Thursday, December 20, 2018

Evangelism and the Orthodox Church

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you..." (Matthew 28:19-20a)

     This commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ, given to His disciples after His resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven, is known by some as the "Great Commission." It serves as the basis for evangelism today as it has served the Church since the Day of Pentecost. Insofar as I am representative of my brother clergy in the Orthodox Church, it is something with which I wrestle from time to time. It is a rare gathering of priests for a clergy conference or retreat which does not produce at least some brief discussion, among those clergymen who are converts to the Orthodox Church and Faith, usually from one of the Protestant churches, about how we could be more effective in sharing the Good News - which is to say, "doing evangelism" - on behalf of the Church in which we serve, and very much that others would also embrace. Notably absent from such conversations, with a few exceptions, are those among the "cradle" clergy. Their answer is inarguably correct: "Pray, do the services, and leave the evangelism to God." I can't argue with that logic, but, all the same, it makes me feel uneasy. It can't be that simple - can it? A hint of "things to come": much of what I am thinking about now, and so expressing here, comes after reflecting upon the life and ministry of the holy prophet Zephaniah, commemorated by the Church on the 3rd day of December (new style; 16 November old style). 

     If I had to guess, I'd say that most of us, when we hear the word, "evangelism," think of people going door-to-door to tell people about Jesus Christ. Does that really happen anymore, apart from groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter-Day Saints? I'm sure that, somewhere, there are Christians participating in this type of activity, although they've never come to my door, unlike the aforementioned groups. It was popular for a time to discuss approaches such as "Evangelism Explosion" (I still have the book on my bookshelf), "Lifestyle Evangelism," and even the use of, at the time, "advanced" technology to reach out effectively into the community. Once upon a time, a congregation (not in the Orthodox Church) which I was assigned to pastor used an auto dialer with a recorded message asking two simple questions with the recipient of the call to enter a tone from their telephone in response. We even filled our worship area with those who were interested enough to come and see what we were up to, and two families joined as a result. Did I mention that the equipment cost $1100? I'm not sure two families were enough to justify the expense to the diocese. When we were finished our campaign, we passed the equipment along to another congregation. I don't know whether they had any success. But in the end, using the telephone as telemarketers was really nothing more than going door-to-door anonymously.

    Christianity is not alone in possessing the concept of proselytization. Although it is not mainstream among Muslims, the last few decades have seen an increased number of Christians who convert to Islam, with many responding to techniques which are sometimes similar to those utilized by Christians. One of these is the use of the internet to answer basic questions about what Muslims believe and how they put their beliefs into practice, as well as to provide basic instruction about how to become a Muslim. A powerful element could be described as an Islamic version of "lifestyle evangelism." It can have a powerful impact when a Christian whose life is more immersed in the ways of western culture than in a life of discipleship observes the fervor evident when visiting a mosque, or when invited to a Muslim home. (Indeed, the same is true when a nominal Christian visits a "seeker's service" at an LDS center, or learns of the practices of a devout LDS family, and especially of their concentration on the family.) The Christian who has never experienced or been taught will often think or say, "That's the way it should be!" They aren't wrong. However, they are misinformed as to the true and deep meaning of Christianity and have not been given a proper example. Orthodox Christians are not exempt. Where we have not been diligent in teaching and demonstrating the Orthodox way of life, or if Orthodoxy is more of an aspect of our (larger) culture than the life-transforming faith it is meant to be, we can be left feeling as vacant and hungry for more as any other Christian might be, and so become drawn to embrace a different religion.

