Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Start Every Day with a Psalm


In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a fairly large number of hippies became Christians, becoming part of the so-called “Jesus Freak” movement. Some of these converted hippies had been musicians, and many of these newly illumined wanted to use their musical gifts to praise God. One group that came out of the movement was the Second Chapter of Acts, composed of two sisters and their little brother. Their early music was an enthusiastic blend of folk, rock, and traditional gospel, with tight three-part harmonies throughout. One of their earliest songs was entitled “Start Every Day with a Smile,” advice that is perhaps a little on the shallow side, but nonetheless wise.

Being an off-the-chart NON-morning person, I find it virtually impossible to start every day (or any day, for that matter!) with a smile. Instead, I have adopted another practice, one which sometimes actually does help me to smile, even at 6 in the morning: I try to read one Psalm each morning. After reading the Psalm, I then read the commentary on the Psalm from one of my favorite biblical commentaries, Christ in the Psalms, by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon.

In Christ in the Psalms, Fr. Patrick draws upon biblical, patristic, and liturgical sources to make the Psalms relevant for the 21st century reader. As you can guess from the title, Fr. Patrick’s main concern is to show how each Psalm typologically refers to one or more episodes from the life of our Lord Jesus. Also interesting are his brief discussions on how each Psalm is used liturgically in the life of the Church (and why this is important). Each of Fr. Patrick’s reflections is at most two pages, so normally, one could read both a Psalm and the reflection on that Psalm in ten minutes or so. Then, one could reflect on that Psalm and its meaning for our lives throughout the day.

Since there are 150 Psalms, if you read one Psalm a day on average, it will take you five months to read through the whole Psalter. But if you do, I guarantee that you will be blessed.

By the way, you can read more of Fr. Patrick’s reflections on Scripture in Again and Touchstone magazines, as well as online at the "Daily Reflections" section of Touchstone’s website. In addition, he has written three books besides his work on the Psalms: Christ in His Saints, The Trial of Job, and Chronicles of History and Worship. I heartily recommend them all to you.

May the Lord bless and keep you.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

On Fasting

I recently read a great passage about bodily discipline (meaning primarily fasting in this case) from St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a Russian bishop and elder of the nineteenth century. In this passage, St. Ignatius argues against those who would say that ascetic self-discipline has no place in the Christian life. He also has a caution for those who would over-emphasize it. Without further ado, here are the words of the saint:

“Bodily discipline is essential in order to make the ground of the heart fit to receive the spiritual seeds and to bear the spiritual fruits. To abandon or neglect it is to render the ground unfit for sowing and bearing fruit. Excess in this direction and putting one’s trust in it is just as harmful, or even more so, than neglect of it.

“Neglect of bodily discipline makes men like animals who give free reign and scope to their bodily passions. But excess makes men like devils and fosters the tendency to pride and the constant recurring of other passions in the soul.

“Those who abandon bodily discipline become subject to gluttony, lust and anger in their crudest forms. Those who practice immoderate bodily discipline, use it indiscreetly, or put all their trust in it, seeing in it their own merit and worth in God’s sight, fall into vainglory, self-opinion, presumption, pride, hardness and obduracy, contempt for their neighbors, detraction and condemnation of others, rancor, resentment, hate, blasphemy, schism, heresy, self-deception, and diabolic delusion.

“Let us give due value to bodily ascetic practices as instruments and means indispensable for acquiring the virtues, but let us beware of regarding these instruments as virtues in themselves so as not to fall into self-deception and deprive ourselves of spiritual progress through a wrong understanding of Christian activity.”*

In other words, if I may be so bold as to attempt to summarize the saint’s words, fasting is a means to an end, not the end itself. It is a necessary but not sufficient part of our path to salvation.

May God grant you a blessed final week of the Lenten fast.


*Quoted in Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1998), 51-52.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Great Lenten Reading

Ever since my almost 16-year-old daughter Audrey was a very small child, my wife Jennifer and I have tried to have a family devotional time with her. We started with very simple Bible picture story books, then moved up to Bible story books designed for older kids. Finally, we graduated to reading the Bible itself, along with other devotional books. For the last couple of years, with Jennifer in graduate school, Audrey very involved in extracurricular activities, and with my own busy schedule, we have struggled to maintain this important time of studying the Scriptures as a family, often failing to keep it going on a regular basis.

In spite of our busy schedules, we have redoubled our efforts each Lent and have regularly maintained our family devotionals during this important time of fasting, prayer and repentance. Over the years, I have discovered several excellent Lenten devotional books, each of which is divided into short daily readings and is excellent for use as a devotional guide, whether for families, couples, or individuals. Even though Lent is drawing to a close, I thought I would mention them to you, perhaps to quickly read this year and/or to use next year. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Daily Lenten Meditations for Orthodox Christians by Presbytera Emily Harakas, published by Light and Life. Each day's reading includes a quote from one of the Church's Lenten hymns, a quote from the Fathers, a quote from Proverbs, and the lectionary readings for that day.

