overturning them through an official act of American legislation was not only not "sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love," as Abp. Puhalo would have it, but a sense of seeing justice and right prevail, which are necessary aspects of any type of genuine love.

The OCA Truth review, regarding Abp. Puhalo's article, claims that the article "doesn’t identify which doctrines and moral concepts [Abp. Lazar is] talking about, but he can only mean abortion and gay marriage." Now, this inflammatory remark is obviously wrong, as 1) Abp. Puhalo clearly mentioned the environment and 2) it is disengenous in the extreme to insert into silence what one's opponent "can only mean." However, the fact that abortion and gay marriage (which are mentioned together eight times in the entire OCA Truth article and begins to sound like a mantra after a while) are such important issues for the reviewer is telling and should, at least, be acknowledged, as they are, in fact, direct affronts to Orthodox Christian moral and anthropological dogma.

The OCA Truth reviewer's (hereafter, "The Reviewer," as it is anonymously posted) insistence on dealing with his two obviously pet issues does allow him some fair criticism. In his review of Scott Alan Miller's article, "Orthodoxy and Political Conservatism," he wonders "what the author means when he identifies 'social conservatism' as being conformity to Anglo-American norms," since "he barely defines what that means." Furthermore, I would say, to reduce American conservative thought to nothing more than Anglo-American norms is tantamount to saying that Orthodox thought is nothing more than Greco-Slavic cultural norms; there does exist a real, moral influence in both political conservatism and Eastern Orthodoxy that has its base in the Christian Scriptures, which transcend mere human cultural trappings. Indeed, Miller's almost dismissive attitude about the politically conservative arena is a disservice to the point of view he is ostensibly called upon to support. While he is right that many areas of conservativism--and, I would say, in particular, the arena of neo-conservatism--are at odds with much of Orthodox teaching (and, again, this is odd for an article purporting to give a "conservative" view--the OCA Truth reviewer is correct in asking how "you have anything important or helpful to say to young people about Orthodoxy and conservatism when you won’t address the two biggest issues" on which political conservative and traditional Orthodox thought actually agree.

The article on "Orthodoxy and the Political Left," written by Fr. John Culbreath-Frazier, says what I've mentioned here already: "all of Christian ethics in the political sphere are largely simplified to such charged issues as abortion and gay marriage, and placing little, if any, emphasis on how our faith may also approach such topics as the environment, poverty, and human rights; issues that have equal religious significance." The Reviewer's treatment (or lack thereof) of this article is where said Reviewer ought to be the most ashamed of himself. Not only has he only devoted a mere paragraph--and a flippant, vulgar one at that, unworthy of the task at hand--to an eloquent, thoughtful contribution to OCA Wonder, but he has misrepresented Fr. John's position, which does not in any way assert that Orthodox are "natural liberals," as the reviewer "bullet points" later on. Again, while The Reviewer grasps at a possible fingerhold for legitimate criticism when he states that the Democrats ought to be taken more to task for "fail[ing] to live up to the moral standards of Orthodoxy" with regard to the Reviewer's two main issues (for, as a comment that follows the article rightly states, "Both have been condemned by the Apostles and Fathers"), he loses all credibility when he glibly states that Fr. John is alleging that both secular Democrats and Orthodox "ought to wake up and realize that Orthodox Christians are really liberals too." Perhaps if The Reviewer could see past "his two issues," he might see that 1) the article rightly states that there are plenty of other issues championed by the Left with which the Orthodox can and do sympathize and 2) that acknowledgment of this common ground in no way compromises political action in anti-abortion nor defense of marriage arenas.

Perhaps a legitimate criticism of Fr. John's article--and it is a small one--would be to extend his criticism of the Left's "refusal to engage the 'right' on the religious playing field regarding policy." Not only has this "given the 'right' a monopoly on making any stance a religious issue," but it is a betrayal by those who espouse religious beliefs privately regarding these issues of their own responsibility as public figures to allow their faith to be a part--and an integral one, at that--of the whole person who casts a vote in Congress, writes up legislation, etc. That the moral and religious aspect of enacting legislation as a priestly offering to God is so absent from the political Left is a deficiency that can--and has--only hurt them politically.

