Monday, June 30, 2008

St. Peter: The Indispensable Man (Part Two)

This is the second part of the sermon that I preached (on Matthew 16:13-19) Sunday, June 29 at St. Joseph's. The third and final part will appear tomorrow.

Peter’s Answer

Now say what you will about Peter; he was a man of many faults, just as we all are. He was hot-tempered, impetuous, prideful, arrogant, unstable, overly talkative, and even violent at times. And yet, like King David and so many other great figures in Scripture, Peter was a man after God’s own heart. He was a man of faith, a man who loved the Lord Jesus and who was loyal to him above all else (despite one major failure to demonstrate this loyalty).

And so, when Jesus let rip this 100-mph fastball of a question, Peter knocked it out of the park. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Peter said. He acknowledged that Jesus was the Christos, the Messiah, the One sent by God to deliver Israel from all her iniquities. Certainly, his understanding of what the Messiah’s role was flawed, as was everyone’s at that time. And yet, unlike so many, including some of the most religious people in Israel, Peter understood (albeit with God’s help) that Jesus was the true Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Jesus’ question bears being asked of all of us. And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I ask you: “Who do YOU say that Jesus is?” Now if I did a survey after the Liturgy, if I asked each and every one of you individually who you think Jesus is, I’m sure that each of you would give an answer very similar to what Peter gave. You would acknowledge, as we all say in the Creed, that Jesus is “Lord” and “The Son of God,” and so on. Do you believe that Jesus is Lord? Do you really? When we say that Jesus is our Lord, that begs another question that Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things that I say?” (Luke 6:46). He also said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he does the will of my father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

And so my question for you today is, do you merely call Jesus “Lord,” or do you demonstrate your allegiance to him by doing his will. I do not mean perfectly, for none of us does that. But are you striving with your whole being to do the will of God? You are here worshipping the Lord today, and that is good. But were you here last week? Were you here the Sunday after Pascha? Will you be here next week? Are you here every Sunday unless you are very sick or out of town? You see, worshipping the Lord Jesus with the rest of his body, the Church, is part of God’s will. But of course there are other things that God wants us to do as well. He wants us to pray. He wants us to read the Scriptures. He wants us to help the needy. He wants us to practice kindness, patience, and to strive to have a godly character. And he wants us to do these things not just once in while, but regularly. Are you doing all these things? If not, then can you really say that Jesus is your Lord? It may be time to bring your practice in line with your profession, so that you will not be one of the ones to whom Jesus will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23)

Update on St. Herman's Monastery

The following message, written by hieromonk Damascene, is the latest on the situation with the wildfires near St. Herman's Monastery. Thank you for your prayers. They seem to have been answered. Also, thanks to Clint Hale for forwarding this to me.

Glory be to God, we received wonderful news this evening. The NobleFire around Platina is now 81% contained, having burned 12,500 acres.Because the winds did not pick up in the vicinity of Platina over thelast few days, the firefighters had ample opportunity to contain thefire. As of this evening at 6 pm, the evacuation of Platina has beenlifted. We are now planning to move back to the St. Herman Monasterytomorrow. The Telephone Fire near Wildwood is now 52% contained,having burned 4,700 acres. The evacuation for Wildwood is still inplace. However, the forest rangers told us tonight that they arehoping to lift the evacuation for Wildwood tomorrow, at which time thenuns will be able to return to St. Xenia Skete. I will write againwhen, God willing, we have returned to Platina. We continue to begrateful for the unremitting prayers that have been offered for thepreservation of our monasteries. By the Grace of God, there has notbeen any significant dry lightning over the last few days, as had beenforecasted. Also, as mentioned above, the absence of strong winds hasbeen a tremendous boon for the firefighters.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

St. Peter: The Indispensable Man (Part One)

Here is the first part of the sermon that I preached today at St. Joseph's. I pray that it will be spiritually profitable for you.

St. Peter: The Indispensable Man
Matthew 16:13-19

In February of each year, Americans celebrate the birthday and the memory of two men who were arguably the two greatest presidents to ever lead this nation: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. A number of years ago, I read a biography of George Washington called Washington: The Indispensable Man. Washington truly was indispensable; it is hard to imagine what this country would have been like without him. Without his military genius and his ability to inspire loyalty in people, the Continental Army would almost certainly have been defeated by the British or would have simply fallen apart. And without his lack of a thirst for power, the U. S. presidency may well have turned into yet another monarchy or dictatorship, like those in nearly all the rest of the world. Without a doubt, George Washington was the greatest of all of our founding fathers.

