Monday, November 30, 2009

The Cross: Standing Firm Through the Flames

A friend and fellow blogger sent this series of pictures to me, and I thought the photos were interesting enough to share with you. In the recent California wildfires, a giant cross was engulfed in flames but left unharmed. Was this a miracle, or just a coincidence (or explainable by natural means)? You decide.

Notice in the following photo the cross in the bottom right hand part of the photo:

Here is a closeup of the flames attacking the cross:

And here the flames begin to totally engulf it:

This is the cross the next day:


Even the fire fighters that were near the cross as it was surrounded with flames said it was going to be destroyed. The next day photographer Gene Blevins went back to the scene to get some more shots and saw that the cross was not even touched, nor even scorched from the heat.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Funny Church Pictures

Just for fun, I thought I would share with you these two photos that were sent to me by a parishioner. Enjoy.




Friday, November 27, 2009

Parenthood Blessings, final – by Clint

Last time, I related our “coming home” experience and the drama that surrounded it. No doubt, looking back on the whole thing has been a great “story.” As Debbie has stated, “sometimes, I wish we had less stories and more ‘normal’ experiences.” Well, that may be a nice thought, but it hasn’t worked out for us very often…

Anyway, we had come back to San Antonio, and I had to find a job. A good friend pulled some strings with his boss and I landed a position as an appliance repairman. Yes, I had a degree in English. But that doesn’t seem to open very many doors in early November in Texas. No, I had no experience in appliance repair. But it was a job.

When we landed in Texas, Tommy’s immigrant visa was arranged so that he immediately became a US Citizen. Or so we thought. We were waiting for the paperwork to arrive in the mail stating that he was finished with all of that stuff. But when the letter arrived, we found that the Dept. of Homeland Security had decided that we had ONE more form to fill out and send in (with a large check, of course).

My job did not bring in sufficient income for us to do this step at that time. They sent Tommy a green card and told us to get it done before he was 18. We didn’t feel rushed. And so things stayed the same for a couple of years.

Finally, earlier this year (2009 – over 3 years after we returned to the US), we found ourselves in circumstances that would allow us to finalize everything. So we filled out the forms, sent in the check and required materials and awaited the response. We got that response in August, telling us to show up at “Window 8” on September 23.

Not knowing what window 8 was, I took the day off from my teaching job and our family made the trek to the appropriate place. After arriving, it only took a few minutes and it was over. Tommy had been declared a citizen. Interestingly, they back dated it to the day we left Estonia nearly 4 years before.

So now Tommy is a US Citizen and the paperwork says that he has been since October of 2005. This excites us, because now we can get him a US Passport for travel. We hope to take him back to Estonia in a few years so he can see his birthplace and to relive memories and see old friends.

So this particular “story” has ended. But in reality, the “story” is just beginning. Tommy is now 6. He is a little firecracker that keeps us constantly entertained. He is as much a part of our family as Becky and Joey are. I can’t imagine our lives without him. I don’t even want to try. I started out this series with the comment that Debbie and I had wanted to have 4 children. We have three living ones. We are content. God has blessed us with three healthy, loving children. Tommy has been and continues to be the child that completed our family.

The US Government “allowed” him to be a legal part of our family. I am grateful for that. However, I know that God placed him here because while he might have needed us, we needed him more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving

Well, this year has flown by, and once again, it is almost time for the Thanksgiving holiday. To commemorate this occasion, I thought I would post in full the master blogger Fr. Stephen Freeman's reflections on giving thanks and being thankful. I'll be unable to post for the next few days, so until this weekend, may God bless you and give you a blessed Thanksgiving feast (if indeed you observe it).

Here's what Fr. Stephen has to say. Enjoy.


Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

+++

I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Coming Friday, December 5....


The bad news is, my podcast Thy Word is going away (unlike the Word of God, which abides forever). Truth be told, the last episode was my last study on Way of the Ascetics, which came out on October 6.

