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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Worship

The United States Citizenship test--take by immigrants who wish to become citizens--asks the tester to name two rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.  There are five rights:  Religion, Press, Assembly, Petition and Speech.  All of these rights are listed here because the Federal Government says it has no authority to dictate how individual States or citizens exercise these rights, if at all.  However, since 2008, a change has been made which, in my opinion, is not small or insignificant.  The change is that word "religion" has been changed to "worship."  This has caused some controversy and I was reading some headlines this morning, I discovered that the junior Senator from the State of Oklahoma, Mr. James Lankford, has sent a letter to the Director of Homeland Security requesting that the word "religion" only be accepted (assuming the tester listed that at all) in place of "worship."   The article's writer said that this is a "distinction without a difference."  Au contraire!

Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I believe that the people who authored the text of the U.S. Constitution were educated persons who knew what words meant. I would daresay that they knew more English words and how to use them correctly than most high school seniors who just received their diplomas this past month.  Considering that the Founding Fathers were journeying into unknown territory as far as government was concerned, I'm sure that the right vocabulary and grammar were an absolute necessity to communicate the ideals they wanted to enshrine.  They did not choose "worship."  They chose "religion."  And there is a distinction!  Quite simply, worship is private and personal.  Religion is public and communal.

Worship is the style of religion.  Religion is the substance that can (or not) make up a person.  For instance, I am a Greek Orthodox Christian.  I worship according to the Byzantine Rite following the parameters set up in the Typikon of the Great Church of Christ (with revisions made by Violakis).  That means, on most Sundays or feast days, I worship God according to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  No one, especially in the federal government, may dictate to me or to my church that I should be using some Roman Rite or some contemporary style on Sunday mornings or at any time I am engaged in prayer at my home or anywhere else I choose to be.

Freedom of Religion is the inalienable right that I may practice the dictates of my Church without fear of any federal government infringement.  This means that if I choose to close by business on a Sunday to observe the Sabbath, I may do so.  This means that if I choose not to bake a cake for a bunch of racists for their annual hate-a-thon against anyone, I cannot be compelled to.  This means that if I choose to give money to a beggar in the street, I may do so, regardless of some ordinance which forbids "panhanding."  And on and on it goes.

Religion is for all seven days of the week. Worship is for that one or two or three hour or whatever amount of time a person puts in at church, synagogue, mosque, drum circle, etc.  Freedom of religion dictates who I want to be in the presence of others who are not part of that particular church community. 

Now, obviously, I do not have the right to practice a religion that would deprive someone else of their life, liberty or property.  That means, if my church commanded me to kill a person on the third day of every month and I obeyed, I would rightly be prosecuted.  But my right to practice my religion in terms of with whom I choose to associate, business or not, is sacrosanct.  I am depriving nobody of life, liberty or property by not associating with them. Only the most twisted and sophistic reading of plain text can say otherwise. 

Regardless of one's religious proclivities in this nation which is becoming a less religious nation, that does not mean that those who choose to adhere to the dicta of their respective churches should abandon them.  That's the point of the first amendment, that it is guaranteed that I may hold on to my beliefs regardless of how society has moved with them.  At one point in time, many of the original states had State Churches.   Massachusetts, whose constitution was written by the very religious John Adams, even had the Congregationalist Church set up as the State Church.  Now, in time, that went away, but not because it was ordered to by a Supreme Court of the Congress of the United States.  Because there was a state church did not mean that the Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists were persecuted and thrown in jail.  They may not have been well liked, but that is a far cry from genuine persecution.

So, I support Mr. Lankford's letter and his aims.  We are a nation founded on the freedom of religion, on the right to practice our religion even and especially in the public sector. Changing the wording is changing the meaning and for those who wish to become citizens, they are being taught a lie.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Triple Crown Winner and Disproving Science

Yesterday, American Pharoah defied the odds and became the first Triple Crown Winner in 37 years.  Even if horse racing isn't your thing (it's certainly not mine), one cannot help but be impressed by the accomplishment of this rare feat. 

In the lead up to the Belmont Stakes, I couldn't help but notice on Facebook, twitter and many other media outlets about how science demonstrates that American Pharoah was not going to win the Triple Crown.  Now, notice the difference between saying the "odds do not favor" versus "science does not favor."  Science, we are constantly reminded, is grounded in fact which can be observed and measured.  So, if science says that there would be no Triple Crown Winner this year, then there should have been no Triple Crown Winner this year.  Lo, and behold.  Here, we are.   After all, just becomes teams don't match up on a piece of paper doesn't mean they don't play.  If a team is supposed to win nine times out of ten, there is still that one game for an upset.  That's what make sporting events fun.

