Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fr. Stephen on "The Unplanned Life"

Our pastor, Fr. Matthew, is in Syria for the next couple of weeks on a mission trip. This means that I am "on duty" as acting pastor of St. Joseph's. This, in turn, means extra sermon duty (3 in about a week and a half). Of course, I don't mind writing sermons and preaching, but it does mean less time for writing original blog posts. In light of this, I thought I would reprint a recent excellent article from Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog Glory to God in All Things, called "The Unplanned Life." Enjoy.

One of the geniuses of modern life is the plan. It is certainly the case that if you have a company and a product, or whatever passes for those in these days, there is probably a plan to go with them. Occasionally you hear from Christians, “God has a plan for my life.”

Several years ago I was flying from Dallas back to Tennessee and was sitting in the middle of two very interesting young seatmates. On the aisle was a very frightened young coed who gripped the armrest ever tighter with the slightest bump.

It was a summer flight - meaning lots of thunderstorms between Dallas and Tennessee--and therefore lots of bumps. On my right was a young college student from one of the Christian colleges in the Dallas area.

After a particularly difficult set of bumps, the young man, in an effort to be helpful, turned to the woman seated on my other side and said, “You don’t need to be worried. God has a plan for my life. This plane cannot go down.” Apparently God had also told him what the plan was.

I thought to myself, “I’ve served God for many years and as far as I know, he can take me at any minute.”

Is there a plan for our lives?

The closest thing that I can think of in Scripture for “the plan” is this statement in Ephesians:

"For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. "(1:9-12)

It seems to me that there is a world of difference between the sort of plan St. Paul describes here and the sort of plan envisioned by my young evangelical seatmate. Clearly, God has a plan. St. Paul says so. But the most essential aspect of that plan is that we are destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory - which, of course - one can do as the plane plunges to the earth as well as anywhere.

Our culture is marked by planning. We are all “teleologically” wired in our society - that is we are always thinking that we’re headed somewhere. Some of this is Christian - we believe that Christ will come again and that this age will come to an end. But there has been a “trickle down” effect of such notions into the very fabric of our culture.

Of course, one of the problems with this cultural habit is that it makes it very hard for us to ever be where we are when we are there (we’re always going somewhere else). And so it is hard to waste time (which is an interesting expression in and of itself). It is hard to pray (a thousand things lying just ahead in the future beckon us to leave such quiet moments behind).

But if we actually read St. Paul and think of what we have been told - then we realize that we can be “at the end” in any given moment. To “live for the praise of God’s glory” is always immediately at hand. And it is probably the case that when we are not doing so we are in fact in sin.

There are many questions which I cannot answer about my life. I assume it will be lived where I am (I do not “plan” to be elsewhere). I do not know the future of my parish (I am frequently asked, “Do you have plans to build a larger Church?”). I certainly hope to, but we do not have plans as of yet [though today we are a little further down that road].

But the one plan that matters is the one St. Paul mentioned. I plan to live for the praise of God’s glory - this plan is sufficient. This is not to throw planning out the window. If you’re going to take a trip you’ll likely have to plan what sort of things to take. And many things in our lives require such “planning.” But if in the middle of everything else you have forgotten the only plan that matters, then all the other “plans” will have been for nothing.

“To the praise of His glory,” an excellent plan indeed.

...the great “plan” for our life is found primarily in the Cross of Christ. Christians are specifically told that “anyone who would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). St. Paul also enjoins us to have “the mind which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and describes that as the mind of humility that empties itself and is crucified (Philippians 2:5-11).

The path that our life takes is a mystery. Sometimes we see a pattern and sometimes we do not. There is no promise to us that we will know the shape our life will take - other than the promise that if we live in obedience to Christ our life will take a shape that is conformed to the image of Christ - most specifically Christ crucified. God will raise us up.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Hales' Journey, Part 11 - Waiting

Patient Clint, thinking, "Okay, if I can't be Orthodox, maybe I could be Presbyterian! Yeah, that's the ticket! But wait...I'm O-for-five on the points of Calvinism! Ah, shucks; I think I'll just quit thinking about it and play with my kids!"

Urmas and I had decided to make a stand. As a result, he ended up in Texas in a matter of days, while my family was stuck in Estonia for several more months. And I do mean stuck. Part of that was because of decisions made by our sponsoring church who basically told me that my ministry in Estonia was over and I was to desist from participating in any further activities. That meant that I spent four months doing a bunch of nothing (though I did actually do some “helping out” for other missionaries in country).

But the US Government was also making it sticky. It seems that nearly two year old adopted boys have the potential to be quite dangerous or something. I am still not sure. But rather than go off on a tirade against the immigration policies of our government (which I am still known to do on occasion), suffice it to say that they didn’t make it easy.

For the past year, I had been moving toward Orthodoxy at a fairly steady rate. For the first time since deciding that Orthodoxy was the truth, I began to have doubts. Maybe Orthodoxy was a good picture of what the church looked like in 400 AD, but they hadn’t kept up with the times. Maybe the reformers had corrected the Roman church to a more proper form. In fact, because Debbie was so against Orthodoxy, I just couldn’t imagine us being a two church household. I was grasping at straws, trying to find something that we could agree on.

Without Urmas’ support, I caved. I stopped attending the Divine Liturgy and began to study Calvinism. I told Debbie that I never intended on darkening the Church of Christ’s doors again, but that I would find an alternative that she could be happy with. With a big sigh of relief, she agreed.

In late October 2005, the government was finally nice enough to let us all come home. We were faced with two immediate issues: first, I needed a job and second, where would we go to church? For church, we started attending a little start up church that met in the auditorium of a Christian School. It had Presbyterian roots, and was EXTREMELY conservative. Let’s just say they were hardcore Calvinists.