The good news is, the folks at Ancient Faith Radio have graciously agreed to roll the dice on my crazy style of Bible teaching and feature it on a new podcast, which will be called Teach Me Thy Statutes. The format of the podcast is exactly the same as that of Thy Word. In other words, it is simply me teaching my adult Sunday School class at St. Joseph's. The only difference is that there will be fewer questions and comments from the class, for the simple reason that they are so hard to hear on the audio file.

If you get bored, check it out at Ancient Faith Radio. I pray that it might be a blessing to you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Be Careful What You Do....

"What we do in this life...echoes into eternity"


Be very careful what you do; you never know who will find out about it…and for how long they will remember.


Whenever a major feast of the Orthodox Church falls on a Sunday, the rubrics that we use at St. Joseph’s call for two special hymns to be chanted during Orthros. These hymns are nothing more than Psalms 135 and 136 set to music, and together they are referred to as the “Polyeleos,” which literally means “many mercies.” This name comes from the repeated refrain of the second psalm-hymn, which is “For his mercy endures forever.” The text of the psalm is a thorough retelling of the history of Israel, or more accurately, of the mighty acts that God has performed for His chosen people. When we read this psalm or hear it chanted, we hear about many familiar incidents in Israel’s history, including the plagues in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. But we also hear about two rather obscure persons who had the interesting names of Sihon and Og. Who were these fellows? In order to find out, we have to go back to the twenty-first chapter of the Old Testament book of Numbers.

Toward the end of their wilderness wanderings, Moses and the Israelites ran into a little trouble:

Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into fields or vineyards; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the people of Ammon…


And they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. So Og king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have delivered him into your hand, with all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.” So they defeated him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left him; and they took possession of his land
(Numbers 21:21-24, 33-35).

This part of Israel’s history is at best relatively minor. Og and Sihon were were relatively insignificant tribal chieftans; they could not have ruled over more than a few thousand people each. They made very little impact on human history. And yet, they and their opposition to Israel are mentioned again and again in subsequent parts of the Old Testament. Sihon and Og’s names appear no less than twenty-four times after Numbers 21. Not bad press for such minor players on the world’s stage!

And this brings me back to the polyeleos. Not only are Sihon and Og mentioned repeatedly in Scripture, their names are also constantly chanted in Orthodox Orthros services all over the world. If you could build a time machine, travel back to the time of Og and Sihon, visit them in their courts and tell them: 1. That they were about to be defeated and killed by a bunch of runaway slaves and 2. That people would be singing about these events until the end of time, they would probably laugh their heads off (and probably chop yours off, but I digress..). They had no way of knowing that their (mis)deeds would be remembered into eternity. Had they known, they might have treated Israel with just a little more charity…

Near the beginning of the movie Gladiator, the main character General Maximus tells his troops “What we do in this life echoes into eternity.” Poor Sihon and Og do not seem to have understood this. Let us, brothers and sisters, never forget this. When we contemplate the actions we take in this life, let us remember to be very careful what we do, because you never know who will find out about it…and for how long they will remember.



Sunday, November 22, 2009

Post #500! (And now, I need your help!)

Leading the rehearsal of the wedding of my goddaughter Megan Owen and her now-husband Greg last July


This is my 500th blog post, and in light of that, I thought I would stop and reflect for a minute about the blog itself.

The number of people visiting this blog each day has grown from only a handful (mainly my own parishioners) back when I started it nearly three years ago to an average of about 125 (with about 175 page views a day) now, with people from all over the world checking in. I feel greatly blessed by this, and I thank you all for your participation in this humble blog.

I know that this is not even close to being one of the best Orthodox blogs, nor will it ever be in all likelihood. I just don't have the time that other bloggers seem to have, nor do I have the creativity (and, to make matters worse, I have to have my sleep!). But this blog is what it is, and I am thankful that I have been blessed with the time to do what I have. I don't get a lot of feedback, but from the little I have received, I know that this blog has been helpful to at least a few folks and that it has blessed them. For this I am especially thankful. That's why I do it.

