Saturday, September 27, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For...

As a result of Hurricane Ike, we have not had power at St. Joseph’s the last two Sundays. Because we haven’t had air conditioning, we have not held Sunday School. This has caused me to get about three weeks ahead in my lesson preparation. So, I have decided to take a little break from preparing my Bible studies on St. John’s Gospel. I’ll probably start them again next week.

For now, I wanted to tell you a story about a pre-Ike hurricane that I rode out, this one many years ago. As I may have mentioned before, I grew up in Pasadena, Texas, which is just southeast of Houston. As a kid, I saw many hurricanes come and go. The worst one I remember was Hurricane Alicia in 1983. My parents decided to ride it out. Even though I was 15 at the time, I have almost no memories of the storm. There is one thing that I DO remember, however. It’s pretty funny, so I thought I would share it with you.

A few years after we moved to Pasadena, some new neighbors moved in to the house next door. Not long after moving in, they bought an aluminum tool shed and situated it up against the part of their fence that bordered our yard. My mother absolutely hated that tool shed, so much so that she made my father nail a bunch of bamboo to the fence. This way, the fence was about three feet taller, and the offending eyesore was no longer visible. Even though she couldn’t see it, Mom continued to complain about that tool shed, often saying, “I wish they would get rid of that stupid shed!”

Several years later, as we were hunkered down during Hurricane Alicia, we heard a great CRASH! The sound was one of the loudest I have ever heard; it was almost deafening. We had no idea what had happened, but we knew it couldn’t be good.

After the hurricane had passed, we looked out in our backyard and saw something amazing. It turns out that Alicia had picked up our neighbor’s tool shed, flipped it upside down, and dropped it right in our swimming pool (knocking over the fence, bamboo and all, in the process). My father, brother, and brother-in-law spent a whole day out in the pool with hacksaws, cutting the shed to pieces so that they could remove it from the pool.

So, my Mom finally got her wish. The tool shed was finally gone, even if it was not in the way my mother would have chosen. At least it didn’t come crashing through our roof or through a window.

New Podcast

There is a new podcast of my latest sermon, preached last Sunday, on the Orthodox Houston podcast page. It is a very basic sermon. Nothing special, but I pray that it might be helpful to you.

On a related note, it looks as if the podcasts of my Bible study series on St. John's gospel may not find a home on the Orthodox Houston site after all, as I had originally hoped. I am going to try and find another way to make them available to you.

May God bless you all.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Noah's Ark (well, sort of...)

This gentleman is named Johan Huibers. He is a Dutch Christian who believes in a literal Creation, and as a testament to his faith in the literal truth of the Bible, he has done an amazing thing: he has built a life-sized model of Noah's Ark, based on the dimensions given in the book of Genesis. (Thanks to my friend Sophocles from Las Vegas for sending me this info via email--after you read this, why not check out his blog "a...sinner," which always has a great deal of interesting reading.)

The massive central door in the side of Noah's Ark was thrown open Saturday for the first crowd of curious Pilgrims and townsfolk to behold the wonder.

The ark is 150 cubits long, 30 cubits high and 20 cubits wide. That's two-thirds the length of a football field and as high as a three-story house.

Life-size models of giraffes, elephants, lions, crocodiles, zebras, bison and other animals greet visitors as they arrive in the main hold.

A contractor by trade, Huibers built the ark of cedar and pine -Biblical Scholars debate exactly what the wood used by Noah would have been.

Huibers did the work mostly with his own hands, using modern tools and with occasional help from his son Roy. Construction began in May 2005.
[Fr. James' note: Talk about a labor of love! Amazing!]

On the uncovered top deck - not quite ready in time for the opening - will come a petting zoo,with baby lambs and chickens, and goats, and one camel.

Visitors on the first day were stunned.

"It's past comprehension, " said Mary Louise Starosciak,who happened to be bicycling by with her husband while on vacationwhen they saw The ark looming over the local landscape.

"I knew the story of Noah, but I had no idea the boat would have been so big."

There is enough space near the keel for a 50-seat film theaterwhere kids can watch a video that tells the story of Noah and his ark.

Huibers said he hopes the project will renew interest in Christianity in the Netherlands, where church going has fallen dramatically in the past 50 years.

I sincerely hope it does too. How cool is that? If I ever find myself in the Netherlands, I'm going!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #10

Highlights from the "Quick Takes" section of the September 20/27 issue of WORLD magazine.

Air assault

Dumfries, Scotland, is going to the birds—and finally the town is prepared to do something about it. With seagulls' increasingly aggressive behavior leaving the city's residents on edge for the next bird attack, local authorities created a task force to destroy bird nests and drive the pests from Dumfries. According to The Scotsman, the birds are even "divebombing children," prompting harsh rhetoric from Scottish Environment Minister Michael Russell: "Seagulls are a menace to Scottish towns and cities," he told The Scotsman.

Does this remind anyone else of Hitchock's movie The Birds?

AARP vs. the aged?

Of all the places 63-year-old Bonita Brady figured she might face what she calls "age discrimination," AARP was perhaps the last place she expected it. Even so, the Lansing, Mich., resident filed a lawsuit in August against the advocacy group saying that despite excellent job reviews, she was passed over for a series of jobs with the nonprofit group because of her age. She is seeking more than $25,000 in damages.

Let me get this straight: She is too old to work for the AARP? What's wrong with this picture?

Giant chaser

Undeterred by the size of the intruder—and his menacing weapon—Elk Grove, Calif., convenience store owner Amy Anand wasn't about to let a masked gunman rifle through her till. Despite training her employees to simply open the cash register and hand over cash to robbers, Anand had another plan. When the suspect—6-foot-5, 215-pound James Benefield, according to police—briefly looked away, Anand shoved the barrel of his shotgun toward the ceiling from behind the counter. In his reaction, police say Benefield accidentally broke the gun on the counter. As the smaller Anand made her way around the corner to confront him, police say Benefield bludgeoned Anand before he was eventually chased away by the woman. Anand suffered bruises but lost no money in the exchange.

Maybe if more people would do this, these punks would find another way to make a living!

Ashes to diamonds

Most people treasure family members, but a Swiss company is perhaps helping people go a little too far. For about $7,500, Algordanza of Chur, Switzerland, will take the ashes of a dead relative and turn them into a synthetic diamond. The company's chairman, Veit Brimer, told the Reuters news service that, "astonishingly," many of his customers are Christians: "They say: 'Why should I say goodbye? I'll see my husband in 15 years in heaven anyway.'" The technology, which involves high pressure and temperatures on carbon, is reportedly improving, and other companies are getting into the business. U.S.-based LifeGem offers to turn hair, including that of dead pets, into diamonds.

This is just nasty (IMHO, anyway). Let's hope that none of these "Christians" are Orthodox Christians!

Pretend champ

With much flailing and novelty, Craig Billmeier of Pleasanton, Calif., has found a degree of international fame not in his original career as a musician, but in his more recent hobby as a virtual musician. In two rounds at the Air Guitar World Championships, the two-time American champion Billmeier toasted the competition with two near perfect performances of imaginary guitar playing, landing him with the title of world-champion air guitar player. Competitors at the annual championship held in Finland on Aug. 22 score highly with judges for the ability to accurately simulate guitar-playing motions to match the accompanying guitar solos, the stage presence of the sans-guitar performer, and the artfulness of the performance as a whole. In a 2007 interview with a San Francisco blog,, Billmeier, who is known as "Hot Lixx Hulahan" on stage, gave advice for a future generation of faux-rockers: "Go Big. Ditch the shame. Grow your hair out."

Wow, now THAT is sage advice! Words to live by, to be sure. Much wiser than something like, say, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself!"

