Thursday, December 24, 2015

Joseph and the Nativity of Christ

Of all of the main characters in the Scripture, there is one from whom we never hear a word.  That, of course, is Joseph, Jesus' step-father and husband to Mary.  We see him, of course, in every Nativity scene and his importance cannot be understated especially since if he did not listen to to the angel and choose to take Mary as his bride, then the history of salvation may have well turned out differently. His reputation of being Jesus' protector can also not be underestimated as it is he who took Mary and the infant, Jesus, to Egypt to protect them from Herod.   He is honored for his actions and rightfully so, but I've always been curious as to what Joseph may have said.  Though none is recorded in Scriptures, at the hymns of the Royal Hours, Joseph is given some very intriguing things to say.

From the first Hour:  Joseph spoke thus to the Virgin:  "What is this doing, O Mary, that I see in thee?  I fail to understand and am amazed, and y mind is struck with dismay.  Go from my sight, therefore, with all speed.  What is this doing, O Mary, that I see in thee?  Instead of honor, thou has brought me shame; instead of gladness, sorrow; instead of praise, reproof.  No further shall I bear the reproach of men. I received thee from the priests of the temple, as one blameless before the Lord.  And what is this that I now see?"

From the third Hour:  "I have searched the prophets, " said he, "and have been warned by an angel:  and I am persuaded that Mary shall give birth to God, in ways surpassing all interpretation.  Magi from the east shall come to worship Him with precious gifts."

From the sixth Hour:  "What is this strange mystery in thee, O Virgin?  And how shalt though bring forth a child, Calf upon whom the yoke has never come?"

Then in the ninth Hour, Mary responds to Joseph's hesitations and doubts:  "Why are thou downcast and troubled, seeing me great with child?  Why are thou wholly ignorant of the fearful mystery that comes to pass in me?  Henceforth, case every fear aside and understand this strange marvel:  for in my womb, God now descends upon the earth for mercy's sake, and He has taken flesh.  Thou shalt see Him according to His good pleasure, when He is born; and filled with joy thou shalt worship Him as thy Creator.  Him the angels praise without ceasing in song and glorify with the Father and the Holy Spirit."

Joseph's doubt is met with the confidence of Mary who first said "yes" to the Lord when Gabriel announced she was pregnant.  Joseph's concern for this reputation is met with Mary's revelation that the mercy Jesus brings in the flesh will make such a concern trivial. Joseph's amazement that Mary is pregnant in the first place is compounded by who is contained within Mary. Sure the words are not Scriptural, but they don't have to be.  This dialogue illustrates not only the concerns we frail humans have, but also the real importance of this day and who has come in the flesh, truly in the flesh.

Christ is born to raise up the image that fell aforetime.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Wrong Way to Reach the Nones or the UnChurched

At the risk of sounding cliche, do you know what really grinds my gears?  When my church, which I love, decides that the way to reach out to the Millennials or the Nones or just the plain old-fashioned UnChurched is to use some byproduct that has been discredited by the Evangelical Community as a way of promoting Holy Orthodoxy.  This particular program is benignly labeled as Visitors Day.

Now, before I'm labeled as some insular, insecure and greedy fool, (which I'm sure has probably already happened), I am not opposed to growing the Church or individual parishes. I am not opposed to visitors. Hell, I was one myself at one time.  What I am opposed to is using the Liturgy specifically to evangelize.  That is wrong.

In the ancient church, people who wished to be joined to the Church were not able to stay for the entire liturgy.  They were permitted to attend the parts of the Liturgy where general hymns were sung, Scripture read and the homily given.  But, after that and the cries of "the doors, the doors", people who were not initiates (i.e. the  unbaptized) were not allowed to stay.  Instead, they left and received catechism instruction from a priest while the Liturgy proceeded with the Anaphora and the consecration and the reception of the Holy Eucharist by the faithful.  Now, this was NOT done to shun such people or to make them feel unworthy, but because the Church wisely knew that full participation in her actions and communion with God was specifically for those who had been called out of the world by God to the Holy Mysteries.  Those desiring to join themselves to the Holy Church would certainly be welcome to that, just not yet.  They needed both time and instruction.

