Sunday, August 31, 2008

To Forgive Must Be Our Policy (Part One)

Here is the first half of the sermon that I preached at St. Joseph's this morning.

There is an old saying which has become a cliché but is true nonetheless. The saying is: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” When my father was teaching at Pasadena High School, he had a sign on his desk that had his own version of this saying: “To err is human; to forgive is NOT MY POLICY.” I firmly believe that my dad meant this is a joke, for he was a very forgiving man, at least to me. The sad thing is that my dad’s sign really does express the attitude that many people have about forgiving others. What is still sadder is that even for many Christians, forgiving is not their policy--at least not all the time.

Today we will look at a key biblical passage on the subject of forgiveness. It is a parable that Jesus told about two men. One of the two practiced forgiveness. But for the other, to forgive was definitely not his policy. In particular, we will see what happens to him, and, by extension, to us, when we fail to forgive.

Jesus’ Parable

In Jesus’ parable, we read “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” It is important that we understand just how much the servant owed the king. A talent was a unit of measure used in the ancient world that weighed approximately 75 pounds. Today, one ounce of gold is worth approximately $830. A talent weighs 16 times 75, or 1200 ounces. Therefore ONE talent in today’s economy is worth about a million dollars. This in itself is a great deal of money; but keep in mind that the servant owed TEN THOUSAND talents, or approximately TEN BILLION dollars – a princely sum by anyone’s standards!

The story continues: “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.” As St. John Chrysostom points out, all the man asked for was some additional time to pay his debt. But what he received was even greater: he received full forgiveness of this enormous sum of money.

Now you would think that the servant would be thankful and rejoice for being forgiven of his debt. You would think that he would treat others in the way that he was treated. But this was not to be. As Jesus continued, “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.”

To put things into perspective here, we need again to understand how much a denarius was worth. In Jesus’ day, a denarius was the amount of money that the average worker would earn in one day. It was a silver coin that weighed about 4.5 grams, or a little less than a sixth of an ounce. Today silver is worth just over $13 an ounce, so a denarius would be worth a little more than $2. Some scholars, however, hold that the buying power of a denarius was about $20 in today’s money. If we take that higher figure, then, the servant was owed about $2000 by his fellow servant. In other words, the amount that he had been forgiven was 5 million times as much as what he was owed. And yet he was unwilling to forgive. In spite of the great forgiveness he had received, to forgive was not his policy.

Jesus concluded the parable by giving the result of the man’s unwillingness to forgive: “So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” As a result of his failure to forgive, the man ended up being tortured.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

More Late August Craziness

Here are some interesting excerpts from "The Buzz" section from the most recent issue of WORLD magazine, with a little commentary from yours truly:

God on trial

Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, 38, has filed suit against God for causing "widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants." He claims the litigation is meant to make a serious point about equal access to the court system. But the senator's past criticism of Christians and regular habit of skipping morning prayers during the legislative session suggest that other forces are at work.

The court has threatened to dismiss the lawsuit due to its inability to serve God with notice. [Threatened? Why haven't they already DONE SO, instead of wasting taxpayers' money on this absurd and frivolous case?] But Chambers argues that courts routinely acknowledge God's omniscience and omnipresence while swearing in witnesses and therefore should recognize that God is already aware of the proceedings and will be present for all hearings. [Well, at least he has THAT right!]

Language barrier

Democrats looking to woo evangelical voters rolled out a new strategy ahead of the party's convention in Denver this month: changing the Democratic platform on abortion to assert that the party "strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child," and offering assistance to women facing unplanned pregnancies.

Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, helped write the new language and told reporters that he was pleased: "Pro-life voters of either party can now support Sen. Obama on the basis that more lives will be saved than if they had just taken a moral stand hoping to overturn Roe v. Wade." [Oh sure, just forget about his past voting record on abortion!]

But Obama has voted in favor of pro-abortion legislation in Congress, including an amendment to nullify federal policy prohibiting funds for overseas groups that promote or perform abortions. Hunter told WORLD he shares evangelicals' concerns over those votes, but he said: "I'm just speaking to one issue at a time here." [This reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the wizard says, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" In other words, pay no attention to Sen. Obama's voting record and position on abortion and just look at our smoke-and-mirrors platform!]

Other evangelicals may balk at the section's first paragraph: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." [Not just evangelicals but Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians who take seriously the teaching of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the Church itself]

Too racey for safety

Random House yanked a $100,000, two-book deal because the first installment gave a racy portrayal of Muhammad's child bride, Aisha. The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones was scheduled for an Aug. 12 publication, but Random House feared the book "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

[Does anyone else see a double standard here? It's perfectly fine to publish books critical of Christianity and the Bible, because you're not likely to get murdered as a result. But no, heaven forbid that we publish anything critical of Islam, because you might pay for it with your life. By the way, I'm not advocating criticizing Islam; publishers should refrain from blaspheming any religioin, IMHO]

Not special

After months of denials, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards admitted on Aug. 8 to committing adultery with a campaign worker in 2006. The National Enquirer first reported the affair with Rielle Hunter, a 44-year-old videographer hired by the Edwards campaign to document his 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Edwards released a statement saying he made a "serious error in judgment," ["Serious error in judgment?" How about "I committed a great sin?" Contrast Edwards' reaction to that of the prodigal son when he returned to his father] adding: "In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic." [No, really? Do you think? We would never have guessed!]

Edwards said he wouldn't attend the Democratic National Convention, where he was originally expected to deliver a primetime speech.

[I think the Democrats did the right thing in not letting Edwards speak (at least I assume that they weren't going to let him; the article only says that Edwards wouldn't attend the convention). I find it interesting, however, that Edwards was not allowed to speak because of one affair, while Bill Clinton was nominated in 1992, despite his many well-known acts of infidelity. I guess the difference is that Clinton did not admit his.]

Friday, August 29, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #8

Highlights from the "Quick Takes" section of August 23/30 issue of WORLD magazine. This week, the main theme seems to be "people who get sent to jail for doing stupid things!"

It's a small world

According to Microsoft, the fabled Six Degrees of Separation theory holds water. After studying 30 billion computer instant message conversations among 180 million people, Microsoft found just 6.6 degrees of separation between any two users of its Microsoft Messenger instant message program. In essence, any two random people in the Microsoft survey were separated by a string of just 6.6 acquaintances on average. "To me, it was pretty shocking. What we're seeing suggests there may be a social connectivity constant for humanity," Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz told The Washington Post. "People have had this suspicion that we are really close. But we are showing on a very large scale that this idea goes beyond folklore."

So it really IS true! I wonder how much this study cost? At least it wasn't on the taxpayers' dime!

Easy collar

Call it an arrest wish. A Plant City, Fla., man repeatedly phoned 911 telling the operator he had a warrant out for his arrest and that he would wait by the pay phone for a cruiser to pick him up and take him to the station. Problem: 47-year-old Peiter Vanvliet had no arrest warrant. But after repeated phone calls, a sheriff's deputy drove over to the pay phone to arrest Vanvliet for misuse of the 911 phone system.

"Ask, and you shall receive!"

Skirt chaser

Letter carrier Dean Peterson isn't Scottish, but he's on a campaign to make the classic fashion for male Scots—the kilt—a uniform option for Postal Service employees. "In one word, it's comfort," Peterson told the Associated Press. The letter carrier, who weighs in at 250 pounds, says slacks chafe against his thighs. Last month at his union's convention he made the case for the kilt option: "Please open your hearts—and inseams—for an option in mail carrier comfort!" But the union decided against a kilt resolution. Now he's trying to convince management that he'll be a better worker in a kilt. "It's the difference," he said, "between wearing jammies to bed and wearing your work clothes to bed."