Monday, September 22, 2008

The World Hates You (John 15:18-27)

Icon of Christ the Teacher

18 “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

20 “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they have kept My word, they will keep yours also.

In verse 18, Jesus gives his first prophecy (at least at the Mystical Supper) that the disciples will be hated and persecuted. As Fr. Farley writes, “[The disciples’] love for one another and their fruit-bearing in the world do not mean…that the world will love them…The world’s hatred for them is inevitable, for it is but another manifestation of the world’s prior hatred for Christ” (274).

As Christ’s disciples today, when we tell others about our faith, or even when we simply try to live it out in an unbelieving world, we should not expect the world to applaud. We should be prepared to be laughed at, ridiculed, called names, and in some places, even actively persecuted.

Verse 19 shows us that if we were from the world, the world would love us. Could that mean that if everyone loves us, then we are not being obedient to Christ’s commandments?

Earlier when Jesus said “A servant is not greater than his master” (13:16), he was referring to the disciples’ need to follow his example in being a servant to others. Now in verse 20, he applies the saying in a different way. They, as the servants, should not expected to be treated any better than their master was. In Fr. Farley’s words, “The disrespect one intends for the enemy is given to his emissary too…Whatever the world’s attitude was to Jesus, that same attitude will be directed at His Church” (275).

Note on the use of the term “world” (Gk. kosmos): in these passages, the term “world” does not denote the physical world, nor all the people in the world, but the part of the world that is in active opposition to God.

In spite of Jesus’ tragic prophecy here, he also gives them hope; for those who keep his word will also keep the disciples’ word (i.e., their teachings and commandments). In other words, not everyone will reject the disciples and their message.

21 But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent me. 22 “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 He who hates Me hates My Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father. 25 But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.’

On first thought, it would seem that Israel would have gladly received Christ. After all they had been taught to love God and to seek his righteousness. They had also been taught to wait for the Messiah and to follow him when he comes. Now, one had come who had done all the things that the Messiah was supposed to, and yet most of Israel rejected Him. Again, Fr. Farley has a great comment on this apparent paradox:

“…Their hostility sprang from a fundamental ignorance of God and what He really wanted from men. Israel, through its unofficial teachers the Pharisees, came to a place where they did not understand their own Law. They had a distorted view of it and were convinced that the Law was an end in itself, that God was more concerned with the minutiae of complicated regulations than He was with the love of the human heart. Their whole sense of perspective had been skewed, and in their pride they refused to consider that they could be wrong. Thus, they regarded Jesus’ teaching as a grievous apostasy from the Law and Jesus Himself as a dangerous deceiver, whose influence they had to stamp out at all costs” (276).

In other words, they persecuted Jesus and would persecute his followers because they did not really know God. And of course, those who do not know God are still persecuting those who seek to faithfully follow Jesus.

Note Jesus’ words in verse 22, “they would have no sin.” Of course, Jesus does not mean this in an absolute sense, for there is no one without sin. What the Lord means is that they would not have the sin of rejecting him and his teaching.

In regard to Jesus’ words in verse 24, “they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father,” listen to what Fr. Farley says: “There is an air of finality to this: Israel has had its chance. They have seen the evidence and given their verdict. In their hatred and rejection of Jesus, they have thereby also seen and hated His Father as well. The nation that was created expressly to receive this divine Word had rejected its God” (276, emphasis added).

“They hated me without a cause” (verse 25): This is from Psalm 68/69, a beautiful Messianic Psalm which I recommend that you read, if you haven’t lately.

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

Here in verse 26, we see Jesus’ third announcement of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

It must be mentioned that Jesus clearly says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father only, not the Father and the son (filioque in Latin). Regarding this, Fr. Farley writes:

“The point of saying here that the Spirit proceeds from the Father is that He is the Spirit of the Father, the true manifestation of the Father’s power and work on earth. This is not to deny that the Spirit is a distinct hypostasis (or Person)…the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. It is simply to assert that Christ’s concern here is not to define the inner workings of the Godhead, but rather to underscore the authority of the Spirit’s witness. Because the spirit proceeds from the Father, the Spirit’s witness to Christ is that of the Father as well” (277).

That being said, however, the fact still remains that saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father AND the Son is not scriptural. As Jesus clearly stated, the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Period.

Finally, in verse 27, Jesus affirms that just as the Spirit will witness to him, so will the disciples themselves. In fact, they will work together (synergia), the Spirit providing the courage and the words, while the disciples would do the legwork. The Spirit would also support the propagation of the Gospel through signs and wonders.

Application: Have you ever endured ridicule or scorn (or perhaps more serious persecution) for your faith in Christ? Did you remain firm and loyal to Christ in these situations? Ask God for the strength and courage to be a witness for him in both word and in deed, no matter what difficulties you may face from those who do not love God.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Friends of Christ (John 15:11-17)

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down one's life for his friends."

“11 These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. 12 This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.

16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give you. 17 These things I command you that you love one another.”

Now Jesus gives the disciples another reason why he is giving them this long discourse, namely, that their joy may be full. “Joy” is a concept (like many biblical ideas) that is much misunderstood by the world at large. Most people think that joy is an emotion, a feeling of happiness or even giddiness. But that’s not what true joy is. Joy can certainly include feelings of happiness, but we can be joyful even when we don’t feel happy.

True joy, according to the Scriptures, is an inner satisfaction. It is contentedness. It is knowing that we are loved by God and that God has made a way for us to avoid spiritual death and Hell, instead spending eternity with him. As Fr. Farley writes, “Joy does not depend on outward circumstances, but on keeping one’s focus on Jesus.” He also states that “The world may rage against [us], but it cannot conquer or take away [our] joy. To remain in Christ is to remain in joy…The Lord’s own joy that comes from his union with the Father, that same joy will be in the disciples and be made full” (273).

But having this joy depends on keeping Christ’s commandments. If we will not keep Jesus’ commandments, we will not have true joy. And, as St. John writes in his first epistle, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Rather, they bring us freedom. The joy of the Lord comes through our union with him, and as we have already seen, this union comes at least partially through keeping Christ’s commandments.

In verse 12, Jesus repeats the commandment that he had given previously “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Remember that this commandment is an upgrade over the second of the two great commandments that Jesus had quoted earlier, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In verse 13, we see the greatest illustration of just HOW Jesus loves the disciples (and us): by laying down his life. We must love others with the same self-denying, sacrificial love that Jesus loves us with, including laying down our lives (both figuratively and even literally, if called to do so). St. Paul further comments on Christ’s love for us in the Epistle to the Romans: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).

Jesus tells us of another benefit of following his commandments in verses 14-15: being his friends. As he told the disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves…but you I have called friends.” He had revealed, or would soon reveal, “all things that I have heard from my father.” As Fr. Farley states, “The slave simply follows orders, happily oblivious to the big picture. The slave does not know; the intimate friend does know…[Jesus] has treated them like colleagues; He has held nothing back, kept no teaching secret…But though He loves them as friends, He is still their Lord, and His orders are to be obeyed” (273).

What a blessing that even though we are Christ’s royal subjects and his disciples, he also views us as his friends!

Verse 16 has been misinterpreted by many Christians, especially over the last 500 years. In the Israel of Jesus’ day, “most people who wanted to be specially taught chose their own rabbis and teachers, and attached themselves to whomever they wished” (Farley, 273). But not so with Jesus’ disciples. As we see in the early chapters of each of the Gospels, Jesus specifically chose his disciples.