Regarding a job… well, remember when I said I wasn’t qualified to do much? That was still true. But I did have some friends. One of them got me an interview with his boss and I was hired on my friend’s recommendation. I was to be an appliance repairman. I knew zilch about appliances, except how to turn the on. But I rode with my friend for a few weeks, got the hang of it and jumped in. It turned out that I was actually really good at it. I had found something that I had a natural talent for.

We were living in San Antonio at the time, which is where Debbie grew up. We were attending the little Reformed Church and for a little while things seemed to be settling down. I still had a few Orthodox leanings and even got Debbie to go on a weekday to the Antiochian mission for one of the services. I don’t remember which one it was, but she went. She hated it.

So I finally came to the conclusion that I would still try to become Orthodox, but I would take my time. I would stop trying to force stuff on Debbie and let it happen naturally (whatever that meant). I tend to be impatient, but I realized that this could well be a years-long endeavor. I steeled myself to that possibility and just bided my time.

At the same time, Debbie told me that she wanted to go to church with her mom. So after vowing to never return to the Church of Christ again, I found myself sitting in the pew at a Church of Christ each Sunday. I was miserable. Debbie was happy. Little did we know that this decision to attend with her family would shake up our plans even more. God wasn’t through with us yet….

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Hale's Journey, Part 10 - The Jig is Up

In-the-Doghouse Clint, pretending to feed Tommy while actually secretly teaching him the Nicene Creed, the Megalynarion, and the mystical apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite

So Urmas and I had sprung our Orthodox “epiphany” upon our poor unsuspecting wives. And I do think they were unsuspecting. To that point, I suppose they thought we were just goofing off or something. Dabbling, perhaps, but never really converting. But we blew that thought right out of the water at our little dinner party.

We were living in a mini-stalemate for a few weeks. Each Sunday, Urmas and I would head to the Liturgy. As we walked out the door, Kadri and Debbie would get together to conspire against us. I think there was even a phone call or two back to the United States to mothers about should they stay with us and live in a two religion household or should they leave us, etc. Thankfully, their moms were a level-headed and advised a calm and cool approach, so no lawyers got involved.

Urmas and I did have a formal meeting with His Eminence, Met. Stefanos, where we asked several pointed questions and got some sage advice, regarding our situation. His advice was to continue to do what we were doing, to learn about Orthodoxy and just follow the path before us. Pretty much any reservations that we had at that point were dealt with in this interview and we both became 100% committed to becoming Orthodox.

I mentioned that I was talking with Fr. Joseph Huneycutt. At the time, he still lived in North Carolina and we were actually looking for jobs in his neck of the woods, just in case.

Then the roof caved in. I don’t want to get into details, because some of it is personal and some has to do with Urmas’ family. So for privacy sake, I will just hit the highlights of the next few weeks. In early June 2005, Urmas and I determined that we had to make a move. We couldn’t ride the fence any longer. We sent a letter to our sponsoring churches back in the US and informed them that we needed to begin planning our return to Texas. We gave several reasons (all of which were true), and honestly we skirted the Orthodox issue, as we were trying to cause as little disruption as possible.

Apparently, telling the eldership (leaders) of a Church of Christ that you no longer hold to traditional CoC theology is still considered a pretty big deal. Lots of disruption ensued. To make a long story short, within three weeks, Urmas and his family was back in the USA. We would have been on the plane with them, but we still were working on the immigration paperwork for Tommy, so we had to hang around for another four months.

It turned out to be four of the longest months I have ever lived through. If you know me personally, you know that I tend to be upbeat and humor-filled. However, I actually think I flirted with depression around September of that year. For the past year, Urmas and I had gone down this road together. We had struggled with the theology together. We had wrestled with the logistics of it all together. We had even faced the wrath of our wives over this situation together. Now we both found ourselves alone, separated by 8,000 miles. We both began to crack.

Understand that Debbie was not just non-Orthodox. She had become ANTI-Orthodox. My dallying with Orthodoxy had cost us our livelihood and our dream. We had spent years trying to move to the mission field and in one fell swoop, I had killed that dream. We had worked for years for little churches that could barely pay us enough to eat. But as missionaries, we were making more money than we ever had before – even with the lousy exchange rate (and don’t get me started on that). Now it was all gone. Preaching of any kind was out. I had an English degree, but wasn’t certified to teach. The only thing I was really qualified to do, I couldn’t do anymore. So, needless to say, Debbie had had all of Orthodoxy she wanted.

The Hale kids and Debbie, who is thinking "I'll smile for the picture, even though my husband has lost his ever-loving mind!"

During that summer, I started an online Masters program with a state university in Alabama. This one differed from the religious courses I had taken before. Of course, my gravy train for education had dried up, so I was on my own. So I began the new program, which was a Masters of Arts in Teaching English degree. I was hoping to finish it by the next summer and then get a job teaching at a community college.

Little did I know that the cracks in my armor would grow and things would take a most unexpected turn in the coming months.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

Since it is Memorial Day, to honor my late beloved father, I thought I would repost the following tribute to him that I wrote last year.

Do you recognize the man in the above picture? My guess is that you probably do not. I am confident that 99% of you who are reading this never had the privilege to meet this fine man. Because today is Memorial Day, I would like to tell you a little about him. The man in the picture is my father, Col. Cleland E. Early, USMC (retired). He died in 2004 of complications related to Alzheimer's Disease. I miss him very much. Here is his story.

My father was born in 1919 in rural Colorado, but moved with his family to a small town in the panhandle of Texas while still a small child. He grew up during the Depression in a family with very little money. He graduated first in his high school class and then worked his way through Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, graduating with honors in 1940. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, my father enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. While he was still in boot camp, his superiors recognized his outstanding leadership ability and sent him to Officer Candidate School. After his graduation in early 1942, Dad was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He immediately volunteered for a new elite, commando-style unit called
Carlson's Raiders. Soon he and the rest of his battalion (the second Raiders) shipped out for Midway Island.