Now, I have yet to notice one single person saying that the result "disproves" science.  And I don't think they should.  Because science is the result of observation and measurement, you cannot disprove that sound travels at 340.29 m/s, unless, of course, you were just wrong.  If all of the articles and memes and other media were talking about merely the odds, then no one should give it a second thought.  However, let's say for sake of argument that  American Pharoah was deemed to win by some religious authority, the media would go out of its way to say that the actual result disproves religion.  Of course, such a thing didn't happen, but one needn't search too hard to find that there are numerous "Studies", "archaeological evidence," "textual evidence," etc. that disprove what Christians teach from morality to God.  Every year around Easter, numerous news magazines like Time and Newsweek run articles about the Jesus Seminar and how their conclusions disprove what the Church teaches about Christ and His Resurrection.  And we are ordered to buy into that without any argument whatsoever.  Because, if science says, it must be true.

I am not writing this to deride science. I love science.  Had it not been for a few bumps in the road, I would have gone into medicine.  I love chemistry and biology in particular.  But science itself is not infallible.  It has been made that way by modern society as a more plausible alternative to God and, because of this, has become a religion in of itself, though the people who actually think this way will never admit that.  But science and scientists aren't always correct either.  One famous example I can give is that the famous Alexandrian scientist Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, but was about 2000 miles off.  Why?  He assumed that the earth was completely spherical and that the city of Cyzicus was directly south of Alexandria (which would form an arc on a circle).  He was wrong on both counts, but we can certainly excuse him for his mistakes.  Science evolves in its conclusions all the time based on the accumulation of more evidence.  But it does not explain the why of life?  Science can explain a lot of "whats" and "hows", but not "whys" especially the "why are we here" type questions.

I do not believe there is a contradiction between science and religion.  The two do work harmoniously together.  But science does require a moral component and science by itself does not have one.  That is why we have laws and religion.  We can technologically progress, but because we can doesn't always mean that we should.  Science needs responsibility to function well.  Science by itself does not guarantee a world that would resemble the planet Vulcan.  But still, even the Vulcans still had to deal with emotional and biological issues that could only be settled, at times, by fights to the death.

Science was not disproved yesterday by American Pharoah's winning of the Triple Crown.  The odds were not in the naysayers' favor.  Nor is the Resurrection of Christ disproven because one person thinks he found a tomb with an inscription on it of Jesus' name (that was later proven to be a hoax).  The only thing I want is for those people who venerate science so highly not use it as a club against those of the Christian church in particular and religion, in general.  And vice versa.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Anti-Hero and the Vague Ambiguity of "Good"

I just finished watching the seventh and final season of the show, Sons of Anarchy.  I don't even remember why or how I got into this show in the first place, but I stuck with it throughout and waited with eager anticipation for the release of the next season on Netflix.  If you want to watch a show which really drives you into the pit of despair concerning humanity and just how screwed up it can be, this is a good show to point you in that direction.  Now that I've finished it, I had a few thoughts. (Disclaimer:  Spoiler alerts.)

The show's protagonist is Jackson "Jax" Teller who has worked through the ranks of his Motorcycle Club (MC) called the Sons of Anarchy to become president.  Though a social club, they are a wealthy organization due to the legitimate businesses they have, but mainly from the  criminal enterprises they support, e.g. drugs, gun running, prostitution, pornography, etc.  Throughout the show, Jax wants to reform his MC since the enterprises it has engaged in has not only cost them the lives of friends and family, but also their wealth and connections and also put them under the microscope of law enforcement beyond the local level. 

Jax's father's ghost haunts him throughout the series.  His father who started the MC and was its president died mysteriously when Jax was a kid.  His father left behind a manifesto which detailed how the MC lost its way and how it can be changed.  Jax made that his mission.  But, for all of Jax's good intentions, for all of his cleverness and street-smarts, things blow up in his face.  More friends are killed.  His connection to his kids becomes more tenuous.  His mother's interests start to conflict with his to the point that she even goes so far as to kill Jax's wife in a fit of rage over a misconception.  In fact, misconceptions pervade the characters in this show. They think "x" when "y" has actually occurred.  And because they think "x" they act out on it immediately without thinking.  Jax's mother tells him that a rival gang killed Tara which spurs him to set into action a number of events that only leads to a lot more killing, a lot of new alliances, more killing, patching up damages, more killing and round and round we go.

All throughout this process of bodies being stacked up, we, the audience, are told by other characters about how Jax is a good person.  This is a man guilty of numerous murders, numerous felonies, unfaithfulness and being an absentee father.  He claims he does everything for his family, but hardly ever does he ever stop to think.  His clever solutions often find him digging a bigger hole for himself which trigger more "brilliant" solutions and bigger holes.  It never seems to end.  But, we are still told he's good and/or decent.  This decent man is responsible for killing his own mother.