Now, though we have retained the refrain of "the doors, the doors" very few Orthodox Churches, if any, insist that non-baptized persons in attendance leave.  Things are very different now in the 21st century than they were in the 3rd, 4th or 16th centuries.  But, one thing that the Church Fathers never did was use the Liturgy to evangelize.  We simply should and must remember that Liturgy first and foremost is for those who have been called out of the world.  In short, it's for us, because we need it.  It is a gift from God which is then offered back humbly to him.  As said by the priest during the singing of the Cherubimic Hymn, Christ is the "offerer and the offered."  It is offered to us so that we may be thankful for being called out of the sin of this world.

The Liturgy is not some tool to use to reach those groups mentioned above.  Yes, it is instructional. Yes, it is beautiful.  Yes, it is useful.  But there are many other instructional and beautiful and useful means to reach the unchurched.  Why must it be Liturgy or bust?

The fact is that  my parish receives many visitors every year.  I think very few of them come because they were asked by a friend or a coworker.  Most of them are seekers and found their way to my parish by any number of means.  And that's all good.  But, for every visitor that we had, we didn't stop the Liturgy to explain to them what is going on.  We didn't call out from the solea to make sure everyone was on the right page.   Now, I grant that I don't know exactly how this Visitor's Day is going to look on Sunday.   And it could be that I am way off in my perception, but my point remains is that the Liturgy should not be used and cannot be used as an evangelization tool because it is precisely not that.  It is not for the unchurched. It is for those called to God.  To use it in such a way cheapens it and risks making it into a spectacle to be observed rather than a prayer offered by the faithful to God.  Perhaps it is time to enforce "the doors, the doors" again, but I doubt that will happen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Death and the Justice of God

A friend and coworker recently lost his 19 year old daughter.  She was a very happy, energetic young woman with her whole life in front of her.  She had only three months before graduated from college, played for  a championship softball team at her college, was engaged to be married, procured a job right out of college with the potential for advancement, was about to buy a house where she and her future husband would live, etc.  Despite such a great future ahead of her, she was taken from this life.

At the visitation, the sheer number of people there was overwhelming.  This young woman had clearly made an impact on those around her.  There were friends from her high school and college, friends of friends, coworkers and friends of her parents and siblings.  It was inspiring though under tragic circumstances.  While waiting to see the deceased''s father, I overheard some people talking about how this young woman's death was tragic and unfair and how could God do this.  As a parent myself, I probably would ask those same questions should I find myself (God forbid!) in the same situation.

In the movie, Rudy, a disheartened Rudy Ruttiger, upon learning yet again that he was denied entrance to the University of Notre Dame, tries to get some comfort and counsel from the priest.  The priest says that in his life he is only certain of two things:  there is a God and he is not Him.  I know from the Scriptures that the Lord says "My thoughts are not your thoughts; My ways are not your ways." (Isaiah 55:8).  I don't know that would be much of a comfort to me if I were to find myself in this situation, but if I were to understand the reasons why certain things, especially bad things like the death of your own child happen, I know that then I would be God.  But I'm not.

When studying the mythology of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and examining just how petty and emotionally insecure the gods and goddesses appear to be, I ask my students if it is possible for the gods or God to be moral in our sight.  They most often respond with a unanimous "no."  When I ask why, they reply something along the lines about how we humans operate or try to operate on a system of fair play.  And we do.  Then I ask the question, do you want life to be fair?  At this point, the class is pretty silent not knowing how to answer, though after a few seconds of awkward silence a few chirp up and say, "Absolutely!"  I then challenge them to consider about how many things they have gotten away with in their life:   How many times they screwed up and no one noticed, how many times they broke a rule and didn't get caught, how many times they got away unscathed without any punishment.  If life were truly fair, you would get what you deserve for everything you do.  And I know what I would be punished far more than rewarded.  When I bring this up, most students then grudgingly approve of the system we currently have in place.  There is a God and I'm not Him.

God will never get a fair shake from us mortal men.  He will never play fair.  If God were fair, this sweet young woman would not have died.  Truth be told, God shouldn't give us a fair shake either. And he doesn't; he goes way, way, way beyond that.  While we deal and try to rationalize the world in terms of fair play, God does differently.  His ways are not our ways.   If the justice of God were paramount, then there would have been no incarnation, no Crucifixion, no death and surely no Resurrection. But those things did happen, not because it satisfied some notion of justice, but because it was done for God's love of His creation.

