Sunday, February 27, 2005

Prodigal Missionaries

Two full-grown men in a huddle of kids
And they're tryin' to help them to believe
What is too good to be real
Yet is more real than the air they breathe...
~ Rich Mullins, What Susan Said
OK, so it was just me and it was a handful of high-school kids, but the sentiment is still there. We were covering the missionary activities of the early Church in Scripture--specifically, St. Peter's vision of the unclean animals in the sheet and Cornelius' vision.

If there's anything that should bring me humility, it's teaching. But, as a teacher by trade, I can tell you that that's not always the case. I guess because I'm much more confident of--and much less committed to, if I'm honest--my abilities to teach folks how to speak Spanish than I am of my ability to convey eternal truths to them and have the enthusiasm, the belief in what "is more real than the air they breathe" rub off on them, to "stick." I grew up with a natural awareness of the fact that Apostolicity, which we confess of our Church at every Divine Liturgy, necessarily means mission. Necessarily means letting the grace of God transform us on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis so that we can be epistles to be read of all men. I'd love nothing more than to see them understand the same.

Here, though, are a couple of pitfalls: wanting their committment, their enthusiasm to be recognizable, i.e., like mine; and gauging my "success" on whether or not there's a response. Now, luckily, I was with four great boys, so the worry of their paying attention wasn't really an issue. But there's a tension there--a tension I will undoubtedly feel multiplied upon becoming a father--to pass on as a tradition, a paradosis of understanding not only that God sends us out in mission to tell a story, but also in understanding that there's a story to tell, that they are a part of that story! That the story of God's love and desire for us to return to Him--illustrated so brilliantly in today's liturgical theme of the Prodigal Son, my favorite parable--very much includes them, giving them the impetus truly to be a witness of how that story can, does and will change them.

The story is for those around them here, for those who are anywhere they choose to go, even unto the uttermost bounds of the earth (here we went over stuff from OCMC, IOCC and Project Mexico and St. Innocent's Orthodox Orphanage and it made me "homesick" for the missions emphasis I would love to see more of in the Church and saw constantly as an evangelical). Not done in a "convert your neighbor and God will love you" sort of way, but as a natural effect of your life being trasfigured by the Lord. We should be thus regardless of where we are--whether in Ft. Worth, TX or Kenya--but let us be thus, O Lord. Let us be prodigals of the Absolute who bring others into the journey Home along with them.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Sunday of the Prodigal

From the Lenten Triodion for the Great Vespers of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son:
I have wasted the wealth which the Father gave to me, and in my wretchedness I have fed with the dumb beasts. Yearning after their food, I remained hungry and could not eat my fill. But now I return to the comassionate Father and cry out with tears: I fall down before Thy lovingkindness, receive me as a hired servant and save me.
But, far from merely accepting us as hired hands, the Father inexplicably does the following:

Brethren, let us learn the meaning of this mystery. For when the Prodigal Son ran back from sin to his Father's house, his loving Father came out to meet him and kissed him. He restored to the Prodigal the tokens of his proper glory, and mystically He made glad on high, sacrificing the fatted calf. Let out lives, then, be worthy of the loving Father who has offered sacrifice, and of the glorious Victim who is the Savior of our souls.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Practicing Silence

Rich Mullins used to drive from gig to gig with the radio off in the car. Said he was practicing silence. I think that's probably partly the case--he, as a musician, was also probably just sick of music all the time and welcomed the break--but regardless, my wife helped remind me of the value of just being quiet tonight.

She turned the TV off after a program she'd wanted to watch and, when I offered to turn on some music, she said, "Do we have to have something on?" My initial thought was, "Of course; why wouldn't we?" But Lent is approaching, and part of the focus is stillness, simplicity, silence. So I paused, shrugged, and said, "No; I guess not"--and immediately felt more at ease with everything around me, more focused, more there. I know I've read quotes from fathers of the Church about being present in the moment, but the version of that thought that's stuck with me is a quote from either Jim Elliot or Nate Saint, two Evangelical missionaries who were killed by natives in Ecuador: "Wherever you are, be all there; live to the hilt any situation you believe to be the will of God."