And all you Scots out there are saying "Amen!"

There oughta be a law

Unsatisfied with his sandwich, Reginald Peterson contacted a higher authority. Unfortunately for the Florida man, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office seemed unwilling to respond to the customer's complaint about his Subway sandwich. According to an arrest report, Peterson called 911 to complain that employees at the Subway had left off certain ingredients from his sandwich. When police didn't come, Peterson began yelling at employees and customers before stepping outside to dial 911 again. Shortly after, an officer arrived to lecture Peterson on the proper use of emergency services. But Peterson became belligerent and was eventually arrested.

Two words come to mind: Anger management (or maybe "mentally ill"?)!

Wannabe cop

Teenager Myko Coker Jr. thought his father's position as a deputy with the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office would protect him. It turns out, his father brought him to justice. On July 29, Coker took his father's unmarked patrol car out at about 4 a.m. and made a number of traffic stops. After receiving a call from one motorist, a local police officer stopped the 18-year-old and questioned him. Coker, who was wearing a Broward Sheriff T-shirt, convinced the cop he was in fact an undercover Sheriff's deputy. But as the officer drove away, he saw Coker make a suspicious U-turn and pull over another vehicle. The officer, Rod Hailey, once again stopped Coker and asked him to show a badge or firearm. Coker could not. Again, Hailey let him go, but then drove to Coker's home and talked to his father, Myko Coker Sr. The father and 11-year force veteran called his son and had him arrested when he returned home. The boy faces charges of grand theft auto and impersonating a police officer.

Ah, teenagers! What would we do without them?!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Sight

I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not cling to me (Psalm 101:3, NJKV).

I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl (Job 31:1, NIV).

The third conflict that St. Anthony mentions in his famous quote is that of seeing. Many of us talk too much and/or use our tongues to tear others down. Others let too much noise into our ears, and the noise permeates our brain, molding us into the world's image (contrary to St. Paul's command in Romans 12:1), and depriving us of the silence where we are most likely to experience God. Still others sin by setting wicked things before our eyes (contra Psalm 100/101:3). It is this third problem I wish to address today.

More than ever before in human history, we who wish to live a holy life must strictly guard what we allow our eyes to see. In St. Anthony's day, there were certainly plenty of temptations. Still, he and his contemporaries did not have movies, TV, magazines, DVD's, or the internet. Every time we turn around, impure images are being thrown at us. I remember when I lived in Eastern Europe, in order to walk down the street and avoid temptation, I practically had to have blinders attached. I could not so much as take a glance at a newsstand, for the kiosks that sold newspapers would prominently and openly display pornographic magazines with very explicit covers right at eye level.

I am thankful that this is not the case in the U. S., at least not yet. Nevertheless, images designed to do nothing more than provoke lust are everywhere. We don't have to go looking for them. They are broadcast into our home via TV and movies and onto our computer screens via spam. We must (particularly those of us who are male, who seem to be much more prone to the tempation of lust), to use St. Paul's words to St. Timothy, "Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22).

Men, here are some suggestions I have for guarding your sight. They are really just common sense, but as I have discovered, common sense is not very common any more! Many Christian men fall into sin through not doing the following things:

1. Never, ever look at pictures of naked or scantilly clad women, whether in magazines or elsewhere. If such an image pops up somewhere in your line of sight, turn your head and remove yourself from where you are (if possible).

2. Keep your computer in a room in your house where everyone has access to it and can see the screen while you are on it. Keep icons of Christ, the Theotokos, your patron saint, and your guardian angel nearby at eye level (this is what I call "anti-pornography." ) Avoid using the computer when alone in the home. When you are tempted to look at an inappropriate website, call on their aid in prayer. If necessary, get up, walk around, go outside, or turn off the computer.

3. Don't watch movies that are rated R, particularly if they are R due to nudity or sexual situations (really, you shouldn't go to ones that have a lot of language or violence either, but that's a whole other discussion). If you are considering renting a movie or going to see one in the theater, and you aren't sure what kind of junk it contains, look it up on the excellent website Kids In Mind, which rates the amount of sex/nudity, violence, and language on a scale of 1-10. The same thing goes for TV shows. In my humble opinion, almost nothing on TV is worth watching anyway. Why not read the Bible or another Christian book instead? Life is too short to waste it watching idotic TV shows, anyway. But, I'm starting to digress...

4. If images from your past come to your mind's eye, make the sign of the cross and pray the Jesus Prayer as many times as it takes for you to focus your mind on something else. Remember that God is sitting next to you. Imagine that everything that you think of was projected on a big screen for all to see. If your bishop, your priest, your parents, and/or your spouse (if you have one) were standing next to you, you would change the "channel" that your mind is on ASAP. Remember that God is "everywhere present and fills all things," so He is watching.

5. Memorize the Scripture verses that I quoted above (and there are others as well that are helpful), and recite them daily, especially in times of tempation.

6. Go to confession frequently (at least every other week; every week is ideal). Be completely open with your father/confessor about your failings, and take whatever "medicine" he gives you joyfully, knowing that is given with a few toward helping you overcome the lust of the eyes.

7. Find an "accountability partner" of the same sex whom you trust. Talk to him/her at least once a week and encourage him/her to challenge you to purity. Have him/her ask you each week if you have looked at any impure images or entertained any lustful thoughts.

Of course, there are other sins that can result when we fail to guard our eyes. Greed is one that comes to mind quickly. If we spend too much time in stores, reading newspaper ads, listening to TV commericials or even programs, we will often be tempted to envy, greed, and covetousness. And I could go on and on. I'm sure that there are "eye temptations" that are more prone to affect women than men, but of course I have no experience in such matters. (One of you of the "fairer sex" will need to write a guest article on that. Any takers?).

I will conclude with the Lord Jesus' words:

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"
(Matthew 6:22-23).

May God grant us all the strength and the determination to guard what we look at with our eyes, and that our eyes will be good, so that our whole body and soul will not be full of darkness.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

More on Silence

Here are some more thoughts on the subject of silence, taken from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony [Fr. James' note: This is St. Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism] every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, "You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything," and the other replied, "It is enough for me to see you, Father." (Anthony the Great, saying 27)

While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, "Lord, lead me in the way of salvation." And a voice came saying to him, "Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved." Having withdrawn to the solitary life, he made the same prayer again and he heard a voice saying to him, "Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness." (Arsenius, sayings 1 and 2, emphasis added).

A brother who shared a lodging with other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, "What should I do?" The old man replied, "Keep silence, and do not compare yourself with others." (Bessarion, saying 10).

...Abba Theophilus, the archbishop [Fr. James' note: Theophilus was a desert monk who later became Archbishop of Alexandria], came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, "Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified." The old man said to them, "If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech." (Theophilus the Archbishop, saying 2).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

First Day Jitters? Not a Chance!

My four girls, all smiles about going back to school (not bad for 6:30 AM!)

This week, everyone in the family except me has had a "first day." Today was the first day of Audrey's senior year in high school, Courtney's first day of fourth grade (she is the most excited of all!), and Beth's first day of second grade. Yesterday, Christine went back to daycare (or, if you will, pre-preschool) after over a year at home.

But the most significant first day was Jennifer's. At the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, yesterday was a major turning point in her life. For the overwhelming majority of the eighteen years that we have been married, Jennifer has been a full-time or mostly full-time stay-at-home mom. In fact, the last time she worked full-time outside the home was the fall of 1993, when I was in my second year of seminary.