For the next three and a half years, my father participated in some of the worst fighting of the entire Second World War, including the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The platoon that he commanded participated in the famous "Long Patrol," in which the 2nd Raider Battalion spent a month behind Japanese lines, doing serious damage to the Japanese occupation forces. From this mission, the Marines emerged emaciated, starving, and suffering from malaria and diarrhea. In 1943 on Tarawa, Dad was in charge of the identification and burial of more than 1000 Americans, an experience from which he never fully recovered. By the war's end, my 25-year old father had already risen to the rank of Major. He received a Silver Star medal for courage in Guadalcanal, along with two Purple Hearts. He was nearly killed on numerous occasions.

During the Korean War, Dad helped plan and carry out amphibious campaigns, including the landings at Inchon and Pohang-Dong. For gallantry during these campaigns, he received the Bronze Star with the Combat V device representing valor. In 1964, as commander of the 9th Marine Regiment in the 3rd Marine Division, Dad trained his command for service in Vietnam. He then spent the remaining three years of his military service in the Pentagon working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency. For these services, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. After retiring as a full Colonel in 1967, Dad served for 12 years as senior military instructor in the Marine Corps Junior ROTC at Pasadena High School in Pasadena, Texas. During this time, he imparted self-discipline and leadership to countless young people, many of whom have gone on to serve in the military, in law enforcement, and in other fields.

All told, my father served his country for 38 years: 26 years on active duty and 12 teaching ROTC.

Dad was never a religious man. He seldom attended church, but he believed in God and practiced Christian ethics. He taught me right from wrong, as well as the value of clean living, hard work and self-discipline. As anyone who knows me and who knew my father will tell you, I am undoubtedly my father's son (even our physical resemblance is uncanny, according to many). I earnestly hope and pray that I will one day see my father again in heaven.

As Christians, our primarily allegiance must be to the Kingdom of God, with Christ our only King. And yet, I believe that it is not inappropriate for us to be thankful for the earthly nation in which we live. This is especially true for those of us who live in America. Although the United States of America is a nation with many flaws, it is still by far (in my humble opinion, at least), the best place in the world to live. It certainly offers the most freedom to practice one's religion, at least as far as I am aware. It is a great place to be an Orthodox Christian, and I feel that it offers unlimited potential for the growth of the Orthodox Church.

All the freedoms that we enjoy, however, would not be possible if not for the sacrifices of millions who have served in our armed forces, fighting to protect them (and us). Well over a million of them paid the supreme sacrifice to guard our freedoms. Today, take a moment to thank God for the sacrifices of these fine men and women and to pray for their souls, that God might have mercy on them. Pray also that God may bless this nation and help us to have the wisdom to not allow our freedoms to be taken away, so that, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, "these dead shall not have died in vain ...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

May the Lord bless you all!

Here is a photo of Dad's tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

ALSH #15: A Metropolitan Reflects on Prayer (Part 1)

Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios Verghese, Malankara (Syrian) Orthodox Bishop of New Delhi and all North India (+1996)

1. What is Prayer?

Prayer is like breathing. Without breathing we cannot love. When we breathe, air enters our lungs, cleanses the blood in our veins by relieving it of the carbon dioxide, and supplying it with oxygen. If I do not breathe for a few minutes I die. When I have hard physical work to do, I need more air than when I am sleeping or sitting in a chair.

Fortunately God has so ordained that we do not die spiritually just because we have failed to pray for some time. But when there is no prayer, sin accumulates and the proper functioning of the spiritual life becomes obstructed. And if you have important spiritual work to do, you need more prayer than otherwise. Only those who pray constantly are exercising their spiritual muscles.

Prayer is communion or communication with God - opening ourselves to Him and receiving His love. It is by living consciously in this relationship of love that we can be transformed into the image of God. By prayer, we become more like God, more loving, more wise, more powerful, more kind and good.

In prayer, we are cleansed of the accumulated impurities of our life and we are supplied with power to live a good, kind and holy life.

Prayer is not a matter of asking God for all kinds of things. Some teenagers speak to their earthly father only when they need money. We should not become like them in relation to our heavenly Father - going to Him only when we need something. The relationship is valuable in itself, as in all true love. It is not what we get out of it that matters, but the fact that we are in communion with our Heavenly Father.

2. Why Pray?

Does not God know what we need even before we ask him? Why does He want us to ask? Does prayer change God's will in any way? Can my prayer change the future that God has already determined?

These are legitimate questions that need to be answered. The Bible says clearly 'you Father knows what you need before you ask Him' (St. Matthew 6:8). But God wants that we know what is good for others as well as for ourselves. God wants that our will should not incline towards evil, but desire the good with deep yearning. Prayer is therefore a way of training the will to desire the good, as well as of turning our wills toward the highest concentration of all good, namely God.

Prayer is thus a way of becoming good by using our freedom to turn towards the good and to will the good. By prayer we become like God. God is good and wills the good. We should also become like God in willing and desiring what is good. By communion with God we also learn to desire the good which God also desires.

God said: 'Let there be light' and there was light. And God saw that the light was good (Gen. 1:3-4). What God willed became reality. We are to become like God. So we must also acquire the capacity to will the good, and it will happen as we desire, when we become more and more like God. Prayer is an expression of our will in desiring the good and realizing it. When we are delivered from selfishness, pride, and evil desires, our prayers will become more like the creative Word of God, which merely by saying 'let there be light' can create light.

God has made us partakers of His own divine nature. He has called us to share in God's own glory and excellence (2 Pet. 1:4). When we trust in God and live a life of discipline, prayer, worship, virtue, knowledge, godliness, brotherly affection and love (2 Pet. 1:5-8), we are transformed into God's likeness and share in His divine power. God wants us to have a part in the task of shaping this world through prayer and knowledge and work.