That "being all there" is only fully realized through stillness, the ability to find one's focus and peace with no outside stimuli. Or, as Pascal famously put it, "All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Festival of Orthodoxy, Part II

Went to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas yesterday to finish up the two-day, pan-Orthodox festival. Lots of "big names"--Dr. Clark Carlton, Frank Schaffer, His Eminence DMITRI (my Archbishop), Fr. Peter again--I, being the church geek that I am, waited around to ask questions of all of them. But the best part was having Vespers with a few hundred other Orthodox Christians in that beautiful church with the vaulted ceilings that made the voices boom.

Saturday Vespers (unless you happen to attend an amazingly active and committed parish) is usually not nearly as well-attended as the Divine Liturgy (eventually) is (and if you're Orthodox you get the "eventually" part). To have, then, several hundred brothers and sisters chanting the prayers--"Lord have mercy...Grant this, O Lord...Our Father...Glory...Now and Ever..."--a very deep sense of community, especially after Fr. Peter's discourse on the Book of Acts, Ch. 2, and how we really ARE carrying on the first worship service when we pray "THE prayers" (Acts. 2:42)...the community wasn't only with those present, but with those billions who've gone on to glory before, who've prayed the same basic prayer: "Lord, have mercy. I believe..."

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Cure your enthusiasm

Re-read the last post...though of changing "cure" to "curb"--which is quite cliché, as well as a hilarious show--but thought better of it, as enthusiasm doesn't need to be stifled (curbed), but rather tempered, or cured by the slow rhythm of day-to-day life. If the heat is steady enough, the flames no longer go out from the wind; rather, the coals glow.

"What I Call Joy..."

Some thoughts from the Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann:
Monday, April 10, 1978: "I feel a kind of fear when faced with activism (of the young at the seminary) who passionately want to be pastors, to guide. It always seems to me that it's not needed--for if man would see what I call joy, or if man would simply love Christ--just a little, would come to Him, nothing else would be needed. If not, nothing will help."
And to cure this enthusiasm:

Tuesday, January 20, 1981: "If I were a starets--an elder--I would tell a candidate for monasticsim roughly the following:
  • get a job, if posible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a casher in a bank);
  • while working, pray and seek inner peace. Accept everyone--coworkers, clients, as something sent to you; pray for them;
  • after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;
  • always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a "dust rag" (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov). Keep at that kind of service and be--in church matters--totally obedient to the priest;
  • do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;
  • read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly (this point needs more precise definition);
  • if friends and acquaintances invite you because they are close to you--go; but not too often, and within reason. Never stay more than one and a half or two hours. After that the friendliest atmosphere becomes harmful;
  • dress like everyone else, but modestly, and without visible signs of a special spiritual life;
  • be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any "spiritual" conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. If you act that way, everything will be to your benefit;
  • do not seek a spiritual elder or guide. If he is needed, God will send him, and will send him when needed;
  • having worked and served this way for ten years--no less--ask God whether you should continue to live this way, or whether change is needed. And wait for an answer: it will com; the signs will be 'joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.'"

Festival of Orthodoxy

Heard Fr. Peter Gilquist speak tonight at the North Texas Festival of Orthodoxy. He spoke on "Finding the New Testament Church"; it was good to hear someone go back over "the basics" of why I converted to Orthodoxy: sacraments, liturgy, hierarchy, the nature of salvation and relation of one man to another...very comforting. It's hard to keep that in mind and, at the same time, keep in mind the fact that I'm supposed to lose sight of the familiar shore of "why I converted" in order to sail out to "where I'm supposed to be." I think there comes a time when, although we remember our overwhelming initial days of everything from romances to religious conversions, there comes a time (or there should) when we cease to identify our walk with Christ along those lines. That time is slowly coming; when folks ask me why I'm Orthodox, I no longer instinctively say, "Because of the doctrinal and hierarchical continuity it shares with the first Christians." Though that was and still is an important reason for being Orthodox, I have (thank God!) moved on to an answer along the lines of, "Because this is how the first Christians experienced and lived Christ, and these guys are still doing that, and I want that."