Now, I need YOUR help with something, dear readers. Since I have so many posts, it must be a little overwhelming to a new blog visitor to know which posts to read first. So, I thought I would do something that many other bloggers do: start a "top posts" sidebar, so that new (or long time) visitors can quickly and easily find the best posts (or series of posts) on the blog. But which ones are the best? I can hardly evaluate this myself.

So this is where you come in. I would like as many of you as possible to leave me a comment and tell me 2-4 posts (or series of posts) that you think should be included in the "top posts" list. And while I will welcome input from anyone, I defintely want those of you who are long time readers and frequent commenters to please weigh in. Clint, Debbie, Steve, Charlene, Paul, Isabel, Eddie, Elizabeth (all of you), Rachael, Dn. Michael, Michael F., Joseph, Bill, Terry, Skip, that means you! (I'm sure I'm forgetting a few of you, but even if your name is not listed, I solicit your input).

So, what say ye? Which posts do you think are the best? I'd love to hear what you think. So leave me a comment with your "faves" 1, 2, 3,....go!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Can Such Faith Save Him? (James 2:13-19)

Nineteenth-century French daredevil Jean Francois Gravelet Blondin (aka "Blondin the Great"), crossing a body of water on a tightrope


14What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." 19You believe that God is one You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.


Most, if not all of the Jews (indeed, most people in general) of St. James’ day claimed to believe in God. Many of them even engaged in pious rituals. But too many of them totally neglected their fellow man, particularly the poor. Little has changed today. Most people in the world (roughly 90% of Americans) say that they believe in God. But what percentage of people actually do anything as a result of that faith? For how many of them does their faith actually affect their daily life?’

St. James poses a question to his readers: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” In my previous faith tradition, I would have said, “Why yes, of course! Works play no role in salvation. If I say I have faith (assuming I’m not lying), then yes, I am saved.” But the clear answer that St. James has in mind is “No! Such faith cannot save him!”

Then he gives an example to illustrate this fact, drawing upon one of his favorite themes: the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor. He asks, “if a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? The implied answer of course, is that it is of no use at all! If we find a person in need and just say that we hope their need gets filled, that does them no good. In order to actually do any good, and in order to prove that we really want them to be helped, we have to do something! We have to help them!

In the same way, “faith, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, true faith contains within it works. True faith, faith that saves, cannot be separated from works; they are not two different things, but rather two sides of the same coin. Faith that does not issue forth in works is no faith at all. It is false faith, or in St. James’ words, it is “dead.”

St. James points out that a person could rightly say "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." In other words, it is better to show faith with works than to attempt to show faith without works. For how can you really prove that you have faith except by works? As FF says, “…works are the only way in which saving faith can be shown to exist” (32, emphasis his).

There is an old story that is probably overused, but it illustrates St. James’ point perfectly, so please indulge me to use it. Back in 1859 there was a performer known as "The Great Blondin." This man was a stunt performer or "daredevil." He was a tightrope walker, and he would perform amazing death-defying tightrope stunts. People would come from far and wide to see The Great Blondin perform. They were amazed at his skill and courage. Blondin's stunts were dangerous enough to make the weak hearted swoon and faint.

Once, at one particularly spectacular stunt, where Blondin would attempt to cross the Niagra River on a tightrope, he yelled a question to the crowd. He asked, "Do you believe that I, the Great Blondin, can successfully cross high above this river on a tightrope?" And the crowd yelled back, "We believe! We believe!" Then Blondin began his crossing, and to the thrill of the crowd, he made it safely. The crowd went wild. They clapped and cheered and yelled all the more.

Then Blondin asked the people, "Do you believe that I, The Great Blondin, can again successfully cross over the Niagra River on this tightrope -- this time while pushing a wheelbarrow?" The crowd enthusiastically yelled back, "We believe! We believe! We believe!"

So seeing their enthusiasm, Blondin yelled to the crowd: "Who among you is willing to ride inside of the wheelbarrow and allow me to push you as I cross on this tightrope?" The crowd went silent. No one said a word. All that could be heard was the sound of the wind blowing....