METROPOLITAN PAULOS MAR GREGORIOS, Appendix: "What is Prayer? Why Pray? How Pray? (written for Orthodox young people in India)" pages 76-83 The Joy of Freedom 1967 (republished 1986 by CLS, Madras, India)

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Hales' Journey, Part Nine - Adopting a Son and a Church

Bearded Clint, thinking "If I'm going to be Orthodox, I might as well look the part. Now all I need to do is grow my hair out, wear all black clothing, and cut back on bathing!"

As I mentioned previously, Debbie and I had decided to adopt a child. We had two biological children (Becky and Joey), but had also lost two other children during pregnancy. We had always considered adoption as an option, but after moving to Estonia had put it on the backburner. Circumstances caused us to reopen that discussion and in January of 2005, I got the phone call we had been waiting on. There was a little boy, 17 months old, named Margus Vlashenko who had recently become eligible for adoption and they had matched us up.

We were actually given three chances to adopt. If we met a child and didn’t want to continue, they would put us back on the list and await another match. Debbie and I couldn’t imagine rejecting any child and we agreed that no matter what the situation, unless it was just something that we couldn’t even imagine, we were taking the first one offered. I mean, we didn’t get the choice to send Becky or Joey back….

We met Margus, fell in love with him, were able to bring him home a few weeks later as a “loaner” and in April 2005 went before the judge where he was declared to be our son and all of the stuff that goes along with it. We had to wait for 30 days for legal reasons, but in early May, Margus became 100% officially, Thomas Hale. Of course, to match the other two kids, we call him Tommy. It didn’t take him long to carve out his niche in our family.

Debbie and newly-adopted Tommy

At the same time as all of this was going on, Urmas and I had finally given up trying to disprove Orthodoxy and had decided to embrace it. I hinted last time that we thought we would just tell our reluctant wives how things were. Honestly, I don’t mean that as a “macho” thing. It was more along the idea of “if we show them how right this is, they will instantly agree with us.” Of course, we weren’t taking into account that we had taken several months (or years, depending how you want to count) to agree with Orthodoxy.

Urmas and I got babysitters for the kids. We took Kadri and Debbie out to a Chinese Restaurant and over dinner begin to explain to them what we thought. Urmas made the excellent point (in my opinion) that we had spent our whole lives trying to find and be the early New Testament Church and that we could stop looking, because we had found it. After a few other like-mannered comments, we smiled and waited for our wives to submit to our opinions and start attending the Divine Liturgy with us.

It didn’t quite happen like that, though. The first thing that happened was that they looked at each other with that “our husbands have gone out of their ever-loving minds” look. They told us that they had no intention of going to the Orthodox Church with all of those “idols” and smoke and candles. They also insinuated that we were crazy if we thought we were taking the kids to that kind of church, either. So basically, the home front was not looking so good, at least church-wise.

Of course, we also had the dilemma of being Church of Christ missionaries who had converted in heart to Orthodoxy. There was a slight moral issue at stake. Granted, we had never taught or introduced anything into our mission work that would not have been approved by the churches back home. However, we knew we were walking a tightrope and something had to give. So we asked His Eminence, Met. Stefanos, if we could have a meeting with him. We wanted to ask a few final questions that gave us pause, as well as get advice from him. He agreed to meet with us and so we made an appointment for a few days in the future.

Before I close out this installment, I will also mention that I had begun communicating with Orthodox clergy back in the USA, because I knew we would be headed back before too long, one way or the other. While I had email contact with several clergy and lay persons, Fr. Joseph Huneycutt really opened himself up to us. We not only spoke via email, but even on the phone at one point. He was a great encouragement to us and really helped us to navigate the path we were on.

The Blessed Father Joseph Huneycutt (an honorary Texan)

So things were starting to come together in some ways, but seemed quite distant in others. Sometimes things are actually just like they appear…

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Compliments and Podcasts

Mark Twain, great American humorist, journalist and satirist

Mark Twain once said, "I could go for a whole month on a good compliment." I think that almost all of us feel the same way. Everyone likes to hear that his or her efforts are appreciated. But we have to be careful. The Church Fathers often warn about compliments. They say that we should never seek them out; some even say that we should avoid them at all costs. One contemporary monk of whom I have heard, when someone compliments him, holds up his hands in a gesture meaning "Stop!" and says, "My enemy! My enemy!"

Why is receiving a compliment so dangerous? The reason, the Fathers tell us, is that it can lead to vainglory, the constant desire to have people praise us. Vainglory, in return, leads to an even more harmful problem: pride, that is, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. In other words, compliments can lead us to think that we are really great, that we are (as I used to say in junior high) "hot stuff." They make us forget about how sinful we are, how far short we fall of God's will for us. And they are addictive: the more compliments we get, the more we crave, until we start living for them. We base our self-worth on what others think and say about us, rather than in God's great love for us. And then when people stop complimenting us, we start to think that we might just be worthless. So, we have to walk a fine line.

I can say without a doubt that I am not yet to the point where I never crave compliments--not even close! I crave them less than I used to, but I still have far to go. In that regard, then, I am still much more like Mark Twain than the monk I mentioned above. I get a lot of nice comments about this blog, for which I am appreciative. But I rarely ever receive any feedback about my podcast "Thy Word." In fact, in the nearly nine months that I have been doing it, I have received only about 5 comments on it (all far). Sometimes, I flirt around with self-pity, wondering if anyone is really being helped by it, and wishing more would say so. And then, a couple of weeks ago, when I received the following email from a listener to my podcast "Thy Word," it made my month (not just my day!):

Father Early,

I live in [a small city in the Western US], and there is no parish here. I have studied Orthodoxy for more than a year, almost two years. I live in an isolated area in which the nearest parish is about 2hrs drive away. Therefore I am not Orthodox but it has been a prayer and desire of mine to become one. The nearest parish is just to far away for me to take advantage of benefits of attending. I guess I can say I live with the Orthodox vicarously through podcasts such as your own.

