Monday, December 07, 2009

Osama bin Laden and "1984"

picture of usama bin laden

There's been some buzz over the weekend about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. One member of the Obama Administration, National Security Advisor General James L. Jones, was recently quoted saying that bin Laden, the "mastermind" of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and on the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., has been moving across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; while Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that we don't know where he is -- and haven't known for years. In my opinion - my highly uninformed opinion - both are correct.

What strikes me most about these news reports is not so much the farce of the hunt for bin Laden as how he continues to be brought out from time to time by the media. For some reason, he strikes me as the modern-day equivalent of the character Emmanuel Goldstein, from George Orwell's novel, 1984. Goldstein is the novel's Leon Trotsky to Bib Brother's Josef Stalin: once a member of the highest level within the Party that rules Oceania who broke with Big Brother and formed "The Brotherhood" for the purpose of bringing down the Party. Consequently, every failure that is acknowledged by the Party is blamed on Goldstein and the Brotherhood; and Goldstein features prominently in an exercise known as the "Two Minute Hate"; with his image being replaced by that of Big Brother, whose appearance brings calm and peace and joy to the rank and file at the end of the Two Minute Hate.

Now, I'm not saying that bin Laden fits the mold of Goldstein as an analogue of the "Goldstein equals Trotsky" element of the novel; but I can see that he is very definitely "in play" in a toned down version of the Two Minute Hate. To see the picture of bin Laden is to see again the Twin Towers on fire, and then collapsing; to recall the horror of that day, and its aftermath; to be moved once more by the deaths of thousands of people; and ultimately to respond with revulsion, and a continued dedication to tracking him down and bringing him to justice.

Please don't misunderstand: I am not a supporter of bin Laden or of Al-Qaeda. I utterly reject the use of terror and murder; and yes, I would not be opposed to his being brought before the bar of justice should he actually be captured. My point is a larger one, and one that I have written about before, on August 8th and 10th back in 2006. In these posts, I mentioned how the "War on Terror" - in which the hunt for bin Laden plays a major theme - touches on aspects of life as experienced in the world of Orwell's novel: especially how the state of "permanent warfare" that transformed the United States and Great Britain into "Oceania" (with Great Britain becoming "Airstrip One") parallels the "War on Terror" whose end cannot be seen. In order to inflame the passions, and so to keep the support of the people for this war without end, the symbol of Osama bin Laden as the agent of destruction serves a very useful purpose, indeed: all the more so in that there really is a good reason to pursue him. Yet we must always be aware, and vigilant - for this very real and worthwhile pursuit also can serve a deeper, and more sinister, purpose...

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Degradation of the English Language: A Rant

Dear friends, we are gathered here today to commemorate the untimely passing of the word, "fewer." Once a well-accepted term to describe the frequency of matters, "fewer" became the victim of a decline in the English language, being usurped by its cousin, "less." This disturbing trend, increasingly found in the media, ultimately led to the passing from the scene of this once-valuable term.

OK, so, maybe that's a bit extreme; but anyone who lives in our household has probably gotten used to hearing me growl, "fewer!" when some talking head -- especially on the news -- uses "less" when the proper term would be, well, "fewer." For example, a report on the state of the U.S. economy that aired not too long ago mentioned that the economic stimulus plan had generated less jobs than expected. (It's painful even to type that...) No, no, NO!!! The plan has created FEWER jobs!!! Sigh. Generations of English teachers must be spinning in their graves...

Speaking of the degradation of the English language... One phrase that I hear on the news all the time lately is, "Take a listen." Now, for whatever reason, "take a look at this" doesn't bother me at all; but "take a listen to this" sets my teeth on edge. I hear it, and I want to SCREAM! Why does anyone want to say, "Take a listen" when "Listen to this" is every bit as effective without being offensive? Or am I being too sensitive?

President George W. Bush honors {{w|William Sa...Image via Wikipedia

Years ago, a well-respected newspaper columnist, William Safire, regularly wrote, in addition to his comments on the larger issues of politics, the economy, world affairs, and the like, a column in which he tried valiantly to hold the line against the erosion of the English language. I miss those columns... I don't know the language well enough to try to emulate him -- grammar was never my strength; it's all based on what "sounds good" to me -- but that doesn't mean that there is not a need for someone to take up the burden...