(Note: To see a great photo of this event, click here.)

The Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and pretty much all Christians before Martin Luther have always believed that works are necessary for salvation. Works alone cannot save us, but neither can faith alone. I like to say it this way: We must have works to be saved because we must have faith to be saved.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bosnia, Fourteen Years After the Dayton Agreement



I have often given some thought to occasionally writing a few blog posts about our experiences in Bosnia, where we lived from March of 1997 until April of 2001 (with a break of about eight months in 1998). Of course, I have written a little about it, both in this blog and in my book, but I left out much. Would any of you be interested in hearing more about this?

A parishioner of mine recently sent me a link to a video of a segment that aired on PBS last night. The video is a report on how on the 14th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian civil war, there has been little improvement in the political situation. The video is very well done, if a little biased against the Serbs. It is about 10 minutes long, but if you can spare the time, it's well worth the watch. It has some good footage of Sarajevo and Banja Luka, two of the three cities we lived in there. By watching it you will get a little of a feel for the country that impacted our lives so much. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

If You Show Partiality (James 2:1-13)

Lazarus and the Rich Man


1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.



Now St. James devotes a lengthy passage to another way that Christians must be “doers of the word:” by not showing partiality to the rich, but rather by treating all people with equal respect and dignity.


Before I get to St. James’ overall theme, let me point out something interesting: The Greek word here translated “assemblies” is synagoge, from which the English word synagogue comes. The word literally means “together people” or, more smoothly, “gathering of people.” Normally this word does refer to an actual synagogue, that is, a building where Jewish people met to read and discuss the Torah and to pray, or a group of people that meet in such a building. Here, however, it refers to a Christian assembly, which would include prayers, Scripture readings, hymns, and a celebration of the Eucharist. St. James certainly does not use the word to refer to a building, since in the early Church there were no church buildings. Christians worshipped in homes or sometimes in secluded public places. In any case, St. James’ choice of the word synagoge points to the continuity between Judaism and the primitive Church. The earliest Christian assemblies were merely synagogues (in the sense of “gatherings”) of Jews who believed that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus.


In at least some of these “synagogues,” as St. James implies in verses 2 and 3, the rich and powerful were given preferential treatment, while the very poor were treated with disrespect. This must have been a fairly common problem in the very early Church (and sadly, history shows that it would continue to be throughout Christian history) for James to have devoted so much space to discussing it.


St. James strongly warns them that this should not be so. FF expands upon his words, writing “Such partiality to the glorious ones of this world is inconsistent with their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ., the One who is truly glorious, for when the Lord of glory came along us, He has nowhere to lay His head during His ministry and voluntarily washed the feet of His disciples…He thereby revealed that the true glory is that of the humble spirit, not that of outward ostentation” (29). When we give preference to the rich, the powerful, the famous, or the beautiful, we are no better than corrupt judges who accept bribes and favor the “mighty ones” of this world in their rulings.


Then the Lord’s brother reminds his readers (and us) that God has “chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” This of course brings to mind Jesus’ statement “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (and not only are the literally poor blessed, but also the “poor in spirit [Matt. 5:3]), and also his praise of the poor widow who gave two mites (Luke 21:1-4) and his parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), as well as other teachings of our Lord. Throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, we see that God has a special concern for the poor, and we should imitate that concern in our lives, not dishonoring the poor.


In verse six and seven, St. James gives another reason why his readers should not favor the rich: because of the latter people’s behavior. Not only did they oppress the early Christians and drag them into courts (this brings to mind the activities of a certain young man named Saul who is mentioned in the book of Acts…), but they also blaspheme the holy name of God, not just by their words but by their behavior. Why should Christians show preference to the very people who persecute them?