You should realize that podcasts are a great evangelizing tool and have helped me see the truth and the One Holy Apostolic and catholic faith as it really is. I was raised a Jehovah's witness. Podcasts and prayers and the grace of God have helped deprogram me. Now I know where God wants me to be. Baptism and chrismation and being a part of this great faith is my goal.

Recently, the Lord has answered my calling to become a part of the church. I met an Orthodox subdeacon living in my community and recently we have been starting a mission parish together. We were able to get the mission priest to visit us and have a conference meeting to annouce a chapel to start for the local community. We have recieved the blessing of the Bishop and in the fall we may have the opportunity to recieve him here to worship with us.

Our little tiny chapel is all we have right now and there are only two of us (that are known), in a city of some 60 000 residents, mostly Mormon. We do Vespers on Saturday evening and Orthros and the Typika service on Sunday. I was privileged to help in all this. Truly God has blessed me and us here in St[my town]

The Holy Spirit goes where it want to go, as told by our Lord in the Gospel of St. John chapter 3. Podcasts that you have made and the many others from radio programs, such as Ancient Faith radio, are a blessing in disguise.

Wow! I was floored. Thank God! I started my little podcast last fall mainly as a ministry to members of my Sunday School class who have to miss a Sunday, and to others who cannot attend the class at all for whatever reason. A few people had been asking me for a couple of years to record my classes, but being the technologically-challenged person that I am, it took me a while to discover an effective way of doing it. But now, any time someone misses class, or just wants to hear a lesson again, I tell them to download the podcast.

Little did I know at the time that people all over the U.S., and even around the world, would start listening to it and be helped by it. Now don't get me wrong -- by now there are many excellent Orthodox podcasts available. Many of them are much better than mine. My podcast will never be as popular as (say) Our Life in Christ or The Illumined Heart, nor should it be. And I have no desire to become an internet radio "personality" or to achieve any level of "fame." I only hope that the recordings of my Sunday School class that become the Thy Word podcasts will be used by God to help others to find the Ancient Christian Faith, and to help people who are already Orthodox to grow in their faith and their knowledge of the Scriptures and the Fathers.

And even if all the podcast ever accomplishes is to help one Jehovah's Witness living in Mormon country to find and fall in love with Orthodoxy, it's worth all the work.

One more thing: Please, no least not for a while! :-)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How Orthodox Is Your Priest?

The mere fact that a man has been ordained to the Holy Priesthood by an Orthodox bishop in good standing does not necessarily mean that such a priest is Very Orthodox. Nor does a priest’s personal piety, adherence to Orthodox dogma, excellence as a liturgist, or love for his flock necessarily place him the ranks of the “Very Orthodox.” If the priest is a convert, it matters little what personal sacrifice he has made to become an Orthodox priest.

Instead, we all know that the most important thing in determining the “Orthodoxness” of a priest is his personal appearance, particularly the way he dresses and grooms himself. For as the Scripture says, “Man looks at the heart, but the LORD looks at the outward appearance” (1 Sam. 16:7, NRIWISTV).

In light of this, it is important that each priest be evaluated on his Orthodoxness, so that those who are Very Orthodox can be commended, while those who are Not Very Orthodox can be encouraged to become more so (and perhaps also chided for being closet Roman Catholics or Protestants). So, please take a moment to answer the following questions, and then refer to the scoring guide to determine the Orthodoxness of your priest.

1. Headgear. My priest wears the following on his head:
A. Nothing ever.
B. A liturgical hat at the appropriate times in services, but nothing otherwise.
C. A liturgical hat at the appropriate times in services, and a skufi (or equivalent)at other times when on the church grounds.
D. A liturgical hat at the appropriate times in services, and a skufi (or equivalent)at all other times.

2. Hair. My priest’s hair is as follows:
A. Short and shaved tight on the back and sides in a semi-military style.
B. Short, but not shaved.
C. Collar or shoulder-length, but with no pony tail.
D. Collar or shoulder-length, with a pony tail.
E. Longer than shoulder-length, with a pony tail.

3. Beard. My priest’s facial hair configuration is as follows:
A. Mustache only or (gasp!) clean-shaven
B. Closely-trimmed goatee
C. Long goatee or closely-trimmed full beard
D. Longer full beard, but trimmed
E. Very long beard, untrimmed

4. Outerwear. When not conducting services at my parish, my priest wears the following outer garment(s):
A. A Roman collar with a suit.
B. A Roman collar with a cassock, but only while on the church grounds or off-grounds performing a sacramental act.
C. A Roman collar with a cassock, at all times
D. A Roman collar with a cassock and exorasson at all times.
E. A cassock and exorasson at all times, but with no Roman collar
(Note: If B, C, or D applies, but without a Roman collar, give your priest one extra point)

5. Shoes: I normally see the following on my priest’s feet:
A. Black dress shoes like one would see in a corporate office.
B. Plain black shoes, but nicely polished.
C. Plain black shoes, but scuffed up and covered with wax, oil, etc.
D. Open- or closed- toed Birkenstocks (or similar sandals), with socks
E. Open-toed sandals without socks.

Scoring Guide: For each “A”, award your priest 0 points. Each B equals 1 point, each C equals 2 points, each D equals 4, and each E is worth 5 points. In addition, award your priest one bonus point if he bathes only once a week or less often. Now refer to the following rubric to see just how Orthodox your priest is.

21-25 Points: Uber-Orthodox. Your priest is a paragon of Orthodoxy, a shining example for the clergy, and well on his way to sainthood. He will probably end up on an iconostasis somewhere in 200 years or so.

16-20 Points: Very Orthodox. While your priest will probably not find his way onto an iconostasis, he is nonetheless a paragon of proper Orthodoxness. He is worthy of commendation and honor.

11-15 Points: Solidly Orthodox. Your priest is quite Orthodox, but has much room to improve. But at least he is not likely to be mistaken for a Roman Catholic or Anglican priest, which would be tragic.