Monday, Jennifer started an internship as an SLP-in-training at a local rehabilitative hospital. For those of you who don't know what an SLP is, it is a Speech-Language Pathologist (the job formerly known as "speech therapist."). In her internship, she is working full-time, albeit without pay. (she does, however, get credit toward her degree). Thankfully, her hours are not too long: 8 to 3, and she sometimes gets off earlier. Still, it is a big adjustment for all of us for Mom to be out of the house so many hours each week. She will be doing this internship until May, when (God willing) she will graduate with her Masters'. After that, she'll have all summer off and will start working full-time (this time for pay!) next August.

In addition to her internship, Jennifer will have two night classes this fall. Each class meets one night a week, 3 hours a shot. So needless to say, this fall will be very challenging. Next Spring will be a little easier, with only one night class and her internship taking place in a school setting.

At the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, in a very real sense, yesterday was the first day of the rest of Jennifer's (and the whole family's) life. Please pray for us. While I'm on the subject of prayer, if any of you have any prayer needs, please let me know via comment or email, and I will commit to pray for you.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The One?

It's been a busy weekend, and I haven't had time to write the third part of my series on the three conflicts mentioned by St. Anthony. But since I really hate to go more than 48 hours without posting something, I thought I'd try something a little different. If this post offends you, I beg your forgiveness.

I know that some of you who read this blog do not even own a TV. Most of the rest of you probably don't watch TV much. And many of you reading this are outside the U. S. Because of this, I am guessing that most of you have not seen the following video, which was originally a TV commercial. No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, you cannot deny that it is really funny. Or can you? Let me know what you think of the video and/or the message that it is trying to convey.

May the Lord bless you, and again, forgive me if this offends you.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Speaking

"So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19, emphasis added [of course, there is no emphasis in Scriptural passages!])

Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge, thirtieth president of the United States

Calvin Coolidge is not known for being one of our greatest presidents, but he is famous for being a man of very few words. One time, when Coolidge was attending a formal dinner, one of the guests told him, "I made a bet that I could make you say at least three words to me." Coolidge's response? "You lose."

When I was in grade school, I did not have much in common with President Coolidge. I remember constantly receiving "C's" in conduct (and in handwriting too, but that's another story!). For those of you who are not in the U. S., a "C" is a mediocre grade. And why did I get "C's" in conduct? Because I talked too much!

As I have grown older, I have found that I like talking less and less. I have become by nature a man of few words. Sure, I can talk (and talk a LOT) when I have to, but my preference is to hold my peace.

The second conflict that St. Anthony mentions in the eleventh saying in his section of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is that of speech. All of us battle with the use of our tongue in one way or another. Some of us, like me in my childhood days, struggle with using it too much. Others who are not talkative by nature still struggle with controlling what they say. A few of us struggle with both.

The Scriptures abound in warnings about how and how much we use our tongues. My favorite passages about speech are found in the book of Proverbs. I thought I would share some of them with you. I'm quoting from the New King James Version, because I haven't yet gotten used to the different numbering system in the new OSB.

First of all, several of the Proverbs teach us of the general importance of guarding our tongue:

He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction (13:3)

Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles. (21:23)

Others speak of the trouble that misuse of the gift of speech can cause:

A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul (18:7; see also chapter 3 of the epistle of St. James)

Still others tell us of the importance of being, in St. James' words, "slow to speak:"

Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20)

Are you the type of person who finishes other peoples' sentences? I must confess that I am often guilty of this. Or do you spout off your opinion before you really know enough abobut a matter? Here's what Solomon has to say about these practices:

He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him (18:13)

Remember Cliff Claybin (sp?) from the TV show Cheers? He delighted in showing everyone how much he knew about any subject, whether he really knew anything about it or not. Like Cliff, some people always have to put in their two cents. Regarding this, the Proverbs tell us:

A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims foolishness (12:23)

A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart (19:3)

Many of the Proverbs show us that there is wisdom in simply reducing the quantity of our words:

He who is devoid of wisdom despises his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his peace. (11:12)

He who has knowledge spares his words, And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. (17: 27)

In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise (10:19; this is one of my favorites -- the more we talk, the more likely we are to sin with our tongue)

Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive. (17:28; this is another one of my favorites -- if we will just shut our traps, people will think we are wise. And we might even become wise over time!)

Finally, not only must we fight against speaking too much, but we must guard what we say. Many of us have a tendency to use our tongues like a sword. We use sarcasm and ridicule to put others down. As St. James writes, "No man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so." (James 3:8-10).

Solomon concurs:

There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health (12:18).

St. Paul's words to the Ephesians are also helpful: Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.(4:29).

Here in the South, we have a saying: "God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason!" So, brothers and sisters, let us go on a "diet of words" (a permanent one!) and let us use our words to build others up, rather than tear them down. As the old song says, "If you can't say something nice, say nothing!"

I'll try to be the first person to take my advice!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Perfection of the Person

Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958), one of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the 20th century.

Lately, I have been re-reading Vladimir Lossky's The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, one of the most profound and well-loved twentieth-century works of Orthodox theology. I first read it in 2003 (probably a bit too quickly) while going through the St. Stephen's Course of Orthodox Theology. This deep and profound book is a must-read for all who would understand Orthodoxy.

The other day, I came across a great quote that I apparently skimmed over too quickly the first time. I didn't even remember having read it. This quote succinctly expresses the Orthodox understanding of our calling as human persons:

The perfection of the person consists in self-abandonment: the person expresses itself most truly in that it renounces to exist for itself.

May God give us all the strength to renounce existing only for ourselves and live above all else for God and others as did our Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Silence

The Prophet Elijah after he fled to the desert

Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

When I was a missionary in Tuzla, Bosnia, I spent a great deal of time in the homes of locals, trying to speak to them about Jesus, the Bible, the Church, and other spiritual matters. Without exception, when I first entered a home, there would be either a TV or a radio (and sometimes both) blaring away. After exchanging greetings and pleasantries, and after I was given the obligatory cup of Turkish coffee, my host and I would sit down to talk "business." At first, I assumed that they would turn off the TV and/or radio, so that we could hear each other and communicate clearly. Usually, however, this did not happen; the radio or TV would keep right on blaring, even as I was trying to discuss matters of eternal significance. I always found that annoying, and sometimes I even asked the host to turn off the source of noise. They always complied, but they looked at me as if I was a little crazy (many people, including my oldest daughter would agree, but I digress...)

From all these experiences, I learned a lesson: Bosnian people don't like silence! But it's not just Bosnians, is it? We Americans are just as uncomfortable with silence and prone to fill our heads with non-stop noise, aren't we. This even happens in my own home! Often, I come home from work to be greeted by a blaring TV, and sometimes, no one is even watching it.

I believe that the constant noise the the world throws at us is a tyranny (St. Anthony calls it a the "conflict" of "hearing") that we must free ourselves from. If we are serious about growing in Christ, we must free ourselves from the uncomfortableness that we feel toward silence, and embrace it. I am reminded of the following passage in 1 Kings in which Elijah has just fled from the wicked king Ahab and his even more wicked queen Jezebel:

Then [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

It is usually in moments of silence that God speaks to us, in a "still small voice."

Rather than write more on the subject, I am going to quote in full my fellow blogger Steve Robinson's recent post on silence, which I think is outstanding. Enjoy!

I hate horror films [Fr. James' note: Amen!], but that’s another rant.