Finally, The Reviewer takes issue with "The Problem of Partisanship" by Dr. David Wagschal, a professor at St. Vladimir's, though, again, the "taking issue" comprises all of a paragraph-long screed that, in essence, dismisses Dr. Wagschal's article because it was written by a Canadian (One wonders, or at least, I do, if The Reviewer simply got tired or pressed for time in reviewing these last two articles, given the non-engagement one sees therein). As The Review has devoted no more than a paragraph to this last article, I will devote no more than that to him here.

What I would like to address are certain ideas put forth in Dr. Wagschal's article. Dr. Wagschal mentions that the Orthodox, in Byzantine days, had "been very focused on promoting a maximal vision of a specifically Christian monoculture, with a very defined and carefully regulated set of beliefs, behaviors and values. The imposition of an ideal uniformity has been a much higher priority than a pragmatic management of diversity." It is interesting that this Byzantine uniformity was imposed on enslaved and subjugated sub-cultures through the official fiat of an emperor rather than suggested through the simple "good example" of individual faithful. It seems to me that this is a necessary and admirable admission when one is dealing with the issue of whether or not one is justified in "imposing one's morality" legislatively in our 21st-Century context. It would seem that, given our own past and the above-mentioned precedent of hierarchical Orthodox participation in the American Civil Rights Movement, our role is more complicated than Dr. Wagschal's dichotomy of "mov[ing] the political and moral agenda in a Christian direction from within" as opposed to "simply [being] content to throw stones at it from without" would have it.

While I agree that 1) "partisan sectarianism or extremism is too likely to reduce the Gospel to a set of narrow and human political “positions” which deprive it of its universal power and applicability," 2) "the Gospel could be identified with a human 'party'," and 3) "the scandal of the Gospel become the scandal of the Church’s political positions, not the scandal of the cross," none of these ideas inherently preclude participation or engagement with the legislative process of this country--"voting one's conscience," in other words. I do not necessarily think that Dr. Wagschal makes the assertion that his premises preclude such engagement (though he could hold this opinion, I suppose), but that he is so reticent to engage political activism based on a dichotomy of Church/State where involvement in the latter obscures irretrievably the message of the former is evident in his assertion that the Orthodox hierarchy ought "to keep the respectable distance from politics that our system demands, speaking out only occasionally on critical moral issues, but [to be] generally very careful to allow Orthodox citizens the freedom necessary to participate credibly in the political arena." I do not see a hierarch's involvement in political issues at odds with his responsibility to the Gospel; I would question whether any issue--be it poverty, the environment, the unborn, or the nature of human sexual union--is so (pun fully intended) sacred as to preclude "intrusion" from religious influence. While our government is designed so as to keep one, state religion from denying other churches' existence or dictating public policy as a whole, it does not follow that individuals can not engage public politics with a purposeful intent to bring their religious convictions into play, nor that religious leaders cannot speak to the faithful of their own confessions regarding pertinent issues of the day and teachings that can--and should!--influence how those individuals involve themselves in the political process.

It seems to me that, as one classmate of mine said, the image to the right is the only admissible image we as Orthodox have for guiding our participation in our nation's political arena; as the Israelites found out concerning the golden calf, so we must acknowledge that neither the image of elephant nor donkey can serve as a suitable replacement for the only image our God has given us of Himself. All Orthodox who are politically engaged understand that certain ideas in American politics are affronts to what they see as those things consonant with the image of God in Christ; the questions are, then, 1) which issue or issues comprise the greatest affront to said Image, and 2) how (not "if") those Orthodox Christians involved will engage the political process so as to bring it more into conformity with the image of God and Man in symphony.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ten Years

I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church ten years ago today (liturgically speaking; as Pascha is a moveable feast, the actual calendar date doesn't matter so much). My family came up to Tulsa from West Texas, and a cute, petite blonde sat in a pew a little ways back (holding my then-baby cousin through the whole liturgy--one of the longest of the year!). She would be chrismated that December, and we would be married the following June.