God will never be just in our sight.  God's ways our different than ours.  Nevertheless, as  humans we continue to want God to be human rather than us to be more like God.  A Christian life is not a guarantee to be free from suffering in this life.  That's one of the reasons that the "Prosperity Gospel" is a false gospel.  There will be suffering.  But that does not mean we should be morose.  If anything we should be joyful because God's justice, at least for the time being, has not come.  It will eventually, at the Last Judgment, but for the here and now, the Compassion and Mercy of God reign supreme.

Is this fair?  No and I would really be afraid if everything I see and do every day of my life is the result of fairness.

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's a political issue

For those of us who are Christians in the orthodox sense, we know full well that the culture around us is fast becoming post-Christian and even anti-Christian.  To be honest, I don't know what the end result will be.  The late Cardinal George had a famous remark (which I paraphrase) that he would die in his sleep, his predecessor will die in jail and his predecessor will be martyred.  I don't know if such things will come about or even that quickly, but we Christians must recognize that the culture around us is becoming more and more hostile to those of us who hold on to a traditional morality, often, but not exclusively, girded in the Church.  So, what are we to do? Ignore it and just keep on going as if nothing is happening?  A Benedict Option? 

I say absolutely not.  At the same time, I am hesitant and unconvinced that Christians should use the mechanism of the state to enforce our mores, just as our cultural opponents are doing right now.  I believe in liberty first and foremost and believe that freedom exists for the purpose of choosing the good, not having the good rammed down your throat or used as a means of coercion like what you have with "morality" police in Saudi Arabia or Iran or even the "vice" squads of numerous police departments here in the USA. 

Liberty does not mean surrender.  The Church should and does (even though it can do more) to speak out about the evils we see around us.  And I'm not  just talking about things like abortion, gay marriage or anything like that, but about promiscuity, gambling, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, broken families, etc.  The problem is that the Church, again from within and without, is told to stay out of those issues, because they are "political" issues.  And since they have been politicized, the Church must watch from the sidelines and wait for the government OK before they speak.

I remember once my priest (the only time I remember him talking about a "social" issue) talked about abortion in his homily and one person got up and left (and let everyone know he was getting up and leaving, too) because the Church shouldn't be involved in political issues.  Now my priest only restated Church teaching that abortion was a grave sin and that a life was sacred, but at the same time reaffirming that the Church is a place for healing.  He wasn't telling people to go out and support a candidate or vote a certain way on a referendum.  But, for the person who got up and left, I suspect he did so not because he thought that the priest was out of line for bringing up a "political" issue, but because he does not support church teaching.  And these people are the really dangerous ones.

A brother of a friend of mine remarked the same thing once about how the Church should not  talk about these issues.  I then asked why?  He said that the Church was wrong.  I asked him if he would stay during a homily if the priest were to talk about the damaging effects of gambling or drinking. He said that would be fine.  But even gambling and drinking have been politicized, I replied.  Gambling is heavily regulated by the states as is drinking.  So, what's the difference?  I surmised he was completely honest when he said that because the Church was right about drinking and gambling but wrong about abortion.  In his mind, abortion was approved of by the government so the Church should, too.  I replied that gambling is also sanctioned by the government, so why doesn't the Church get on board and say it's no longer dangerous or immoral?  He didn't have an answer.  I suspect for issues like gay marriage and abortion, in particular, the ones who say the Church should refrain from preaching on "political" issues are the same who demand the Church's teachings should change.  However, they will never admit that up front.

There are some who say that a persecution of the Church would actually be a good thing because it will strengthen its core members and weed out those who were only lukewarm.  Maybe.  The Church is not going to win popularity contests with its stance on the "issues" of the day, but it's not supposed to.  Churches becoming "relevant" or bending with the times are the same ones that are dying.  Right now, I would settle for the Church actually doing what it was founded to do--bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone, without conditions, emendations or changes.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Saw this on another blog, but it sums up pretty much all the cliched, nonsense in modern "contemporary" or "praise" or "relevant" church services.

HT:  Pastoral Meanderings

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Conversion and Divorce

A couple of days I got locked into an internet forum discussion (something which happens way too often and I need to stop) regarding the conversion of a spouse to Orthodoxy while the other remains in his/her confession of faith.  This does happen and I have observed it in my own parish to good and ill results.  While reading the comments, I saw a lot of responses that came off as wholly uncharitable to the person who did not convert which I thought was totally unacceptable.  The Church is to strengthen the weak and cure the ill, but the way it was being presented, it seemed that many wanted the Church to continue to make weak and make ill those who were not ready to come into the Orthodox faith. 