In applying this saying of Jesus to modern times, many Calvinists use it to buttress their belief that all Christians are specifically chosen by God for salvation (while others are not so chosen!). I have never felt that this application of verse 16 can be maintained. We must keep in mind that Jesus is speaking specifically to the twelve disciples, and not to us. Certainly, much (if not most) of what he says to the disciples applies to us by extension. But this verse is an exception. The overall teaching of the Scriptures is that God chooses (or “predestines”) us for salvation based upon his foreknowledge of our response to his grace—not on any other factor.

The part of verse 16 that undoubtedly applies to us is the purpose of our being chosen: “that you should go and bear fruit, and your fruit should remain.” As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, God expects all of us to bear fruit, and not just once or twice. Our fruit should not be short-lived; rather, it should remain.

On asking something in Jesus’ name, let me once again quote Fr. Stephen Freeman’s words:

“In some American circles, Christ’s promises such as, ‘If you ask anything in my name it will be given you,’ are extremely popular. This is a dangerous promise to put in the hands of a consumer-driven culture. The understanding of the statement will almost invariably be focused on the result (‘If I do this, then I get this’) and the ‘in my name’ will likely be misunderstood as the operating principle (like a magic formula). Of course, “in my name’ is not a magic formula but an invitation to communion. To be ‘in the name of Jesus’ is to be ‘in Jesus’ Himself” (emphasis added). (Glory to God in All Things blog, August 11, 2008).

Finally, in verse 17, Jesus again repeats his commandment to love one another. This is now three times that he has said this. This threefold giving of the commandment stresses its importance.

Application: Do you have the joy of the Lord within you? Is it obvious to all? Orthodox Christians should be known as people who love each other (and the world), but also as people of joy. When people see your face, do they see a smile (or at least a pleasant expression) or do they see a frown? Reflect upon Christ’s love for you and all the blessings that he has given you. Ask him for help in being joyful, despite your circumstances, and in radiating that joy to others, all of whom could use some joy in their lives. Be a blessing to others.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Vine and the Branches, Part Two (John 15:6-10)

6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. 8 By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.

9 “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.

In my last post, I asked you the question: "What does it mean to bear fruit?"

Fr. Farley answers this question well: “What is that fruit bearing? A life filled with love, the sign to the world that they are indeed His disciples (13:35). It was prophesied that Israel would blossom and fill the world with fruit (Is. 27:16). This will be fulfilled by Christ’s disciples, the true Israel. The fruits of love—compassion, service, all the social works with which the Church has softened and enriched the world—this is the fruit which glorifies the the Father. It is this to which the disciples are called” (271).

In a well-known and loved passage in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul lists the fruits of the spirit: “Love, joy, peace, longsuffering (i.e. patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (5:22-23). Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but it does cover pretty much all the bases.

This type of fruit-bearing is mainly internal. But when present, it leads to another type of fruit-bearing: bringing others to Christ. Jesus said to the first disciples “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” So if we are truly following him, we should also be fishers of men. In other words, our Lord wants us not only to exhibit Christ-like character, but to help bring others to a saving faith in Christ. While these two types of fruit bearing may seem unrelated, they are actually connected. The relationship between them is seen in Jesus statement, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 6:16) and also in St. Seraphim of Sarov’s statement “Acquire the Holy Spirit (or “inner peace”), and thousands around you will be saved.”

In verse 6, we see what happens to Christians that do not remain in Christ. Just like the branches of our bouganvilla that we had to throw away, Christians who do not bear fruit (because they are not abiding in Christ) will be gathered and thrown into the fire, where they will be burned. This is a scary image indeed, and it may make some think that God is cruel. However, keep in mind that unlike branches of plants, humans have a will of their own. If people do not bear fruit, it is because they have chosen not to. God does not hold us accountable for something that we are not able to achieve.

Whether or not we bear fruit is not a question of our own ability, but of our perseverance. As Jesus says in verse 10, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love.” In other words, Jesus is our example. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Fortunately for us, when we sin, the sacrament of repentance brings us back into life-giving union with Christ.

Let us now briefly look at two other things Jesus said in this passage. First, in verse 7, Jesus says “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it shall be done for you.” This can (and has) been misconstrued by some to say that God is obligated to do our bidding if we just try to follow him. But remember the conditions: “IF you abide in Me, AND My WORDS abide in you…” If we truly abide in him long enough, and if we allow his words to abide in us, then our will ultimately will conform to his, and what we want will be the same as what he wants.

Note in verse 8 how Jesus says that our bearing fruit gives glory to the Father.

In verse 10, Jesus seems to make his love conditional, saying “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” If this verse were the only biblical teaching about this, we might just come to the conclusion that Jesus only loves us if we keep his commandments. But this teaching (like all scriptural teachings) must be interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture. The rest of Scripture clearly teaches again and again that God loves us unconditionally. The Orthodox Study Bible’s commentary on this verse resolves the problem: “The fact is, god does love us unconditionally, no matter what our response. But His unconditional love does us no good unless we keep his commandments and abide in His love” (254).

In other words, the verse doesn’t say “If you keep my commandments, then I will love you.” It says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” That is, my love will remain with you; you will experience it to the fullest. If we do not love Christ with a true love that issues forth in action, we will not experience his love for us.

Application: If we are not bearing the two types of fruit that I mentioned earlier, then we need to examine whether or not we are really abiding in Christ. Chances are, we have a “bad connection.” Something in our lives is interfering with our abiding, and we need to deal with it, and get rid of it, so that the fruits of God will be evident in our lives. Examine your own life. In your basic mindset, are you joyful? Do you have inner peace? Do you show love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control in your behavior toward others? Are you helping others to find their way to Christ and to his Church? If not, spend some time in prayer and meditation, asking God to show you what is wrong with your spiritual life, and what you need to do to fix it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Vine and the Branches, Part One (John 15:1-5)

1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

Jesus begins today’s passage by comparing himself to a vine (a true one) and the disciples to branches of that vine. The image of God’s people as a vine that God tended appears more than once in the Old Testament. Consider the following passages:

1 Now let me sing to my Well-beloved / A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: / My Well-beloved has a vineyard / On a very fruitful hill.
2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, / And planted it with the choicest vine. / He built a tower in its midst, / And also made a winepress in it; / So He expected it to bring forth good grapes, / But it brought forth wild grapes.
3 “ And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, / Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
4 What more could have been done to My vineyard / That I have not done in it? / Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, / Did it bring forth wild grapes?
5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: / I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; / And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will lay it waste; / It shall not be pruned or dug, / But there shall come up briers and thorns. / I will also command the clouds / That they rain no rain on it.”
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, / And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. / He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; / For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help. (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a seed of highest quality. / How then have you turned before Me / Into the degenerate plant of an alien vine? (Jer. 2:21)

Israel empties his vine; / He brings forth fruit for himself. / According to the multitude of his fruit / He has increased the altars; / According to the bounty of his land / They have embellished his sacred pillars. / Their heart is divided; / Now they are held guilty. / He will break down their altars; / He will ruin their sacred pillars. (Hosea 10:1-2)

In each of these passages, Israel was the vine, but this vine proved to be worthless. Whereas Israel turned out to be a false vine, Jesus now describes himself as the true vine. As Fr. Farley writes, “As God tended Israel of old, so the Father now tends Jesus’ disciples, the branches of the true vine” (271).

In verse 2, Jesus says that if a branch (that is, a disciple) does not bear fruit, he will take it away. But every branch that does bear fruit, God prunes, so that it may bear even more fruit (just as an earthly vinedresser would do). Sometimes, even fruitful Christians get bogged down in life, and their fruit begins to dry up (or perhaps some sin or bad habit prevents them from being as fruitful as they could be. So God may “prune” that person by allowing (or even sending) affliction into their lives.