    Apart from these two of the three world monotheistic religions, there isn't much evangelism taking place. Buddhists and Hindus may, to cite two examples among many, invite those who are curious to learn more, and those who act on this invitation may come to follow these teachings, as opposed to those of Christ and His Church. Most striking (to me) in reflecting on the question of evangelism concerns the third of the Abrahamic traditions, the one to which Christianity is most closely related: Judaism. There is no evangelistic "mission" in Judaism - at least, not in any form which remotely resembles that of Protestant Christianity. Yes, there are converts to Judaism - for example, the Roman official who is named as a friend of the Jews, having contributed to their synagogue; but Judaism does not have a "Great Commission," and so, by and large, lacks a missionary perspective which arises from the same. Judaism is determined by descent from Abraham: if you are his descendant, you are Jewish. Practicing the teachings and precepts of Judaism does not transform the non-descendent into a Jew, even if he is circumcised, and failure to practice the "essentials" of Judaism does not make a descendent a non-Jew. (By the way, when you hear of the "land of Israel" or the "people of Israel," don't hear it as being a reference to a specific geographical location, such as the "nation of Israel" as a citation of a political jurisdiction in the Middle East. The people making up the nation are the children of Israel, in the house (that is, "household") of Israel: that is, the man Israel, who was given the name "Jacob" at his birth, the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham, father of the twelve tribes of Israel, heir to the first covenant, ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ.)

     Enter the prophet Zephaniah. He was the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, a righteous King of Judah, whose efforts to guide the people of Israel in accordance with the ways of the covenant were reversed by his son, Manasseh, whose wickedness was unparalleled among the descendants of King David. (Among other things, Manasseh is "credited" with ordering the death of the prophet Isaiah.) Zephaniah prophesied in Jerusalem and was a contemporary of Jeremiah the prophet, as well as of Nahum, and perhaps Habbakuk, as well. His ministry could be summed up by saying that he declared to the people of Israel the coming judgment of God upon those who had departed from the way of holiness and lived according to the ways of the world, rather than according to the requirements of the covenant with God. Those who repented and took up once more the way of holiness would be spared, and in this would find the Lord's salvation. Those who did not repent would be destroyed.

      Zephaniah's prophetic message is consistent with all of the prophets who spoke on God's behalf, whether counted among the major prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, or among the minor prophets, including Zephaniah. All of these prophets were sent to urge the people of Israel to repent of their departure from the covenant with God. Here's an interesting note: none of them were sent to any of the nations or peoples in whose midst the people of Israel lived. God did not send a prophet to Pharaoh in Egypt after Moses led His people from that land into the land of Canaan. God did not send a prophet to the king of Assyria, or to the King of Babylon, or to any other ruler. The prophets spoke to Israel, and only to Israel. But why might that be of any importance to evangelism in the Orthodox Church?

     The answer is found in the first Covenant. Summing it up as best I can, God has promised that He will be the God of Israel (through Abraham), protecting them and providing for them for as long as they walk in the way of holiness and righteousness. The history of the people of Israel shows that when they chose to live in a manner pleasing to God, they were blessed with peace and prosperity; but when they departed from doing so, their blessings were taken away, and at times they became the captives of the pagan kingdoms around them; most notably being conquered by Assyria and then Babylon.

     Digging deeper, the sending of the prophets to speak only to Israel suggests that a part of God's purpose in establishing a covenant with Israel was to place in the midst of the pagans, amid those dwelling in darkness and in the shadow of death a light to guide others to a holy way of living. The Jews were meant to be missionaries, not by knocking on doors, but by turning away from the ways of the world to follow instead the precepts of the kingdom of heaven. The Ten Commandments were, and are, instrumental in guiding God's people. In the midst of the multitude of idols worshipped as gods, His people were to declare and to worship the one true God. They were to show to others the mercy God showed to them in setting them free from slavery in Egypt. They were to lie together in peace, respecting the persons and property of others. In all these things (and more), they were to be an example of the life pleasing to God, and, in this way to draw all those of the other nations and peoples to emulate the same, and so entering into the covenant by the faith and virtues coming through the people of God.