2. A Journey Through Great Lent by Fr. Stephen Belonick, also published by Light and Life. Each selection includes a reading from Scripture, a meditation by the author, a quote from the Fathers and from a Lenten hymn, and a brief biography of a saint.

3. First Fruits of Prayer, by Frederica Mathewes-Green, published by Paraclete Press. Green, one of my favorite authors, has divided the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete into forty brief readings, each with commentary and reflection. Even though this book is based on a great hymn and not on the Scripture itself, the reader will feel like he has been reading Scripture, since the Canon is strongly grounded in Scripture. We are going through this recently-published devotional guide this year and are greatly enjoying it.

4. The Lenten Spring, by Fr. Thomas Hopko, published by SVS Press. This work first appeared in 1998 but has already become a classic. Each day's reading includes quotes from Scripture, hymns, the Fathers, and the author's own reflections. Of all of the works I have cited, this one is the most suitable to be read in one or two sittings. So, if you would like to work through one of my recommended books this year, this would be the one.

Finally, I thought I would recommend the classic study Great Lent by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. I have to admit that I have not yet read this book, although I have read most of Schmemann's other books. All are excellent, so I am assuming that Great Lent is also.

All of these books can be obtained from Light and Life Publishing, Conciliar Press, or Eighth Day Books. Or, if you want to save a couple of bucks, the Hopko, Schmemann and Green books are probably available from Amazon.com, although I encourage you to support an Orthodox bookseller rather than the big corporate monster if you can.

Also worth reading are my friend and brother priest Fr. Joseph Huneycutt's reflections on progressing through Lent. See especially his posts on March 12, 18, and 19.

May the Lord bless each of you and grant you a blessed last part of the Fast!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Knees Like Camels'

When I first began writing this blog, I promised that I would explain why I decided to call the blog "St. James' Kids," and I have now finally gotten around to it. St. James the Just, Adelphotheos ("Brother of God"), first Bishop of Jerusalem and the author of the Epistle of James, is my patron saint. St. Jerome once wrote that St. James prayed so much that his knees became as hard as camels'. Ultimately, St. James was martyred for his faith.

When I was in the process of converting to Orthodoxy, I asked my priest if I could take St. James as my patron saint, and he agreed that this was a good idea. I did not choose St. James merely because my first name is James, but also because I feel that it was partly because of St. James that I came to Orthodoxy.

When my family and I were at our last mission station, in Banja Luka, Bosnia, one of the things that I did was lead a Bible study on the Book of Acts. One day, the day on which we were to study the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, only one of my students, a very devout young man whom I shall call David (not his real name, of course), showed up. Of all of my Serb friends in Banja Luka, David was the one that I felt the closest to.

In Acts 15, we see the Apostles and the other leaders of the Church gathered to discuss a criticial issue which had arisen as a result of St. Paul's first missionary journey. The problem before them was, in essence: Did Gentiles converting to Christianity have to first become Jews, or could they be received directly into Christianity, without first being circumcised or submitting to the full Old Testament Law? As David and I were studying the text, we noticed that after the council discussed the issue at hand, St. James said, "Simon [i.e. St. Peter] has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree." Then, after quoting a passage from the Prophet Amos, he concludes, "Therefore, I judge that they should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:14-15,19-20).

James' words "I judge" are key here. At the Council, there was much discussion, during which at the very least Peter, Paul, and Barnabas spoke. But then all were silent, waiting for James to make a ruling. There was no vote, and after James ruled, there was no further discussion. Rather, the Scripture tells us that "it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church" (15:22) to send people out to the various churches with St. James and the council's ruling.

David's and my study of this passage occurred before I even read my first book about Orthodoxy. The "ball" of my movement toward Orthodoxy was not yet rolling (or was it?). But I remember looking at David and saying, "That sounds like something a bishop would say and do." David looked at me and said, "Yes, it sure does." David and I, happy Baptists that we were, learned on that day that the first century Church really did have bishops that made rulings, just as the Orthodox Church has always taught. This experience planted a seed in both David's and my mind, and, not surprisingly, today both of us are Orthodox. I think that maybe, just maybe, St. James was praying for David and me on that day, that we would soon come into the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I could be wrong, but it seems too coincidental otherwise.

Because of all this, I consider myself to be, in a sense, St. James' kid. And my prayer is that all of us will become St. James' kids. I do not mean that all of us must have St. James as our patron saint; rather, I mean that all of us should live with the same devotion to Christ that St. James had. My prayer is that we would all be:

People who are "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19).