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Good Day, A Better Day

Yesterday was good in several ways--put in a good (long!) day at school and got much done, had Mom over for dinner with us, relaxed by doing Pysanky (Ukranian egg painting), sat w/ A on the loveseat drinking coffee and just talking--but there was one moment that just made me realize (setting the tone for the evening) that "it just don't get better than this."

It's been said that there's a rest you can get in your work that you can't find in your sleep. I had carried that rest outside (helped a bit by a glass of Chardonnay) to our back patio and let it mingle with the smokey, slow aromas of marinated meat that were rising from the grill. Add to the mix the dark, rich aroma and taste of a fine Macanudo cigar, as well as the unseasonable warmness of yesterday's dusk and you've got one happy fella. I looked up, past all the dancing smoke I was so grateful for that evening, and said, "Thank You, O Lord."

Upon doing that, however, I was touched. I thought about the incredible blessing the evening was in all its abundance--family, health, home, food, job, leisure, sensory pleasure--and was made more aware of those who would view this night as simply unimaginable, from the homeless in our streets to the children of Calcutta. Mind you, this wasn't a cosmic guilt trip; I didn't feel some impulse like that of Zacchaeus or Anthony to run about giving away all that I had (perhaps I'm not yet worthy of that). But it made me wish for the Day in which all things will be set right.

I thought also of how, if all these things were to be taken away, I, like Job, would need to understand that they were fleeting gifts anyway, not mine to be had. There's a prayer we pray after meals, and I found myself praying it there on the patio:

We thank You, O Lord, for satisfying us with Your earthly gifts. Deprive us not of Your heavenly gifts, but, as You entered into the presence of Your disciples, O our Savior, and granted them peace, enter also among us and save us. Amen.

The satisfaction of a good day pointed to the awaited realization of another, better One.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

"You Did Not Tow the Party Line" and "Madeline Fusses, and Madeline Kicks!"

OK, so that's...what? Three Rich Mullins references in entry titles in just the first month? Yeah...I like the guy...

So there's a thread on (in my sidebar) that I just posted on (this link is my post) wherein I (try to) talk about the Orthodox view of Atonement and how it differs (and doesn't differ) from western confessions.

Rather than rehash the thread (you can read it if you want) I'll just say that I think there's a tendency among us converts to maybe want to be different from what we were before just for the sake of being different. Or rather, our newfound differences are a comfort to us; we no longer have to deal with any similarities or "old feelings" we used to have..."the old has gone; the new has come!" in other words.

But I think that the views on the Atonement, while they have many important differences, are not so diametrically opposed as I was led to believe as a catechumen. I just wish I'd been told that the "party line" opinion I'd been shown (no divine wrath, no type of "satisfaction" of any kind of justice, etc.) was sort of a "yeah, but..." idea within the Church, and that there was more to it. Ah, well.

I felt Hope kick yesterday! Or something...that child moves around so much it could have been anything...butt, arm, shoulder, I felt like little flutters under my hand. Precious.

A and I are preparing a joint Valentine's Day meal for today (the work week is just too busy), and we bought a pound (exactly) of salmon steaks...which is how much Hope E. weighs at this point. The wrapped steaks were about the size she is, too. A felt the steaks in her hand and said, "Well, no wonder I'm tired after carrying this!" Never thought deli-wrapped fish would remind me of my daughter....

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Running as Communion

Am proud to say I've actually taken on the cliché New Year's Resolution of more exercise and, to this point, kept it...I've taken up running again--I did a LOT of it in college and am pledging to do it three times a week now--and had forgotten how much I missed the "runner's high." With the exception of last week (only two times), I've actually stayed on top of it.

When I run, I have an incredible feeling of stewardship going; I know I'm (finally!) taking care of the body Christ gave me and wants to redeem...and here I am cooperating with Him, by His mercy. I don't say this often, but I think I literally feel the presence of God more strongly when I run than at any other time, save the times when I approach the chalice during Liturgy, and then directly after communing when I return to the choir to sing, "We have seen the true Light / We have received the heavenly Spirit / We have found the true Faith / Worshipping the undivided Trinity / Who has saved us." The actual act of communion is strangely dreamlike; it never seems really "real" (though is it sad that I judge "reality" by feelings?)...I guess approaching passionless Love and partaking of Him will do that to a person...'s nice to run through the dusk of a cool winter night and sense the One who put it there.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Life Seen, Life Lost

¡Es una niña! ¡Te esperamos, "mija!"