     Christians are also people of the covenant, and especially of the New Covenant in Christ. The guiding principle is stated by our Lord Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 22:37-40: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything in the Law and in the prophets depends on these two commandments. Sometimes we say that Christians are the new Israel. As such, we are heirs of the promise, and we are also inheritors of the obligation to do our part in keeping the covenant, living as lights to a world where many people are still held captive. They are held captive by their passions. They are held captive by those who use and oppress them for their own purposes. (In this, their captors also need to be set free, and the way of the covenant is there for them every bit as much as it is for any of us.) They are held captive by false teachings. They are held captive by ignorance of holiness and righteousness, and their ignorance of the love of God, and the mercy and grace which flow from that love. If we do not tell them, how will they know? If we do not show them, how will they follow?

     Whether we like it or not, we have the Great Commission entrusted to us. We, therefore, cannot be silent; we must tell of the things God has done for us, and, above all, what has been done for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, we are to be evangelists, even knocking on doors, if we must. But the message of the Good News will be far more powerful if we are living according to what we say we believe. As so many who were touched by our Lord in the time of His ministry among us in the flesh, even when told to be silent, we must speak. But, as the saying goes, "Actions speak louder than words." If we say we are Christians, let us live as Christians: humble, gentle of heart, forgiving, generous, loving, and doing all in our power to turn away from the world and do what is pleasing to God. As Israel of old was set in the midst of pagans and idolaters to show them there is a better, higher, way of living, we, the new Israel, must do the same. When this happens, when our words are consistent with our belief in Christ in action, then we will be true evangelists.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Why Does the Orthodox Church Pray for the Dead?

Yesterday, someone of my acquaintance who is curious about the Eastern Orthodox Church asked me, "Why does the Eastern Orthodox Church pray for the dead?" I thought I'd share my response to this person here. (It's published verbatim.)

Short answer: They're not dead. (Mark 12:27; Luke 20:38)

Longer answer: What happens when we depart this life? The Orthodox Church believes that some will find themselves in the paradise of which our Lord Jesus spoke when He said to the repentant thief on the cross, "Today you shall be with me in paradise." These are not in need of our prayers; but other than those who have been recognized by the Church as saints, we do not know who they are, and so we offer prayers for them. As for the rest of the departed, they find themselves in a state of suffering as they await the time when the Lord will "come again to judge both the living and the dead" (as we recite in the "Symbol of Faith," as the Nicaean Creed is called). On that great and terrible Day of Judgment, the final disposition of every human soul will take place: some (those on the Lord's right hand) will enter into the Kingdom, while others (those on His left hand) will depart into torment without end. Some of those entering the Kingdom at that time will be those who are now enjoying paradise; but some will be from the group of those now undergoing torment: and these are the people for whom we offer prayers, both privately and as the Church. Part of the reason for this arises from visions which several saints were given, showing that the prayers offered in this life are effective on behalf of those who departed this life, either in reducing the level of suffering, or its duration, with some even being set free to enter paradise from hades (the name generally given to the temporary place of torment). Another part of the reason for this practice rests on the biblical statements such as the ones cited above, and the understanding that "God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his ways, and live." (Ezekiel 33:11, as quoted in the Prayer of Absolution at the end of one's confession.) Just as we pray for one another in this, the land of the living, trusting that such prayers are often helpful for those mentioned in these prayers (such as for healing, or for deliverance from difficult circumstances), so we believe that our prayers can also be helpful to those who have departed this life who are not yet in "a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of repose, from which all sickness, sorrow, and sighing are fled away," as we pray in the Funeral Service and in the memorial services offered for the departed.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Chicago, Free Speech, and the Silencing of the Trump Campaign Event

There will be those among you reading this who may be celebrating the cancellation of the appearance by candidate Donald J. Trump, which had been scheduled for this evening at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion.  This is unfortunate, and it does not bode well for the future of this country.  Please allow me to tell you my reasons for making such a statement.  There are, as well, some of you who are celebrating who have made the accusation that Mr. Trump is little more than a fascist, even going so far as to equate him as being on a par with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.  You are wrong; and I have replied to some of you, on another forum, by asking, "Where are Mr. Trump's Brown Shirts?"  That is not an idle question, and the silencing of his speech tonight may mark a step in a direction I know none of us wants to see our country take, but which may be taking place all the same, unless things change.  Again, please allow me to elaborate.