It was the second Pascha I had witnessed--the first being a dark whirlwind that ended in blinding light and Al Masih Qam stuck in my head for weeks. Since then, it's been everything from Bay Leaves to Kulich to newborns to little white dresses to taking off a couple of teaching days (to "cushion the blow" of Holy Friday through Pascha) to staying up to get candle wax out of a cassock (a never ending job) to Pysanky to Shiner Bock beer in a pascha basket. Last year and this year--and, God willing, next year--are, of course, distinct for their being spent in the Northeast US at SVS. There are differences, of course--I miss the Pascha night multilingual gospel reading that we so enjoyed in parish life--but the joy of Pascha has been identical in all eleven times I've seen it...there is nothing in this world like it. This is both purposeful, and yet sad. There can be nothing like it in this world, and yet, paradoxically, all in this world is called to share in its light. Or, to hijack a phrase someone wrote about Flannery O'Conner's Catholic faith, Pascha is not "the only thing that one must see in this world, but it is the light by which all else must be seen."

One of the things that no doubt gave me pause and activated the famous "raised eyebrow" I have bequeathed to my third daughter was the changing of the liturgical colors to white and the placing of the Harrowing of Hell icon (see the sidebar) in the center icon podium. Why do that, I would ask, if it is not Pascha yet?

Answer? We just can't help ourselves.

Our change to these colors almost seems a slip, a liturgical wink and nod, if you will. We have just walked with our Lord through the Passion by way of hearing the Gospel accounts; that sacrament of hearing leads to lamentation, where we hear the Mother of God weep tragically:
"Where dost Thou go, my Child? Why dost Thou run so swiftly? Is there another wedding in Cana, and art Thou hastening there, to turn the water into wine? Shall I go with Thee, my Child, or shall I wait for Thee? Speak some word to me, O Word; do not pass me by in silence. Thou hast preserved my virginity, and Thou art my Son and God." (Ikos of Small Compline for Holy Friday)
Yet the Old Testament readings read over the tomb and the accompanying hymns make clear already what those first Christians read in the Hebrew Scriptures after having witnessed the death of Christ: "Arise...arise...arise."

I've often wondered why some folks in the Church tend to fixate on the penitential aspects of the faith--whether as a good thing (the wide-eyed, hand-on-heart, "ah, yes, I am--[faux pained sigh]--the chief of sinners") or a bad thing (i.e., the folks with almost an allergy to anything ascetic or demanding in the faith: "Oh, great, three more hours of 'I hate myself' hymnography")--when, as my middle girl has told me all week in dark-hued Holy Week services, "Yeah, but, Jesus isn't really dead!" The secret that's behind "abstain[ing] from passions as we abstain from food," as we sang at Lent's outset is leaked gloriously on this day and declared joyously tonight through the words of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom: "Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast." The ascetical practice we have here of praying the psalms in shifts during the night following Holy Friday is similarly glorious; we are asking this One who lies dead to arise and overthrow the adversaries of our souls, for the dead do not rise up to praise Him. Our darkened solemnity is always backlit by the reality of an empty tomb. A tortured God who lies dead accomplishes more than all the machinations of men as He rests in this New Sabbath of Sabbaths from His recreation of the whole cosmos.

"All lights are now extinguished, except one lamp in the sanctuary. So the period of the Lenten Triodion comes to a close, and at once there begin Mattins of the Resurrection." ~ Closing words of Metr. KALLISTOS' edition of the Triodion

I ask your prayers for more years in our Lord's blessed community of faith. Joyous Feast to all. In anticipation: Christ is risen! Cristo ha resucitado! Христос воскрес! Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"What Do I Do / When it Seems I Relate to Judas More than You?"

An old fav popped into my head at liturgy this morning. Poor Old Lu, anyone?