On this day, the Orthodox Church honors the memory of two great men who could be called the founding fathers of the Church: Ss. Peter and Paul. As Washington and Lincoln were to the United States of America, so were St. Peter and St. Paul to the Church. True, there were other apostles and leaders of the Church, just as there were other great leaders of the early American republic. And yet, it is impossible to imagine (humanly speaking, at least) the growth and expansion of the early Church without these two monuments of the faith. St. Paul’s primary role was in the expansion of the Church to the Gentile areas west of the Holy Land. He founded countless numbers of churches and provided oversight for them, including the writing of many epistles, thirteen of which have survived and make up a considerable part of the New Testament. St. Paul’s life and contributions to the Christian faith are in their own right worthy of a complete sermon or even a sermon series.

But today, I would like to focus on the life of the man that St. John Chrysostom called “The Prince of the Apostles.” In particular, I would like to examine a critical moment in St. Peter’s life, along with its meaning for him, for the early Church, and for us today. This moment, narrated in today’s Gospel passage consists of three key parts: Jesus’ challenge, Peter’s answer, and Jesus’ promise.

Jesus’ Challenge

First, let us look at Jesus’ challenge. He began by “warming them up,” so to speak, by throwing them a “softball.” “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” This question is easily one of the most, perhaps THE most, commonly asked questions in the world since Jesus’ day. I find it amazing that it is still asked and debated with much fervor two thousand years later. For you see, humanity has found that while you can say what you want about Jesus, you cannot ignore him. Everyone, be they a traditional Christian, a liberal Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist—whatever their belief system—has a theory about the identity of our Lord Jesus. I have heard him described (among other things) as a political agitator, a wandering mystic or guru, a Gnostic, a teacher concerned primarily with ethics, a liberator of the oppressed, a prophet, a Jewish reformer, and so on. And as you know, at least twice a year, usually around Christmas and around Easter, the mainstream media outlets knock each other over to try to be the first to report the latest “cutting-edge” theory about Jesus: who he “really” was and what he was “really” hoping to accomplish.

In response to Jesus’ question, the disciples listed many of the main theories going around at the time. Now theories about Jesus are certainly very interesting—some downright laughable. But in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter at all what other people think about him. What is really important is Jesus’ second question (the tough one!): “But who do YOU say that I am?” As the footnote to this passage in the Orthodox Study Bible says, this is the greatest question that a person can ever face. It is not just a historical or theological question, for the way you answer this question is a matter of life or death, heaven or hell. Let’s take a look at Peter’s answer.
(We'll look at it tomorrow!)

Thursday, June 26, 2008


"That sure is a lot of candles, Daddy!" - Elizabeth Early

I waited patiently for the Lord;
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit,
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?

He set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.
Many will see, many will see and fear."

-- U2, "40" (from their 1983 album War; the song is a paraphrase of Ps. 40).

Have you ever noticed how many times the number 40 appears in Scripture? Here is but a partial sampling of the various occurences of the number.

1. The rain that caused the great flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:12).

2. The flood remained on the earth 40 days (Gen. 7:17).

3. Both Isaac and Esau were 40 years old when they married (Genesis 25:20, 26:34).

4. Moses was about 40 years old when he left Egypt, and 40 more years passed before the Angel of the Lord appeared to him and he returned to Egypt (Acts 7:23.30).

5. The Israelites wandered in the desert and ate manna for 40 years (Ex. 16:35; Deut. 2:7)

6. Moses spent 40 days and nights on the mountain with God (Ex. 24:18)

7. In the time of the Judges, the people of Israel often enjoyed 40 years of rest before a new enemy would attack (Judges 3:11, 5:31, etc) and many of the Judges ruled 40 years.

8. Elijah fasted for 40 days (3 Ki 19:8), as did (of course) the Lord Jesus (Matt. 4:2)

9. Both David and Solomon ruled 40 years over Israel (3 Kingdoms (1 Kings) 2:11, 11:38/42)

10. Most significantly, as we recently observed in our liturgical cycle, Jesus spent 40 days on earth before He ascended into heaven (Acts 1:3).

I could go on and on, but by now I'm sure you get my point: 40 is a very significant number in salvation history. Why did God choose 40 to be such an important number? Why cause so many things to last 40 days or years? I don't know. But I do know that the number 40 has taken on new significance for me: it has recently become the number of years that I completed on the earth. This officially occurred over three months ago--I've been mulling over this post and dealying writing it for quite some time.

Being 40 is interesting. It certainly makes me seem a little less young in the eyes of some folks. Am I now "over the hill?" Or is (as some say) 40 "the new 30?" Does life truly begin at 40? I have no idea; I haven't been 40 long enough to tell. Perhaps some of you who are a bit over 40 can weigh in on this subject.

For now, here are some pictures from my 40th birthday celebration for your amusement.

I am just tickled pink to be 40!