It seems that modern TV has little to no use for the traditional hero who does right for the sake of doing right with little to no reward.  There are no longer any shows like The Rifleman or Buck Rogers where the hero of the story did good for good's sake.  Now, granted even in older shows like The Lone Ranger and Zorro, the hero was checkered a little bit since he operated outside the law.  But today's TV and even movie heroes, we are treated to more anti-heroes.  We want them to win, but at the same time our moral compass is praying for them to get caught and get what they deserve.  We see the same Jax "anti-hero" in other shows like Breaking Bad, White Collar, Suits, Bosch, Hell on Wheels, House of Cards, etc.   In movies, even the modern incarnation of Batman becomes less the traditional hero and more of an anarchist.  Yet, they are still referred to as good.

How far we have come as a society where the descriptor "good" is applied more to intentions than to reality.  It is true that Jax wants to do well for his family and make sure they are safe and taken care of.  But the extent he goes to ensure that results in death and destruction for everyone, especially him.  Without doubt, everyone wants to think of himself as good.  But even Jesus balked when someone called Him good saying that no one is good save God alone.  Facts are we are not good.  Intending to be is not the same as being.  Still, we like to confuse the two or say that they are one and the same.

I cannot explain the explosion of anti-heroes in modern television and cinema.  Maybe it has something to do with Americans wanting to cheer for the underdog, even if the underdog is a hardened criminal. But even if we do cheer for the criminal underdog, why does that presuppose wanting to imagine him or make him into some good person in his own right?  Is good an absolute or a relative term?  I think if we are really honest with ourselves, we know the answer to that question.  When and where the individual reigns supreme, the overreaching definition of a word or concept goes with it.

I am not suggesting that the perpetuation of such shows is the result of the devaluation of what constitutes good and bad.  Nor am I suggesting that there should be some censorship to reverse the course.  For the latter, that is in the hands of our parents, our teachers, our clergy, our friends and ourselves.  But what I do see is that we are going to have a lot fewer Lone Rangers and a lot more Jax Tellers in our entertainment.  The word, "good", will continually be redefined for each character to the point that as an absolute, it will be almost entirely absent.  Good intentions will rule the day. Considering how much TV our children watch, it will take a lot of effort to deprogram them.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

He hath trampled down death by His death

And bestowed life to those in the tombs.

Our waiting has been turned into joy and excitement at hearing the Gospel according to St. Mark announcing that the Lord was no longer in the tomb that He has arisen.   Death is no longer able to keep us captive.  We, too, will arise.  And after judgment, we will be enjoy alongside of Him the first fruits of a life in Christ.
  Let us go forth joyously and say "Christ is Risen."  Kalo Pascha.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

And now...we wait

Ever since His triumphant entry into Jerusalem with cries of Hosanna and Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord,  we have followed with the Lord every step of the way.  We kept watch for the Bridegroom to come like the ten virgins, we have been there at the cursing of the fig tree, we have been seen how the Lord will revile those who do not use the talents entrusted to them, we have been with Christ at his Last Supper, with Him at His betrayal by Judas, listened to Him speak about the hardships that necessarily come from being His Apostle and servant, watched Him as Master wash the feet of His servants, watched Him as He was tried like a common criminal by the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod, the denial of Him three times by Peter, His scourging, His agony, His ridicule, His march to Gologotha, His pleas that no one weep for Him,  His Crucifixion, His prayer for forgiveness to His Crucifiers, His bestowal of eternal life on the good thief, entrusting John the care of His mother, His cry of agony to His Father, His death, His piercing by the Spear, the oupouring of both blood and water, the confession of the Roman centurion, the destruction of the temple, the trembling of the earth, the sun blackened, the dead rising from their tombs, the tempest, His taking down from the Cross and entombment by Joseph of Arimethea and, today, His Harrowing of Hades, preaching to those already dead.  And now...we wait.

We have fasted, we have prayed, we have given alms, we have sacrificed time from our pursuits and even our families, we have denied ourselves some of our simple pleasures.  And now...we wait.

We wait as the excitement for our Lord's Resurrection as celebrated in the Rush and the Divine Liturgy is but only half a day away.  But still, we must wait.  We must not get ahead of ourselves.