Two stichera from today's Matins Praises:

"Judas the transgressor at the supper dipped his hand into the dish with Thee, O Lord /
yet sinfully he reached out his hands to receive the money. /
He reckoned up the value of the oil of myrrh, /
and yet was not afraid to sell Thee who art above all price. /
He stretched out his feet to be washed, /
yet deceitfully he kissed the Master and betrayed Him to the breakers of the Law. /
Cast out of the company of the apostles, /
he threw away the thirty pieces of silver, /
and did not Thy Resurrection on the third day. //
Through this Thy Resurrection have mercy on us."

"Judas, servant and deceiver, /
disciple and traitor, /
friend and false accuser, /
was revealed by his deeds. /
For he followed the Master, /
yet inwardly he plotted to betray Him. /
He said in himself: 'I shall deliver Him up /
and gain the money that is promised.' /
He desired the oil of myrrh to be sold /
and Jesus to be taken by deceit. /
He gave a kiss and handed over Christ; /
and the Lord went as a sheep to the slaughter, //
for He alone is compassionate and loves mankind."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Mystery of Bodies and Words

A full week. The seminary community put forth a relatively strenuous effort this past week with, in addition to the normal lenten daily Matins/Vespers and Wed. Presanctified, a reading of the entire Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and a reading of the life of St. Mary of Egypt on Thursday morning (beginning at 6am), followed by another Presanctified Liturgy at noon the same day. Akathist to the Theotokos w/Matins was served Friday evening, followed by a Saturday liturgy the next morning, Vigil for the Resurrection last night, and liturgy this morning.

The body is a mystery. I spoke today with the husband of a dear friend of mine from college when we went to the zoo this afternoon (having three small children necessitates going more kid-friendly places, even if the company is currently without children of their own). He, a devout Evangelical Protestant, is nonetheless open to certain questions that some Evangelicals have been looking for answers to in the Orthodox Church. Consequently, the tension held between bodily, physical life and spiritual renewal and life is a mystery with which he is comfortable. The both/and of asceticism--where (ideally) our bodily efforts translate into steps towards sanctification (with the understanding that such is a participation in, and not an earning of, something that has already been freely made available to man apart from any effort or merit of man)--has been apparent during the fast.

Clean Week, the first week of Lent for Orthodox Christians--was full of lengthy services, much psalmody, and many prostrations, along with very little food, which left us exhausted, dazed, and hungry. This hunger for many folks was broken after several days with the Eucharist on Wednesday, when we traditionally celebrate the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (so called because an extra portion of bread is offered during the previous Sunday's liturgy and is changed by the Holy Spirit, according to Orthodox tradition and biblical witness, into the Body and Blood of Christ, which is then distributed to the faithful during the more somber Lenten week as a means of spiritual sustenance in a time of more penitential reflection, repentance, and increased spiritual effort). While I didn't refrain from food totally--the hospital hours were and are very demanding--such a period left me in a state of what I call "ascetic shock and awe," where the body is forcibly reminded that it is not, in fact, the one in charge, and that it is obliged to submit to the soul, which is in turn to be submissive to the Spirit of God.

Lent being the time of battle that it is, such a well-intended beginning often comes under fire and, as many Orthodox Christians can no doubt attest, we often wind up forgetting the word given to us and losing ourselves in the very things we tried to strip away from ourselves in detachment during Lent. This past week was a renewal of sorts, with a reminder that seasons of physical exertion are part and parcel to our life as humans who live in and have a body as an integral part of who we are. What is most glorious about this fifth week of Lent, now past, however, is (in my opinion) the fact that such an austere, extremely penitential Thursday not only shows us how someone as given over to what we now term sex addiction can be brought to lightness and redemption in Christ, but is followed almost immediately with the bright, buoyant--even triumphalistic!--hymns of rejoicing to the Mother of God. Here is she who, surrounded by an understanding of where and how babies are brought into being and knowing the consequences of straying from Mosaic norms, has the mind-blowing wideness of mind and largeness of heart to be the New Eve and say "Yes!" When all of the physical things around her demanded to be taken on their own terms and as ends in themselves, she realized that the order of those things' nature can be overthrown in a moment. All she was given was the word of an angel--fleeting, ethereal to human ears, but eternal in its power and scope, accomplishing what it was purposed to accomplish--and she gave it a place to settle in her blessed heart, where it was cherished and kept...and from her taking in the word came forth a short Word in the earth, the Word made flesh. Her body was the property of and temple of this Word. Our bodies are subject to--and, God grant, illumined by--this Truth.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lift Up Your Eyes on High and See -- A Homily