Those of you who know me know that I "came of age" politically during the late 1960's and early 1970's, as part of the time when the struggle for Civil Rights was taking place, and especially during the protests against the war in Vietnam.  I voted for the first time in the presidential election of 1972 for Senator George McGovern, who lost in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon. Four years later, I voted for the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party, Peter Camejo, who was later the Green Party candidate for governor in California, and, in 2004, was Ralph Nader's vice-presidential running mate in his independent bid for election as President.  I mention all of this simply as a way of saying that I am no stranger to the politics of protest, to the need for free speech, and for a desire to reform our society for the better.  That my personal political position has moved toward the center is more the result of my recognition that genuine change cannot truly be accomplished by imposition from without; it must be the result of an inner regeneration, by the laying aside of who we were before and by being renewed in the spirit of our mind, as St. Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus.  Put another way, you cannot legislate morality; at least, not to the depths of one's being.

Civil society rests upon civility: upon respect for the other person, even when we disagree.  Once upon a time, and that not so very long ago, this went without saying.  Across the political spectrum, there was an almost-universally shared respect for the rights accorded by the Constitution, including the right to the freedom of speech accorded by the First Amendment.  In a quotation sometimes attributed to Voltaire, to Patrick Henry, and to Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," we expressed something that approached the sacred in political discourse: the right to be allowed to speak our mind, even in the face of opposition, even when the message was massively unpopular.  Indeed, sometimes the more unpopular the message, the more important it was to express it - at least, that's how it seemed to its proponents.  Even when protests were met with counter-protests, there was an expectation of civility, and that the law was meant to protect both sides of the argument - both sides had a right to be heard. There were exceptions; there are always exceptions - but it was unthinkable to "infiltrate" a rally being held by one side by opponents with the express purpose of disrupting the event, with the goal of effectively silencing those whose point of view was one with which we disagreed.  We might be noisy and disruptive outside; we might silently protest inside; but it was a "given" that those who acted disruptively to silence the speaker or speakers with whom we disagreed could just as easily do the same to us; and how could we know how to refute their arguments if they were not given the opportunity to state their case?  Alas, the silencing of Mr.Trump at the rally tonight, as was the case earlier in the campaign season when "activists" from the "Black Lives Matter" organization disrupted a rally for candidate Bernie Sanders, ultimately preventing him from addressing his supporters, shows that the earlier civility is no longer operative in the political arena today.  That is, as I have said, unfortunate, and does not bode well for us as a country.  How can we reason together and find a way forward together if we cannot state our positions to each other?  We have to be willing to listen to each other, even if we do not agree.