Let my candle smoke arise in Thy sight as incense! You can see I've still got my lung capacity!

Update on Prayer Request

Thank you for your prayers for the St. Herman Monastery (and for Northern California in general). Things seem to be getting better. Here is an update from Bishop BASIL:

"A message from Fr. Damascene of the St. Herman Monastery to His Grace Bishop Maxim: Fr. Damascene informed His Grace that he called Platina this morning and was told that the fire is not spreading in the direction of the Monastery. Fr. Damascene and Monk Paisius have left to Platina to talk with firefighters and forest rangers. The other monks will remain in Redding until further notice."

God be praised!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Miscellaneous Plugs, Part Two: More Podcasts

Here are some noteworthy podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio that I have listened to lately. I highly recommend them all.

On “Our Life in Christ,” the hosts Steve Robinson and Bill Gould have started a new series on the Orthodox view of the Virgin Mary. It is designed especially for evangelical Protestants who are skeptical about the veneration of Mary, but listening to it would profitable for all Christians. As always, Steve and Bill combine humor with a great deal of knowledge about their subject, and their tone is irenic rather than polemical.

In his outstanding podcast “Pilgrims from Paradise,” Matthew Gallatin is in the midst of a series on Sola Scriptura, the bedrock of Protestant theology.

Kevin Allen, host of “The Illumined Heart,” has done some fascinating interviews lately, including one with a former Wiccan priestess who converted to Orthodoxy, and another with Fr. Ted Pulcini on relating to Muslims. He also interviewed a couple in which the husband converted to Orthodoxy but the wife did not until many years later. The name of this program is “One Marriage – Two Spouses: Loving Your Spouse into Orthodoxy.” Great stuff.

In addition to these, I have discovered two new podcast series. The first of these, "Sermons at St. Nicholas," was just created about a month ago. It features the weekly homily from Fr. Thomas Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Mckees Rocks, PA, and speaker on the excellent podcast The Path.

The other podcast series that I have discovered is not really new, but it is new to me. I discovered it through the iTunes store rather than Ancient Faith Radio. It is called simply the “St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Church Podcast,” from the church of the same name in the Denver area. This church has recorded nearly every sermon, Bible study, seminar and other type of talk given in the last year or so. There are well over a hundred individual podcasts, and I have not listened to anywhere near all of them. Of those that I have listened to, I have especially enjoyed the Bible study series on St. John’s Gospel by Fr. Lou Christopolous and the series on Jesus’ parables by Fr. Evan Armatas (now at St. Spyridon GOC in Loveland, CO--they have a great website, by the way). Best of all, like all podcasts on AFR, they are free!

May the Lord use these soul-profiting podcasts to help you grow closer to Him, and may He grant you grace and peace this day and every day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Urgent Prayer Request

I just received the following urgent prayer request from my bishop, His Grace Bishop BASIL. Please pray fervently for the following request.

His Grace Bishop MAXIM of the Western American Diocese urges all of our Orthodox faithful to offer prayers for the protection of the St. Herman of Alaska Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Platina, California. Wild fires are quickly approaching the Monastery grounds and the Monastery is in great danger of being burned down. The Monastic Community has been evacuated and are seeking refuge in the neighboring parish of Redding, California.

May the Lord grant this request and bless you all.

Miscellaneous Plugs, Part One: Blogs

You may have noticed that over the last month or so, I have added a few new (well, new to ME, anyway) blogs to my sidebar. Have you checked them out lately? Here's a list of the blogs (in alphabetical order), with a brief description of each:

1. a...sinner: This is an amazing (and beautifully designed) blog, with enough reading material to last you a loooooooong time. This man must never sleep! He includes brief lives of the major saints of the week, plus interesting articles, most of which are news stories related to Orthodoxy. He recently won the first annual "Eastern Christian Blog Award" for "Best Church News Blog."

2. Byzantine, TX: Written by a Byzantine Catholic Christian who is also the son of a member of my parish, this blog specializes in news stories, many dealing with Catholic-Orthodox relations. The author took home the Eastern Christian Blog Award for the "Most Visually Attractive Blog."

3. Koinonia: Written by Fr. Gregory Jensen, an OCA priest who is also a licensed psychotherapist. His deep and very cerebral blog articles deal mainly with the relationship between psychology and Orthodoxy, but he also writes on many other subjects, lately often including Catholic-Orthodox relations. His blog site is currently down, but it should be up soon.

4. Nous from Spring: Written by a chanter and iconographer who is also a member of my parish. The articles don't come that often, but when they do, they are always insightful.

5. Oh Taste and See: Miscellaneous reflections from an Orthodox layman in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. For a while he did a series on the Psalms which was really good.