From this morning in of the difficulties for me in putting this together was the fact that seminary guidelines constrain us to five to seven minutes. We have a pretty short morning service--20-30 min. each weekday morning--and this is sort of a short sermonette (I call it "spiritual breakfast") that is given by second- and third-year seminarians at the conclusion to accompany the reading.

They say it's harder to write a short sermon than a longer sermon, and I'd agree; I tend to want to tackle the entire passage (a rookie mistake, I'm told). So this is what I pulled out for the seminary community (from whence I pulled it I'll leave y'all to deduce) from Isaiah 40:18-31.

Your critiques, suggestions, and snide remarks are, of course, welcome.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

Today’s reading marks a shift in Isaiah. Up to this point, Isaiah has been predicting the coming judgment of Judah; our reading today is the first of Isaiah’s prophecies to come after Jerusalem has been conquered and the Jewish people have been scattered violently from their homeland. Their lives are in complete chaos, and nothing around them is familiar or secure. But, out of this chaos comes a new message: Comfort, comfort ye my people. Isaiah is told to lift up the eyes of the bruised people of God and dares them to trust again, even in their most painful moment, when everything is out of control.

Now, this can seem like an impossible order, because Israel was convinced that “my way is hidden from the LORD, and my justice is disregarded by God.” And this is certainly something that, to one degree or another, we can all relate to. Whenever we encounter a crisis or confusion, when things are uncertain, when we have no idea where to go from here, it’s easy to wonder if God really has a hand in it all.

A dear friend of mine who was grieving the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one gave me a glimpse of this when she said, “I need to know that God’s will really does govern all. I’m not mad at God, and I know I can’t understand the reasons, but I need to know that He has them and that He is in control. Otherwise, He’s just not worth believing in.”

And certainly we as seminarians are not immune to this wondering if having faith will ultimately be “worth it.” We may not have experienced a great tragedy, but often our experience can be one disappointment, one struggle after another. We understand what it means to uproot our lives, to journey here for two or three years (maybe more), to take what looks like a very impractical step of faith, and (in our case) to decide to live lives that quite often defy all manner of stability or common sense. And in spite of our best laid plans—perhaps we’ll take these courses while at seminary, maybe we’ll do this for a while after graduation—often we’re left with realities that are so different than what we worked so hard to make them, and we can find ourselves seriously doubting our Lord’s guiding presence when it seems like He’s left us “twisting in the wind,” and the idols we’ve made of our expectations come crashing down around us.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

Isaiah’s prophecy here is, yes, a reminder of the things we try to make for ourselves and in which we often trust, but it’s also a call for us to lift up our eyes to see the work of the One who has sustained us and brought us this far and who will continue to remember and sustain us as His children.

When Isaiah tells the Israelites to lift up their eyes to the stars, they not only remember that He is the One who made the stars, but also the One who made them, the children of Abraham, as numerous as those same stars, just like He said He would, and that, surely--surely!--He has not forgotten them as they wait, confused, even in the whirling dust of exile.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

We are those stars, as well; we are children of Abraham, and we are called to look up in our waiting, as well. Yet we are not waiting merely for the One Who put the stars in their places and Who calls them—and us—all by name; we are waiting for the One who ascended to the heavens and who will come again for us. St. Paul echoes Isaiah for us in his letter to the Colossians: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Our task, when we become consumed with the affairs of this world, is to remember that our true stability comes from another one. When the temptation comes to become attached to this plan or that vision we have for our lives, we are then called to remember God, to lift up our minds, even in times of uncertainty, and remember that our ways are not hidden from the Lord, even though they may be hidden from us right now.