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Prisoner

The PrisonerImage via Wikipedia

The three-night run of AMC's remake of The Prisoner concluded this evening; and I have to say that I don't understand this version any better than I did the original series, which starred Patrick McGoohan. On some levels, the original was easier to understand, in that it "played" in a fairly straightforward manner; at least, on the surface. However, while I have watched The Prisoner many times over the years -- I even own a few episodes on DVD -- I remain frustrated in my efforts to get deeper into the story, to discern what its underlying message may be. The 17th (and final) episode is completely baffling. There is, in that episode (if I remember correctly) a moment when No. 6 get to meet the person in charge, and finds a gorilla -- or, at least, a gorilla mask; which, when he removes it, reveals his own face. The unmasked leader then leaps up, hooting insanely, and runs about the room in which he was found; a prelude to other baffling events.

In that regard, the remake's ending makes more sense -- even if I can't say what that sense is. We find, at the end, No. 6 -- or simply, "Six," as he is called; I have to admit that I didn't appreciate that initially, although over the next two nights it faded somewhat -- has become, in the words of the introduction sequence to the original, "the new No. 2." This calls to mind a bit of (potential) insight into the original series, again drawn from that introductory series of questions and responses between No. 6 and the new No. 2. Toward the end, the Prisoner asks, "Who are you?" He is told, "The new No. 2." Then the Prisoner asks, "Who is No. 1?" The answer is, "You are No. 6." This gives us the conclusion: "I am not a number! I am a free man!"; followed by a loud burst of laughter from the new No. 2.

Who is No. 1? Here's the insight (and I have to say this is not mine; I read it somewhere): Instead of the question being avoided, with the Prisoner being given his number, if one punctuates the reply in a slightly different way, it changes from a declarative that the Prisoner's number is six, and becomes, "Who is No. 1? You are, No. 6." Seeing the Prisoner in the remake take on the role of the new No. 2 at the conclusion seems drawn from that same source -- and sets up another line of questions about the overall meaning of the series in both its iterations.

Who is the Prisoner? Someone with something to hide: the reason for leaving behind a way of life that finally prompted that person to withdraw -- resign, if you will -- to change their way of life. Those who are challenged or threatened by this action want to know why the change has taken place; and there is the clear sense that if the Prisoner reveals the why, not only is the threat removed, but that the Prisoner will, in some way, have betrayed himself, and the very morals or ethics that prompted the decision to resign.

Who are the jailers? They represent the powers that are threatened by the knowledge that the Prisoner has obtained; and who act to preserve their power, even as they seek to co-opt the Prisoner to return him to their service. This is much more clear in the original; but is present in an altered, and intriguing, form in the remake. There is no "turnover" of Number 2's in the remake, perhaps because there were 17 episodes in the original, and only... 6... in the remake. (I just noticed that!) One result is that this very clearly reduces the conflict to make it explicitly between No. 2 and No. 6; and less about the overall system. Anyway, that's how it looks from where I see it...

In a way, I suppose, we are all prisoners. We have something to hide: our sins. We have reasons for wanting to withdraw from the way of life that leaves us helpless before sin, and victims of our passions. When we try to justify our transgressions, we betray ourselves, and become ever more deeply trapped, imprisoned, by our very being. Similarly, we are all participants in seeking the control of others, and so become members of the Village -- even, perhaps, becoming the new No. 2 in someone's life. After all, it is easier for us to give in to sin when we are doing it with others...

I'm going to try to spend some time looking at the additional information that can be found at the website for AMC. Perhaps then I might understand the story a bit more. What are your thoughts?

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Love and The Shipping News

Just finished watching The Shipping News, a 2001 film (yes, I'm a bit slow) starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, and Judi Dench. I missed the first few minutes of the film, which will give me an excuse to look for it at the local library, and so to watch it again. One aspect of the film that helped draw me in was that the music playing in the film was clearly Celtic in origin and influence; and many of the characters spoke with a faint Irish accent. I find myself growing increasingly more interested in the Celtic (and especially the Irish) background of our family -- but that's probably better left for another time.