6. Our Calling to Christ: A beautiful, intelligent, precocious and spiritual 17-year old's take on living the Christian life. Oh yeah...didn't I just give this blog its own plug?

7. Pithless Thoughts: Steve Robinson, a witty Orthodox subdeacon and the driving force behind the excellent "Our Life in Christ" podcast on AFR, always has interesting things to say.

8. The Arena: By Fr. Josiah Trenham, an Orthodox priest and a great speaker. His blog often has great quotes from the Fathers.

9. Veni, vidi, credidi. Written by an Orthodox layman, this blog contains insightful meditations.

Of course, I also urge you to continue reading the "old timers" on my sidebar, such as Close to Home, Orthodixie, Fr. John Whiteford, Frederica, Bonovox, and the best Orthodox blog of all, Glory to God in All Things. Of course, there are many other excellent blogs out there, but these are my favorites. I don't really have time to read any more, at least not on a regular basis.

I was going to plug a few podcasts too, but I am out of time, so I'll do so tomorrow.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A 23 Foot Pantocrator

The other day, I posted an article about the recently-completed iconography at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas. Here is an article about another Orthodox Church (Holy Trinity GOC), this time in San Francisco, that recently finished its interior iconography. What is really interesting about this church's iconography is that it is made of up of mosaics rather than painted icons. Enjoy

(Note: the story is © MMVIII, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. It came from the website of KPIX-TV, San Francisco and was written by reporter Sharon Chin.)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) ― A giant mosaic of the face of Jesus is nearing completion at a Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco. Its creator, Robert Andrews, said it's the largest mosaic of Jesus' face in the Western Hemisphere.

One glimpse of the Jesus mosaic inspired Frances Dutro to sing "Christ is Risen."

"It was just overwhelming. It's something that can't be described," Dutro said.

The massive mosaic occupies the giant 3,400 square foot dome at San Francisco's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.

"It's a very unusual feeling that you get being surrounded by this huge mosaic," Andrews said, "makes me feel great."

This mosaic gives new meaning to the phrase coming face to face with Jesus. From the top of the head to the chin, it's 23 feet.

There are more than 2 million pieces of mosaic glass, each one about the size of a fingernail. The gold here is even smaller.

For months, workers reconstructed the roof. Then a three-person crew from Italy spent 6 weeks cementing in pre-set foot-long squares of tile. First the crew worked on the face of Jesus, then the halo and seraphim.

And as he works, Andrews himself finds communion with God.

"There's a lot of praying that everything goes well, too. And it has," Andrews said.

83-year old Andrews, who is from Massachusetts, has created other mosaics for this church over four decades.

He worked with founding priest Father Anthony, who has passed away. But Andrews pays tribute to him in a four-inch ceramic near Jesus' hand.

"Just so he's here. That's all," Andrews said.

Some church members plan to see the mosaic up close.

"I'm going up. I have to. It's close to God," Church member Arthur Thanash said.

The whole church will see the unveiled work in June.

"Hopefully, they'll be inspired," Andrews said.

When asked how he could top the massive project, Andrews responded: "You don't. This is really primo."

He hopes the congregation will echo, "Amen."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Proud Papa Brags on His Kid

This is a picture of my oldest daughter Audrey on her 17th birthday (April 24 of this year). She is holding up my gift to her, a Russian Orthodox three-bar cross. Man, do I ever love this kid!

This afternoon, I noticed that Audrey was furiously typing away on the computer. At one point, she even had her Orthodox Study Bible open and was obviously referring to it as she typed. I wondered what she was doing, but because I was very busy with household chores and then mowing the lawn, I didn't take the time to ask what she was doing.

Later, I found out that she was in the process of starting not one, but two blogs. One is more personal, and the other is more theological (a chip off the old block, perhaps? Naaaaaah...)

I just got through reading her theological blog, and I couldn't believe what I read. I knew she was a good writer, but I didn't know the half of it. It is amazing, at least in my humble opinion. (Of course, I am just slightly biased...). It was great, especially for a 17-year-old. I strongly encourage you to read her blog, which you can do by clicking here. If you wouldn't mind, leave a comment, telling her how beautiful, smart, and insightful she is and encouraging her to write more. I know that she will be grateful. (Don't tell her I asked you to do so!).

By the way, Audrey's other blog is also worth a look. Have you ever seen an eight-foot statue of Yoda, made entirely of Legos? I may be wrong, but I dare say that you probably haven't. If you would like to, click here. (We made a family outing to the only "Lego Store" in Texas this afternoon.)

May the Lord bless each of you. Have a great week this week.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

St, Seraphim Cathedral

In my opinion, one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches in the U. S. is St. Seraphim of Sarov Cathedral in Dallas. I had the privilige of attending the Divine Liturgy there once in 2002 and again in 2003, when I was still a layman. The music was beautiful, and the iconography is among the best I have ever seen.