As we go through the remainder of this Lenten journey together, we struggle with diet, with thoughts, and with these unexpected concerns of life; regardless of where you are, remember to lift up your eyes and see the Creator and Sustainer of the stars of heaven, who comes to us soon as our Bright and Morning Star, the risen Lord who is mindful of us, and who will keep us, even as He keeps the stars. Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Listen to what the angel says: Therefore also that Holy Thing Which is [being begotten -- γεννώμενον] of thee, in other words, that Holy Thing Which is growing within your womb in extraordinary manner, and does not at once exist in completed form. Here the mouth of Nestorius is sealed. For that man said that the Son of God did not take flesh by dwelling in the womb of the Virgin, but that a mere man was born of Mary, and only later was this man "accompanied" by God. Let Nestorius hear, therefore, that that Holy Thing Which is being begotten in the womb is the Son of God." -- Blessed Theophylact, The Holy Gospel according to St. Luke

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Children Grow

My eldest did this today.

(Taken from my project, here.)

A Word on Metropolitans, Then to the Fast

My wife told me about the OCA Truth blog the other day which means to serve as a corrective to the OCA News blog, which I sensed was kicking over the traces back in the "AOCANA bishop 'demotion'" days. I just rolled my eyes and said that none of this is helpful, that we can't ever really know anything with regard to these goings on...none of which stopped me from actually going to said blog and liking two or three of the articles on Facebook. We are nothing if not hypocrites.

Having said that, I'll say this about the situation and be done with it: I do think that, if Metropolitan JONAH turns out to be under attack from some for being too pro-life, too pro-DADT, too plain-ol'-monastic, then I'll not be surprised. It's insane that the wrangling in the Synod should 1) be about these issues and 2) be this perpetual--albeit no less Byzantine, apparently--in this age of the internet. I pray he comes back and is able to resume his duties following the lenten fast, for he is a leader who will do our church much good, if God allows. My druthers are what they are; I'll leave it at that and use Lent to pray as I can.

(Later edit, 3/8: Looks like some short-sighted commentary on my part--or at least very culturally-conditioned commentary--has caused foot to meet mouth again. I think Samn's got us DOS-ers pegged in a lot of ways. I'll leave the post as is; hopefully as a reminder to shut up and watch, rather than mouth off so quickly. My apologies to any and all for the above paragraph. While some things there may have some merit, it apparently is hardly the whole story.)

Forgiveness Vespers tonight in chapel; I have to say, I love the tradition here of singing the Paschal canon odes and verses during the rite of forgiveness. This is the only meaning the Fast can ever truly have and be tenable: Forgiveness and Resurrection. We are not those who fast, weep, or do anything else as those who have no hope; as the homilist said in liturgy this morning, we can't pretend that we don't know how this is going to end! Our joy is here, at the onset of the fast, and it is Christ, the risen One.

Blessed Fast.

Homily for Class -- Mt. 14.14-22

A third post for the day: The following is my homily for Exegesis for Preaching. Constructive criticism is welcome.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Just before today’s very familiar reading starts, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been murdered by Herod the tetrarch due to a promise made at a banquet, in a moment of passion. Now Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead, so he sets his sights on Jesus, even though he has no idea who Jesus really is. So we see that Jesus has very serious business to address, and much of it is unjustly thrown at him. The Scripture says that he withdraws from the situation, but is met at that very moment by the same publicity that got Him into trouble in the first place. We know from John’s and Luke’s gospels that, if Jesus had wanted to, He could have avoided this great crowd who had sought him out (Jn 7.20; Lk 4.30), but this isn’t what happens. Christ’s first reaction is one of compassion on behalf of other people, in spite of events in His life that would drive most of us to distraction! And this is very comforting; we know that the One we are seeking to approach is greatly compassionate, and that any moment is appropriate for coming to Him with the cares of this life.