After reiterating his point in verses 8 and 9, St. James makes a startling statement in verse 10: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” Wow! There is no doubt but that if you keep the whole law (again, here he doesn’t mean the Mosaic Law, in all likelihood, but rather the teachings of Christ and his Apostles) and stumble in one point, you have still sinned. But guilty of all? What can this mean? I think Fr. Farley explains it very well:


“James is not here proclaiming the necessity of sinlessness for salvation [Fr. James’ note: Good thing!], nor speaking about involuntary sins of weakness. He is speaking about one’s attitude to God, about a man who deliberately repudiates one of God’s commandments to defiantly choose his own way. Thus, if that man does not commit adultery but does murder, he has become a transgressor of the Law, a renegade from God, for he has deliberately turned away from what God has ordered. It is no use for that man to defend himself by pointing out to God that he has not committed adultery or by showing how many of God’s laws he has not broken. For his transgression is personal. The sin is not in breaking some abstract principle, but in rejecting a Person, for the same God who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ said also ‘Do not murder.’ He has rejected God’s authority over his life in committing the murder” (30-31).


In other words, the reason we are guilty for breaking the whole law when we break one point of it is because by rejecting one law, we are rejecting the One who gave the law. And rejecting Christ is much more serious that rejecting one or two rules.


What we need to do, St. James says, is to “speak and do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” – in other words, we need to live our lives as if we might be facing the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ tomorrow. And we need to be merciful…otherwise we will be shown no mercy at the Judgment (remember how Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”).


Finally, St. James closes this section with a beautiful statement: Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Listen to what FF has to say about this (I love it!): “In saying this, James uses a vivid image, picturing mercy and condemnatory judgment as two adversaries. Which will prove the stonger? If we follow Christ’s Law of freedom and show mercy to the poor, then mercy will triumph on the Last Day. The verb rendered boast-off [“triumph” in the NKJV] Is the Greek katakauxaomai, an intensive of the verb with kauxomai, to boast. It is used in Romans 11:18 and means “to exult,” “to crow.” The image here is of mercy exultantly shouting in triumph over a defeated judgment, to our eternal salvation. Yet mercy will only triumph on the Day if we refuse to show partiality, and strive to love all men as Christ commanded” (31).



Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Parenthood Blessings, Part 7 – by Clint


Tommy and I playing at the park just a few days after returning to San Antonio



In the last installment, I related how we had our application to have Tommy considered a part of our family by the US Government had been rejected. Our home study and other requirements were not adequate. So I contacted the lady who had done our home study a year earlier for Estonia and she agreed to redo the home study. I got detailed instructions from the Dept. of Homeland Security on what was necessary and together, she and I crafted a home study that would be acceptable.

In the meantime, I had to pursue several other issues. We also had to have FBI fingerprints taken and sent to the FBI in Virginia to make sure that Debbie and I were not hardened criminals. While we knew that there was no real danger of anything coming back in the report, it turned out to be quite an ordeal. The first fingerprints we gave were not up to standards, either, so we had to go do them again. That added to the time that we had to wait.

Not only did we have to do all of these things, but once we finally had an acceptable home study, we had to be “approved” by a licensed adoption agency in the US. Honestly, we were blessed in this regard. Normally, the approving adoption agency must be from the home state in which the adopting parents reside. But since we lived in Estonia, any agency within the US would work. I sent out about 8 billion emails to various agencies to find out what we needed to do to gain their approval, as well as the cost. I heard back from several. Prices ranged from about $500 up to several thousand. I am pretty cheap, so I went with the lower price.

Honestly, that wasn’t the only reason. In reality, this agency (East West Adoptions in California) was the only one that didn’t just try to treat us like we were beginning the adoption process and was willing to work with us from where we actually were. They had experience with Estonian adoptions, as well. So we sent all of our materials to them and had everything approved. It then had to be sent to the State Capital in Sacramento to receive an Apostille. Then it was forwarded to us so we could resubmit it to the DHS office in Copenhagen – again.

I won’t go into more detail, but suffice it to say that I have greatly shortened this process for this brief article. There were actually quite a few things that we had to get done. I was paying for FedEx on just about everything to speed up the process. Our $5 adoption had gotten quite a bit more expensive.