In 2 Cor. 1:3-11, St. Paul (who was very fruitful and yet knew his share of afflictions) spoke of one purpose for which God allows afflictions into a Christian’s life: so that they can better comfort other who go through the same thing. Listen to what the Orthodox Study Bible’s note on this passage says:

“The source of afflictions is the sin of humanity. The purpose of afflictions, if we use them properly, may be our comfort and salvation, as the Father himself preserves us through them (v. 3). The means of facing our afflictions is a hope in God which allows us to enter into the afflictions of others in actual, experiential knowledge. In this case, this means empathizing with their apostle’s trials” (406).

In verse 3, Jesus tells the disciples that they have already been pruned, or cleansed, by accepting his teaching and becoming his disciples. They are now ready to bear fruit for him. Of course, they would all see much more “pruning” later. The pruning is a continual process that goes on throughout our lives, the purpose of which is to make us ever more fruitful.

As we see in verse 4, however, in order to have even a chance of being fruitful, Jesus’ disciples must abide (or “remain”) in him. During the last storm that we had before Hurricane Ike, the strong winds blew over the giant bouganvilla plant that covered one side of our house next to our patio. Jennifer spent quite some time trimming it down, cutting off the branches that fell over and broke. She and I made a huge pile of these branches in a corner of our yard. Over time, the flowers on these branches died, the branches themselves withered, and they all turned an ugly brown color (although the thorns are still doing well, thank you very much!). But obviously, these branches, after being cut down, could no longer bear fruit (flowers in this case). They were good for nothing but to be thrown out.

In the same way, we, as Christians, must maintain our inner spiritual union with Christ by loving and obeying him, even in the face of hardship. If we do not do this, then we cannot hope to bear any type of spiritual fruit, and we are of no use to God. As Jesus says in verse 5, without him, we can do nothing, at least nothing of lasting spiritual value.

Food for Thought: How do we maintain that spiritual union with Jesus? Stated another way, what does it mean to “abide in him?”

More Food for Thought: What does it mean to "bear fruit?" Post your answers to these questions (if you would like) as a comment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Saints Sophia, Faith, Hope and Love

Like nearly all converts to Orthodoxy, when Jennifer and I were preparing to be received into the Church, we gave serious thought to whom to adopt as our patron saints (or, more accurately, which saints to ask to adopt us). I chose St. James the adelphotheos (brother of God), for reasons that go beyond our shared names (click here if you are interested in reading about why). Jennifer had all but decided on saints for her and our three (at the time) daughters. Our pastor Fr. Matthew, however, had a different idea. He suggested Saints Sophia, Faith, Hope, and Love, who were second century Christian martyrs. Sophia was the mother, and the other three were her daughters.

As Fr. Matthew explained, this made perfect sense, since Jennifer and I had three daughters. So, we readily agreeed. Choosing these saints as the girls' patrons had the additional benefit of being very economical: instead of buying four icons, we only had to buy one for all three girls and Jennifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story of Ss. Sophia and her three daughters, here it is (from the website of the Orthodox Church in America).

Holy Martyrs Saint Sophia and her Daughters Faith, Hope and Love were born in Italy. Their mother was a pious Christian widow who named her daughters for the three Christian virtues. Faith was twelve, Hope was ten, and Love was nine. St Sophia raised them in the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. St Sophia and her daughters did not hide their faith in Christ, but openly confessed it before everyone.

An official named Antiochus denounced them to the emperor Hadrian (117-138), who ordered that they be brought to Rome. Realizing that they would be taken before the emperor, the holy virgins prayed fervently to the Lord Jesus Christ, asking that He give them the strength not to fear torture and death. When the holy virgins and their mother came before the emperor, everyone present was amazed at their composure. They looked as though they had been brought to some happy festival, rather than to torture. Summoning each of the sisters in turn, Hadrian urged them to offer sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. The young girls remained unyielding.

Then the emperor ordered them to be tortured. They burned the holy virgins over an iron grating, then threw them into a red-hot oven, and finally into a cauldron with boiling tar, but the Lord preserved them.

The youngest child, Love, was tied to a wheel and they beat her with rods until her body was covered all over with bloody welts. After undergoing unspeakable torments, the holy virgins glorified their Heavenly Bridegroom and remained steadfast in the Faith.

They subjected St Sophia to another grievous torture: the mother was forced to watch the suffering of her daughters. She displayed adamant courage, and urged her daughters to endure their torments for the sake of the Heavenly Bridegroom. All three maidens were beheaded, and joyfully bent their necks beneath the sword.

In order to intensify St Sophia's inner suffering, the emperor permitted her to take the bodies of her daughters. She placed their remains in coffins and loaded them on a wagon. She drove beyond the city limits and reverently buried them on a high hill. St Sophia sat there by the graves of her daughters for three days, and finally she gave up her soul to the Lord. Even though she did not suffer for Christ in the flesh, she was not deprived of a martyr's crown. Instead, she suffered in her heart. Believers buried her body there beside her daughters.

The relics of the holy martyrs have rested at El'zasa, in the church of Esho since the year 777.

May Christ our God, through the prayers of Ss. Sophia, Faith, Hope, and Love, have mercy upon us and save us.

The Aftermath of Ike

Greetings all! This will be my last post on Hurricane Ike. My wife thinks I am crazy to keep making these posts about the hurricane. She says no one could possibly be interested in this. I disagree. But just in case, I'm wrapping it up. I'll return to posting theological stuff soon. But for now, I thought I'd update you on what we have been doing since the storm.


The storm made landfall at about 2 AM. The eye passed just east of us a couple of hours late and kept moving north. We were all up and about by 7 AM or so to survey the damage. As I mentioned before, our power was out. The rest of the day, we put the house back together and sat around and read. The kids discovered something that Jennifer and I had known as kids: non-electronic play. By this, I mean things like blocks, toys, and a deck of cards; things that are not plugged in. (I'm exaggerating; they often do things other than play on the computer or watch movies. But now, they had no choice but to do only that!). In the late afternoon, we went out and picked up shingles and other debris. I also raked the yard.

Of course, every grocery store and gas station in the area was closed. Since we had stocked up on food and filled our tanks, this was not a problem. The house got awfully warm, maxing out at about 85 degrees with 100 percent humidity and almost no breeze. But it could have been much worse! We used only bottled water and the pre-Ike tap water that we had stored, because the city suggested that the tap water might be contaminated.

Needless to say, we went to bed very early!


In the morning, Jennifer and the kids stayed home and I drove to St. Joseph's. I took the Sam Houston Tollway, and it was totally clear. Unfortunately, I forgot to take my church keys, because I had taken Jennifer's van and her keys. When I arrived at about 9:00, there were about 6-7 people waiting in their cars, but no Fr. Matthew. He finally arrived at 9:20. He had been trying for nearly 3 hours to get there (normally it takes him 20 minutes), but kept running into impasses caused by high water. He and the parishioners who were there did a little cleanup while I did the proskomedia. We served the Divine Liturgy on schedule, and by the time it was done, we had nearly 40 people (not bad for such a day!). Since the church had no power, we opened all the doors; still, Fr. Matthew and I were both dripping in sweat by the time it was over.

That afternoon, a handful of stores, restaurants, and gas stations began to open. The few open gas stations had lines of cars that in some cases were blocks long. And, as I mentioned earlier, our electricity came back on at about 6 PM. Our neighborhood was blessed to be among the first in town to regain its power.


More stores, gas stations, and restaurants were open. Our friendly neighborhood grocery story (HEB) had a very long line stretching back from the one door that was open. The main entrance was closed, because it was right below a big sign/facade that was decimated by the winds.