6-10 Points: Barely Orthodox. Your priest runs the risk of being mistaken in public for a Roman Catholic or an Anglican priest. He needs to study photographs of eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian priests (or monastics of any period since the middle ages) and adjust his appearance accordingly.

0-5 Points: Is He Even Orthodox? Your priest may well be a Roman Catholic or (more likely) an Evangelical at heart. Clearly, his highly westernized dress and grooming is motivated by shame for Orthodoxy and a desire to fit in to society. He should be ashamed of himself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Hales' Journey, Part Eight - Turning Point

Gung-Ho Orthodox Clint and colleague "Urmas," at the annual Desert Fathers Summer Camp at St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Clint and Urmas are learning humility and repentance by crawling on their bellies and eating only sand for three straight days. The experience was agonizing (as you can see from their faces).

It took nearly a year and half after our shameful entrance into the Orthodox Church before we really gave Orthodoxy another thought. After a year in language school, we realized that we would get more for our money by hiring our teacher, Merike, as a personal tutor. While it did help our Estonian to improve, it meant that we no longer met on a regular basis with His Eminence, Metropolitan Stefanos. We would occasionally run into him in town or at certain functions, but they were only incidental contacts.

But in the summer of 2004, several things happened that really got the ball rolling. On a personal level, Debbie and I decided to look into adopting an Estonian child. It is a long story, suited for a different venue, but to keep it short, we went through the process of being entered into the system, having a home study completed, etc and became eligible to adopt in early October. We only had to wait until January of 2005 for the Estonian government agency to match us up with a child. I will tell you more about that in the next installment, but suffice it to say that the adoption process was taking up a large portion of our lives during the late summer and fall of 2004.

The second thing that happened was that I began a Church History course with a Church of Christ university back in the states. (Yeah, it was online – ain’t technology grand?). The stateside church that financially supported my family agreed that I could take a certain number of classes each year, working toward a Masters Degree. I had already taken several other classes, and it is surprising that I waited so long to take a history class, as it is my favorite subject. I can only claim Divine Providence – as will be clear in a few seconds.

Finally, Urmas and I decided in that summer of 2004 to begin visiting other denominations to see “what they did” so we might pick up something to help us be more successful. For various reasons, we met for worship services on Sunday afternoons, so mornings were wide open for he and I to go to various churches. We made appointments with other ministers, visited churches, etc. for a couple of months. We visited Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists (we skipped the Catholics, since we had already ‘experienced’ that the year before). Finally, one Sunday, we decided to visit the same Orthodox Church in which we had burst out laughing 18 months previously. We weren’t sure what reception we might receive. We were both fairly conspicuous amongst the tiny Estonians, plus who would forget two big Americans who interrupted last year's Paschal Service?

We needn’t have worried. While Estonians tend to be very closed and private, the wonderful folks at Ss. Simeon and Anna welcomed us from the first moment. (When we visited the Lutheran Church, NO ONE said one word to us. We actually stood in the doorway to see if someone would simply say, “Excuse me.” Not a word). But the Orthodox Christians invited us to stay for coffee hour immediately after service. Trust me when I tell you that this is VERY un-Estonian. Of course, we stayed. It turned out that Merike, our tutor, was now attending the Orthodox Church. We hadn’t realized that before. But the people asked us to return the following Sunday. We agreed. In fact, we never didn’t go again, unless we were out of town, until we returned to the States.

Before I forget, let me go back to the Church History class. We were studying early Church History (up to the Reformation). So of course, the first 1000 years or so was about the Orthodox Church. I will give the old CoC prof some credit. He didn’t pull any punches. He talked about Apostolic Succession, The Creed, The Ecumenical Councils, and other very non-CoC things with an open mind. In fact, at one point, he had to make the comment to the whole class that he was not trying to convert us to the Orthodox Church, but rather was simply teaching us the history of the Church. Bells started going off in my head. The reason was that not only was I studying about early Church history, I was EXPERIENCING it every single Sunday! Everything we studied I witnessed each week.

It might have been in Estonian, but my language skills were good enough that I could tell what was going on. After several weeks, Urmas and I were invited to sing with the choir. That is fairly prestigious, let me tell you. Estonians are known as a singing people (their revolution against the Soviets was called “The Singing Revolution”). I will be up front and honest and tell you that it was because we had learned the commonly repeated words (Lord, Have Mercy, etc) in Estonian and sang along anyway. Now I am an OK singer. Nothing special, but OK. But Urmas has a booming bass voice. I think the choir director (who was also the Matushka) really wanted that bass voice. But I got to tag along, so it worked out pretty well.

Fr. Mattias Palli, pastor of Ss. Simeon and Anna Church, with his wife Terje and the Hales' language teacher Mereke

Each Sunday, Urmas and I would get up, get dressed, attend the Divine Liturgy, stay for coffee hour, then return home to pick up our families to head over to our own worship service (which was starting to seriously not measure up anymore…). You might be able to see a couple of issues that were developing here. First, we were missionaries, being paid to take our brand of Christianity to Estonia. But we were being converted to Orthodoxy – almost against our will, mind you. We were studying long and hard, trying to figure out what was wrong with Orthodoxy – and that university class, wasn’t helping. Also, at this point, it was Urmas and I who were buying into Orthodoxy. At this point, Debbie and Kadri were good Church of Christ ladies.

So, in typical Urmas and Clint fashion, we decided to tell them how it was going to be…

Sunday, May 17, 2009

ALSH #14: The Gift of Time

Archbishop IAKOVOS (1911-2005), former primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America

As Christians, we have been handed the gift of time for one major purpose: to create new things in our lives for God. Yet too often, like everyone else in our secularized culture, we don't see time as an opportunity for creation. Rather, we see it as something to be measured mechanically or used up by a clock.