One of the tricks to horror films is dead silence before someone dies horrifically with an orchestral diminished chord blaring over the panicked screams of the victim.

It’s no wonder we fear silence. If we hear it, something dies.

I work in construction. Job sites often have radios blasting heavy metal, some shock jock with his laughing chick sidekick, hip hop…anything frenetic to spur the pace of a pieceworker’s day or distract from the existential pain of another hour of the rest of one’s life.

I also work in people’s homes, mostly VERY nice homes. Most of them are wired for sound and video in every room. I’ve seen TV’s in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. I once built an entertainment center in a master bedroom that had a centerpiece for a 52” TV (back when that was the biggest available) and nine smaller TV’s surrounding it so the people could watch several channels at once in bed. When I work in someone’s home the people always ask me, “Do you want some music? How about a CD…what do you like? Do you want me to turn on the TV for you?”

“No thanks.”

“Really?... Are you SURE? Its no trouble… here’s the media center, this is how…”

“No, really… thank you anyway.”

“Ohhhh Kayy…but if you want, here it is.”


Then they wander around the house like they are lost, not knowing if they should turn on the TV or stereo anyway. Eventually they find a place to watch TV or play a radio…anything to break the silence. I can literally say, I’ve only had one client in 26 years who said they were glad to finally meet someone who loved quiet as much as they did. Their house was always silent.

I’ve worked with people who cannot endure silence. It has been a rare employee who can work wordlessly, quietly without having to fill the silence with chatter, humming, singing or earphones pounding something into their heads.

Why? If we encounter silence, intuitively we know something will die. Silence is the precursor to encounter. And we are afraid.

Let me say here: No, I’m not a monk-a-bee, I don't stand in my closet full of icons, burning incense and mumbling the Jesus Prayer on a rope the length of jumper cables. Yes, I enjoy music, all kinds. I’ve seen ZZ Top, Cowboy Junkies, Phoenix Symphony, Eric Clapton, Kitaro, Pinchas Zuckerman, Arlo Guthrie, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Led Zeppelin, Yoyo Ma…I love chant, James Brown and Hank Williams. I go to NBA basketball games...well, you get the idea. But many years ago, I set my heart to learn to live comfortably without distractions and noise, and I prefer it above even beautiful sound.

What happens in silence? It is a descent into a place where we have no familiar landmarks, no baubles, bright lights and kaleidoscopic fracturing of reality to hold our attention. We walk into a foggy, still, silent landscape and open a creaking gate that leads to a bleak house that has not been tended for years… it is our inner self. And like all horror movies, what is encountered within can only be preceded by silence.

But what lies within? Yes, the demons. Our self created demons, our twisted perceptions, our vain hopes of escaping unharmed, our panicked reactions to reality, our inattention to signs of impending doom, our lusts and passions, like failing flashlights, that give us irrational courage to enter into dark rooms and descend into black basements. The audience hears the silence, but we don’t. If we attend to it, fear grips us because we know something is about to leap on us and drag us screaming into hell.

But there is always something more in the bleak house: Redemption. Within the house always lies the path out, the tools to overcome, an epiphany, a strength within that rises up and conquers the demons and in the end, the silence opens to the daylight, the world now seen as a sign of salvation, the casting down of the powers of darkness…sounds are now a comfort and peace. Silence no longer is foreboding, it is joy.

God waits within, in the bleak house we have neglected, wherein lies all our demons. The path to encountering both is silence. And we must encounter both to break out into the Light.


For another great reflection on the same subject, written by a blogger who calls himself "James the Thickheaded," click here.

The Three Amigos

The clergy of St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church (aka "The Three Amigos"). From left to right, Deacon Meletios Marx, Fr. Matthew MacKay (proestamenos), and myself.

Since November of 2006, when our deacon was ordained, I have been privileged to serve at the altar with two of the finest men I have ever met: the Archpriest Matthew MacKay and Deacon Meletios Marx. As many of you know, I spent most of the first seven months of this year away from the altar at St. Joseph's, filling in at churches whose priest was on vacation, or in one case, who had no priest. Although this was overall a very good experience, I did miss my own parish, especially Fr. Matthew and Dn. Mel.

Now, I have been back at St. Joseph's for five straight Sundays, and, God willing, I should be there each Sunday for the rest of this year. I'm looking forward to it. There's no place like home...especially if your home is a God-blessed parish like St. Joseph's. For those of you who don't live in Houston, if you should happen to find yourself down here, please come visit us.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Three Conflicts

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading (finally) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It is a delightful book, chock full of wisdom. I was really struck by one saying of St. Anthony Great that I came across in The Sayings:

He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.
(Saying number 11)

I am convinced that the first three conflicts are among the greatest obstacles that all of us (not just monastics) have. Hearing, speech, and sight are areas through which the devil can not only tempt us, but drag us down, if we are not watchful. In the next few posts, I plan to comment on each of these in turn (I'll pass on fornication, at least for now... :-) ).

It may take me quite a while to get these done. The pace of my life is starting to pick up, and unfortunately, I don't see myself having as much time for writing as I have the last couple of months.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Icon New Media Network

I wanted to make you aware of a new (at least to me) Orthodox internet ministry which has its own website and podcast series. The ministry is called the Icon New Media Network. It is directed by Jacob Lee, a high-tech whiz and former Calvary Chapel pastor who converted to Orthodoxy in early 2007. The blog is very well done, as are the podcasts. They have several podcass that are worthy of your consideration, including:

The Man in Black (but not Johnny Cash)
: Interviews with an Orthodox priest on a variety of topics.

True Convergence
: Stories about former members of the Charismatic Episcopal Church who have converted to Orthodoxy (mostly Western Rite Antiochians)

Generation Orthodox
: Aimed mainly at twenty-something non-Orthodox Christians (or non-Christians), this podcast features several young converts to Orthodoxy shooting the breeze about pop culture, Orthodoxy, and other topics.

The New Dialogues
: Interviews with a a variety of guests on a variety of topics (kind of like The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio)

: Features special events, such as a five-part series on prayer given by Fr. Jonah Paffhausen, abbot of the monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

But my favorite Icon New Media podcast of all is a joint project between Icon and the Orthodox Christian Network called Journeys to Orthodoxy. Each week, Jacob interviews a convert to Orthodoxy who has an interesting conversion story.

The most recent podcast, which was released just yesterday, features someone that you know. I won't say who it is, but I'll give you a hint: It's a bivocational Orthodox priest who used to be a missionary to Bosnia and who has a beautiful wife and four daughters. If you have time, you might want to check it out by clicking here. I hope you will enjoy it.

May the Lord bless you all.

Friday, August 15, 2008


May you each have a blessed Feast of the Dormition!

Be sure and check out the touching podcast on the Dormition by Frederica Mathewes-Green on Ancient Faith Radio. Also, check out the reflections on the Dormition on the various blogs on my blogroll, particular that of Fr. Stephen Freeman.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #7

Highlights from the August 9/16 issue of WORLD magazine.

Up and away

Standing-room-only service on airplanes? Even if airlines are lukewarm to the idea, an informal survey indicates a number of passengers may be willing to stand for the duration of their flight if it means lower fares. asked 1,000 people how far they would go for cheaper fares. More than one quarter of the respondents said they would pay up to half price for a standing-room-only ticket. Two years ago, plane maker Airbus pitched a modified standing section on its fleet to Asian carriers. In the Airbus plan, standing passengers would be strapped against a padded wall. The French manufacturer found no takers.

And all the Orthodox Christians reading this are thinking "Why not? What's the problem with standing?"