When I was last there, the iconography was not quite done. There was a giant scaffold behind the altar, where the iconographer was working on the Platitera (the big icon of the Theotokos with the pre-incarnate Christ).

Recently, the iconographer has finished his work. Here is an article copyright 2008) from the Dallas Morning News ( on the completion of the iconography. Enjoy.

"That's Hosea, and that's Jonah," he continues, motioning toward his other creations inside the cupola at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral. Standing on a metal scaffold, light streaming through window panes of beaded glass, he checks his work with a straightedge – "It's better to be precise" – and brushes on.

"So little by little, the whole church will be painted," he says of the job at hand – a job that has been under way for more than a little while. One that's almost complete.

"Eight years is enough time for me," says Vladimir the iconographer. Mr. Grigorenko came to Dallas from his native Ukraine to paint religious images inside St. Seraphim's new cathedral on Wycliff Avenue.

Church leaders hired him to create icons for a wooden screen that stands in front of the altar. And in April 2000, he arrived with sketchy English and a fervent Christian faith to undertake what became a yearlong project. "I had in mind I would go back to Ukraine," he says.

But once the screen was done – depicting Jesus, Mary, saints and disciples – the cathedral's white walls and ceiling stood obviously bare.

And Mr. Grigorenko was asked to continue his work and take on a canvas of plastered drywall. He figured the challenge would take two years or so.

Since then, the wiry artist has been at it six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, grinding pigment stones, producing colors, climbing scaffolds and glorifying his Dallas church with Christian scenes and figures.

"The most important concept here was to represent the story of Christ," he says, standing beneath his artistic vision, his bearded face void of emotion.
About 200 figures grace the sanctuary in a soft, sometimes-glowing display of reds and browns, blues and greens, tans and golds. Saints, missionaries and biblical figures cover walls. Murals overhead present important events in the life of Jesus – from the nativity and baptism to the crucifixion and resurrection.

"And here is the image of God the creator," says Mr. Grigorenko, pointing skyward to his Jesus, dominating the cupola ceiling, ringed by words from Psalm 102: "For He hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the Lord behold the earth; ... to loose those that are appointed to death."

Schooled in mechanical engineering and employed for a while in the study of coal extraction, Mr. Grigorenko was moved more by art. An atheist, he ventured into secular landscapes and abstracts before finding a calling in iconography – the painting of religious images in what he has called the revelation of "the ultimate truth about God and man."

"Trying to find the universal or real art, I came to church art," Mr. Grigorenko says. "And the icons brought me to the church and to Christ."

Eight years after he came to Dallas, Mr. Grigorenko, 43, is nearing the final strokes on a job that has drawn rave reviews.

"To have these icons in the church is a tremendous blessing," said Father John Anderson, associate priest of the 500-member St. Seraphim congregation, which will celebrate the completion in June.

"It's sad that it's ending," he said of the $600,000 project that ran longer than expected. No problem, he said. "It takes a while to create masterpieces."

Mr. Grigorenko, his wife, Olga, and their three children have found a spiritual home at St. Seraphim. The iconographer says he hopes to land other church-art commissions in the Dallas area and build on his accomplishment.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to finish the whole church with my own hands," he says.

A critique? "I feel good about the work. The project is successful," he says point-blank. "But I have nothing to be proud of. "The project is a work of God and me. He chose me, and I fulfilled his wish."

Friday, June 20, 2008

In Vino, Veritas (et salus!)

"[God created] wine that makes glad the heart of man" (Psalm 103/104:15).

"No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities" (1 Tim. 5:23).

Here's one for all of you who, like me, are big wine fans. I read this in the Houston Chronicle, which in turn reprinted it from the New York Times.

Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human
lifespan, researchers say in a new report that is likely to give impetus to the
rapidly growing search for longevity drugs.

The study is based on dosing mice with resveratrol, an ingredient of
some red wines. Some scientists are already taking resveratrol
in capsule form, but others believe it is far too early to take the drug,
especially using wine as its source, until there is better data on its safety
and effectiveness.

Click here to read the rest of the article. Then go have a glass. Cheers!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lynette's Hope

In January of 1997, after 6 months of serving as missionaries in Prague, Czech Republic, Jennifer and I were seriously considering tranferring to Bosnia. We were told that after a few months, unless something changed, we would be THE ONLY Southern Baptist missionaries in the country. This was a little intimidating to us, partly because we were only 28 years old and inexperienced as missionaries. But we felt a strong sense of call, and so we went through with the fateful decision to make the move.