More compelling were scenes in which small acts of kindness, not terribly significant in and of themselves, were, at a deeper level, profound acts of love. As the story unfolded, it also became abundantly clear how deeply human beings can be hurt -- especially by those who are closest to us, who should be foremost in love, not in wounding us. Spacey's character was wounded by death; Moore's by being deserted by an adulterous husband; Dench by a barbarous act she suffered as a twelve year old girl at the hands of her older brother, who was Spacey's character's father. By the end of the film, Spacey's character, known only by his family name (Quoyle), discovers that it is possible for a wounded man to heal.

The movie is far more profound and moving than I am able to convey. So, too, is its deeper message of love, betrayal, bereavement, and healing. I suppose that a part of what I am trying to say -- and maybe this will become more clear after I've had some time to process the film -- is that I was particularly struck by the power of the small acts of kindness to spread love to those who were in great need of being loved. Given that the message of our salvation arises from the love of God in Jesus Christ, and how we are to be ministers of the same, it would seem to me to merit some consideration each day: How may I/did I share God's love with someone else today?

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

30 (40) Days of Blogging; Calendars, Old and New

Icon of Ss. Basil the Great (left) and John Ch...Image via Wikipedia

Some of you may have come across the website for The Preacher's Institute, started by Arizona's own Fr. John Peck, the priest serving the Orthodox mission church in Prescott. Fr. John is a genuinely good person, and his "challenge" to blog daily for a period of 30 to 40 days during the time of the Nativity Fast is one that I know will be good for me, so I will do my best to take part and to keep up! Now, those of us on the old calendar haven't entered the Nativity Fast just yet, and won't do so until November 28th -- but for those on the new calendar, the Fast begins today, and thus, so does the blogging challenge.

I suppose that this first entry in the challenge would be a good place to express myself on the calendar question, which is not usually a topic of much interest or concern to me on a personal basis. I do respect that the question is much more serious for many people, and do not, in any way, mean to suggest that they are incorrect in their concerns. I have friends who attend churches that follow the new calendar, as well as our Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), in which we follow the traditional calendar of the Orthodox Church. I've heard the arguments of some who feel that it is important that the calendar be more closely synchronized with the movements of the heavens on which calendars are based, and so support the new calendar, and I understand their position. For myself, I am sympathetic to the argument that there is no compelling need for the calendar of the Church to be in harmony with the secular calendar; and, without surprising anyone who knows my sense of humor, I particularly enjoy tossing out wry comments such as, "When the Lord sets the date for the end of the world and the Last Judgment, those of us on the old calendar will have 13 more days to prepare than those on the new calendar."

Of far more concern, especially given the responsibility of being a pastor that is incumbent upon every priest, at least in the parish ministry, are those whose view of the calendar question leads them to take the stance that this is a question that borders on heresy, or, at least, schism. Yes, I will concede that the adoption of the new calendar by some, but not all, of the Orthodox Churches has produced an unfortunate division in our Orthodox "family." It is perhaps even tragic that we do not keep the same feasts on the same days. One example was in my email inbox this morning. Our parish will be blessed this coming Friday and Saturday with a visit of the Kursk Root Icon, and we have heard from many Orthodox Christians across the state who would like to come and venerate this miraculous icon. One such email observed that the icon will be at our parish for the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos, which falls on the 21st of November. Now, it is true that the icon will be there for the 21st, but it isn't REALLY the 21st (and so it is not the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos) -- it's the 8th of November according to the calendar of the Church, and so it is the feast of the Synaxis of St. Michael and All the Bodiless Powers, and the feast day of our parish.

However unfortunate it may be that we do not celebrate the same saints on the same days (at least we all keep the same season of Great Lent and Pascha, even if the specifics of the days are different), this does not, in my mind, justify those who, on either side of the question (but especially adherents to the old calendar) who consider those who disagree with their position as having ceased to be Orthodox. There are instances where Orthodox Christians will have no contact with others who follow the same teachings and practices and worship, who learn from the same patristic sources, who revere the same saints, and differ only on the calendar used. To me -- not that I am in any way an expert, or a paragon of virtue, for I am anything but, being chief among sinners -- to hold this extreme a view means that the essence of the Orthodox faith has been lost, or, at least, misplaced. If we do not love those who differ with us on the calendar question, but are otherwise one with us in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, our Savior and Lord, and that the most complete source of the Christian faith is found in the Orthodox Church, are we truly Orthodox?