The world's a stage

Of all the Jim Carrey movies to contribute to mental illness: A pair of doctors in New York have identified what they believe to be a new psychosis they have dubbed the "Truman Show Delusion" after the 1998 Carrey drama. The New York- and Quebec-based psychologist brothers Joel and Ian Gold came to the conclusion after treating a series of patients who believed like Truman Burbank, the fictional figure played by Carrey in the Oscar-nominated film, they were the prime actors in a 24/7 reality television drama broadcast around the world. "My family and everyone I knew were and are actors in a script, a charade whose entire purpose is to make me the focus of the world's attention," confided one patient. Both Golds say the disorder differs from other, more narrow, delusions in that the "Truman Show Delusion" involves the entire world, not just a government or persons.

Ah, shucks, they figured it out! I guess we need to do a better job of hiding it, folks! Let's especially be more careful next time when we do commericals.

'Homeless' with houses

Tourists in San Francisco might be a bit tighter now with their quarters as they pass panhandlers asking for loose change. According to a report released by the city on July 18, between half and three-quarters of street people in San Francisco actually aren't homeless at all; they live in city-funded housing but refuse to quit their panhandling day job.

Makes you wonder how many of these folks there are in OUR home towns!

Along for the ride

It's not just cats that have nine lives. A koala bear north of Brisbane, Australia, is lucky to be alive after being struck by a car at over 60 mph as it dallied on a roadway. The impact drove the koala's head and arm through the vehicle's grill. Protruding from the engine, the marsupial hung out as the unsuspecting motorist continued more than seven miles before reaching his final destination and discovering the trapped koala. Doctors at the local hospital treated the -animal with fluids and food after discovering the koala, dubbed "Lucky," had no major injuries in the accident.

Unbelievable! Does this qualify as a miracle?

Sacked out

Apparently drunk and definitely tired, two burglary suspects decided to take a nap after making their getaway July 9 from a Fred Meyer department store in Monroe, Wash. Their big mistake: They left a trail of cardboard and stolen loot that led right to them. Police found suspect Kyle Burress, 25, asleep on some stolen pillows and suspect Allen Pierce, 27, asleep on a stolen hammock. Officers took pictures of the hapless duo before waking them up.

"A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed ma" (Proverbs 6:10-11). This is further evidence supporting the old adage about the intelligence level of the average criminal!

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Craziness

There were so many crazy stories in the July 26/August 2 issue of WORLD magazine that I had to share a few more.

The Pregnant Man

A transgender Oregon woman living legally as a man gave birth June 29 to a baby girl. Dubbed the "Pregnant Man," 34-year-old Thomas Beatie was born Tracy Lagondino but underwent a partial sex change operation and later married another woman. Beatie stopped taking male hormones two years ago before undergoing artificial insemination and insists that giving birth to a "baby doesn't make me less of a man."

Uh...actually, Ms. Lagondino, it really DOES. If God creates you as a woman, then you are always a woman, regardless of how much surgery you have done and how many chemicals you inject yourself with. If you give birth, that proves even further your femininity.

Suing Bible Publishers

A gay Michigan man is suing two Christian publishing companies, alleging that their versions of the Bible violate his constitutional rights because they refer to homosexuality as a sin. Bradley LaShawn Fowler, 39, wants $60 million from Zondervan and $10 million from Thomas Nelson to compensate for 20 years of "emotional duress and mental instability." Fowler contends that because his family's pastor uses a 1980s King James Version Bible listing homosexuals among those who are "wicked" or "unrighteous," his family considers him a sinner. Citing efficacy concerns, a judge refused to appoint Fowler a lawyer, so he is representing himself in both cases.

This story ought to be included as an example in the dictionary definition of "frivolous lawsuit." If this lawsuit is not dismissed immediately, then there is truly no justice in the world.

Houses of God

Standing in the doorway of his church Pastor Norman Markle leads in prayer worshippers who attend without getting out of their cars. The new drive-in church service at the 152-year-old New Hope Methodist Church in Marietta, Ga., is Markel's brainchild to draw new blood to his 88-member church, now off the beaten path in an Atlanta suburb. "Maybe they don't have a church or don't care to get dressed up to go to church. Let's find a way to eliminate all that," Markle said. "People go where they're comfortable." The service is broadcast over an AM radio station and Markle hopes soon to serve communion to car passengers.

Maybe he should serve them a hamburger and fries while he's at it. Seriously, I guess this is better than no church at all...or is it?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #6

Okay, I've posted only serious stuff for two or three weeks, so here's something a little lighter: Highlights from the "Quick Takes" section of the July 26/August 2 issue of WORLD magazine (Copyright © 2008).

Beer bash

Lynne Rice wanted a six-pack of Budweiser, and no mere car crash was going to stop her from getting it. The 74-year-old crashed her 1988 Cadillac directly into Joe's Food Mart in Norwalk, Calif., on June 29. Police say that after Rice plowed into the front window of the store at about 6 p.m., she went to the beer cooler, picked out a six-pack of Bud, and walked it over to the counter. The store attendant alleges she tried to push him when he wouldn't sell her the suds. Instead the clerk phoned police, who arrested her on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

I guess she thought the store was a drive-in!

No left turn

High gas prices aren't forcing UPS off the roadways. They're just forcing the company's drivers to the right side of the road. According to executives at the international package delivery service, computer mapping software and traffic modeling has led them to conclude that delivery drivers should avoid making left turns. By mapping out routes that aim for only right-hand turns, the company saved 3.3 million gallons of gasoline in 2007. According to UPS research, drivers waste time and gas idling while waiting for left-hand turn signals. Even with the more circuitous path, the company estimates that it saved more than $9 million in 2007.

Two wrongs don't make a right, but apparently three lefts do!

Texas-sized 'mark'

To fulfill his dream of erecting a pair of 200-foot-tall crosses book-ending the city of Houston, Pastor Steve Riggle of Grace Community Church will have to gain approval from a higher authority: the Federal Aviation Administration. Because of the hazard a 200-foot structure might pose to air traffic, Riggle would need FAA approval to go ahead with his plan. Even if the agency disapproves, the nondenominational megachurch pastor said he would settle for 150-foot crosses that would not require consultation from the FAA. "This will mark our city for God. If this doesn't work, nothing else will work," he told Houston Community Newspapers. Riggle hopes that like immigrants passing by the symbolic Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island, motorists will be similarly moved by huge crosses as they drive into the northern or southern ends of the city.

Would you believe that this church is only about a 5-minute drive from my house? And it turns out that they are indeed going to have to settle for 150-foot cross. And there is another big church right near this one that is also planning to erect a 100-foot cross. So, I'll have two of them right near me (plus one across town).

Maybe Deacon Meletios and I will sneak over there and add two more bars to each cross!

So close, but...

A vehicle fire last month in Lancaster, Pa., could not have happened to a better prepared truck. The Ford F-350 Super Duty box truck owned by Lancaster Safety Technologies had at least eight fire extinguishers on board when a block heater plugged into the vehicle shorted out and caught fire. The extinguishers were unharmed by the fire, but they also went unused, and the blaze caused $25,000 in damage to the truck's cab. "As far as the fire extinguisher truck catching on fire—I thought it was a little ironic," fire official Greg Leaman told the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal.
Why did they go unused? Hmm...

Hearing both sides

Officers responding to a disturbance in Mesa, Ariz., on June 30 must have been confused. Dispatchers sent officers out after receiving a call reporting a domestic dispute involving a man and a woman heatedly arguing with each other. Instead, police found a 21-year-old man alone in his apartment arguing with himself, but changing the pitch of his voice as he broke windows and caused other commotions. Mesa SWAT arrested the man.