Unfortunately, by this time the 90 days that we had been allotted by our sponsoring church was running out. We had submitted all of our documents, but had not heard back whether they were approved or not. Some numbskulls back at the sponsoring church, who did not have all of the information about the situation, but who thought they knew what was going on did some internet research and using that inadequate knowledge and some hearsay informed the rest of our “missions committee” that it would take over a year at a minimum to get this done. Our church was not willing to wait for such an extended period of time.

They told us to find someone in Estonia to watch Tommy for us and to come home. Needless to say, that was not an option for us. Those who know me would be proud of me. I was actually civil and kind when I told them to go jump in a lake. In fact, I don’t even think I was THAT harsh. But they got my point. The talk of us immediately returning without Tommy was dropped.

However, they begin to reduce my salary. Rather than receiving my monthly paycheck in the normal way, they reduced my salary by 20% every two weeks and paid me bi-weekly. They had decided to put the squeeze on me.

Of course, not only was I losing income each month while I was in Estonia, I had no real job prospects for when I returned to Texas. It is hard to interview from 8000 miles away from the job. But I began to search for options in earnest. I considered teaching English in China, but we had the same immigration issues there. In fact, I began to search for a job ANYWHERE in the world where I could take Tommy.

Finally, our sponsors told us to purchase tickets for all five of us, even without the required visa for Tommy. They promised to not make us return without him and agreed that if the visa had not been issued by the time the tickets were scheduled for, that we could reschedule and they would pay for the added cost. I looked at what time I thought the soonest we could possibly be ready to return and purchased the tickets – October 29.


Joey and Tommy had a "late" birthday party right after we returned to San Antonio - Tommy was 2


One week before our departure date, on October 22, God smiled on us and our paperwork was approved in Copenhagen. Of course, that wasn’t the final step. We had to take Tommy to Helsinki, Finland to get the immigration visa. Our paperwork was forwarded to the US Embassy in Helsinki and we made an appointment for Wednesday, October 27 to get the visa.

Then we ran into another snag. Because Tommy had the non-citizen gray passport, he could not freely go to Finland, but needed a visa from the Finnish government in order to enter their country. So I went to apply for one on Monday, October 25. They said it would be no problem; it would be available for pickup in three weeks. That obviously was not going to work with our schedule. So I contacted the US Embassy in Estonia and they pulled some strings for me and Tommy received his Finnish visa on Tuesday, October 26.

We went over on the 27th, received his visa, and returned to Tallinn, Estonia that same day. We had been packed for three months. We hugged all of our friends and loved ones in Estonia goodbye and boarded our plane right on schedule. In one week, we went from not knowing when we would be returning to sitting on the plane. It was a great week.

We landed in Dallas, Tommy had his visa stamped and we continued on to San Antonio, where Debbie’s family met us at the airport. You would think this should be the end of the story, and it should be. Tommy’s visa was the type that, once it was stamped in Dallas, made him automatically be a US Citizen. We simply had to wait for the paperwork to be mailed to us.

When it arrived, we found out that we were not quite done with paperwork and the government on this issue…

Sunday, November 15, 2009

+Patriarch PAVLE of Serbia

Patriarch +PAVLE of Serbia (1914-2009)


I seldom ever post Church news stories, but since I feel such a great debt to the Serbian Orthodox Church, I wanted to post this about their Patriarch, +PAVLE, who just fell asleep in the Lord. What a great man of God he was! May his memory be eternal!

The Patriarch was born Gojko Stojcevic on September 11 1914 at Kucanci, a village which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire but is now in Croatia. After attending the Fourth Male Gymnasium in Belgrade, he studied at a seminary in Sarajevo. During the Second World War he took refuge in a monastery at Ovcar, and then returned to Belgrade, where he briefly worked in the construction industry. In 1946 he became a monk at Blagovestenje monastery in Ovcar, taking the name Pavle (Paul). For 11 years he lived as a monk at the Raca Monastery in central Serbia, and from 1950 lectured at the Prizen Seminary in Kosovo. From 1955 to 1957 Pavle studied Orthodox Theology at the University of Athens, where he discovered a particular gift for liturgics – he was later to become one of the most prolific liturgical writers in the Serbian Church.