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Lesson in Devotion and Obedience

Usually, I'm the first person to get out of bed in the mornings -- and that is definitely the case on Sunday mornings. After all, there are prayers to be said in preparation for receiving the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; and, truth be told, a sermon to be written. Yes, I always intend to do that earlier in the week, but it seldom, if ever, happens that way.

The family dog is "family" in name only. She's my dog -- by her choice. Her name might as well be "Shadow," because when I'm home, she's my shadow, following me just about everywhere I go. One significant exception to this is when it's time for her to eat. If I don't put out her food bowl fast enough to suit her, she'll go around the house and awaken one of our daughters, who know that the only way to get any peace (and any chance of going back to sleep) is to feed the dog.

This morning, as I sat at the kitchen table, setting aside my medication and vitamins for the day (an every-day event), she started to head down the hallway in search of someone to feed her. I called her back -- and learned a valuable lesson. I called her to my side, and told her, "Down." She didn't want to listen -- I could tell from her body language -- but she did as she was told, and remained there until I left the table on the way to my office, with her following me there, as she usually does. Once in my office, the door being closed, those sleeping are no longer in danger of being on the receiving end of a cold wet dog nose in search of its breakfast.

This isn't the first time we've been through this scenario; indeed, during the week, it's my practice to close the doors to the bedrooms so that our daughters can sleep, while I'm fixing breakfast for my wife, so that she can sleep a few extra minuted before heading to work. But as I watched the dog struggle with her desire for food on the one hand (or paw, as it were), and obedience to me as the "leader of the pack/alpha male" (which isn't difficult when you're the only male in the household -- the fish don't count, nor do the birds), it dawned on me that she was modeling for me the way I should be in relationship with God: wanting to be near Him as often as possible, following wherever He goes -- and obedient to what He commands, even when my appetite tells me otherwise.

I have a lot to learn. But isn't it funny how the D-O-G has taught me something about myself and G-O-D...

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Monday, September 14, 2009


A few weeks ago, having just risen from our bed to get dressed and start the day, I looked down at my feet, and was shocked to be a few inches away from a scorpion, whose body was over an inch long, and whose tail added another inch to the overall length. Being barefooted, I couldn’t just step on it, so I grabbed a stick that was nearby the bed, and tried to squash it. I missed; and it scurried under the bed. We spent quite a bit of time moving the bed and other furniture, but never saw the scorpion after it disappeared under the bed. The next few days were a bit anxious at times, and everyone was wearing shoes in the house – just in case. About three days later, as I was fixing breakfast, I turned to the sink, and found a scorpion – perhaps even the same one – perched on the lid from a container we use to make iced tea. I was able to pick up the lid on the side opposite the scorpion, maneuver it over the sink, and, with the garbage disposal unit switched on, used the faucet to knock the critter off the lid and into the disposal. We haven’t seen a scorpion in the house since that morning.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the scorpion. I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons we had at least one scorpion in the house was because of a billing dispute with the pest control company that had resulted in an eight-month suspension of spraying – and a greatly increased number of crickets both inside and outside the house as a result. Crickets are more than just a meal, apparently, to scorpions – crickets are fine dining, the "filet mignon" of the scorpion’s menu. Fortunately, we had resolved the dispute, and were scheduled for a visit from the pest control company the very same morning that we saw, and lost, the scorpion in our bedroom. The hope is that, with the crickets gone, the scorpions have moved to a new territory where the hunting will be easier. I’ve also wondered whether the feeling I had in one big toe that morning – a feeling that I can only describe as being like the “buzz” you get when you touch your tongue across the terminals of a nine-volt battery – might have been the result of having been stung, although there was no redness, or any other sign of having been stung. I don’t recall, however, having every felt anything like that in my toe before; nor since, once it had faded away about a day later.

At the doctor’s office, I asked about first aid for a scorpion sting, only to learn that there really isn’t anything you can do. On the other hand, when I asked about how many people die here in Arizona from a scorpion sting, I was told that one person is known to have died as a result of being stung by a scorpion in Arizona since 1965. In other words, unless you’re allergic to the venom, or are stung in a particularly vulnerable spot, such as at the base of the neck, where the spinal cord meets the medulla oblongata, a scorpion’s sting isn’t going to be anything really serious, but rather just an annoyance. There are, of course, different scorpion species, at least one of which has a venom that is far more potent, and so far more dangerous; but these aren’t found in Arizona.