I've always said that it's bad enough to argue with yourself, but it's REALLY bad to lose the argument. But this might just take the cake!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Please Pray for our OCMC Missionaries

Here is a list of our OCMC missionaries, with brief descriptions of their ministries, that I gleaned from the OCMC website. Please print this page, stick the printout in your prayer book, and do pray regularly for our missionaries.


Anastasia Pamela Barksdale: Anastasia Pamela Barksdale will utilize her training and experience to serve the Church of Albania by studying intensive language acquisition and cultural assimilation, serving as a resource person and trainer for the National Children’s Office, developing high-quality children’s curriculum and programming, and assisting His Beatitude Anastasios and the OCMC Missionary Team as opportunities permit.

Georgia Gilman Bendo: Georgia’s ministry is to teach English as a Second Language to elementary school children. She is now in her fourth year at Protagonists Elementary School, which is run by the Orthodox Church. In addition to teaching English, she also leads after-school catechism lessons with some of the students, translates articles for the Church website from Albanian to English, and helps organize other youth activities in the church.

Nathan and Gabriela Hoppe: Nathan teaches at the Holy Resurrection Seminary in St. Vlash. In addition, he and Gabriela plan and conduct childrens’ camps throughout Albania and in Kosovo.

Melanie Linderman: Melanie Linderman teaches English to the second and third year students who are studying to be catechists or priests at the Holy Resurrection Seminary in St. Vlash. She has an advanced special class for the professors and staff who teach at the seminary. She also teaches English to the priests at the Metropolis and has a weekly discussion group for advanced students to practice “everyday” English in her home. Additionally, Melanie works with a fellow Albanian teacher to broadcast an English-learning program on the “Radio Engalia” radio station in Tirana.

George and Pauline Russell: George runs AMTEK, a joint American/Albanian company that specializes in web design and consulting. AMTEK focuses on serious Albanian businesses that want web sites that represent their companies inside & outside Albania. The proceeds from the company go to support a soup kitchen. Pauline directs the Protagonist Elementary School, a ministry of the Albanian Orthodox Church. George and Pauline also coordinate short-term mission trips and help conduct English language camps.


Floyd and Ancuta Franz: Floyd started and directs the St. Dimitrie Program, an education and alcoholism treatment program, through the Orthodox Church in Romania. He works both with the homeless and disenfranchised, as well as directly with parish priests. Currently Floyd is training and working with priests in three dioceses, Cluj, Craiova, Lasi, as well as priests from the Republic of Moldova. Ancuta oversees the Protection of the Theotokos Family Center, a day-care and counseling project in coordination with the local child protection agency and with the Orthodox Church. It gives support to new mothers by offering them counseling and material support.

Christina Semon: Christina is still raising support and preparing to serve in Romania. She will assist the efforts of the St. Dimitrie Program and Protection of the Theotokos Family Center.


Edwin Pier: Utilizing over 20 years of international experience and credentials as a Civil Engineer, Ed trains local staff in establishing and running a capital improvements program (CIP) for the diocese. A CIP is the planning, design, funding and construction of facilities, such as churches, schools, clinics and utilities, identified by the diocese as being necessary for achieving their mission. Within his capabilities, Ed also assists in other tasks identified by his Bishop JERONYMOUS as they arise.

Friday, August 8, 2008

...But the Laborers are Few

Here is the conclusion of my sermon from last Sunday.

We who live in America have been blessed in so many ways. We live prosperous lives that are the envy of people the world over, and we have the freedom to openly practice and teach the Orthodox faith. But with the freedom and material prosperity that God has given us also comes a responsibility to share it with others. Yes, we need to help the needy both here and throughout the world, and American Orthodox Christians do a pretty good job of this, through the IOCC and other agencies. But the world needs more than mere material help; it also needs to hear the saving Gospel of Christ. And in order for the world to hear the Gospel, people must be sent. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”(10:14-15).

I am convinced that Christ intended his Great Commission to apply to ALL of his followers, not just a select few. So, how can all of us be involved in missions? Here are three ways.

We can participate in missions by GOING. Is it possible that God might be calling you to be a long-term missionary? Most of us would automatically say “no, of course not!” But I encourage you to give some serious thought and prayer to this possibility. After you have done so, if you conclude that this is not your calling, then I urge you to seriously consider going on a short-term trip. The Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) each year sponsors many trips to a variety of countries. Every year, those who go end up being blessed as much as they bless others. For more information on how you can participate in a short-term missions trip, go to

We can participate in missions by HELPING. The most tangible way that we can help our missionaries is by giving financially to support their ministries. This giving should be above and beyond our tithe to the parish. We can also support our missionaries by writing (or emailing) them notes of encouragement, and by sending them things that they might not be able to get on the mission field. I know that when I was a missionary, I was greatly encouraged by the kind notes and emails that I received and the care packages that were sent to me. I would like to see each one of our Sunday School classes adopt a missionary, sending them encouraging notes and occasional care packages.

One very economical way to support the spread of the Orthodox faith is through an OCMC program called SAMP (Support A Mission Priest). A gift of $600 per year, or only $50 a month, will provide support for an indigenous missionary priest to win people to the Lord, baptize them, and plant Orthodox churches. Jennifer and I have just committed to do this, and I hope that many of you will as well. In a parish the size of St. Joseph’s, we ought to be able to support at least five missionary priests.

Finally, we can all participate in missions by PRAYING. All of us, whether we can financially support a missionary or not, can certainly pray for them. Indeed, this is what the Lord himself commanded at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” Missionaries face a great number of difficulties. When praying for them, pray for five things. First of all, pray for their spiritual life: for ongoing spiritual disciplines, for protection against discouragement, and for fellowship and counsel from other Christians. Pray for their social adjustments to their new environment: for the ability to learn a new language, new customs, and a new culture; for a servant's attitude, a spirit of hospitality, and good interpersonal relationships. Pray for their physical needs: for health, for safety in travel, for favorable adaptation to a new climate and new foods, and for protection against illness. Pray for their ministry: that their ministry will bear lasting fruit and that God will be preparing the hearts of the people with whom they have contact. Finally, pray for their mental and emotional needs: that they would have strength to persevere through homesicknesses, culture shock, mental fatigue and loneliness. To make this easier, I have prepared a list of our OCMC missionaries [Fr. James' note: I'll post this next time], with a description of their work, so that you can better pray for their ministries. Please do use it!

Truly, the Holy Spirit is at work all over the world, preparing peoples’ hearts to receive the Orthodox Christian faith. “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Harvest is Plentiful...

Here is the first half of the sermon that I preached last Sunday (August 3) at St. Joseph's.

The Harvest is Plentiful, But the Laborers are Few
Matt. 9:35-38

Immediately before he ascended into heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ gave his disciples a Great Commission: “Go… and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded you…” (Matt. 28:19-20). And that is exactly what they did. The eleven disciples, the seventy, and hundreds of others who became Christians on the day of Pentecost, traveled throughout the known world, taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them. Soon afterward, St. Paul and his missionary band traveled all throughout Asia Minor and southeastern Europe, eventually reaching Rome and even Spain. Everywhere they went, they preached the Gospel and established churches, all the while enduring much hardship and persecution. By the end of the first century, there were thousands of churches and millions of Christians, despite the fact that Christianity was not legal. As one persecutor of Christians quoted in the book of Acts said, the first-century Christians “turned the world upside down” with their teaching.