On completion of his studies he was elected Bishop of Raska-Prizren (the diocese includes Kosovo), remaining in that post for 33 years until his election as Patriarch on December 1 1990. Pavle had by this time experienced at first hand the hatred that was to consume the former Yugoslavia: in 1989 he had been beaten up by a group of Albanian youths in Kosovo, receiving injuries that required three months' hospital treatment.

The Milosevic regime was to lose the support of the Patriarch and his Church, and Pavle made efforts to find common ground between the various opposition groups. Traditionally the Church remained outside politics in Serbia, but at a synod meeting in June 1999 – after NATO had ended 11 weeks of air strikes [FJ: These are the air strikes that made it necessary for us to evacuate from Banja Luka, Bosnia] – it called for Milosevic to stand down. Six months earlier, in a sermon in Belgrade, the Patriarch had declared that the struggle for Kosovo, where Albanians outnumbered Serbs by nine to one, would be decided as much by demographics as by the outcome of war. "Who has the most sheep in the field, that is his field," he said, adding: "Multiply yourselves." Following attacks by the Albanian population, some 80,000 Serbs had fled Kosovo – out of a population of around 200,000 – and Pavle urged the remaining Serbs to stay in the province. "If this trend is not stopped immediately," he said in June 1999, "the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo will be complete." Pavle remained popular among his flock, who admired his humility. He was said to make his own shoes, and tended to use public transport – he did not like to travel by car, saying: "I will not purchase one until every Albanian and Serbian household in Kosovo and Metohija has an automobile."

The Patriarch supervised the first official Serbian translation of the New Testament, which was published in 1984.[FJ: And what a great translation it is. I have had the privilege to read much of it. The language is elegant but modern and uncomplicated]

Patriarch Pavle had been suffering from ill health since last year, and although he was nominally still head of the Church, his duties had been carried out by Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Holy Week in Verse (An MK Comes Home, Part 11) - by James Hargrave

Boris Pasternak was a great Russian poet of the 20th century. As an adult he converted from Judaism to the Orthodox Church, and suffered for his faith. Here are the poems of his that I read and meditated on during Holy Saturday of 2002 at his gravesite in Peredelkino outside of Moscow, Russia:



August

This was its promise, held to faithfully:
The early morning sun came in this way
Until the angle of its saffron beam
Between the curtains and the sofa lay,

And with its ochre heat it spread across
The village houses, and the nearby wood,
Upon my bed and on my dampened pillow
And to the corner where the bookcase stood.

Then I recalled the reason why my pillow
Had been so dampened by those tears that fell-
I'd dreamt I saw you coming one by one
Across the wood to wish me your farewell.

You came in ones and twos, a straggling crowd;
Then suddenly someone mentioned a word:
It was the sixth of August, by Old Style,
And the Transfiguration of Our Lord.


For from Mount Tabor usually this day
There comes a light without a flame to shine,
And autumn draws all eyes upon itself
As clear and unmistaken as a sign.

But you came forward through the tiny, stripped,
The pauperly and trembling alder grove,
Into the graveyard's coppice, russet-red,
Which, like stamped gingerbread, lay there and glowed.

And with the silence of those high treetops
Was neighbour only the imposing sky
And in the echoed crowing of the cocks
The distances and distances rang by:

There in the churchyard underneath the trees,
Like some surveyor from the government
Death gazed on my pale face to estimate
How large a grave would suit my measurement.


Grave of Boris Pasternak beside the Church of the Transfiguration


All those who stood there could distinctly hear
A quiet voice emerge from where I lay:
The voice was mine, my past; prophetic words
That sounded now, unsullied by decay:

'Farewell, wonder of azure and of gold
Surrounding the Transfiguration's power:
Assuage now with a woman's last caress
The bitterness of my predestined hour!