To our great surprise, when we arrived in Bosnia, we found that we would not be the only missionaries after all. Something had indeed changed. We discovered that our organization had evacuated about a dozen of its many personnel in Albania to Bosnia. The reason for the evacuation was the mass civil unrest that occurred in early 1997 due to the collapse of a pyramid scheme run by the Albanian government in which many thousands of people lost their life savings (think Enron, but nearly the whole country affected). We all joked at the time that our missionaries to Albania needed someplace safe to go, so they got sent to Bosnia!

(If you don't get that joke, click here and read about the 1992-1995 Bosnian civil war.)

By causing so many missionaries to relocate to Bosnia, the Albanian crisis indirectly but greatly affected our lives and ministry. I didn't know it at the time, but the crisis also impacted another young missionary couple, Orthodox missionaries named Nathan and Lynette Hoppe. They had hoped to depart for Albania in mid-1997, but they were now forced to wait nearly a year.

Nathan and Lynette finally arrived in 1998, after the fury had mostly calmed down. They were an exceptional couple. Converts to Orthodoxy from evangelical Protestantism, they had missions in their blood all their lives. Both had grown up on the mission field, Nathan in South America and Lynette in Uganda. They had loved the lord Jesus and his Gospel all their lives. Having recently come to love the Church that Jesus founded, they were eager to help this Church to start over in a land where all religious expression had been illegal from 1967 until the fall of the Communist regime in 1991.

Nathan and Lynette faithfully served the Lord and the people of Albania for many years, leading many people from unbelief to new life in Christ, and building up His Body, the Church. I must note in passing that life in Albania, as I heard countless times while we were in Bosnia, is VERY difficult! Water and power outages are common, frequent, and long lasting, and there are myriads of other difficulties.

Then, after six years of devoted, self-sacrificial service, they made a tragic discovery: Lynette had stage 4 breast cancer. They returned to the U. S., where Lynette underwent a variety of aggressive treatments. In spite of the treatment, the cancer grew worse and had soon spread throughout Lynette's body. Failing a miracle, Lynette had no hope of survival.

As a former missionary, I have long been a supporter of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), and I have tried to keep abreast of what God is doing through the OCMC around the world. I remember reading late in 2004 about Lynette's diagnosis. I soon joined the throng of people around the world praying for her healing. I began reading her online diary at the website called simply "Pray for Lynette."

In early 2006, with death virtually inevitable, the Hoppes decided to return to Albania, spending Lynette's final time on earth ministering to the people that they had grown to love. Only a couple of weeks before she died, Lynette gave a talk at a girls' camp, speaking frankly about her struggles with her imminent passing and sharing the lessons she had learned. Humanly speaking, Lynette had every reason to be bitter and angry; no one would have thought it unnatural for her to "curse God and die," as Job's wife urged him to do.

But she didn't. She chose instead to focus on God's love and faithfulness through all her pain and suffering. She spoke (and wrote) about all the spiritual healing that God had wrought in her life, even while denying the physical miracle that everyone hoped for. The text of Lynette's final talk, along with a selection of her writings from her private journal, her missionary newsletters, and her website, have recently been published in a beautiful book entitled Lynette's Hope. I read quite a few books. I only recommend the very best to others, and much less frequently do I call a book a "must read." But this book is indeed a "must read." Among other things, it helps us to put our own "suffering" into perspective. After reading it, I was forced to look in the mirror and ask the big dummy standing there, "If this woman can endure what she went through and only praise God for His faithfulness, never complaining, then what's YOUR problem?" In fact, I think I may need to do this again...but I digress.

Let me close by sharing a couple of brief passages from the book, one written by Lynette (an excerpt from her final talk), and one by Nathan, who likewise displayed great faith and courage.

Ten days before she left this earth, Lynette told the girls at the camp,

In the end, I can say that I have never felt that God has given me something terrible. Even during those times of depression and anxiety, when I did feel like He was absolutely nowhere, I learned to cling to what I know is true. I learned not to trust my feelings at all. I have to trust in what I know about God--He is good; He is love; He is always with us (p. 192)
After Lynette's falling asleep in Christ, Nathan wrote:

I remember Lynette saying about her illness: "This is good because it is given to me by God, and God is good. I might not fully understand it but I'm sure that this is good." She taught us how to conquer death because she was with Christ...Lynette's life was bestowed by Christ and she knew it; that's why she had inner peace, no anxiety or fear of death (p. 244)
There is much, much more that I could write about Lynette's beautiful and inspiring story, but I have a better idea: Why don't you get the book and read it yourself? If you do, your life will be changed.

Two other things: Listen to a podcast that discusses the book and that includes the audio of Lynette's final talk. Also, read my new friend Molly Sabourin's outstanding meditation on the Hoppes' story.