If that was all, however, I probably wouldn't be writing at this time.  Far more troubling, although definitely related, is the reality that the disruption achieved at the Trump event tonight is due, in part, to the efforts of organizations opposed to the candidacy of Mr. Trump to deliberately and intentionally disrupt the event. These include paid "community organizers" on the left - I won't dignify their organizations by naming names, but if you pay any attention at all, you don't need me to point them out for you - and it is part of my duty to point out just how dangerous this activity can be for us as a society and people.  Remember my question earlier, "Where are the Brown Shirts?"  As I was back then, I have continued to be a student of history, something many of you, my fellow Americans, either have forgotten or were never really taught.  As such, you might not know how the Brown Shirts in Germany or the Black Shirts, their counterparts in Italy, came into being.  Do you know what functions they were formed to serve?  Initially, they had two roles to fulfill: to protect the meetings held by their party (the National Socialist German Worker's Party, in the case of the Brown Shirts) against efforts by the leftists to disrupt their meetings; and to break up the meetings and rallies held by the parties on the left. Now, the turmoil in post-World War One Germany was such that it is probably impossible to say who came first: the thugs on the left, or the thugs on the right; and it's most likely that the two more or less came into being simultaneously, in response to the general unrest in which the politics and economy of Weimar Germany operated.  The same cannot be said for the situation we are faced with today.  There are no Brown Shirts operating openly - at least, not yet. However, the same cannot be said for the disruptive forces and organizations on the left - the "evil twins" of any nascent Brown Shirts of today.  I am not a prophet; but at a certain point it takes no special talent to read the signs of the times.  As a watchman on the wall, I must say that, unless there are changes made to the way things are taking place, we are heading for troubles that will lead us away from civility and freedom, and into the fires of hatred and repression unthinkable for America even fifty years ago, when Freedom Riders were facing off with hooded Klansmen and antiwar protesters were shot and killed by the National Guard. Let us hope and pray that all the candidates, Mr. Trump included, will urgently call upon their followers for mutual respect and restraint; and that each of us will do our part in laboring to restrain our baser instincts, consider others as being better than ourselves, and renew our commitment to loving our neighbors, even when we do not agree with their choice of candidate.  Otherwise, may the Lord have mercy on us, for we are lost...

Friday, December 18, 2015

What to Do If Syrian Refugees Relocate Into Your Neighborhood

     If you have a Facebook page, the chances are good that you've seen this meme; probably more than once, and perhaps more than you'd care to see it - not because you object to what it says, necessarily, but simply because seeing it over and over again begins to feel as if you're being bludgeoned. Other than acute overexposure, however, there really isn't anything objectionable to the message being conveyed here. The small print sets out the crux of the matter, at least for those of us who profess the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, as it urges us, as Christians, to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, and to not be like, "the other guy"; a misnomer, given that, in the parable as our Lord taught it involves two other "guys" - a priest of the Temple and a Levite. But before this becomes a Bible study or a commentary, let's agree that the meme encourages us, rightly, not to panic in the event that we find ourselves living in the vicinity of refugees from Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East); and to react to them as neighbors should when encountering people in need: by reaching out to them to meet their needs, beginning at the practical level, and continuing to the higher levels of friendship and community, insofar as all are willing to partake and receive.