'Farewell timeless expanse of passing years!
Farewell, woman who flung your challenge steeled
Against the abyss of humiliations:
For it is I who am your battlefield!

'Farewell, you span of open wings outspread,
The voluntary obstinacy of flight,
O figure of the world revealed in speech,
Creative genius, wonder-working might!'

(translator unknown)

Bad Days

When Passion Week started and Jesus
Came down to the city, that day
Hosannahs burst out at his entry
And palm leaves were strewn in his way.

But days grow more stern and more stormy.
No love can man's hardness unbend;
Their brows are contemptuously frowning,
And now come the postscript, the end.

Grey, leaden and heavy, the heavens
Were pressing on treetops and roofs.
The Pharisees, fawning like foxes,
Were secretly searching for proofs.

The lords of the Temple let scoundrels
Pass judgement, and those who at first
Had fervently followed and hailed him,
Now all just as zealously cursed.

The crowd on the neighbouring sector
Was looking inside through the gate.
They jostled, intent on the outcome,
Bewildered and willing to wait.

And whispers and rumours were creeping,
Repeating the dominant theme.
The flight into Egypt, his childhood
Already seemed faint as a dream.

And Jesus remembered the desert,
The days in the wilderness spent,
The tempting with power by Satan,
That lofty, majestic descent.

He thought of the wedding at Cana,
The feast and the miracles; and
How once he had walked on the waters
Through mist to a boat, as on land;

The beggarly crowd in a hovel,
The cellar to which he was led;
How, startled, the candle-flame guttered
When Lazarus rose from the dead...

(translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater)

Magdalene

I.

As soon as night descends, we meet.
Remorse my memories releases,
The demons of my past compete,
And draw and tear my heart to pieces,
Sin, vice and madness and deceit,
When I was slave of men's caprices
And when my dwelling was the street.

The deathly silence is not far;
A few more moments only matter,
Which the Inevitable bar.
But at the edge, before they scatter,
In front of Thee my life I shatter,
As though an alabaster jar.

O what might not have been my fate
By now, my Teacher and my Saviour,
Did not eternity await
Me at the table, as a late
New victim of my past behaviour!

But what can sin now mean to me,
And death, and hell, and sulphur burning,
When, like a graft onto a tree,
I have-- for everyone to see--
Grown into being part of Thee
In my immeasurable yearning?

When pressed against my knees I place
Thy precious feet, and weep, despairing,
Perhaps I'm learning to embrace
The cross's rough four-sided face;
And, fainting, all my being sways
Towards Thee, Thy burial preparing.

II.

People clean their homes before the feast.
Stepping from the bustle of the street
I go down before Thee on my knees
And anoint with myrrh Thy holy feet.

Groping round, I cannot find the shoes
For the tears that well up with my sighs.
My impatient tresses, breaking loose,
Like a pall hang thick before my eyes.

I take up Thy feet onto my lap,
Wash them clean with hot tears from my eyes,
In my hair Thy precious feet I wrap,
And my string of pearls around them tie.

I see now the future in detail,
As if it were stopped in flight by Thee.
Like a raving sibyl, I could tell
What would happen, how it will all be.

In the temple, veils will fall tomorrow,
We shall form a frightened group apart,
And the earth will shake-- perhaps from sorrow
And from pity for my tortured heart.

Troops will then reform and march away
To the thud of hoofs and heavy tread,
And the cross will reach towards the sky
Like a water-spout above our heads.

By the cross, I'll fall down on the ground,
I shall bite my lips till I draw blood.
On the cross, your arms will be spread out--
Wide enough to hug the whole wide world.

Who's this for, this glory and this strife?
Who's this for, this torment and this might?
Are there enough souls on earth, and lives?
Are there enough cities, dales and heights?
But three days-- such days and nights will pass--
They will fill me with such crushing dread
That I'll see the joyous truth, at last
I shall know Christ will rise from the dead.

(translated by Avril Pyman)