The spread of Christ’s Church did not stop with the passing of the first generation of Christians. Throughout the second and third centuries, the Church grew and spread all throughout Europe, even as millions of Christians lost their lives at the hands of pagan Roman emperors. The Gospel spread throughout North Africa, Spain, France, Mesopotamia, Persia, and northern Europe, even reaching a wild, untamed land called “England.” In the centuries after Christianity was legalized, the church continued to grow in both numbers and influence. Missionaries like Ss. Cyril and Methodius took the gospel to the Slavs, and eventually millions of Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, and finally Russians became Orthodox Christians. Even after the Great Schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church continued to send missionaries to foreign lands to take the Good News of Christ to those who had never heard the name of Jesus.

The Russian Church was particularly active in missionary work, converting the pagan peoples of eastern Russia and many in the south. And we all know the stories of St. Nicholas Kasatkin, whose missionary efforts in Japan led to the establishment of an indigenous Orthodox community of 33,000 faithful, and the great efforts of the many missionaries who took the Gospel to the native peoples of Alaska, including St. Herman, St. Innocent, St. Jacob Netsvetov, St. Juvenaly. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the many pioneers of Orthodoxy in the “lower 48:” St. John Maximovitch, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Tikhon, and St. Nikolai Velimirovitch, who labored to bring Orthodoxy to the mainland U. S., while planting churches and training leaders. Their work has continued to this day, and most of us here today are here due at least in part to their ground-breaking work.

Truly, the Orthodox Church has always been a missionary Church. But unfortunately, since the early part of the twentieth century, the Church has not always been as active in mission work as it once was. To be sure, this relative lack of mission activity has been caused in part by factors beyond the Church’s control, such as the Soviet takeover of Russia and the two World Wars. But the fact remains that the Orthodox Church has allowed the Protestants, despite their lesser numbers, to surpass us in missionary zeal and effort. This is truly a tragedy. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” This is true today no less than it was in Jesus’ day. Many claim that we live in a post-modern, post-Christian age, in which most people are secular in their mindset and opposed to any type of religion. But this is true only in the West (and even in the “secular” West, people buy religious books and watch and listen to religious programs in record numbers). Worldwide, people are searching for something more than just secular materialism. They are looking for hope and purpose. In short, they are looking for exactly what we Orthodox have to offer.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Orthodox View of Death (Part Five)

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, popular Orthodox speaker, retired Oxford theology professor, and author of the best-selling (and outstanding) books The Orthdox Church, The Orthodox Way, and The Inner Kingdom

The Unnatural Gift

I thought I would wrap up my series on the Orthodox view of death by sharing and reflecting on some of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s writings on the subject. I recently read his excellent book The Inner Kingdom, and the second chapter “Go Joyfully: The Mystery of Death and Resurrection” confirms the idea of death as a horrifying, unnatural phenomenon. The Metropolitan writes:

Death…is present with us throughout our life, as a constant, ever-recurring daily experience. Yet, familiar though it may be, at the same time it is deeply unnatural. Death is not part of God’s primary purpose for His creation. He created us, not in order that we should die, but in order that we should live.

He then discusses how we are created as a unity of body and soul (contrary to the dualist theories held by Platonists, other Greek philosophers, and many people [even some Christians] today). God intended body and soul to be united, and their dissolution is therefore unnatural. As Met. Kallistos continues,

As the separation of body and soul, death is therefore a violent affront against the wholeness of our human nature. Death may be something that awaits us all, but it is at the same time profoundly abnormal. It is monstrous and tragic.

Having affirmed the horror of death, however, the Metropolitan adds another dimension not often considered:

Yet even though death is tragic, it is at the same time a blessing. Although not a part of God’s original plan, it is nonetheless His gift, an expression of His mercy and compassion. For us humans to live unendingly in this fallen world, caught forever in the vicious cycle of boredom and sin, would have been a fate too terrible for us to endure; and so God has supplied us with a way of escape. He dissolves the union of soul and body, so that He may afterwards shape them anew, uniting them again at the bodily resurrection on the Last Day and so recreating them to fullness of life…

As Benjamin Franklin stated in the epitaph that he composed for himself, death is the way in which we are “corrected and amended”: “The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, (Like the cover of an old book, Its contents worn out, And stript of its lettering and gilding) Lies here; food for worms! Yet the work itself will not be lost, For it will, as he believed, appear once more In a new And more beautiful edition, Corrected and amended By it’s Author!”

Remarkable words indeed for a man who called himself a Deist and who professed to not believe in miracles! Metropolitan Kallistos concludes with these words:

There is, then, a dialectic in our attitude toward death, but the two ways of approach are not in the final analysis contradictory. We see death as unnatural, abnormal, as contrary to the original plan of the Creator, and so we recoil from it with grief and despair. But we see it also as part of the divine will, as a blessing, not a punishment…We look beyond the separation of body and soul at death to their future reintegration at the final resurrection.

Now that we know that, in the Metropolitan’s words, “…we are to view our coming death with contrasting feelings—with sober realism on the one side, and at the same time with awe and wonder…”, what should we DO about it? These words by St. Isaac the Syrian, quoted by the Metropolitan, are instructive:

Prepare your heart for your departure. If you are wise, you will expect it every hour. Each day say to yourself: “See, the messenger who comes to fetch me is already at the door. Why am I sitting idle? I must depart for ever. I cannot come back again.” Go to sleep with these thoughts every night, and reflect on them throughout the day. And when the time of departure comes, go joyfully to meet it, saying, “Come in peace. I knew you would come, and I have not neglected anything that could help me in the journey.”

May God grant that we will all be ready for the time of our departure.

Jesus Has Wings!

When, O Christ our God, thou wast transfigured on the mountain, thou didst reveal thy glory to thy Disciples in proportion as they could bear it. Let thine everlasting light also enlighten us sinners, through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O thou Bestower of light, glory to thee.

-- Troparion of the Transfiguration

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in our household, we place the icon of the current Church feast or season in a prominent place on our kitchen wall. Recently, I placed the icon of the Transfiguration in the "featured icon" spot. When my youngest daughter Christine saw it, she said with great excitement, "Look! Jesus has wings!" I had no idea what she was talking about and said so. She said, "Look at the icon! Jesus has wings!" I looked at the icon and noticed that she was referring to the orangish part of the mandorla around Jesus. Sure enough, it does look like Jesus has wings.

This story isn't particularly profound, but it is pretty cute (as is Christine), so I thought I would share it. May the Lord grant you a wonderful feast of the Transfiguration.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tropical Storm Update

Here is the satellite view of the storm at 7 AM today, right as it was making landfall. Graphic is from the fine website of The Weather Channel .

I did want to update you on Tropical Storm Edouard. The storm made landfall near High Island, Texas, which is somewhat (10-15 miles or so) east of Galveston. It seems to have weakened quite a bit. We have received a fair amount of wind and rain, but nothing all that bad. I am thankful for the day off of work and for the free watering of my yard. Thank you for your prayers, and please do keep praying.

Now, if you haven't already, scroll down to see part four of my discussion of the Orthodox view of death.

The Orthodox View of Death (Part Four)

Hymns of Paradise, a beautiful CD containing the complete Orthodox funeral service, chanted in Byzantine style by Fr. Apostolos Hill, my all-time favorite chanter. The CD also includes a wonderful 24-page booklet discussing the funeral service and the Orthodox theology of death. This CD is a must-own, in my opinion. Click here to listen to some samples from the CD.