It was interesting to see so many people out and about. We spoke to many of our neighbors. We had not even known the first names of some of them, despite our having lived here for six years. As I drove around, I noticed an unusually large number of people out and about. Crowds of teenagers roamed around, up to nothing in particular. I stopped at our friendly neighborhood Chinese place and picked up dinner. We ate very well that night -- the first time we did not eat something out of a can in days!

In a quest to get things looking normal again, I propped up the parts of the fence that had fallen and mowed the yard.


Still more stores and restaurants open. Jennifer and I drove to a Super Target in Pasadena and were able to get quite a few groceries. The only thing we weren't able to get there was milk--but thankfully, we found some at another store on the way home. We also bought a new modem, and this resulted in us having internet again -- hooray!

Jennifer has been able to get a good deal of schoolwork, and I have had plenty of time to read.

Regarding work, the school district where I work is going to be closed all week, and possibly some next week. Only about half of the campuses even have power, and many (including Audrey's school) are heavily damaged. So, I am enjoying the chance to get extra rest, spend time with the family, and read and pray more. I'm thankful that I am being paid. I feel for those who are not able to go to work and who are not getting paid. I also hurt for those who still don't have power (still about 50% of the Houston area), those whose homes are heavily damaged, and especially those who can't even get to their home.
Please keep praying for those in this area who are suffering. Thank you for your prayers for us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ike Update #7

The now "famous" view of our street, the morning after Ike hit. It could have been much, much, worse.

When you live on the Gulf Coast and you know a hurricane is approaching, the first decision you have to make is "Do I stay or do I go?" The last time we had a hurricane heading directly for us was August of 2005, when Hurricane Rita was approaching. Rita was a Category 4 hurricane that some forecasters believed would become a Category 5 (the strongest hurricane rating) before making landfall. My employer very generously gave us several days off before the projected landfall date. Jennifer and I and the kids got out as soon as we could. Leaving a full day before the majority of people in the Houston/Galveston area, we headed for Texarkana, where Jennifer's folks live, taking only an extra couple of hours than usual to get there.

The next day, seemingly 90% of the rest of the residents of the greater Houston area decided to leave. Virtually nobody got anywhere. The city was totally unprepared for such a mass exodus. Every outbound freeway was a parking lot. Most people took 12 hours to travel only 20 or 30 miles. The situation was exacerbated by the great heat and the fact that many people ran out of gas or had to stop to go to the bathroom on the side of the road. Most people ended up turning around and going back home. In the end, as you know, the hurricane turned north at the last minute and hit east Texas instead.

This disaster (which thankfully we were spared) was still on our minds when we made our decision. Moreover, Ike was forecast to be a Category 2 storm (nothing to sneeze at, but nevertheless nothing like a Category 3, 4, or 5) at landfall. Our home (as I mentioned) was not in a mandatory evacuation zone, and the city recommended that people in all such areas stay home. With all that in mind, we decided to stock up on supplies, hunker down, and ride it out.

As you may remember from my last update, we had still not had any rain by 6 PM. The winds, however, had increased to about 30 mph by that time, with gusts of up to about 40 mph. And they continued to increase as the evening progressed. By 10 PM, we decided to hit the sack. We decided that all of us should sleep away from windows, since we had not boarded them up. We tried fitting all six of us in our tiny hall (about 3' by 6'), but it was too crowded, so Audrey and I slept in the living room, with a couple of chairs and a couch (and a window blind) to catch any glass that might break and fly toward us.

All of us except Jennifer fell asleep pretty quickly but were awakened when the power went out at about 12:30 AM. After that, getting back to sleep was pretty much impossible, since the now hurricane-force winds were causing the house to creak, rattle, and groan. We also kept hearing thunder, wind, rain, and an occasional cracking sound. I finally fell back asleep, woke up again, and fell asleep once again. Poor Jennifer was up almost all night. She kept listening to the news on our battery operated radio and gave us continual updates on the location of the eye of the storm. (Turns out it passed just to the east of us).

When we woke up the next morning, the winds had died down a great deal and the rains had ceased. Our power was still out, as was our wireless internet connection and our cell phone service. Incredibly, our land line still worked, at least until it went out at about noon. I went outside to survey the damage and was very pleasantly suprised. The four most important things I discovered (all positive) were:

1. None of us were hurt.
2. Although we lost a few shingles, the roof was still intact, with no leaks.
3. No windows were broken, and no water leaked through them.
4. None of our trees were seriously damaged, although our biggest one got a serious "haircut."

We did have about 25% of our back fence knocked down. No big deal, since our insurance will cover this (I think).

Here are some pictures of what we found.

Our main tree. Before the storm, it was full of leaves and had quite a few more branches. But it still stood strong.

Here's one of the branches that got "pruned."

Here's part of our back fence that was knocked over.

Part of our side fence.

This tree, belonging to one of our neighbors, did not fare so well. It is going to have to be removed, in all likelihood.

In summary, we feel very, very blessed. I'm sure that most, if not all, of you have seen pictures from Galveston and other coastal cities around here, that have been more or less leveled. The few people in Galveston who are left have been ordered to leave, and no one will be allowed to resettle for several more weeks. Galveston and the cities near it on the coast have no power, no running water, no phone service...pretty much "no nothing" (as we say here in Texas). Many people's homes and businesses there no longer even exist.

We, on the other hand, regained our electricity after only about 36 hours. We never lost running water. Our phone service was only out for about 24 hours, and our internet came back today (3 1/2 days after landfall).

We are greatly blessed and are thankful to God that we were spared. At the same time, our hearts are hurting for those in Galveston and other cities whose lives have been permanently changed. Most of Houston got off fairly easily like we did, but there is at least one family in our parish who had a whole tree trunk driven through their home like a missile. They will be working to restore their home for many weeks if not months.

Again, your prayers are requested, both for those who are suffering here, and for those who are working to ease the suffering. May God grant them mercy and peace in spite of their hardship.

Back in the Saddle

Hi, everyone! We were finally able to get out today and to buy a new modem, so I just wanted to make a quick post to let everyone know we are doing fine. Thankfully, our power came back on at about 6 PM on Sunday, only about 36 hours after it went out. We also have full phone service, and we were even able to buy quite a few groceries today! I don't have time to write anymore, but I'll write a fuller post today and let you know about our little adventure :-).

Special thanks go to Clint for the guest post. Please keep praying for all those (and there are millions) who are suffering in this area.

Fr. James

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ike Update #6

Hi everyone! This is Clint Hale (I often post on Fr. James' blog and am a catechumen at St. Joseph). My family came to San Antonio late last week, so avoided Hurricane Ike. I have been in contact with Fr. James and he asked that I pass along some news.

First, Fr. James and his family are all doing well. They made it through the storm with no major issues. Their home suffered little damage. There were few shingles that decided to make a break for it and part of their fence is taking a nap, but overall things are OK.

However, they are still without power, so have no access to the internet, etc. Their phone is also out, except for cell coverage, which can be spotty at best. Also, since there is no power, there is no way to recharge the batteries on cell phones, so they are being sparing in calling.

So please continue to pray that things can be returned to normal as soon as possible for Fr. James, his family and everyone affected by Hurricane Ike. I am sure that Fr. James will make a post here, just as soon as he is able to do so.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ike Update #5

Our street at 5:45 PM

It is now just after 6 PM, and Ike is about 90 miles SW of Galveston. Winds here in SE Houston have picked up quite a bit, blowing at perhaps 30 mph with gusts up to 40 or so. Amazingly, we still have had almost no rain. The clouds are getting increasingly darker. It is estimated that our area will experience winds of up to 70 MPH.