     Now, if this was all there was to the matter, I wouldn't be writing, as the meme is quite clear on its own. But part of the conversation that has taken place in response to this idea appearing on various timelines speaks of a fear that the act of reaching out to a refugee family will put the person showing the hospitality of a neighbor to a refugee at risk of harm, or even of death.  Sometimes the recent tragedy in San Bernardino, California, in which fourteen people were killed and twenty-two were injured when two self-professed jihadis attacked a Christmas party attended by coworkers and their families, many of whom had done for one of the shooters what the meme calls for us to do as neighbors, is mentioned as a reason for caution, or even for the rejection of showing the kindness the meme suggests. Friends have expressed their concern for the "good people" they know, not wanting them to put themselves in harm's way - an understandable sentiment, to be sure. How, then, should we respond?
     To me, the answer to this question is twofold. The first approach is by analogy, and considers the act of giving, especially (but not exclusively) in its charitable sense. Usually, when you give someone a gift, it's theirs, and no longer yours. You don't own it any more, and they can do what they want with it - no strings attached.  A common example - and a common dilemma - is the person on the street corner with a cardboard sign, asking for help. We have a tendency, first of all, to want to keep what we have for ourselves, don't we? "After all," we say to ourselves, "I've worked too hard to just throw my money away!" Of course, when we throw our money away on ourselves, well, that's different, isn't it? So we must begin by overcoming this selfishness, in which we are assisted by recalling our Lord's teaching, as summarized by the statement, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35) The next obstacle is the thought that the recipient of our charity will not use what we intend to give for the stated purpose - usually, for something to eat. We think, "They'll just use it to buy drugs, or booze! Why should I give them money when they'll only use it for their destruction?" Having talked ourselves into giving, we can just as easily talk ourselves out of it again, unless we also grasp this aspect, which is also the relevant point when it comes to our discussion about the risk of helping Muslim refugees: our part is not to decide what the recipient of our alms might do with them; our part is to decide to give, We will not be held accountable if the recipient takes the money we had given them to buy food and uses it for some other purpose; they will be the ones who answer for their actions, as we will be for ours. If we had the opportunity to give alms to a beggar and did nothing, because our hearts were hardened, we shall suffer the consequences for our failure to show compassion; and, in the same way, if we have the opportunity to show compassion to a refugee because our hearts were fearful, we will bear the consequences for our failure to love our neighbor as we love ourselves - another commandment given to us by our Lord.
     The second approach is more direct. Christians have been at risk of torture and death since the day our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified. From the Day of Pentecost, when the Church was established by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and disciples gathered together, until the Edict of Milan was issued in the year of our Lord 313 by the Emperor Constantine the Great, Christians were persecuted by various emperors, governors, and other imperial officials. As the Gospel was brought to new lands by missionaries, many more were martyred for their faith: some upon encountering pagan peoples, and, as Islam began to spread, when Christians and Muslims came into contention. Persecutions and martyrdom continue to this very day and hour - the Syrian refugees whom some people say we should fear might very well be Syrian Christians fleeing the persecution that has driven the Church from the place where it has been for almost two thousand years. Hundreds of thousands of Christians suffered at the hands of the Bolsheviks, with uncounted numbers of martyrs within the last one hundred years in every land where the yoke of Communist oppression has fallen. Dying for the sake of Christ is not new; and it is not old. Those of us in the western world have been blessed with safety and prosperity - and perhaps we have grown soft, and have forgotten, even as we are aware of the history of the martyrs, that to be a Christian has been, and is supposed to be, at some level, a dangerous thing. Our adversary, the devil, does not need to attack us with any intensity if we are only going through the motions when it comes to living our faith in Christ; but when we begin to take it seriously, we threaten his dominion, and we should not be surprised if the attacks and temptations we experience begin to increase. Perhaps how we respond to the danger of the refugees is part of that temptation. Is our fear of death greater than our love?
     Which brings us to this: If we know who we are as Christians, we should not fear death, except to the extent that we are not ready to stand before God to give an account for our lives. Apart from being judged, however, death is not the end: it is simply the doorway by which we depart from this life and enter into the life to come. Let me put it another way: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS DEATH. Granted, at some point, for some reason, our bodies cease to function, and the person we are, as a combination of immortal soul and mortal body, is no longer present as such in this material world. We describe that state as, "death"; but such a death is not the end. As Christians, we know that we do not cease to exist, for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.  Death is no longer something to fear, but rather something for which we need to prepare, so that we might be ready to meet our God.  So, if our lives in this world are cut short as were the lives of those fourteen who died at the hands of a coworker whom they had befriended in San Bernardino, what have we lost? NOTHING. It would be better, I think, to reach out with the love of Christ to meet the needs of the refugee family next door, or down the street, even if that causes my death at their hands, because of their hatred, than to do nothing because of my fear. Who knows whether our showing them Christ's love - even if we never get the chance to speak of Him to them - might be a step toward overcoming their hatred - or their fears?  Let us do the right thing, and trust in the Lord, being fearless in the grace of God; and let us love our neighbor, no matter where he, or she, or they, may be from, as we love ourselves.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Politicians and Character