People who are "doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (1:22).

People who "show...faith by [our] works," for "a man is justified by works and not by faith only" (2:18,24).

People who daily show "the wisdom from above" that is "pure, then peaceable, gentle, wiling to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (3:17).

People who "confess trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed," for "the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (5:16).

People who pray so much that we too have knees like camels'.

May our gracious Lord, through the prayers of St. James and of all the saints, grant that we may follow the example of St. James and become increasingly holy and pure, that we may bring glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chess (part two)

Yesterday, I told you about how I believe that God used (and still uses) Chess to teach me humility. Perhaps you might be interested in (to use Paul Harvey's words) "the rest of the story." Although I have given up playing in tournaments, I still play online often. I now mainly play in a turn-based format, which means that I do not have to play an entire game in one sitting (who has time for that, anyway?). Instead, I go to a particular website and make a single move. The website records the move I made and keeps a virtual board up-to-date. Then later, my opponent logs on and makes his move. Then I move again, and so it goes. If you enjoy playing Chess but find it hard to find time to play, I highly recommend this format. There are many websites where you can play in a turn-based format, but my personal favorite is SlowChess (http://www.slowchess.com/).

Now, back to the spiritual lesson. Besides, humility think that there are other spiritual truths that can be gained from Chess. I could list several, but for brevity's sake, here are three:

First, Chess teaches us to think before we act. Too often in Chess, players get caught in a rush of mental adrenaline, or are overcome by emotion, or perhaps are running low on time, with the result that they make their moves too hastily, without really thinking them through. The same thing can happen in life. We act without thinking, and this often leads us into sin. We are especially prone to speak too quickly. When we are frightened, hurt, or angry (or all of these), we tend to say things that are hurtful, sinful, and downright stupid. This is why St. James tells us to "be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:19-20).

Second, Chess teaches us to have a plan of action; to be prepared. If you try to coast through a game of Chess with no plan or strategy, if you decide on each move without regard to previous and future moves, you will lose (listen to the voice of experience!). And in our spiritual life, we must be prepared to meet the assaults of the devil and his demons when they attack; for attack they will. We can be sure of this. We need to live our lives in sober and careful watchfulness, a state that the Desert Fathers called nepsis (Greek for watchfulness). We need to have a plan of defense ready for the times of trial and temptation. As St. Peter writes, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith" (1 Peter 5:8; see also Ephesians 6:10-18).

Finally, Chess teaches us that our actions have consequences, sometimes serious ones. One of the fundamental tenets of Chess goes like this: Before you actually make a move, ask yourself the question, "What will happen if I do this?" I still, after three years of playing regularly, too often fail to ask this basic question. I have played many a game in which I was even with my opponent, or even slightly ahead in material, only to have the whole game fall to pieces after I made a very foolish move. In fact, this just happened a couple of days ago! But I digress...

In our lives, often we make decisions and take actions without any regard to their consequences. Or, we give lip service to the consequences, deceiving ourselves into thinking, "Maybe, just maybe, nothing will come of this. I might get away with it." St. Paul warns us against such thinking, writing "Do not be deceived. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Galatians 6:8). Our sinful actions often bear bitter fruit in this world. But even when they don't, we can be sure that they will in the life to come.

So, let us think before we act and speak, lest our hastiness lead us into sin. Let us also be prepared for the attacks of the evil one, so that we can fight them off. Finally, let us be aware that everything we do has consequences, both for our lives and for others; both in this life, and in the world to come. Let us repent of our sins and seek reconciliation with God and with each other. And finally, in this Lenten season, "let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all (Gal. 6:9-10)."

To God be the glory!








Monday, March 12, 2007

Chess (part one)

My father was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease sometime around age 75. If you know much about Alzheimer’s, you know that pinpointing the exact beginning of a person’s struggle with the disease is next to impossible. Sadly, there is as of yet no cure for Alzheimer’s, and my father succumbed to complications caused by the disease on June 4, 2004. Dad’s nearly 10-year struggle with Alzheimer’s was extremely hard on both him and all our family. There are few things that I can think of that are more tragic than watching a family member gradually lose all memory of all his loved ones, and ultimately, of himself.

Since Alzheimer’s disease can be transmitted genetically, and since my Grandma Early also apparently had the disease, I have legitimate cause for concern. In my own study of Alzheimer’s, I have discovered several studies that have shown that keeping one’s mind active in a variety of mental activities throughout life can at least delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, if not ward it off completely (sadly, my father did not do this). After hearing this several times, I decided that I would start working crossword and Sudoku puzzles, studying Spanish (still working on it!), and solving complex nuclear physics problems (okay, I’m lying on that one!). Also, at the suggestion of my daughter Audrey, I decided to take up the game of Chess as a hobby.