But from God's perspective, time is never self-limiting, never measured entirely by minutes, hours and days. Instead, time always has an eternal dimension. St. John underlines this fact when he says in the first verse of his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word..."Those are frightening words because they emphasize to us our limited natures in the face of God's limitless reality.

Who, after all, can locate "the beginning"? Yet as human beings, we're always trying to understand, define, and control our time. In our own little worlds, we try to be gods who know exactly when something is going to happen, when it will begin, and when it will end. But when we fall into this trap, we become the slaves rather than the masters of time.

Too often, we fail to put God in charge of our daily schedules and our various responsibilities, so that he can show us how best to use creatively the time he's given us. We may devote many minutes and sometimes hours to setting up our schedules and filling in our daily appointment diaries. For a time, we may even seem to get things organized in this way. But in fact, more often than not, we lose our creative edge in the process.

Our time, then, is not a mere succession of events. It's not a series of projects and responsibilities that we are supposed to compress and streamline according to some human preconceptions. Nor is time a vacuum to be filled by any sort of whimsical activity. Rather, time is God's gift to us. It is he - not others or ourselves - who has the authority to determine how the minutes and hours of our lives can be best used.

If we allow others to dictate the way our time will be used, or if we try to assume complete control over the schedule ourselves, we're sure to face frustration and failure. But if we allow God to help us "redeem the time," as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, we'll find ourselves becoming more creative. We'll also experience greater satisfaction as we move through our daily tasks; and we'll find the quality of our work improving.

In short, we must become more aware of God's eternal presence in every hour and minute of each day. That's the true test of time in our lives.

Archbishop Iakovos, Faith For A Lifetime: A Spiritual Journey (New York, Doubleday, 1988), 84, 87.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Prayer (3) - WOA Chapter 17

St. Seraphim of Sarov, who once prayed for 1000 straight days on a rock without leaving it

In this his third chapter on prayer, Colliander gets very practical, answering the question that one might ask after reading Chapter 16, namely, “So how exactly should I pray? How do I get started?” But before he answers this question, he first gives a word of warning about expectations:

“A person who resolves to begin regular morning exercises usually does so not because he already has physical fitness but in order to get something he does not have. Once one has something he can be anxious to keep it; previous to that, he is anxious to get it.

“Therefore, begin your practice without expecting anything of yourself. If you are fortunate enough to sleep in a room by yourself, you can quite literally and without trouble follow the instructions of the prayer book [Fr. James’s note: you can do this even if you don’t sleep in a room by yourself—just slip into a different room after you arise. Or, stay in your room but do the prayers silently.]:

“‘When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the sign of the Cross and say: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy [Spirit]. Amen.

“‘Having invoked the Holy Trinity, keep silence for a little, so that your thoughts and feelings may be freed from worldly cares. Then recite the following prayers without haste, and with your whole heart: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

“Thereafter follow the other prayers [Fr. James’ note: here the editor recommends the prayer book A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, from SVS press. There are many excellent Orthodox prayer books out there; my favorite is the St. Philip Prayer Discipline prayer guide, and I also use parts of the prayers found in the back of the Orthodox Study Bible.], with a prayer to the Holy Spirit first, then to the Holy Trinity, and next the Our Father, which precedes the whole list of morning prayers. It is better to read a few of them quietly than all of them impatiently. They rest upon the gathered experience of the Church; through them you enter a great fellowship of praying folk. You are not alone; you are a cell in the body of the Church—that is, of Christ. Through them you learn the practice that is necessary not only for the body but also for the heart and mind, for the building up of your faith” (63-64).

When reciting prayers from a book, it is important to not do so mechanically, but to make the words found in the book your own. This requires attentiveness, as Colliander points out:

“The complete and correct prayer is one in which the words of the prayer are accepted by both thought and emotion; attentiveness is therefore needful. Do not let your thoughts wander; imprison them again and again, and always begin anew from the point where you left off praying. You may read from the Psalter, in the same way, especially if you do not have a prayer book [Fr. James’ note: or better yet, incorporate readings from the Psalter into the standard morning and evening prayers]. Thus you learn patience and watchfulness.

“A person standing at an open window hears the sounds from outside; it is impossible not to do so. But he can give the voices his attention or not, as he himself wishes. The praying person is continually beset by a stream of inappropriate thoughts, feelings, and mental impressions. To stop this tiresome stream is as impracticable as to stop the air from circulating in an open room. But one can notice them or not. This, say the saints, one learns only through practice.

“When you pray, you yourself must be silent. You do not pray to have your own earthbound desires fulfilled, but you pray: Thy will be done. It is not fitting to wish to use God as an errand boy. You yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak.

“Your prayer must have four constituent parts, says Basil the Great: adoration, thanksgiving, confession of sin, and petition for salvation.

“He who cannot make his will and hence his prayer coincide with God’s will, will meet obstacles in his undertakings and will constantly fall into the enemy’s ambush. He becomes discontented or angry, unhappy, perplexed or impatient or troubled; and in such a state of mind no one can remain in prayer (64-66).” [Fr. James’ note: Don’t despair over these words. Making your will coincide with that of God is a lifelong process for 99.99% of us!]

Finally, Colliander warns about trying to pray while harboring ill will towards another (cf. Matthew 5:23-24), and about trying to obtain some type of ecstatic state while praying:

“A prayer offered while one has any cause to reproach a fellow man is an impure prayer. There is only one whom the praying person may and must reproach, and that is himself. Without self-reproach, your prayer is as worthless as it is while you are reproaching someone else in your heart. Perhaps you ask: How can one learn this? The answer is: One learns it through prayer.