Our main concern is the possibility of getting water in the house. I personally don't think we will get any, but Jennifer is not so sure. We are taking precautions and getting everything important off the floor. The bathtubs are full of water in the event of a power outage. We have built up a pretty good supply of ice and bottled water. The kids are going to sleep in the hall so as to be away from the windows. I think we're ready.

By the way, I have been through several minor storms in the past including the dreadful Alicia in 1983. I have a funny story to tell about that one, but I'll save it for later. This may well be my last update before the storm hits (landfall now estimated at midnight tonight -- under 6 hours from now).

May God, through the prayers of his holy Mother and of all the saints, keep us safe and sound. Thank you for your prayers.

Ike Update #4

Here's the view down our street at 9 AM today. Blue sky all the way!

Same view at 11:30. Dark clouds have begun to gather.

Our internet connection is becoming increasingly unreliable. As I write, it is 12:45 PM, and we are fine. The wind is gentle, but getting stronger. No rain yet.

Now it's 2:20. Internet connection is better. The wind is picking up, but no rain yet. Galveston, Kemah, and other coastal towns are getting hammered.

Ike Update #3

As the great philosopher Tom Petty once sang, "The waiting is the hardest part." That's all we can do right now--wait. Right now, we are in the proverbial calm before the storm.

It is now 8:30 AM my time, and little has changed since my last post, except that the hurricane is only about 200 miles from us. The latest offical hurricane tracking from the NHC is virtually unchanged since last night's version.

Here are some excerpts from the newest entry in the blog of "The Sci Guy," Eric Berger (he's the science reporter for the Chronicle (I'm not sure if the links will work):

This morning it appears as if Houston remains on target to take a direct hit by Hurricane Ike.

The official forecast has changed little other than increasing landfall intensity from 110 mph to 115 mph, at landfall.

At whatever strength Ike comes ashore, it's going to be a nasty, nasty storm for coastal dwellers in southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. Here's the latest SLOSH model guidance for a strike at the landfall forecasted in the National Hurricane Center's 4 a.m. advisory... you can see, Ike's expected to produce a massive, destructive surge far up the Texas coast and into low-lying areas of Louisiana.

A more northward turn, which might spare Houston the worst winds and Galveston Island a catastrophic storm surge, has not yet happened. And with landfall due to occur in less than 18 hours, time is running out.

In fact, if the track comes even 10 miles to the southwest of the forecast location, across the far West End of Galveston, the [flooding] across the island will be considerably worse than [expected].

[Regarding winds,] How will areas away from the coast fare during Ike?...the forecast is for sustained winds right at hurricane status over downtown. Areas east of Interstate 45 have a significantly higher chance of hurricane-force winds than areas to the west.
[Fr. James' note: Our home is about 3 miles west of 45, so we should be fine. Everyone else at St. Joseph is well west of 45, or far to the north -- well out of the surge zone]

Inlands winds, then, shouldn't prove extremely dangerous to well built homes away from the coast. I can't speculate what such winds will do to the availability of electricity.

[Regarding flooding,] The chances of significant flooding appear to have increased slightly as Ike's now forecast to produce a little more rainfall than previously expected. Here's the precipitation forecast for the next two days, which shows a wide swath of Houston receiving 8 to 9 inches of rainfall

That's all for now. Our internet connection is starting to cut in and out pretty badly, so this may be our last post. We should be seeing tropical storm-strength winds in just a few hours. This is a strange thing to think of, because right now the sun is shining and there is only a gentle breeze out.

No matter what happens, God is in control. We trust in Him.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

More on September 11

St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
minutes before it was crushed by the collapse of Two World Trade Center
on September 11th, 2001

"O almighty and everlasting Father, King of kings and Lord of lords, Thou Who art the unfailing Protection of the faithful and the sure Hope of all who trust in Thee: As we mourn the sudden violence and deaths occasioned by the evil and barbarous attacks on our nation of September 11th, 2001 and celebrate the selfless heroism of the first-responders, we humbly beseech Thee to reveal unto us the immense power of Thine own goodness. Come swiftly to our aid, and have mercy upon all who call upon Thee. In Thy boundless compassion do Thou comfort those who mourn this day, bestow healing of body and soul to the survivors, and grant blessed repose in the bosom of Abraham to the souls of those departed this life. Vouchsafe unto us that peace which passeth all understanding that we may ascribe glory and thanksgiving unto Thee, together with Thine only-begotten Son and Thine all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen."

(Prayer and photo from my bishop +BASIL of Wichita and Mid-America)

Like most people who were alive at the time and old enough to remember, I'll never forget where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. I was teaching seventh grade math. During my second period class, our principal came over the loudspeaker and told us about the attacks. Before long, hundreds of parents were waiting in a line that wrapped halfway around the building to pick up their children. (Coincidentally, this principal had been my high school Chemistry teacher, and it was in his class one day fifteen years earlier that I had first heard about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger).

One moment, the most important thing on my mind was teaching about fractions, or decimals, or something else equally insignficant. The next moment, all I could think about was my loved ones. Where were my wife and children? Were they safe? By third period, I had heard about the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of the airline in Pennsylvania. Like most Americans, I had every reason to think that there would be still more attacks. And of course, Houston, home of NASA and a great number of oil refineries and chemical plants, is a tempting target for those who would destroy America. Thankfully, as we all know, there were no further attacks.

I leave you with one other reflection. The most touching tribute that I saw to the victims of 9/11 (and by extension, to all of America) was when I watched the Coldstream Guards stop right in the middle of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and play the Star Spangled Banner. This was unprecedented; to the best of my knowledge, this had never happened before and has not since. I absolutely bawled when I saw it. I had a tremendous amount of bottled up emotion from having had to be nothing but a calm, assuring presence to my students. Now, it all came out. I would like to share with you a video of that event. I darn near cried when I watched it just a minute ago (for the first time since 9/11/01). I pray that it will be a blessing to you as well.

Ike Update #2

Above is the most recent tracking map from the NHC (National Hurricane Center, revised at 7 PM central. If you compare it to the first one I posted, you'll see that the estimated landfall location has moved eastward. Now the experts are saying that Ike will make landfall right on Galveston Island and proceed right through downtown Houston. This is clearly not at all good.

According to one meteorologist whose blog I just read, there is a chance that the storm could turn a little eastward and make landfall just east of Galveston. This would be good news for Houston, but very bad news for Beaumont and Port Arthur.

How does one pray in this type of situation? I certainly (probably selfishly) don't want the storm to pass right over my home, but at the same time, I don't want to wish the storm on others. So, my prayer is that, aside from a complete miracle in which the storm just disappears (where's Elijah when you need him?), it would weaken and make landfall at the place with the fewest people, and that it would do as little damage as possible with no loss of life. If the storm goes through Houston, this best case scenario will certainly not happen.

Once again, I beg your fervent prayers for all in the path of this storm. I also have not forgotten that today is 9/11. Let us all pray for the souls of those who lost their lives, and for their loved ones who are still dealing with their loss. Let us pray that this will never happen again, and give thanks to God that there have been no other such attacks on U. S. soil since then. We must never forget this day, and we must also never repeat the lack of vigilance that made it possible. As Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

This has been an exhausting day, and I'm going to turn in early. If possible, I'll give you more updates tomorrow. We are completely dependent on wireless internet right now, as our only regular connection is down (our modem is broken, and we haven't had time to get to the store to buy a new one). Around here, wireless internet doesn't work very well when the weather is bad, so my guess is that it won't work at all during a hurricane. So, if I don't do any more updates after tonight, don't worry about us. Just watch the news and pray.

May the Lord bless you all.

Ike Update #1

Well, it is just after 5 PM my time (Central), and Hurricane Ike is about 400 miles south-southeast of Galveston Bay (from which our home is only about 35 miles inland). All indications are that this storm is going to be the real deal (unlike Eduoard and Gustav) for us. Most meteorologists at this point think it will be a strong Category 2 or a weak Category 3 storm at landfall.