As most people know, Chess is a game that is easy to learn but very difficult to master. So, I bought a few books on basic strategy and tactics. I started playing several students and teachers at the school where I taught at the time, and I found that I could win with ease almost every time. With the summer just ahead, I decided to start playing some serious players to see just how good I was.

How good was I? After I started playing in informal tournaments at the Houston Chess Club, I found the answer to my question: not very good! In fact, I soon realized that I was really bad. After I lost for the 18th time in a row, I decided that I needed to study some more and perhaps play some easier competition (pretty much everyone at the club is an outstanding player).

So, the following spring, I signed up for a tournament in which I was able to play in a section that was only for lower-rated players. I thought, “This time I’ll have a chance!” My record for the tournament? 0-3! I was quickly about to achieve a new Chess record: the most losses without a win.

In spite of my stellar record, I still did not give up. I read more books, played online a lot, and even went to a few free local chess classes. Then, a year later, I played in two more tournaments. In the first, I won one (finally), and lost two. Well, I thought, now my total record is 1-23, but at least I got rid of the goose egg in the “W” column!

In the first game of the second tournament, I faced a 10-year old boy genius. I battled him hard and remained neck-and-neck until about the fortieth move, after which I made a foolish move and quickly lost. My opponent’s proud father watched over his shoulder the whole game.

In the next round, I found that my opponent was a tiny boy who was only six years old. I thought to myself: surely I ought to be able to beat THIS little guy! Boy, was I in for a surprise! While we played, there was a repeated pattern: I would stare at the board and agonize for a minute or two (sometimes several minutes) over what move to make. He, meanwhile, would get up from our table and wander all over the room, looking at all 100 or so of the other boards while I was thinking. When I would finally make my move and punch the clock, he would rush back, glance at our board for about 10 seconds, make his move, and—BOOM!—slam down his hand on the clock. Then I would start agonizing again, and off he would go. This pattern repeated itself over and over, until I found myself to be hopelessly behind. Finally, I conceded.

After the game, I was looking at the board that had the overall standings. The father of the 10-year old that had beat me in the first round came up to me and said, “Did you know that the boy that just beat you is in kindergarten?” Through clenched teeth, I said, “Yes, I know.” He went on, “I can’t believe you lost so badly to him. You were playing so well against my son!” All I could think to do was to quickly walk away.

Then my thoughts went to the next round. At the rate that the ages of my opponents were declining, I was expecting my next opponent to be a 2-year old. I figured someone would push him up in a high chair, and that he would beat me too! Fortunately, this was not the case. The next several people (except one teenager) that beat me were all adults. My final score for the tournament? 0-6! This brought my overall record to an unbelievable 1-29. That was almost as good as my batting average my last year in Little League.

What did I learn from these experiences? First, I learned not to play in any more chess tournaments. Second, I learned humility. I think that God uses things like my Chess tournament experiences to help us attain “lowliness of mind” (Philippians 2:3).

I think that there are other spiritual insights that can be gained through Chess, but to see them, you will have to tune in tomorrow…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Forty Save One

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 89/90:10, KJV).

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one
(2 Corinthians 11:24, KJV).


I hope that you will forgive me for this, but I am not a big devotee of the King James Version of the Bible. I respect the beauty of its language, and I acknowledge that it was a great accomplishment in its time. However, I simply find its language to be too archaic and difficult for frequent use. For the first several years after I became a Christian, I read almost exclusively from the New International Version (NIV), until it was brought to my attention that it sometimes takes excessive liberty in translating the Greek text of the New Testament. I still think that the NIV is worth reading, especially if you are trying to quickly read through a book and gain the overall message of the book. For closer, verse by verse study, I recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) or the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which are the two most literal modern English translations.

Still, there are certain verses in which I still love the KJV above all other versions. I like the way some phrases sound, such as the temple curtain being “rent in twain” (Matthew 27:51) and “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). I am also a sucker for words like “threescore” and “fourscore.” I don’t know why.

The second verse that I quoted above is another such verse. “Forty save one” seems so much more poetic that just saying “thirty-nine.” The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy provided for a punishment of 40 lashes for serious crimes (see 25:3). The Jewish leaders of the first century generally only allowed a maximum of 39 as a demonstration of their mercy.

I am blessed to have never received 39 lashes (or even one, thanks be to God!) with a whip, but the number 39 takes on a different significance for me on this day: it is now the number of years that the merciful God has allowed me to live on this Earth.