“Do not fear the drought within you. The life-giving rain comes from above, not from your own hard soil below, which brings forth only thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:18). Do not wait, therefore for any “state,” for ecstasy or rapture or other desire-laden experiences. Prayer is not for the sake of enjoyment…remember your mortality, and call upon the Lord for mercy. The rest depends on him” (66).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

On Prayer (2) - WOA Ch. 16

Colliander begins his second chapter on prayer by reminding us that the Fathers’ idea of prayer is quite different from what we think of when we think of prayer: “From the foregoing we understand that by prayer the holy Fathers are not referring to occasional prayer, morning and evening devotions and grace at meals, but for them prayer is synonymous with unceasing prayer, the life of prayer. Pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17) is to be taken as a literal command” (59).

After comparing the work of prayer to that of a scientist, an artist, and a violinist, Colliander then anticipates the question that most non-monastics would at this point ask: “How can I, when I live in the world, pray unceasingly. It’s impossible!” His answer is, start small and work toward it: Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you (James 4:8). It is for us to begin. If we take one step toward the Lord, He takes ten toward us—He who saw the Prodigal Son while he was yet at a distance, and had compassion and ran and embraced him (Luke 15:20)” (60). The first steps will be clumsy and filled with failure, but gradually we will grow more and more proficient in prayer:

“The child’s desire to read increases as he learns to read: the further one gets into a language, the better he speaks it and the more he likes it. Enjoyment increases with proficiency. Proficiency comes with practice. Practice becomes more pleasant as proficiency increases. Do not think that it is otherwise with prayer. Do not wait for some extraordinary divine inspiration before setting to work. Man is created for prayer just as he is created to speak and to think” (61).

Another thing to keep in mind in our quest for pure and continual prayer is that effective prayer must come out of a deep sense of contrition for our own sinfulness. “Adam broke only one of the Lord’s commandments; daily and hourly you break them all, says St. Andrew of Crete. From your position as a hardened, constant criminal your prayer must go forth, in order to reach the heights. The hardened criminal often is not conscious of his guilt; he is hardened. So it is with us. Do not let yourself be frightened by the hardness of your own heart. Prayer will gradually soften it” (62).

Thus we see that one of the many great benefits of prayer is the softening of our hearts that it brings.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Hales' Journey - Part 7:

Language School Clint and Debbie, with colleagues and language teacher Sure, we can learn Estonian--no problem! It's kind of like Spanish, right? Why are people looking at me funny when I say, "Hola! Como esta?"

Since I ended the last installment with the revelation that we were language school students with Metropolitan Stefanos, I would love to be able to say that his overwhelming Christian Spirit (which was evident) was more than we could oppose and we quickly were convinced that we MUST be a part of the Ancient Church.

Alas, the reality is that we ALREADY thought we were a part of that ancient church. So we had quite a bit of deprogramming to go through. To illustrate, I will relate one conversation that Urmas and I had with Met. Stefanos. We were speaking and the Metropolitan was obviously very excited. We asked him why this was the case and he told us that the Church had just received a new icon and that it was to be blessed later that day so that it could be used in the services at the chapel at the Church Offices. Once Urmas and I were alone, we both smirked and said to ourselves, “Yeah! Let’s get real excited. We have another idol to worship. Whoopee!” Yep, lots of deprogramming….

His Eminence STEPHANOS, Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia with the Hales' language teacher, Merike

To be honest, other than his Christian example, the Metropolitan didn’t really have much religious influence on us, beyond being mentioned in our newsletters. I mean, really, you didn’t think we could let the fact that we were up close and personal with a “head guy” of some errant church group go without us harping about it at every opportunity. Oh yes, we took full advantage of it. We talked it up really big. We had made contact with him and once we had shown him the error of his ways, we would be expecting to bring in several tens of thousands of his “followers” with him to the “one true church.” Yeah, sad. I know.

For several months, our only Orthodox “contact” was in language class. But those classes only lasted several weeks at a time, with large breaks between sessions, so it was not really a big deal. We moved to the Estonia in June. The following spring, during Easter, we were invited to attend the Midnight Mass at the Catholic Church and we agreed to go.

Our language teacher, Merike, was raised as a Lutheran (the traditional Estonian church), but was very good friends with one of the Catholic priests (she had taught him Estonian). She was the one who invited us to go. Urmas and I went with her and experienced that service. I am very tempted to write about it, but it really isn’t relevant to the story at hand, so I won’t. But if you ever see me, and we have the time, ask me to tell you about it, because it was a hoot.

By the time that service was over, the public transportation was stopped for the night. So we were walking to our homes so that we could drive Merike home. We only lived about a half mile away. As we were walking, we passed an Orthodox Church. The Estonian Orthodox Church follows the Western Calendar (like Finland), so they were having their Pascha Liturgy as we passed. Merike asked if we wanted to go in and watch some of the service. Now, Urmas and I can be irreverent and goofy in the best of times. We had just endured 4 hours of Roman Catholicism at its finest (with the whole funny story that goes along with it). Were we wiser, we would have declined.

Ss. Simeon and Anna Church, Tallinn, Estonia

Instead, we agreed to go on in. Picture the scene: It is dark. The only light is from candles near the altar area and the small amounts of firelight that are coming from the cracks in the door of the wood burning stove that was heating the entire structure. It is smoky, both from the fire and the incense. It was deathly quiet. And then….

One of the priests at the altar began to chant. It was not a quiet chant. It was very LOUD. And bless his heart, while I am sure this priest was a wonderful man, he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. His abnormally loud outburst struck Urmas and me very funny. It didn’t help that it was in Estonian and we didn’t understand what he was saying (some of those words were beyond our meager abilities). But we both burst out laughing.

Every person in the church turned to look at us. We were laughing too hard to care. Merike was looking for a hole to crawl into. She quickly ushered us out and we continued our journey home. Looking back, the thing that really makes me glad about that night was that Metropolitan Stefanos wasn’t there. He was in another city that evening.

That was a good thing. As the story unfolds, you will find out that it was in that very church that Urmas and I first really got introduced to Orthodoxy and first became convinced of the truth and rightness of the Orthodox Church’s claim to be the ancient church.