Before I was married I was told by a friend who has a good friend who is a divorce attorney that, in the USA, the single biggest reason for divorce is--after infidelity, abuse and financial pressures--differences in religion.  My wife is not Orthodox, something I do not and will not ever hold against her.  She is my wife and I love her and that love is not contingent upon her being a member of the Church because even the Church does not make that a contingency.  If my wife were atheist, agnostic or non-Christian in general, then there would be issues, but that's not the case. 

I have seen several instances where a non-Orthodox couple had one spouse who wanted to convert and the other didn't, for whatever reason.  Becoming Orthodox is not something that happens by signing a sheet of paper or coming to a couple hour long classes, but, in general is a whole year of catechesis, with expectations that you would come to the extra services during Great Lent (my particular parish only receives converts in on Holy Saturday; other parishes may do it whenever the need arises), and make confession to the priest along with a host of other requirements.  Becoming Orthodox is embracing a Christian dogma and practice that many, especially for those coming from a Western confession of Christianity, will and do see as quite foreign and incomprehensible.  And because of that it can leave family members estranged.  A good friend of mine told me that his in-laws will have nothing to do with their daughter anymore because she converted from Southern Baptist to Orthodoxy.  There are many examples of this.  It can be particular troubling for a spouse who is unwilling and hostile to the move.  The extreme outcome can be divorce which is hardly ideal.  If that is the way things go, then both spouses are going to have deal with a lot of pain, trauma, guilt, anger, etc.  And what of the kids?  They're going to be torn, too.  Should the plan for conversion keep going as planned?  I replied no.  And for that, I took all sorts of flack.

I counseled that in these situations, the priest--who, I assume, is well informed about the situation--would suggest patience and a longer time of discernment for the potential convert.  Perhaps, in time, the unwilling spouse will be willing to give her assent without the divorce and may even come over him/herself.  For suggesting that, I was vilified.  The responses and the tones were downright harsh.  Scripture was thrown at me like "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me" and the counsels from St. Paul in Ephesians about how women should submit to their husbands.  So, if a spouse converted, and the other spouse threatened divorce, the conversion should still happen?  It was pretty much a unanimous "yes."  So, the person who converts is going to be received into the Church (good for them), but will also have to suffer the pains of divorce along with the spouse and if there are children, what are they to think?  I replied that if the Church exists for all and desires to bring all to the knowledge of the Truth, is the Church doing that for the estranged spouse and the kids by essentially countenancing the divorce?  No, it's not.  The Church is, again, about strengthening the weak and curing the ill and to bring them into the Una Sancta.  Does anyone really believe that the estranged spouse and children are going to be willing to come into the Church after that?  I don't think so.  That's one great way to evangelize.

I have actually witnessed several couples divorce because one spouse wanted to convert and the other wasn't ready, but it went ahead anyway.  I have to ask why priests would allow this to go forward if there was such a risk?  Why not allow for extra time?  I think I have a possible answer.  Just as doctors are pressured by their patience to prescribe for them some drug or do some procedure to cure them from an illness, so priests are pressured often by converts who are so zealous to be received into the Church that they seem to fast track the process.  Of course, people are people, too.  And no matter how much you may try to accommodate them and help them, they just don't want it.

How serious of an issue is this?  I don't know if it's a rampant issue, but I have seen it play out a few times.  Divorce happened in two instances and almost happened in another.  The result of the latter situation was that the spouse who converted went back to Roman Catholicism.  I haven't heard from him in years.  There's not a one-size-fits-all solution nor should there be.  Unbending rigidity is only going to exacerbate the issue, not solve it.  It has to be dealt with pastorally and it has to be honest.  Should a priest go ahead and counsel the potential convert to go ahead knowing full well that it could estrange the other spouse, kids even leading to divorce? I would think that if time would work things out, then give it time. The Church isn't going anywhere.  I am frequently reminded by my priest that the spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint.  And many people are received into the Church on their deathbed.