Long ago, in one of my college English classes, we were discussing a poem (which one, I cannot remember) that had the inevitability of death as its theme. I remember the professor saying, “We all know intellectually that one day we will die, but when you get to be about thirty-five, you start actually feeling it in your body.” Recent experience has shown me that the professor was correct. For some reason, all my pairs of pants have mysteriously started to shrink around the waist. Ditto with my shirt collars. I no longer seem to have as much energy as I used to. When I lift weights, I get pinched nerves in my shoulders and achy joints. Could these be initial signs of more to come?

Now I know that many of you who are reading this are … well, let’s just say “somewhat older than 39.” You are thinking “Don’t complain, Fr. James, you are still a young man.” Indeed, some people at work call me “young man” or even “kiddo.” Other people, particularly my former students and my own children, think I am older than dirt. So where does the truth lie?

Perhaps the first verse that I quoted above holds the key to answering this question. The Psalmist wrote that “the days of our lives are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they are fourscore.” Indeed, according to the CDC, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 77.9 years. If we round that to 78, then my life is exactly one-half over. In other words, I probably only have about 39 years to go, give or take a few (and it might be much fewer). One thing is certain: my remaining years will go quickly; after all, the first 39 sure did!

This morning, I mentioned this data to my oldest daughter Audrey, who is 15, and she replied, “Wow, Dad. That’s really depressing!” Perhaps. However, I prefer to use the knowledge of my limited remaining time on earth as an incentive to make the most of it. Later in the same Psalm that I quoted above, the Psalmist asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). St. Paul expressed the importance of doing just this when he told the Ephesians to “see then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (vv. 15-16).

These and other verses of Scripture tell us that we need to make all of our remaining time on earth count. We need to waste less time doing things that do not contribute to our growth in godliness. We need to spend less time on ourselves and more time on others. Less time tearing others down and more time building them up. Less time stuffing our own faces and more time feeding and clothing the hungry. Less time “shooting the breeze” and more time talking to God (and listening to him). Less time watching TV and movies and more time reading the Scriptures and the Fathers. Less time telling others the latest celebrity gossip (or even the latest news) and more time telling them about the way to eternal life.

May God grant us the wisdom and the self-discipline to do these things.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Crimson Calendar

I know that many of you reading this are not Orthodox Christians, and so, when I speak for the first time of something that is unique to the Orthodox tradition, I will try to remember to take a minute to briefly explain it, so that it will make sense to all readers.

Orthodox Christians fast for the 6 weeks prior to Palm Sunday, in the period known as the Great Lent. We also fast during Holy Week, the week in between Palm Sunday and Pascha (Easter). Normally Pascha does not fall on the same day as western Easter, but this year it does. As a result, Great Lent began this year on Monday, February 19. During Lent, Orthodox Christians abstain from all meat (including fish), dairy products, olive oil, and wine (most broaden this to include all alcohol), except for a few days when wine and/or fish are allowed. We also make a concerted effort to not completely fill our bellies, but rather to eat only what is necessary to function.

Now for my post “proper”:

Let us, O brethren, begin the second week of the Fast, fulfilling it day by day with rejoicing, making unto ourselves, like Elijah the Tishbite, a fiery chariot of the great cardinal virtues, elevating our minds by subduing our passions, arming ourselves with purity, to chase away and vanquish the enemy. (Sticharion 3 from the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers)

We have now begun the period when Lent really gets tough. Actually, we are past the beginning of that period, but I have had other things talk about, so it has taken me a little longer than I had planned to reflect on Lent and fasting. This is why I quoted from the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers service, which occurred a week and a half ago.

Like many other Orthodox Christians, I own one of the tear-off calendars that has each fasting day colored red (really, more of a crimson; hence the title of today’s entry). The first couple of weeks of Lent went by pretty quickly and easily for me this year. Every year I begin Lent eagerly, ready and willing to make a sacrifice for my Lord and to free myself from the control that certain foods always seem to exercise over me. I always actually find it a relief to eat a lighter diet, without all the fat and grease, and this year was no exception.

But then, March 1 came. I tore off the “February” page of my calendar, and what did I see? An entire month decked out in crimson. A long month, with 31 days, after which there will remain still seven more days of fasting. As I stared at that crimson calendar, I was once again reminded that Great Lent is not a 100-yard dash, but a marathon.

I am often asked by my Protestant friends, most of whom either do not observe Lent, or observe it by giving up a single item of their choice (such as cheese, French fries, etc), “Why do you Orthodox put yourselves through this? What is the purpose?” Many times Orthodox Christians cannot answer this question, except to say, “Because the Church says to.” This is actually not a bad reason at all, but it is hardly satisfactory for most Protestants.

So, why do we participate in this grueling “marathon?” Entire chapters and indeed, complete books, have been written on this subject, and I will not pretend that I am going to be able to give an eloquent, profound, or even a complete answer to this question. Instead, I will just briefly summarize some answers that I have read.