I was dismissed from work early today, and as soon as I got home, Jennifer and I started battening down the hatches. We moved all the patio furniture, the houseplants (are they actually houseplants if you keep them outside?), and the gas grill into the garage, along with anything else that could potentially become a projectile in a hurricane. We are taking a calculated risk by not boarding up our windows. Most people in our neighborhood are not, although about one fourth are. Not being anything close to a handyman, I don't even own a bandsaw, so I can't cut the plywood. And to board up our windows, we would have to drill holes into the bricks (not impossible, but difficult and time consuming). So, we are hoping and praying (literally) that the winds won't break the glass.

We have all the supplies we need (at least we think so!), and we are prepared to ride it out. Our zip code has not received an evacuation order, although just about every other zip between us and the Bay has. Obviously, all our our school and work for tomorrow is cancelled. Tropical storm-strength winds are supposed to arrive here late tomorrow morning, with hurricane-strength winds later tomorrow night. Landfall is estimated to be around midnight Saturday morning.

I'm going to try and keep you updated on our status and that of the storm. As you can see from the above map, we are right in the middle of the "cone of probability." (We are about where the little notch is -- that's Galveston Bay). Please pray. More later.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Here We Go Again!

Well, here we go again! For the third time in the last month or so, a hurricane is bearing down on us. Unlike the first two (Eduoard and Gustav), it looks like this one will actually do some damage to us. At this point, the computer models have the storm hitting south of here, but we should still have a great deal of wind and rain. Please pray for all who are in the general path of the storm.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

This Crazy WORLD #9

Selections from the "Quick Takes" section of the September 6/13 2008 issue of WORLD magazine:

Surprised by Smith

She might not be the fastest draw in Pennsylvania, but 85-year-old Leda Smith proved she isn't a great-grandmother to be trifled with. A 17-year-old burglar broke into Smith's Lake Lynn home on Aug. 18. But the boy awoke Smith, who then grabbed for the .22-caliber revolver near her bedside. Only when the intruder heard the sound of the pistol cocking did he realize Smith had a bead on him. "I had the gun on him before he turned around and said, 'you've had it,'" Smith told a local TV station. According to a police report, Smith then told the young man to dial 911 from her white slimline living room phone and report himself. "Don't attempt to throw the phone at me, or do anything bad or I'll just shoot you," Smith told him. State troopers arrived to find the boy spread-eagle on her living room floor with the 85-year-old perched over him with the gun.

You go, granny! That youngun will think twice befor trying to rob another "helpless" old lady!


This wasn't the sort of pass out Texas country music singer Pat Green had anticipated. Yelling into a crowd gathered for a show at Michigan International Speedway, Green shouted into the audience, "Anyone got a beer?" Indeed, someone tossed one can of beer onto the stage. But another can quickly followed and hit Green squarely between the eyes. It knocked out Green.

This is probably terrible of me, but I laughed out loud at this one. As the old cliche says, "Be careful what you ask for--you just might get it!

Day tripper

By now, Silbestre Penaloza Menera should be a free man. Instead, he's a wanted man. With one day left in his five-day sentence for a mis­demeanor driving under the influence charge, the 32-year-old man escaped from the Stanislaus County Men's Honor Farm in Modesto, Calif., by running through a gate and disappearing into a cornfield on Aug. 7. Two weeks later, authorities still had not apprehended Menera, who had just over 24 hours until his release from the work camp. If found, Menera could face up to one year in state prison.

Perhaps just a wee bit more patience was called for here...

Diamond in the rough

Two miracles for Tyler Jones: First, someone actually found the $3,000 diamond engagement ring he lost roadside in West Haven, Utah. Jones had left the black box containing the expensive ring on top of a vehicle just days before he planned on asking his girlfriend, Amanda Anderson, to marry him. Jones lost the box and ring as he drove away. But later, Monte Kirk spotted the box in the middle of the road while riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. "I opened the box and found a diamond ring inside," he said. "You don't find that every day." Knowing what losing such a valuable item might mean to him and his wife, Kirk decided to watch the local newspaper classifieds section for clues leading to the original owner. When Jones' classified ad hit the Standard-Examiner, Kirk called and arranged to return the engagement ring. Second miracle for Jones: Even after losing her ring, Anderson said yes when he proposed to her hours after getting the box back.

This just goes to show that there still are some honest (and forgiving) people in this world.

Cold wire

Here's an idea for would-be car thieves: Check to make sure the car actually has an engine in it before attempting to hot-wire it. Thieves in Marlborough, New Zealand, broke into a car parked just outside a local auto repair shop and began crossing wires to attempt to start the car's engine. But it's no surprise the station wagon wouldn't start: Its engine had been taken out of the rear of the vehicle and placed on the ground for repairs.

And THIS goes to show that criminals (in general) are not the brightest people on the planet (see also "Day tripper" above for further confirmation of this truth).

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Thy Nativity, O Theotokos, hath proclaimed joy to the whole universe; for from thee did shine forth the Son of Justice, Christ our God, annulling the curse, and bestowing the blessing, abolishing death and granting us life everlasting.

(Troparion from the Nativity of the Theotokos)

O Undefiled One, by the holy Nativity Joachim and Anna were set free from the reproach of childlessness, and Adam and Eve from the corruption of deatth. Delivered from the guilt of sin, Thy people keep the feast as they sing to thee: The barren womb bears the Theotokos who sustains our life.

(Kontakion of the Matins service of the Nativity of the Theotokos)

I wish you each a blessed feast of the Theotokos' Birth. I am going to take a few days off from my Bible studies, since, as it turns out, I covered two weeks' worth of material last week. This coming Sunday, we will review John chapter 14. The following Sunday we will look at the first half of John 15 (or maybe the whole chapter, but probably not).

In the meantime, I'll post some other things this week.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Just for Fun

Since my last several posts have been totally serious, I thought I would go for a change of pace and put something up that is just plain fun. Thanks to Fr. Joseph Huneycutt, who first brought this video to my attention by posting on his Orthodixie blog. Enjoy, and let me know what you think of it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Son and the Spirit (John 14:18-31)

Icon of the Communion of the Apostles
(from the website of the Ukranian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton)

The Son’s Presence and Peace (14:18-26)

18 “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. 19 A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. 20 At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. 21 He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?”

23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. 24 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me.

25 “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

Fr. Farley: “Despite Christ’s assurance about receiving another Advocate and Friend, the disciples are still not at rest. They don’t want another helper, they want Him!” This is why he assures them that he will not leave them as orphans. The world will see him no more after his Crucifixion, but they will, and “this brief separation…will lead to a deeper mystical union after the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost (more on that in a little bit). (263).

In verse 21, Jesus again affirms (in different words) that if a person really loves him, that person will keep his commandments. And if we keep his commandments, he will reveal himself to us. Many people challenge God, saying “Show yourself to me, and I will believe in you and follow you.” But this is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Jesus says, rather, “believe in me—follow me; obey my commandments—and then I will show myself to you.”

As Fr. Farley says, “[The] experience of inner union with Christ is not for merely nominal adherents and casual followers. He who would know this secret union with Christ must continue to treasure His teaching and fulfill it. Only then can he be his true disciple…” (263)

Notice that Jesus states for a third time (v. 23) that if a person truly loves him, he will keep Jesus’ word. Do you think that he might be trying to drive home a point?