May the Lord bless you all.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #3

"Quick Takes" from the June 7/14 isssue of WORLD magazine

The $600 Man
Oh, the indignity. For John Odom's sake, let's hope the baseball open market does not reveal the measure of a man. Unable to get Odom, a minor league pitcher, across the border into Canada, the Calgary Vipers of the Independent Golden Baseball League attempted to unload the 26-year-old pitcher for whatever they could get in return. A few weeks later, Calgary finally found a trading partner in the Laredo Broncos. What did the Vipers want in return? "They just wanted some bats, good bats--maple bats," Broncos General Manager Jose Melendez said after the deal to acquire Odom for 10 maple bats was finalized. The bats traded for Odom have a cash value of just over $600. Astros have several pitchers that probably couldn't even bring THAT much in return!

Eighty and Counting
Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage: which may or may not have been what Frank and Anita Milford drove away from their wedding ceremony on May 26, 1928, in Torpoint, a village in Southwest England. In May the couple celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary in the Plymouth nursing home where they both live. Mrs. Milford says the pair met in 1926 at YMCA dances while attempting to foxtrot. "He used to step on my feet," Mrs. Milford, now 99, said. Mr. Milford, now 100, made up for it, though. She still wears the engagement ring costing six pounds that he bought her.

You can't help but be inspired by that story. Eighty years of marriage! How beautiful. If only Jennifer and I both make it to age 102, we'll be able to do the same.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The World's First Church?

Forgive me for not posting for a whole week. Things have been very busy.

Here is part of a story, published a few days ago on, that a member of my church sent me. I don't know if the claim is accurate or not, but it sure is very interesting in any case. The picture above is also from

Jordan archaeologists unearth 'world's first church'

Archaeologists in Jordan have unearthed what they claim is the world's first church, dating back almost 2,000 years, The Jordan Times reported on Tuesday.

"We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 AD to 70 AD," the head of Jordan's Rihab Centre for Archaeological Studies, Abdul Qader al-Husan, said.

He said it was uncovered under Saint Georgeous Church, which itself dates back to 230 AD, in Rihab in northern Jordan near the Syrian border.

"We have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians -- the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ," Husan said.

These Christians, who are described in a mosaic as "the 70 beloved by God and Divine," are said to have fled persecution in Jerusalem and founded churches in northern Jordan, Husan added.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Happy Birthday, Beth!

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them
(Psalm 127:3-5, NKJV)

When Jennifer and I first started attending St. Joseph's, our third daughter Beth was only about 6 weeks old. Today, she is 7 (years, not weeks!). Just another reminder of how time flies.

Our "quiver" is definitely full. We are truly blessed!

Here is Beth playing with her big sister Audrey. They are building a horse stable with Beth's new Lego Set.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Prince Caspian

Like most American Christians, I am a big fan of C. S. Lewis' writings, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia. When the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out a few years ago, I was excited. I went to see it almost immediately after it came out (a rarity for me), and I was not disappointed. The cinematography was beautiful, the acting was good, and the film was very faithful to the book.

So, as the time for the release of the Prince Caspian film drew near, I once again found myself getting excited. I went to see the movie only two days after it came out. This time, though, I was confused. I constantly found myself asking, "that wasn't in the book, was it?" It seemed that great liberties had been taken with the text. However, I was not completely sure, since I had not read the book in quite some time, and my memory of it was quite fuzzy.

(SPOILER ALERT: The following contains details about the book and movie!)

So, I quickly reread the book and discovered, not to my surprise, that the movie was indeed quite different from the book. One major difference is that Susan, who in the book is gentle and mild and who does not get involved in the fighting, has been turned into a butt-kicking Rambina who is deadly with her bow at any distance (much like Legolas in the Lord of the Rings). At one point, she even commands a platoon of archers. This, of course, is a tip of the hat to modern feministic sensibilites, and I have no problem with it, since it really does not affect the overall story at all.

Second, unlike in the book, Susan and Prince Caspian have a crush on each other throughout the film. While a little silly and annoying, this change also does not alter the overall story much. Again, it is a nod to modern sensibilities; after all, what's a movie today if it doesn't have some element of romance in it?

A third difference from the book concerns the scene where Prince Caspian is tempted to seek out the help of the White Witch. In the book, the temptation is a mere suggestion, whereas in the book, the Witch actually appears, along with a couple of gruesome characters that will be very frightening to young children (Audrey held her hand over Beth's eyes until this scene was over; this is the only part of the movie that I think is unsuitable for children under ten or so).

The fourth and most significant difference lies in what the Pevensie children, Prince Caspian, and the army of Old Narnia do once the children link up with the Prince. In the book, when Peter and his siblings meet the prince, Peter happily turns over his kingship to Prince Caspian. But in the film, Peter has obviously been struggling with the ordinariness of life as a schoolboy in England after having been a warrior and king in Narnia. When he returns to Narnia, he is eager to reassert himself and prove that he still has what it takes.