       Anyone who knows me knows that I am a political junkie.  I don't know when it started; it could have been as early as junior high.  By the time I was in high school, politics seemed unavoidable - and I don't mean the student council level kind, although I was elected to serve on what was called the, "Council of Twenty-Five." (Ours was an experimental school at the time, and we did a lot of things that were, well, unusual.) The Vietnam War was raging on, with over half a million men fighting for... what?  We were given all sorts of reasons - and that's not the purpose of this post, so it's
Richard Nixon was elected as President
in the 1968 election in part because he
told the American people that he had
"a secret plan to end the war."
probably best not to go there right now! (Maybe another time...) But I know I couldn't wait to vote, and if I recall correctly, the voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen years of age around that time.  That meant that I was able to vote in the 1972 election, and I still remember waiting in line for hours to cast my vote for... well, it wasn't the winner, I'll say that much, anyway.  But since that election, I have only failed to vote one time: in 1996.  We were living in California - San Francisco, to be exact - and I knew that every candidate I would have supported and every ballot proposition option I would have selected was a lost cause, a moderate drop that would be quickly swallowed up and lost in the midst of a sea of progressivism. Even so, that never prevented me from being vocal. I still recall a letter I received from the member of Congress who represented the district in which we lived, to whom I had written to express my views on a particular issue, asking that the vote to be cast soon take my stance into consideration.  I think the word, "snotty" is all I want to say of the tone of what was expressed in the reply.  Probably best to move on.  Anyway, if you go back a ways in the archive of this blog, you'll find a sample or two of some political thoughts.  On election day, my family knows that I'll be glued to the television set, up all night watching the returns as the votes are tallied.  Want to know how serious it can be?  Remember the referendum in Scotland in September, 2014? I stayed up all night and into the early hours of the morning, counting votes, until every last district had reported in.  Scotland!  Okay, our family is Scots-Irish, so there's a bit of a connection; but while a sane and sensible person would have been content to go to bed at a normal hour and get up in the morning to find that a majority of those voting had opted to remain in union with the rest of Great Britain, that wasn't how it was for me...
       So far in this campaign cycle, I've seen (or heard) the majority of both Republican debates (the main events, that is: I missed the "matinee" event which preceded the first major debate), and the majority of the Democrat debate, which took place just a bit over a week ago.  Frankly, the Republican debates are still too much of a circus - there are too many participants to take them all seriously.  We need someone like Gordon Ramsey to choose at least one, or maybe two, at the end of each debate, and have them turn in their microphones, and get off of the stage, and not return. Cut the
"Right. Your poll numbers are lower than
a sheep's bollocks. Hand over your
microphone and leave Hell's Stage."
number down to five.  That's still too many, but it's at least on the fringe of being manageable.  As for the Democrat debate, they started with five, but there's already been some sorting out done there, as well, with former Senator Webb withdrawing earlier this week from the contest.  That's too bad. He brought a great deal of integrity, and more than a few good ideas, in my opinion, to the discussion - when he could get a word in edgewise.  I know some commentators have dismissed him as a "whiner" for objecting to how much time was being given to others, but I thought he had a point. As I was listening, it was clear that the moderator, Mr. Cooper, was either unwilling or unable to restrain Mrs. Clinton, who repeatedly blew down the verbal "stop signs" he attempted to give her, time after time.  It was hard not to conclude that, to some degree, this was not so much a debate as a showcase, with the other four there to serve as "window dressing" against which to display Mrs. Clinton at her finest.
       The "highlight" of the debate for many was the moment when Senator Sanders gallantly sprang to Mrs. Clinton's defense regarding the email server issue, saying that the American people have had enough of the matter, and that it is time to move on.  I remember distinctly saying (I talk back to the radio or television from time to time, especially during moments such as these), "You don't speak for me, Bernie! I haven't had enough!"  Mind you, it's not that I want the details: but the entire issue is of concern to me, because it speaks to the character of the former Secretary of State as a candidate for the office of President of the United States.  Did she break the law?  Even if she did not, did she act as if she was above the law, or as if the law did not apply to her?  Did she at any time treat sensitive information in a casual or even careless manner?  If she did any of these things as the Secretary of State, would she feel in any way constrained from doing the same, or worse, if she became the President?  