First, we abstain from meat because when we eat meat, we eat death. When we sit down at our (non-Lenten) table, we seldom think about the fact that in order for us to enjoy the meal that is before us, one of God’s creatures had to die. This was not how God originally set things up. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve did not eat meat. God only gave His blessing to the eating of meat after the Flood, and this only as a concession to our weakness. But what about cheese, wine, and olive oil, you ask? Nothing has to die to produce these. This is true. We give these up mainly out of a desire to make a sacrifice to God.

There are other reasons why we fast, but for me, one is most significant: We fast as a desire to control the passions, to dedicate our bodies to God above all else, and to not allow ourselves to be under the control of anyone or anything else, including food. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with any type of food or drink, as long as we do not allow ourselves to be addicted to them. And all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are addicted to some type of food. If you don’t believe me, try doing the Orthodox Lenten fast for 6 weeks! It isn’t easy.

To conclude, fasting is not an effort to try to earn our way into Heaven, for no good deed(s) could do this. Rather, it helps us to gain mastery over our own bodies and our passions, which in turn does prepare us for eternal life. Giving up meat and dairy products, and eating less in general, gets us in better shape for prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. It also frees up money to be given to the poor. Finally, it is a way for our souls to reaffirm the fact that they are in control of the body (yea, even the stomach), rather than vice versa.

May God grant us all the strength to not only endure, but to thrive, during the fast, growing ever closer to Him as we prepare for His glorious Resurrection!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

How Shall We Escape?

As promised, this is the second half of my sermon from last Sunday. I pray that it will be spiritually beneficial to you. From now on, any time I quote from the Bible, it will be from the New King James Version unless I state otherwise.

Therefore, we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard him (Hebrews 2:1-3).

Having concluded the first chapter by contrasting Christ, who is Lord, with the angels, who are servants, the writer of Hebrews now turns to an exhortation, beginning with “therefore.” Now any time we read a passage of Scripture that begins with “therefore,” we need to go back and answer the question “What is the ‘therefore’ there for?” In this case, “therefore” means essentially, “In light of the greatness of the Lord Jesus, in light of his constancy, in light of all that he has done for us—that is, proclaiming the truth to us, making provision for our sins, and sitting down at the right hand of the Father.” In light of who Christ is and what he has done for us, let us give the more earnest heed to the things that we have heard [about Christ], lest we drift away.

“Giving more earnest heed” means let us give an ever-increasing amount of thought to the knowledge of who Christ is and what he has done for us. This knowledge should not be something that just sticks in our head, like knowledge of history or math (as delightful as those two subjects are). It should, rather, be a knowledge that completely transforms our lives. It should factor into every thought we have, every decision we make, every action we take. If this does not happen, then we run the risk of drifting away.

The Greek word translated as “drift away” is found in the Septuagint translation of Proverbs 3:21, where Solomon tells his son to remember his teachings: “let them not depart (or "drift away") from your eyes,” and again in Isaiah 44:4, with reference to waters that flow by. I love to sit by a lake and watch the ducks slowly drift by. Ever so slowly, their position changes until they are far away. I find this very relaxing, but at the same time it reminds me of how Christians lose their salvation, or, stated more accurately, how they allow themselves to drift off the path of salvation. You see, no one who is walking closely with God wakes up one day and decides to completely abandon Him. Rather, it happens in stages.

Let me give you an example, the example of worship: A person who truly loves the Lord Jesus also will love to worship him in church. Such a person delights in coming into the Lord’s house, saying with the Psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’” (122:1) and “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts. My soul longs, yes even faints, for the courts of the LORD” (84:1-2). He never misses Liturgy unless he absolutely has to. But one day, he wakes up and is very tired. He says, “I’ll stay home and sleep just this one time.” But in so doing, he has just made it easier to miss again. Soon, his absences from worship begin to add up, and he even begins to question the importance of worship, which leads him off the path of salvation. Soon, he no longer darkens the door of a church except on rare occasions. And then when he dies and stands before the judgment seat of God, he is surprised to find himself among the goats rather than the sheep.

This may seem overly dramatic, but it is one common way in which we can drift off the path of salvation. You see, Satan tempts us in different ways, depending on our individual weaknesses. For some of us, the temptation will come through lust; for others, greed; for still others, pride, and so on. But the devil never appears to us and says, “Hi, there, pious Christian. How would you like to throw away your salvation and come live with me in Hell?” Instead, he tempts us to commit minor sins, and only occasionally; then, he tempts us to go deeper and deeper into sin and away from God. The process of neglecting “so great a salvation,” as we read in verse 3, is truly a process of gradual drifting. As the demon Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, "The safest path to Hell is the gradual one."