Yet this Gospel reading is not simply a story about how patient or helpful Christ is with us, though it is that. It also serves as an example for how we are to act with others, even in moments of severe stress. And that’s not an easy example to follow, I admit! I know that, in my own experience, on those days when parish responsibilities are particularly heavy, when encounters in the hospital are extremely negative and dark, when personal or family affairs seem to press in to the point where I’m tempted to make it all about my stress, to refuse to see beyond my issues—it’s on those days when the first thing that greets me at home is a crying three-year old with a snotty nose, a thoroughly stressed-out wife, and a honey-do list as long as my arm. And it’s precisely in those moments of inconvenience that we are called to do what Christ did: just as He sacrificed to serve others—even to the point of death later on—so we are to be included in a life of sacrificial service to other people—particularly to those we see around us right now.

We read that the disciples suggested that evening that Jesus send the crowds to nearby towns to get food for themselves. A very practical solution to a very immediate problem. But Christ’s answer takes them aback: “"They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They are understandably surprised, given their apparent lack of resources. And we, as Orthodox Christians, may share in this uneasiness today; our call to be witnesses to the world of the reality of the Lord’s death and resurrection often feels like a tall order considering how isolated our parishes might be or how meager our budgets can sometimes get. It can be tempting to wondering how or even if our meeting here is “worth it,” and wouldn’t it be more effective to look to other, larger, more well-funded or sophisticated ways to help others—and even ourselves—find satisfaction in the world.

Yet Christ considers it vital to keep the multitude together on the hillside and include the disciples in ministering to the hungry. He takes the small amount of food they have at their disposal, then blesses, breaks, and gives it to the disciples, who are then able—to the surprise of everyone!—to meet this multitude’s need.

The crowds that Jesus fed that day no doubt remembered that the prophet Elisha had done something very similar in former times, and they knew that the Messiah—God’s chosen One—would multiply bread for Israel once more; they no doubt knew that Someone special—even greater than Elisha!—was in their midst. Likewise, the hearers of Matthew’s gospel, from the beginning of the Church until now, have recognized the language of this hillside banquet: Today bread will be blessed, broken, and given to us all, for the forgiveness of sins and for healing of soul and body, surpassing even the miraculous bread in our reading. We are no longer at the banquet of Herod, of this world, where it’s “All about me” and my desires that so often get me into trouble. We come here, to this banquet at which Christ presides, specifically to meet Him, at His table, on His terms, and His terms are ones of compassionate sacrifice and service to others, even when it seems like we don’t have much to offer them.

We may neglect that call or sympathy card to someone who is grieving because we feel our words might be inadequate; we may leave undone a simple touch or a prayer for someone we know who is struggling because it seems “impractical.” We might not help out in church school because we don’t “know enough,” or we might neglect to help someone struggling financially because, really, what good could I do with a little amount in today’s economy (and, if we’re honest, we feel the tug of needing that little bit ourselves). What we notice about the disciples here is that they were honest about what little they had, but in spite of this, they were generous with it; they gave it to Christ and to others in a spirit of total detachment. This obedience out of love for Christ—even if it was an inconvenient move that made them vulnerable to embarrassment—is what Christ would have us do.
Indeed, this is in contrast to the chaos of Herod’s banquet—where frenzied passions and the desire to look good and save face ended in an innocent victim’s murder. The humble Host of our Banquet is the One Who suffered shamefully for us in the Body on the Cross, and who gave, even to the point of shedding His Blood, for our salvation, and Who calls us to live sacrificial lives for Him and for other people.