Today I saw my daughter for the first time. As soon as the image came up--a grainy, squiggling little mass with a HUGE head--my breath literally caught in my throat. There she is--a human being who, just a few months ago, did not exist save in the mind of God and who will be a major part of my life, Lord willing, for years and years to come. Diapers. Peek-a-boo. Baptism. Tantrums. Confusing Spanish and English upon learning to talk. Sing-a-long with Father (and Daddy!) during Divine Liturgy. First steps. Dress-up. First day of school. Sleepovers. Homework. Sibling Rivalry? Sports? Music? Dating (shudder). Graduation. College (at her parents' insistence!). Marriage?

My heart swells; ¡yo voy a ser "papi" el junio que viene! This little ball of flesh and spirit, only one pound right now, has been entrusted to me. Her mouth, now silent, will speak words that melt my heart, and--unfortunately--words that will break it. Her eyes--brown like mine or blue like Audra's?--will see the Lord risen on Pascha, will know that Christ IS risen, that He is her Creator, Master and Lord, and that He loves her more than even I could. I have eighteen years--I hear they're gone before you even turn around!--to be directly in this little one's life, and have her be in mine.

This is committment. This is life seen on a monochrome screen. This is God not giving up on us yet. This is my firstborn, Hope Elizabeth Wooten.

Through the prayers of St. Elizabeth, the mother of the Forerunner, Lord Jesus Christ my God, have mercy upon my unborn daughter Hope Elizabeth, for she is Yours.
Unfortunately, this happy day was somewhat marred by the news that a freshman student at the school at which I teach was murdered last night. Her name was Lan, and she was fourteen years old. I never taught Lan, nor had I ever met this young Vietnamese track runner. I do, however, teach many on the track team, and you can see it on their faces. Usually bright, they've sunken in sorrow or narrowed in anger or tightened in confusion and worry. The police aren't talking, for some reason. Prayed this prayer on my plan period today:

Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend the soul of Thy handmaiden Lan, and beseech Thee to grant her rest in the place of Thy rest, where all Thy blessed Saints repose, and where the light of Thy countenance shineth forever. And I beseech Thee also to grant that our present lives may be godly, sober, and blameless, that we too may be made worthy to enter into Thy heavenly Kingdom with those we love but see no longer: for Thou art the Resurrection and the Life, and the Repose of Thy departed servants, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
"Into Thy hands, O Lord..." Away from all the turmoil and into the hands of Someone Who--let it never be doubted--loves us and Whom we can trust!

"...grant her rest in the place of Thy rest..." No more weeping over broken homes, no more fear over threats from the men in her neighborhood...finally, child...just rest.

"...grant that our present lives may be godly, sober and blameless..." This horrible event sobers me. My life is not my own, nor is it permanent, nor is it sturdy. It can be snuffed out, or as St. James says, it's no more than a vapor that dissipates and is gone. "It's later than you think," Fr. Seraphim Rose declares. "Hasten therefore to do the work of God."

"For Thou art the Resurrection and the Life and the Repose of Thy departed servants, O Christ our God..." This senseless, tragic waste of life is not permanent. That fragile body will open its eyes once more, the chest will heave again, the blood will flow. No amount of cruelty or pointless violence can stop this.

Lord, have mercy upon her. And have mercy upon all those who serve You.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Argument for Argument's Sake

I like to argue.

More importantly, I like to argue and win.

Call it the intellectual equivalent of making someone else look bad to make yourself look good. It's one of the reasons, sadly enough, that I'm such an avid reader of all things theological; I want to be able to offer an answer to folks about why Christ is God, why the Church matters and why Orthodoxy embodies all of those things and always has. I have my pet answers for why this or that belief doesn't hold any water and have rehearsed them multiple times. And what's so sad about all of this is that it makes precious little difference, if any, to those who don't really want my answers in the first place. I think it has something to do with the fact that I'm so busy preparing arguments that I forget to listen to the questions of others.