This, of course, leads to a confict between Peter and Caspian as to who is really in charge. Knowing that Caspian's wicked uncle king Miraz and his forces will soon be on the attack, the two clash over what to do. Caspian wants to let Miraz come to them, while Peter wants to go on the offensive. Caspian also urges that they wait on Aslan's guidance before deciding what to do, but Peter will have none of it. Finally, Peter pulls rank and leads the Narnian army on a disastrous assault on Miraz's castle that costs countless Narnians their lives. In doing so, he learns a valuable lesson about pride and control.

As William Moseley, the actor who plays Peter said, "I think my character learns a very important lesson about humility. He learns that leadership at the end of the day is about serving other people--serving a place or a country and not serving yourself. And Peter had to reinstate his trust in Aslan to learn that lesson." Well spoken, William! (Source: WORLD magazine, May 17/24 2008).

And as my daugher Audrey said on the way home, Peter's experience in the film teaches us that when we refuse to wait on the Lord, taking things into our own hands and doing our own will, rather than His, bad things always happen. (I was immensely proud of Audrey for seeing that!)

So, by making this significant change to Lewis' classic book, the filmmakers (intentionally or not, I don't know), actually made the spiritual content of the book even stronger and more powerful. In so doing, they made the movie even better than the book. I cannot recommend the film highly enough (as long as you are 10 or older)!

Pre-production on the film version of the third book in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my favorite book in the series) has already begun. This film is scheduled for release in 2010! I can't wait!!

To read WORLD magazine's two outstanding articles on the film from their May 17/24 issue, click here and here. Click here to read another excellent article.

Also, click here for a review of the film by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Just for fun, here is the trailer for the film. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Happy Ascension Day!

O Christ God, Thou hast ascended in glory, granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing they were assured that Thou art the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world! -- Troparion of the Ascension

Thus concluded the earthly work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and began His heavenly work. He has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven. In His Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, he would have told us! I can't wait to see them!

I just got home from a rare treat: serving a (Vesperal) Divine Liturgy together with my pastor Fr. Matthew. Due both to mine and his frequent travels, this has only happened a handful of times this year, and only three times since the first of March.

It became obvious to me on Pascha that it must be an unofficial tradition for Orthodox bloggers to put a family picture on their blog on Pascha. I didn't know that, but I resolved to do likewise. Because my entire family has been at St. Joseph's only twice since Pascha, we haven't had much of a chance to take pictures in our Sunday best. The first photo session was a total flop. You try getting 6 people, including three small children, to all look good at the same time!

The second session was a LITTLE better, so I thought I would include the best of the pictures as a way of wishing you a blessed Ascension Day. Christine (the runt) looks a little grumpy, but believe me, the other pictures were even worse!

May the Lord bless all of you as you look toward Pentecost!

The Earlys: Fr. James, Kh. Jennifer, Audrey, Courtney, Beth, and Christine

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This Crazy World #2

Gleanings from the latest issue of WORLD magazine (May 31/June 7, 2008):

Money for Nothing

Couch potato? NASA has a job for you. To study the effects of prolonged time in space, scientists at NASA are recruiting people to spend 90 straight days in bed, broken only by medical testing to see how the body reacts to inactivity. In return for 90 days of bed rest at NASA will pay participants $17,000.

Wow! How can I apply?

Left Behind

One might think Phillipe Quint would be more careful with his $4 million violin. The Grammy-nominated, Russian-born violinist left his 285-year-old Stradivarius in the back seat of a Newark, N.J. taxicab. One day later the driver, Mohamed Khalil, tracked Quint down to return the irreplaceable instrument. And to say thank you, Quint gave the driver a $100 reward and organized a half-hour concert for 200 cab drivers at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 8.

Only $100 for a $4 million violin?

Yellow Gold

Rising energy and food prices have created a new nice for blue-collar thieves. For years, companies like Griffin Industries, a Kentucky-based agricultural-waste recycler, have been collecting grease from restaurants and selling the cooking byproduct to makers of alternative fuels like biodiesel. As energy and food prices soar, demand for grease grows, too. As a tradeable commodity, its price has tripled in the past three years. And so petty thieves are now pilfering fast-food joins to steal fry grease. One man, David Richardson of Illinois, was caught by police allegedly filling up his tanker truck with used oil at a Burger King in Morgan Hill, Calif. A full tank of grease could be worth $7000 on the open market.
Okay, folks, start saving your cooking grease. Maybe you can sell it to help pay the rising cost of...well, pretty much everything!