Let us come to the table of our Lord’s broken Body and shed Blood, then, and get ready to look for ways in which we can be blessed to be broken for, and given to, other people. In all of the places we will go in our day-to-day lives, and in all of the resources of which we avail ourselves to live those lives, let this Banquet set the tone for us in every moment, so that we, like the disciples, will know that this One, the Host of our Banquet, truly is the Son of God who feeds us even in the wilderness, and Who sends us to meet the needs of those around us who hunger for Him. Amen.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Homosexuality and the Church

(This blog post is for a short assignment in Systematic Theology; as such, comments have been turned off)

Almost four years ago, Luke Timothy Johnson and Eve Tushnet wrote two thoughtful and heartfelt articles regarding homosexuality and the Church (SOURCE) -- while, for both of them, "the Church" refers to the Roman Catholic Church, many of their observations are pertinent to the questions often raised across all Christian confessional lines.

Johnson has established himself as a highly competent commentator on the Scriptures and a contender for fidelity to them as Holy Writ--a welcome voice in a day of all-too-rampant skepticism with regard to Scriptural inspiration. He states quite frankly that "we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good." What surprised me, however, was the turn he took at that point; he did indeed declare that the unions can and should be blessed in the Church. I was unaware that his daughter had "come out of the closet" herself; thus, he has something substantial at stake in addressing the issue at hand: His relationship with his own daughter. He claims that, just as we have used our experiences with real life human beings to justify multiple marriages and the abolition of slavery (in opposition to certain passages of Scripture), so same-sex relationships also are able to be reevaluated--and should, he thinks, in light of our loved ones' experiences with same-sex attraction.

Tushnet, herself a Catholic who struggles with same-sex attraction, counters and states that Johnson's technique "places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is." This seems ironic, for the person who seems to have the most at stake in the debate is quite "unimpressed with the attempts to resolve the conflict by negating the teaching" of Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian tradition on the subject of same-sex attraction. Her main premise for rejecting same-sex unions is the same as that of the New Testament in its discourse on certificates of divorce: "From the beginning it was not so." This theology of the body places the archetypal images of man and woman, in mutual, interdependent longing for one another, as the ultimate icon of human union and interaction. As to those who would cite same-sex couples' loving, committed relationships as also mutually interdependent with longing for one another--a male is no less male for longing for a male than for longing for a female, they might say--she states, kindly but succinctly, that "The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants" and that, like the rich young ruler who had done all he felt he could, same-sex attracted people may be asked to give up even more by Christ. This, to me, seems to be a good start towards defending traditional, biblical teaching on the subject, with a tone that can not but be sympathetic to those who need, "not to stop loving your partner but to express that love without sex."

My own experience with friends who have same-sex attraction began somewhat stereotypically, in the high school theater department. It continued through college at Oral Roberts University, which has an infamous reputation for having a significant percentage of alumnae who have come after graduation about the same-sex attraction they had felt during their years in school. During these times, I met with several people who asked me how homosexuality could be sinful when it was natural. I gave two answers:

1) My own inclination was and is to look at natural law: Strictly speaking, it is not natural, anatomically speaking. One of the primary reasons for a male and a female to have been created in the first place was to be fruitful and multiply--something impossible for same-sex couples. We have been created for procreation (among other things, but quite emphatically this as well) and this role as giver of life is a blessed participation in the life of God for man. Infertile couples, of course, are the exception to the rule, but the rule stands.

2) All of us, according to Judeo-Christian teaching, have been born into sins (Ps. 51 (50 LXX):5). Our bodies are full of passion, movement, urges, desires, many of which we did not ask for and do not fully understand. Though not overtly and immediately destructive, same-sex attraction shares this characteristic with alcoholism, depression, and, yes, heterosexual sex addiction. While a desire may come unbidden and seem very enticing, we would say that it comes from a place that is not κατα φυσειν, according to nature, and thus the thoughts that lead to all of the actions mentioned here must not be indulged but rather redirected in massive, life-long struggle shared by all who, for one reason or another, are not given the outlet of erotic expression or some other method of engaging their desires as they would like. This helped those I spoke with who were struggling with same-sex attraction; they could see, at least, that they were not the lone rejects of God in the eyes of the Church; while I was saying that there was a struggle ahead for them, the issue that they were dealing with was no more "heinous" an issue than any other sin of appetite.