These people who don't really want my illuminating answers come in various forms...there's the mostly areligious or nominally religious guy who doesn't even think about God all that often, much less dwell on Him and the study of Him. Then there're the hyper-devout folks who already have strong beliefs about God (as I have) and are either simply asking different questions or are themselves not interested in my answers because of their own.

It is with this latter group that I usually butt heads in an (apparent) exercise in futility. Veiled as a simple, honest exchange of ideas, both I and my "opponents" (what a lovely way to relate to another person!) for the most part only become further entrenched in our belief system, merely spinning our wheels in each other's direction and not going anywhere. More importantly, we're not connecting.

I need to stop hunting down arguments. I need to stop buttonholing people with "whatabout...?" questions concerning their faith when they were merely trying to find a shirt in their size, thank you very much. I definitely need to stop debating with folks who have no interest in what the faith offers. For the most part--though it strengthens my own grasp of why I believe what I believe--I ought to pray for willing hearts to come my way and pray for mercy that I be the sort of person who makes hard hearts more willing. Then and only then could an approach ever work.

The Athonite monk was walking along and was greeted by a Greek young man who loudly demanded, "Give me one reason to believe in God!" The opportunity was golden, according to many. The Athonite was silent for a moment, then calmly answered, "No," and continued on his way.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Mid-East Mess

Some thoughts, sparked by a discussion about Palestine/Israel a few days ago...

It's not a popular viewpoint, my railing against those who want to call the Jewish people "God's chosen people."

However, even though tt's pretty clear to me that the Church has inherited the promises of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--and therefore I can't call the Hebrews "The Chosen" as is--I can't imagine that they have any less of a right to at least have a place of their own, considering their millenia-long history of being persecuted which continues to the present (it's quite clear that not a lot of people want them in "their" countries today).

But let me qualify--I don't think they have any sort of "divine right" from the Scriptures or anywhere else to any specific tracts of land in the Mid East, as many Zionist Evangelicals would have us I said, WE are Israel now, so that word ("Israel") no longer has nothing to do with who yo' daddy is.

And let me qualify further--so the Jews' "right to at least have a place of their own" that I mentioned doesn't come from God's direct decree, but should perhaps come from His common movement within human hearts to show a little compassion, for cryin' out loud. Haven't they suffered enough? And, lest you, gentle reader, think I turn a blind eye to the other suffering peoples of the world--yes, there are other holocausts going on...I think the massacred Christian tribes in the Sudan need their traditional lands back...all the dispossessed people in Eastern Europe need a place to call their own...EVERYONE needs a place to hang their hat. Seems to me that's just part of being HUMAN.

This is also why I think it's absolutely necessary to work towards a sovereign Palestinian state, as well. They've been injustly kicked off lands their ancestors had lived in for years and are more than justified in their (seemingly unrequitable) frustration and anger. Israel, it's clear to me, hasn't been the best steward of the amazing gift they've been given....

Have mercy, Oh Lord upon ALL world rulers, that we may ALL live calm and peaceful lives in all godliness and dignity...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A Good Wash, A Dedication

Being the expectant father that I am (y'all are going to be SOOO tired of hearing that after a while, huh?), it has been my joy to read up on several aspects of rearing a child. One such tidbit that stood out this morning as I washed my hands was, "How to get your child to (thoroughly!) wash his hands." They recommended telling the child to hum a tune all the way through in order to get an idea of how long to wash. So I did.

Did you know the Alphabet Song is twenty-five seconds long when sung at a regular pace?

It was actually something, though, to pause long enough to have a good wash. Based on what I did this morning, I usually don't.

Today's the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, officially marking the end of the Nativity Season.

The Gospel reading for today:
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, fhen took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.<> And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. <>And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.
And the hymns:

Troparion in tone 1
Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, full of grace!
From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God.
Enlightening those who sat in darkness!
Rejoice, and be glad, O righteous elder;
You accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls,
Who grants us the Resurrection.
Kontakion in tone 1

By Your nativity, You did sanctify the Virgin's womb,
And did bless Simeon's hands, O Christ God.
Now You have come and saved us through love.
Grant peace to all Orthodox Christians, O only Lover of man!
Happy Feast Day!