At the beginning of verse three, the author asks us “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The implied answer, of course, is that we will not escape. So, what do we need to do? We need to nip sin in the bud by adopting a policy of what the Desert Fathers call nepsis, or watchfulness. We need to be on the lookout for temptations, which are ultimately attacks by the demons and even Satan himself. We need to be prepared to fight. We can prepare ourselves by reading and becoming thoroughly knowledgeable with the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, who have fought the good fight and won. We must, as St. Paul says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against…the fiery darts of the wicked one” (Ephesians 6:10,16; I recommend that you read this entire chapter several times.)

So, brothers and sisters, let us first of all thank God that he does not change and that his truth does not change. Let us thank him that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And let us guard our hearts and minds so that we do not drift away from the path of salvation and forfeit the gift of eternal life that Jesus died to give us. Finally, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1). Now unto him be all glory, honor, and dominion, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Monday, March 5, 2007

You Remain the Same

This post is an adaption of the first half of the sermon that I preached this past Sunday, the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas. The second part will appear tomorrow.

You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of Your hands.
They will perish, but You remain;
And they will all grow old like a garment;
Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed.
But You are the same, And Your years will not fail.
Hebrews 1:10-12, NKJV

When I first decided to become a teacher, I had to pick a subject to teach. My background was in math and science, and so when I first began teaching in a private school, I taught both of these subjects. But when I made the move to the public school system, I had to choose one of the two areas to focus on. I decided on math, because I thought teaching it would be easy. All I had to do was stand up, work a bunch of problems on the board, explain them as I go, and I would be done! But when I actually began to teach, I found that this did not work very well. And, as I went through various training courses, I was repeatedly told that my style of teaching, the style in which I had been taught, was old-fashioned. Kids had changed from when I was in school. The technological revolution of the last couple of decades had changed the way that kids think and learn. So, I had to go back to the old drawing board and learn how to teach all over again.

Change is a part of our lives, and now more than ever. It is true that change has always been part of human society, from its very beginning. But experts tell us that the rate of change in today’s world, particularly in technology, is constantly increasing. In my relatively brief life, I have seen us go from records and 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3 players, and who knows what is next? Computers are constantly getting faster, smaller, and more powerful. By the time a computer appears on the shelf, it is practically obsolete already.

All these technological changes are forcing us to change as well. I recently heard that the average child in school today will change careers 10 times in his or her lifetime. That is CAREERS, not just jobs. And those of us who are working stiffs today are having to constantly learn new skills and new technologies, lest we find ourselves out of a job tomorrow. Another thing that is constantly changing is the morals and values of our society. Behaviors that were considered shameful not too long ago are now considered valid, alternative lifestyles. Things that use to shock us now barely provoke any comment.

Yes, change is all around us. For some of us (especially those over 35), the ever-increasing rate of change in our lives sometimes makes us want to run and hide. We long for stability, something that we can count on to be the same, day in and day out. Thankfully, we DO have something, or rather someONE—our God. And I am thankful for that! Today’s epistle reading speaks to us about God’s unchanging nature, and what we must do in return.

Hebrews is an epistle written to Jewish converts to Christianity who were experiencing great pressure to return to their traditional faith. The writer’s purpose is to reaffirm the idea that Jesus is the promised divine Messiah of the Old Testament and that he is superior to angels, to Moses, and to the Aaronic priesthood. He also speaks of how Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross both completed and did away with the old system of animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. Most importantly, the author urges the Hebrew Christians (and us today) to remain steadfast in their ways, not reverting to Judaism or falling into unbelief and spiritual apathy.

Today’s epistle reading picks up at the end of a section in which the author uses the Old Testament to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority to the angels. In verse 10, he quotes part of the 102nd Psalm (101st in the LXX), which he applies to Jesus: You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, /And the heavens are the work of Your hands. /They will perish, but You remain; /And they will all grow old like a garment; / Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed. /But You are the same, And Your years will not fail. (quoting vv. 25-27)

No one knows how quickly garments wear out better than the parents of young children. Since the beginning of this year alone, our daughters Beth (5) and Courtney (8) have worn holes in nearly every pair of jeans that they own. Things wear out; they break down and become no longer useful. This is one of the irrefutable laws of the universe. Verse 10 reminds me of one of my pastor Fr. Matthew’s sets of gold vestments. This particular set is very special to him, because it is the set in which he was ordained to the priesthood. But, as he told me recently, these vestments are starting to wear out, and he will soon be forced to fold them up and put them away, never to be worn again until he wears them one final time--at his funeral.