In verse 26, Jesus for the second time announces the coming of the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at this a little more closely. The Greek word that Jesus uses here is “parakletos,” which literally means “one called alongside.” It is translated into English in a great variety of ways, including “Comforter,” “Helper,” “Advocate,” “Counselor,” and other ways. As Fr. Farley points out, “The word has a legal feel to it, like one who is called to another’s aid in a cause or a legal case” (262). But it means more than that. He goes on to say:

“The idea [behind the word “parakletos”] seems to be of a Friend, a support, someone to stand by us a time of need and come alongside to our help and defense. This is why the Spirit is described here as another Advocate. Jesus, during the days of His ministry, was the Advocate, the Friend of His disciples, the One whom they leaned on for support and encouragement (for paraklesis). Now that He is going away, they will not have his support any more. But they will have the Spirit as their support. He will do the work of helping them which Jesus did when He walked among them” (262).

Note the specific work that Jesus says the Spirit will do for the disciples: “He will teach you all things and remind you of all that I said to you” (emphasis added [why do I keep saying that?]). This is another promise that we will see again, albeit in a slightly different form. I'll have more to say about it.

The Son’s Departure (14:27-31)

27 Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. 28 You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.

29 “And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe. 30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me. 31 But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do. Arise, let us go from here.

One of the greatest gifts that God gives to those who follow Christ is his peace. Once my niece asked me what “peace” in the Bible means. “Is it merely the absence of war?” she asked. I explained to her that is much more than this. Christ’s peace, which St. Paul says is “beyond understanding,” is an inner peace, “a peace that is unshakable, invincible, dependent on God, not on circumstances” (Farley, 266). Because of this peace, we do not have to be shaken or fearful when trouble comes into our lives.

Finally, the very last words spoken by Jesus in this chapter are interesting: “Arise, let us go from here” (v. 31). The question is: why would Jesus speak of leaving, and then go on and speak for three more chapters. The Gospel of John Film shows Jesus and the disciples literally getting up and leaving the upper room at this point and beginning to walk toward the Garden of Gethsemane, teaching the disciples along the way (and stopping to pray at Chapter 17 before entering the Garden).

Fr. Farley has a different take on these words; he believes that they signal the conclusion of the meal: “Because it was a Passover meal, they would not respond by abruptly standing up and walking from the room. Before they could go after the meal, the post-meal cup of blessing had to be drunk, a fourth cup of wine filled, the conclusion of the Hallel sung (Ps. 115-118), and then the Great Hallel, Psalm 136, sung as well (the “hymn” of Matt. 26:30)” (269).

He goes on to say “I suggest that he mentions this word about arising and going in order to stress that this teaching had to do with the Church’s mission as it would go through all the world. The Lord’s journey through the dark streets with His disciples which would follow the meal was an image of the Church’s journey through the dark lanes of the world. Previously He had spoken mostly to reassure them. Now He must also speak of their mission to the world, and of the persecution and challenges that would accompany it” (269).

Next time: The Vine and the Branches

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It Was Ten Years Ago Today...

Today is our second daughter Courtney's birthday. Being autistic, Courtney is anything but easy to raise. At age 10, she can only say a few words, she cannot read or write at grade level, and she has great difficulty restraining her emotions or her impulses (particularly when it comes to food and water). But her beautiful smile and her laugh bring us great joy, as do her hugs. We love her and are proud to have her as our daughter. She has taught us much.

The Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:1-17)

Of course, this icon of Jesus washing the disciples' feet really went with Tuesday's post, but better late than never!

Jesus: The Way to the Father (14:1-14)

1 “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And where I go you know, and the way you know.”

5 Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. 7 If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.”

8 Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.

12 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. 13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.

Having reminded the disciples yet again of his imminent departure, Jesus now encourages them. In essence, he says, “Trust me.” There are many reasons that Jesus is leaving the disciples. One of these is to prepare a place for them. The disciples should be encouraged by the fact that Jesus will come again and take them to that place, which is Heaven.

After Thomas says that they do not know the way to where Jesus will be, Jesus makes a very important statement: “I am (Gk. ego eimi, yet another theophanic statement) the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6). The importance of this saying of Jesus to Christian theology cannot be overstated.

In our multicultural, religiously pluralistic society, it is not popular or common to say that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. In the recently-published “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Research Center, 70% of all Americans who claim affiliation with an organized religion said that they believe that “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” The percentage of Orthodox Christians affirming this statement is slightly higher, at 72% (compared to 79% of Roman Catholics, 57% of Evangelicals, and 66% of Protestants as a whole). This is truly scary to think that around 72% of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. do not believe Jesus’ words in verse six. Clearly, the belief that “many religions can lead to eternal life” does not come from Scripture. Where does it come from?

Listen to Fr. Farley’s words: “Indeed, He is the only way to the Father, for men cannot willingly reject Him and still have access to God. The Pharisees [and all of us, I might add – Fr. James] might think that one can renounce Jesus and still stand before the Father in joy in the Kingdom, but they are utterly mistaken.” (258).

In verse 8, Jesus makes a bold claim: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” By this, of course, Jesus is not saying he IS the Father, that he and the Father are the same person. Rather, he shows the nature and attributes of the Father. As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “He is the image (Gk. eikon) of the invisible God.” Jesus is a distinct person from the Father, yet is united in essence, as Jesus alludes to in verses 10-11.

In verses 12-14, Jesus makes two astounding promises, promises that has been greatly misunderstood throughout the history of Christianity. First, he tells them that “he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also, and greater works will he do also.” This is a strong statement, coming from one who has healed the blind and the lame and even raised people from the dead! Here is what Fr. Farley has to say about these “greater works”:

“The conversion of the nations is the greater work of which Christ speaks. During the days of His flesh, Jesus reached only those inn Palestine. The Scriptures, however, promised that through Jesus, the Suffering Servant, all the world would come to God…These greater works Jesus did through his Body, the Church…By Himself, during His ministry, Christ reached only those in Israel. But His Church would eventually bring the whole world to God” (260).

Jesus’ second promise is that “If you ask me anything in My Name, I will do it.” Many Christians think that this means that if they will just tag the phrase “In Jesus’ Name” to the end of a prayer, that this somehow forces God to do their bidding. Listen, however, to what Fr. Stephen Freeman says about his (on his August 11 blog entry):

“In some American circles, Christ’s promises such as, ‘If you ask anything in my name it will be given you,’ are extremely popular. This is a dangerous promise to put in the hands of a consumer-driven culture. The understanding of the statement will almost invariably be focused on the result (‘If I do this, then I get this’) and the ‘in my name’ will likely be misunderstood as the operating principle (like a magic formula). Of course, “in my name’ is not a magic formula but an invitation to communion. To be ‘in the name of Jesus’ is to be ‘in Jesus’ Himself” (emphasis added).

The Promise of the Spirit (14:15-17)

15 “If you love Me, keep My commandments. 16 And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.

Now look at verse 15, where Jesus unambiguously explains how one can know that he or she loves Jesus. Quite simply, if we love Jesus, we will keep his commands. Earlier, he said the world will know that we are Christians by our love. Now he further implies that this love will include keeping his commands. Much could be said about this, but I’ll ask the old cliché question as an application: If it were a crime to be Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Do you really love Jesus? If you say so, are you doing everything you can to follow his commandments? Are you showing love to all other people (not that we are perfect, but we must try)? Do you strive to be patient and kind with others? Do you go to worship Christ (in church; the golf course or the great outdoors doesn’t cut it!) each week unless you are too ill to do so? Do you give both to the Church and to the needy)? Do you fast and pray? Do you read the Scriptures? Do you help the poor and others who are suffering? If you truly love Jesus, the answer will be yes. For “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt. 25:40).

This passage concludes with the first of several promises of the coming of the Holy Spirit. We will look at these promises in more detail in a future lesson.