The Orthodox Funeral Service

After I had already written the first two articles in this series, but before posting any of them, I was called on to lead a funeral service. Normally, our head priest Fr. Matthew would do this, but he could not because he was out of town at a clergy conference. In the six years since my formal reception into Orthodoxy, I had never even ATTENDED an Orthodox funeral, let alone presided over one. Thankfully, I was quite familiar with the music of the funeral service, due to my having purchased Fr. Apostolos Hill’s beautiful CD Hymns of Paradise several years ago and having listened to it several dozen times.

I was also helped by the fact that I had a very good chanter helping me with the chanting, as well as a good altar server to help with the censer (He was invaluable at the graveside service, when the high winds almost knocked over the censer stand several times). Not least of all, the Antiochian Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, 1993 edition (affectionately known by us Antiochians simply as “The Red Book”), makes doing a funeral service very easy.

I did notice that some of the hymns in the Red Book were different from their equivalents on Fr. Apostolos’ CD, differences explained by the fact that he serves in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. Still, I was gripped by how all the hymns, be they Greek or Antiochian, confirm the view of death that I have been reading and writing about lately.

First of all, the hymns confirm that rather than being a natural part of life, death is a very UNNATURAL and terrifying experience. Consider the fourth funeral idolomeion (hymn) of St. John of Damascus (as found on Hymns of Paradise):

Terror truly beyond compare is by the mystery of death inspired; now the souls and the body part, disjoined by resistless might, and their concord is broken; and the bond of nature which made them live and grow as one, now by the command of God is rent in two. Wherefore we now implore Your aid; grant your servants now departed rest, where the just that are Yours abide, O Bestower of Life and Friend of man.

The horror of death is again laid before us in the eighth idolomeion (especially beautiful on Fr. Hill’s CD), as well as the propriety of weeping and mourning for the dead:

I weep and with tears I lament when with understanding I think on death, and see how in the graves there sleeps the beauty which once for us was fashioned in the Image of God, but now is shapeless, ignoble, and bare of all the graces. O how strange a thing; what is this mystery which concerns mankind? Why are we given over to decay? And why to death are we wed? Truly these things come to pass, as it is written, by the command of God, who to them now departed gives rest.

And yet, even as it does not pull any punches regarding the horrific and unnaturalness of death, the service also holds out hope for the departed. This hope is seen both in the Epistle (1 Thess. 4:13-17) and the Gospel (John 5:24-30) readings, as well as in several of the hymns.

The hope of those who have fallen asleep in Christ is grounded first and foremost in the Death and Resurrection of Christ himself, as we see in the Doxastikon (strangely absent from the Red Book) of St. John’s idolomeia:

The death which you have endured, O Lord, is become the harbinger of deathlessness; if You had not laid in Your tomb, the gates of Paradise would not have opened; wherefore to them now departed from us give rest, for You are the friend of mankind.

And, of course, Christ’s death and resurrection made the way possible for our ultimate resurrection and our final victory over death, as we see in the second idolomeion:

Like a flower that wastes away and like a dream that passes and is gone, so is every mortal into dust resolved; but again, when the trumpet sounds its call as though at a quaking of the earth, all the dead shall arise and go forth to meet you, O Christ our God; on that day, O Lord, for them whom You have taken from us appoint a place in the dwelling of Your saints—yes for the spirits of Your servants, O Christ.

I did not know the man whose funeral I presided over, although I wish I had. What kind of man was he? I’ll never know, except through the testimonies of others. From all that I have heard, he did love the Lord and His Church, even though he was rarely able to attend, due primarily to the fact that he could no longer drive. I pray that I will meet him one day in the place “where there is no pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting (Troparion of the Funeral Service).”

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tropical Storm Edouard

I'm interrupting my series on the Orthodox view of death to ask you to pray for my family and all other residents of the Gulf Coast. In case you haven't heard, there is a tropical storm (Edouard) headed almost directly for Houston. My wife and three youngest girls had already been planning to go visit her folks in Texarkana, TX for about ten days, so they are now going to leave early (around 3 PM today). Audrey and I will stay here to ride out the storm (I have to work, and she has work and school).

In case you are wondering, we live just to the left of the little bulge on the left of the blue blob (which is Galveston Bay and the Houston ship channel) on the map, just north of where the black line crosses.

Please pray for a minimal amount of damage to be caused by the storm, and that no lives will be lost. And if you would pray for Audrey and me, I would be grateful. We are prepared, but of course you never know what the storm will bring. I have lived in Houston for 19 of my 40 years, and I have seen many hurricanes and tropical storms come through. Often, the actual damage caused has little or nothing to do with the condition and location of the storm prior to landfall.

I've seen Category 5 hurricanes approach and then do nothing (at least to the Houston area; think Rita in 2005). On the other hand, I've seen storms that looked to be fairly wimpy do great amounts of damage (Tropical Storm Allison in 2001).

Please pray. May the Lord bless you all.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Orthodox View of Death (Part Three)

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Seminary, prolific author, podcaster, and one of the most popular Orthodox speakers today

Several years ago, I purchased a lecture series on cassette by Fr. Thomas Hopko entitled “Victorious Living in a Godless World.” The lecture series is still being sold by Orthodox Christian Cassettes, and I highly recommend it. Near the very beginning of the first lecture, Fr. Hopko speaks briefly about the Orthodox view of death. Here is a summary of what he said.

In his first parish in Warrenton, Ohio, Fr. Hopko did eleven funerals in his first nine months. After the third funeral, the director of the funeral home with which Fr. Hopko worked made an interesting observation. Here is Fr. Thomas' narration of the story.

The funeral director said to me…“You know, I’ve had all these Orthodox churches, every kind you want to think of, Greek, Serbian, Carpathian, Ukranian, Russian, and I’ve had all kinds of Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Ethical Culture, country preachers, and humanists—but no one ever says at the funeral sermon what you’ve been saying, Fr. Tom.

Later, another funeral director that Fr. Hopko worked with made the same observation, and the first one reiterated it. Finally, Fr. Thomas asked

“What am I doing that is so different?”

And he said, “Well, everyone comes when somebody dies and says, ‘There’s a time to live, a time to die;” they quote Ecclesiastes, and they say, “Anyway, their soul goes off to heaven, to a better place, and thank God they’re out of this yucky world, and so on, but you don’t say that. You say that death is an enemy that has to be destroyed, that God did not create death; he created us for life and not for death. He didn’t create the world to be a cosmic cemetery whilring through space, full of dead peoples’ bones. He created us good and he saved us and redeemed us for life, and death is bad, not good. It is not a liberation; it is the eschatos echthros, the last enemy to be destroyed by the power of God.”

Now there is a providence; no leaf falls from the tree, no bird from the air; God kills, God makes alive. God is the Lord of death as well as life. Everything is in God’s hands…but it is not the will of God that we should die.

And he said that he had been in the funeral business, inherited from his parents, and he had never heard any preacher say that.

Fr. Thomas concludes this part of his talk with these words:

There’s a big difference between Socrates’ dying and Jesus’ dying. Socrates drinks the hemlock…to free the soul from his body prison to go to the place of the gods, the better place. When Jesus dies, he screams, yells, sweats blood and begs God not to have to endure this. It’s a big difference.

FYI, Fr. Hopko covers some of the same material in his lecture series called "The Death of Jesus and Our Death in Him," which you can listen to on the Orthodox Christian Network website, or download it as four podcasts (it's part of the "Special Moments in Orthodoxy" series.

Tomorrow or Monday, we'll take a look at the Orthodox funeral service, and what it tells us about death.