The waiting IS the hardest part. You don't need Tom Petty to tell you that (although it is a pretty nice song).  His Resurrection will come.  And it will bestow eternal life to those in the tombs.  But now, we wait...and wait some more.  But, it WILL come.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not Getting What You Expected

In a remote area of England following the end of the First World War, a small country school  was given great news:  the King of England himself would be making a stop at the train station of their little town during his tour.  The children were excited like it was Christmas but unlike Santa Claus, they would actually be able to see their king in the flesh.  For the next few days, the children were busy making signs and greeting cards and decorating other knickknacks to present to the king.  At last the great day arrived and the king's train pulled into their little train station.  The children could barely contain their excitement when at last the door to the last passenger car. which had the Royal Seal on it, opened.  The King of England himself stood before the schoolchildren who were clapping, shouting and smiling like it was the best day of their life.  Several kids were able to give the cards they had made to the king and it was clear that he was very grateful for such an enthusiastic response.  After a few minutes, he waved again from his passenger car, got back in and the train left.  The schoolchildren were still left in a state of shock and awe after having witnessed such a spectacle.  The teachers rounded up the kids and were taking them back to school when one of the teachers noticed one child in tears and clearly upset.  She approached the little boy and asked him what was wrong.  He responded, "I didn't see a king today.  All I saw was a man in a suit."

Today, the Orthodox Church celebrates Palm Sunday, the triumphant entry of Jesus into the Holy City Jerusalem.  In front of him, cheering throngs received Him as He was carried in by an ass' foal.  The crowd laid down palms to mark his way.  Children shouted and sang "Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!"  The joy and excitement which overtook this crowd so suddenly about this prophet from Nazareth did not look like it would dissipate soon.  But, it did. For we know the rest of the story:  Betrayal, Trial, Agony, Suffering, Crucifixion, Death, Burial.

The throng that had greeted Jesus as He entered was awaiting the Messiah who would bring about a new golden age for the Jews and would start by ending the tyranny of Rome which had ruled over their country now for nearly a century.  Before the Romans, it was the Seleucids.  Before them, the Persians. Before them, the Babylonians. Before them, the Assyrians.  Before them, Philistines. Before them, Amalekites, Canaanites, etc. Before them, Egyptians.  The Jews knew suffering and oppression.  Maybe now, just now, with this prophet coming into the Holy City to celebrate the Passover, a time of deliverance from one of Israel's enemies,  the people were gazing upon the very man who would deliver them from any more suffering. Unfortunately, what they expected they did not receive.

I'm sure Christ Himself was confused as to just how wrong these people were, but He didn't stop to tell them that their reason for celebration and expectations were wrong.  For, as the Scripture says, which serves as the Orthros Prokeimenon for this day, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, Thou hast perfected praise."  They were rejoicing, which was right, but for the wrong reasons.  They all had an image of a conquering King, which was right, but wrong in what He was going to conquer.  And how quickly that joy and exultation turned to disbelief, anger and even hatred.  How quickly those cries of "Hosanna" changed to "Crucify Him!"

Such is the problem when people believe in an idea.  The idea may well be fine but not manifest in itself in the way you have hoped and prayed for.  I'm sure that was the issue for the Jews who greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday.  The problem with believing in ideas is that the idea itself doesn't care if you believe it or not.  That is why it is so dangerous, even in our postmodern culture, to reduce God with whom we can communicate personally to a mere idea.  Many people will say that they don't believe in God, but like the idea of God.  They like the idea of a God who is love, is compassion, is mercy is whatever good noun you can think of.  But, ideas cannot love you back.  Ideas cannot be compassionate or merciful with you.  Ideas don't work that way.  The Jewish people who had been suffering for so long were looking for an idea to save them.  God saves; ideas about Him do not. God loves; love as an idea does not love you back.

When that idea does not turn out as you would expect, it's very easy to immediately give in to anger, hatred, indifference, hardness of heart, etc.  Such a phenomenon doesn't just occur to Jesus on Palm Sunday, but happens all the time.  We have an idea of how the heroes of our culture are supposed to act and behave, but then react incredulously when we realize that they are just as sick and twisted as the rest of us.

Fortunately, for us, God does not and did not carry a grudge at those who had a false idea about what His Son would do.  Jesus still enters the city. He still is crucified and buried.  And He still rises on the third day.  A lesser God or a better man may well have reacted to the cheers and the laying of palms on the ground with "You have got it all wrong. And because you have it all wrong, you're not getting anything now!  I'm going home!"  But He didn't do that. His crucifixion and death and burial and resurrection were still for all.  Remember that even His Apostles still did not know what was going on.  The myrrhbearing women had to tell them and remind them of what Jesus had preached for all this time leading up to His Passion.   

As we enter into Holy Week, we know that we will receive what we expect:  The Lord, Resurrected, Triumphant over Death for us. For us.  FOR US and our salvation.