In the same way, the heavens and the earth, at least as we now know them, will be no more. Despite what Carl Sagan said, the cosmos is not all that is or ever was or ever will be, for there will be a day when the cosmos will grow old like a garment and will be folded up and then will be changed by its Creator. Heaven and earth will pass away, but our Lord and his word never change. I take great comfort in this fact, because I don’t have to wake up each day wondering if God is still going to be in control, or if he still loves me, or if his will for our lives will change. If you have read much mythology, you know that the pagan gods, regardless of the culture, were anything but constant. They were essentially glorified humans, fickle beings with ever-changing emotions and desire. But our God is not like that. As the author of Hebrews writes in another place, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8).

The fact that our Lord and God and Savior Jesus does not change is the reason why the Orthodox Church does not change. Many people in the world today say “the Church needs to keep up with the times and adapt its doctrine and worship accordingly.” But if Christ does not change, why should his body, the Church? Why should the Church adjust itself to the world? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I once heard a joke: “How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Change? What does that mean, change?”

That is not to say that there have not been some minor changes to Orthodox worship and practice over the centuries. But the core of Orthodox theology and worship are the same today as they were in the fourth century, the third century, the second century, and yea, even the first century! That is one of the many things that attracted me to the Church in the first place: its timelessness, its constancy. And that is what continues to attract more and more people to the Church today. Unlike most other Christian traditions, we Orthodox don’t have to wonder what our Church will believe and teach in ten, twenty, or one hundred years. And I say “Amen” to that!

Soli Deo gloria!

The unworthy priest,

James

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Why Blog?


Greetings to all. This is the inaugural entry in my new blog entitled "St. James' Kids." I will explain why I chose this name at a later date. My name is Fr. James Early, and I live a double life. I do not mean "double life" in the dark sense of the word. What I mean is that I have two vocations. I am, first and foremost, a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. But since I am the assistant priest of a parish that is not yet large enough to support two full-time pastors, I am also required to work a full-time secular job. I serve as an educational data analyst for a school district in one of the larger suburbs of Houston, Texas. So, I wear two metaphorical hats, one secular and one sacred. I feel that this may give me a unique perspective on things. Although I know that I am by no means the only person to be involved in bi-vocational Christian ministry, perhaps I am one of the few such people who has chosen to write a blog.

That leads one to the question, "why blog?" I recently read an article in the Houston Chronicle about blogs and bloggers. The writer of the article said something that I found amazing; he (or she, I can't remember) said that something like 60% of blogs are nothing more than online diaries; in other words, they merely describe what the person did that day, what they watched on TV, what they had for dinner, and so on. Please forgive me for saying this, but the first thing that came into my mind was that the only thing more pitiful than the fact that people write about such mundane things is that other people actually read them. And then I thought, "Why would anyone do this? And why would others take time to read them?"

After further reflection, the answer became obvious. The popularity of online diaries is a direct result of the fact that people in this day and age are so isolated from each other. People do not spend time with their neighbors, their coworkers, or their families like their parents and grandparents did, and because of this, they do not know them. As a result, the average person is crying out for someone to talk to and (though not as much) for someone to listen to. More than ever, people have an unfulfilled need to be heard, to express themselves. And the Internet, via blogs, provides them with the perfect medium through which to make this a reality.

I myself was originally skeptical about blogs. My sinful and cynical nature originally led me to the conclusion that people who write blogs have too much time on their hands; that they need to find other, more productive things to do. And yet, here I am, starting my own. Why? I have plenty of social contact, and so that is not a need that I am trying to fill. At least, I don't think so; but as the prophet Jeremiah said, "The heart is above all things deceitful. Who can understand it." So, the question remains, "why am I doing this?"

The only answer that I can come up with right now is that I feel an inward compulsion to do so. Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit speaking to me and urging me to do it. I would not be so presumptuous as to say that I know unequivocally that this is the case. The best I can say now is that I feel that this is what I need to be doing. I know that I have been inspired at least to some degree by people like Fr. Joseph Huneycutt and Frederica Mathewes-Green, whom I feel are two of the most talented Orthodox writers currently alive. Both of them have excellent blogs of their own. I know that I am not even 1/2 of the writer that either of them is. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am not commencing this blog because I feel that I am God's gift to the Orthodox world, especially not as a writer.

At the same time, I feel that God has given me some gifts that enable me to contribute something. My hope and prayer for this blog is that God will use it to encourage, inspire, and challenge people to grow in their knowledge of the Scriptures, the Orthodox faith, and, ultimately, that they will grow in their faith and hopefully advance on the path of salvation. My plan for now is that this blog will primarily consist of the application of Scripture to life in the 21st century world. Occasionally, I may comment on current affairs, culture, and perhaps even politics (God help me!) But again, my primary desire is that this will be a devotional blog. Thank you for indulging me in this introductory post, and may our God bless you all.

Soli deo gloria.

The unworthy priest,

James