The responses I received on this forum reeked in many ways of pride and arrogance.  If divorce happened, they said, and the conversion happened, then that was good.  None of them were of course defending divorce as anything less than a sin (however, divorce is allowed in the Orthodox Church, but a time of penance must follow), but the willingness to overlook it in favor of one more soul in the Church at the expense of harming another just struck me as uncharitable.  Situations like this require a case by case examination, but, being a married man and a father, I could not and would not anything that would risk my marriage and my kid's well-being for some immediate good.  Maybe just saying that makes me unworthy of Christ and His Church but if marriage, even in a marriage outside of the Church, is a martyrdom of the self for the glory of Christ and the Church for the salvation of both spouses, there has to be some gray.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reflections on Father's Day

This is now my third father's day.  Being called "daddy" by my soon-to-be-three-year old is something that 15, 10 or 6 years I would have deemed highly unlikely to impossible. Whenever my son says "daddy", it is at times difficult to hold back tears.  Here is a little boy who depends upon me and his mother for basically everything in his little life.  He is starting to assert some independence, but when it comes to the basics, he still needs me and will probably need me for a few more years before it becomes "uncool" or "embarrassing."  But, for the time being, I'll take every utterance of "daddy" with great joy.

My reasons for thinking that I would never become a father, let alone married, were myriad.  Chief among them was that I thought I was pre-declined for any possible date considering that when I started (very late when compared to most people), I was consistently rejected.  Then there was the possibility that I thought I would join the monastic life.  But, like I tell my students who think that they too will never have kids, things always change.

And what changes that being married and having a kid have made.  Perhaps to people who only know me on a very limited basis, I don't appear to have changed very much.  To those who are on more intimate terms, they see the change far more profoundly.  However, in self-examination, I tend to dwell on those areas I need to change but have not, for whatever reason.  But the changes that I and others have noticed were for the better.  Here are some general things I have learned over these past few years.

Parenting does change you because it requires sacrifice of self.  It requires you to forget about your own needs and wants and put the kid first above all.  Even though my wife and I were told by my priest during our premarital counseling sessions that we should not put our kids above our marriage, I find it difficult to impossible to do that.  My wife and I do spend a lot of time together in the presence of our son.  When we do get some time to ourselves, it's mainly to recharge or rest or sleep or get caught up on things that we simply need to do.  Date nights are scarce but they do happen.  But our kid always comes first.

Parenting is tough.  Duh!  I think the only people who would say otherwise are not parents themselves or just produced the kid and didn't do anything to raise him.  No more explanation needed.

Parenting requires you to be inventive.  I've found out just about every free thing a toddler can do around this town so he's entertained and we are not scrapping by.  

Parenting can also be low tech.  Do you want to know how far a tickle session can last?  I don't know what the record is but for the past 30 minutes before he went upstairs for his nighttime routine, I chased my son around and tickled him which he kept asking me to do!  It can grow tiresome, except for him.

When you get past one hurdle, another gets in the way immediately.  Our son has made great progress in his speech and vocabulary acquisition this year.  Now, we're on to another fun chapter:  Potty training.

Kids aren't going to sit still even at church.  I have to admit that I get frustrated taking my son to church because I spend a great deal of the Divine Liturgy out of the church tending to him and chasing him down.  He wants to get around and explore and play.  Sometimes this causes groans and moans from others in the nave who, I think, have forgotten what i is like to have young children.  As much as I try to prepare him to sit still and emphasize the importance of being quiet, when we get there, nothing of the sort happens. 

The faith resonates with him.  He doesn't understand the whys, the hows, the whats and the wheres, etc.  But, at home, he honors his icons, even saying "Pray for me" before his icon of St. Eleftherios and "have mercy" before his Christ icon.  He can make his sign of the cross (though in the Roman Catholic manner; nothing wrong with that. We can change later).  And he knows to say "Amen" after prayers in the evening and at meals. 

I've learned much over these past three years.  I've still much more to learn.  There is one thing, however, that I have only started to being to think to understand. This is something I would have had a hard time of doing without being married and having kids.  That thing is compassion.  I don't think that anyone can really even define compassion before they have kids.  And I don't think we can even begin to understand just how hard John 3:16 hits home until we have kids. 

To all the fathers out there, Happy Fathers Day.  To my father, in particular, thanks for showing me what I need to do to be maybe half as good a father to my son as you were to me.