Did she lie about what she did?  Why did the story that she told change over time?  Why did she say at first that she didn't, and then later admit that she did?  How did she not know about the second server?  Who ordered the first server to be erased? Why wasn't the second server erased?  I mean, the list could go on, and on, and on; and that's just about the email issue.  There are others, perhaps even more important, such as what happened in Benghazi, where four Americans, including our Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, died in a violent attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound and at another nearby location on September 11, 2012. Ten others were injured by the attacks, which occurred after requests for increased security had been denied by the U.S. Department of State, led by Secretary Clinton at that time.
       My point is not to examine the particulars of these or other criticisms made by the moderator during the debate, or by other candidates for the Democrat nomination, or by Republican candidates, or by pundits in the media.  Obviously, I have been giving this a good deal of thought, trying to decide, first of all, whether to even say anything at all.  Now, having decided that I want to make a statement that the issue is one of character, more than of content, I have to say that my thought process took a most unexpected turn this past Sunday morning.  Quite often, I will wake up before my alarm goes off to start the day, rising to get dressed and do the preparation prayers for Holy Communion - the "yellow book" and the "blue book," for those familiar with the Jordanville booklets containing the "Canons for Holy Communion" with its yellow cover, and the "Order of Preparation for Holy Communion," with its pale blue cover. Usually, I will use the time to reflect on the theme of the sermon that will be delivered after the Gospel has been read during the Divine Liturgy.  This past Sunday ran pretty much true to form, until, all of a sudden - and with no discernible connection to the sermon that I could ascertain - I realized that my focus on the character of candidate Clinton was entirely misplaced.  Has she done things that were foolish?  I have done worse.  Has she done things that were dangerous, if only potentially?  I have done worse.  Has she been wicked, a servant of evil?  There is no way I can answer that question for her or about her; but for myself, the answer, I am ashamed to say, has to be, "yes." How, then, can I presume to question or challenge her character, when my sins are undoubtedly greater, more wicked, more vile?    
       Anyone who knows me knows that I am a political junkie.  However, they also know - at least, they should know - that I do not endorse candidates, or parties, or ballot propositions.  It is not my place to use the pulpit, or the teaching authority entrusted to me, to tell you what to do in such situations. The Church is not, and should not be, a political agent.  Certainly, we have a duty and a responsibility to proclaim what is moral and acceptable and pleasing to God, and to warn of what is immoral, and therefore not pleasing to God.  The Church should be active in shaping your conscience; and, as Jiminy Cricket famously advised Pinocchio, "Let your conscience be your guide." That's good advice, as long as you are doing your best to bring your heart and mind and soul closer to knowing and doing the will of God; and if you are regular in your attendance in the worship services of the Church, are attentive to your prayers both in the worship services and in your home, if you are giving from the bounty God has entrusted to you for the needs of others, and laboring to turn away from the sins that always seem to trip you up, your conscience will not fail to give you the advice you need when it comes to knowing how to vote on any particular issue, or how to choose between the candidates for the office for which you are about to cast your vote.  Does the person support or oppose the positions you hold on matters which are of the greatest importance, or not?  Can the person be trusted to keep their word, or not?  Find out all you can, pray all the while, and then make the best decision you can make.  I will be doing my best to do the same.  We may not always arrive at the same conclusions! But we can't go wrong if we do it that way, if we fulfill our duties as citizens in this way.  It's complicated at times: are we citizens of this world, or of the world to come?  Sometimes, the answer to that question is simply, "yes"; and in holding dual citizenship, if only for a brief while, we are called upon to carry out our duties in both realms, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's. May the God Who calls us and gives us grace to respond to His love with love grant to each of us, as the time for the crucial decisions to choose our leaders for the years ahead, and especially for the President of our nation, the remembrance that those who are seeking our support are also sinners, just like us - and that we are called to be merciful, as we hope to receive mercy.  May no harsh words pass our lips, may no anger, dismay, fear or despair trouble us in heart, mind or spirit, and may God raise up a person worthy of His blessing and our support when the time comes for us to cast our votes.
       Oh, and, don't worry.  I'm sure this isn't the last time I'll have something to say before Election Day arrives in November, 2016!