In the beginning of the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, our Lord is sending the seventy, two by two, on a missionary journey to every city and village to which He will be visiting. They are to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and are given authority to heal the sick and cast out demons to support their proclamation. We read of their journey,
10:17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 10:18 He said to them, “I saw Satan having fallen like lightning from heaven. 10:19 Behold, I give you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will in any way hurt you. 10:20 Nevertheless, don’t rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Other passages of Scripture make reference to scorpions, but as a way of speaking descriptively, rather than literally, being illustrations of how wicked mankind can be, and of the suffering that can be inflicted by one person upon another. But the passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, very similar to the passage at the end of the Gospel according to St. Mark, which refers to the handling of snakes and the drinking of poisons as actions that will not harm the believers, certainly appears to be stated very literally; and it is certainly possible, here in the desert, to come across a snake or a scorpion while walking – even in your own bedroom!

I haven’t decided yet whether the possibility of having been stung by that scorpion, evidenced by the “buzzing” sensation in my toe, means that I do not possess the faith that our Lord spoke of with the seventy at the conclusion of their journey…

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock: Forty Years Later

Woodstock FestivalImage via Wikipedia

Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, Tell me, where are you going?
This he told me

Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

I wasn’t at Woodstock.

It’s not because I didn’t want to go. Being 15 years old, without transportation – and, although I don’t know for sure, I’d have been stunned if my parents would have given their permission, going to the event was impossible. I’m still fascinated by the event today; all the more so because the 40th anniversary of the final day of the “three days of peace, love and music” will have started by the time I have finished this reflection.

Well, then can I roam beside you?
I have come to lose the smog,
And I feel myself a cog in somethin' turning.
And maybe it's the time of year,
Yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am,
But life is for learning.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

What is it about that time that triggers so strong a response in me, even today? First of all, I know it isn’t the music – although, to be sure, it was the music of my youth, and the songs I enjoyed back then are still enjoyable today. The best I can determine, it is the fact that, for a period of three days, some four hundred thousand people lived side-by-side, sharing an experience, with virtually no friction arising: no fights; only two deaths – one as the result of an overdose of heroin, the other a young man killed while sleeping in a field when a tractor ran over him in his sleeping bag. People were hungry, as the organizers, who had planned for a maximum of fifty thousand people, were overwhelmed. People got soaked as a storm on the second day dropped over an inch of rain in about an hour’s time. People got sick; some "freaked out" as a result of taking drugs. With all of this, almost everyone who attended and has gone on record about the event comments about the peace and the smiles that were shared; how people responded to calls by the organizers to share what food they had with their “brothers and sisters” – who were identified as, “the people on your right, and the people on your left” – in other words, your neighbors. This has always been a point of focus as I reflect on the event: the Biblical connections that arise. There are echoes of the feeding of the five thousand in the call to share food; and there is the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ about who is our neighbor. For me, in part, at least, what I have seen and heard of what took place at Woodstock has a mystical component, and is a metaphor for so much of what seemed possible for us at that time. Even as wars raged around the world – the one looming largest at that time was the war in Vietnam, with its very real connections (and potential threat) to the larger, more ominous, if less immediate, “Cold War” – even as our culture seemed doomed to become spiritually dead through the pursuit of material possessions, status and power, the young people who gathered on Max Yasgur’s farm, and those who, like me, wanted to be there, yearned for a different world, a different culture; and we thought, for a time, that the power to achieve a new society of peace and love was within our grasp; a new world was a very real possibility, if only we could work together to achieve it.

That yearning stayed with me into the decade of the 1970’s. Among other things, I immersed myself in the various movements that grew out of the festival at Woodstock, as well as the tragedies that followed, not the least of which was the death of four students at Kent State University, shot by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest. One of the four killed had graduated the year before from the high school I was attending. I didn’t know her; but I knew, and cared for, people who did, people who lost a friend that day – and their grief touched me, and ignited an anger in me. I was involved in a number of anti-war protests in downtown Washington, D.C., and resolved to go to Canada rather than be drafted, if necessary. I also was drawn to the beginnings of the environmental movement, and the “back to the land” movement that was spurred on when I discovered the teachings and philosophy in The Mother Earth News, and especially its reports on the Twin Oaks commune in Louisa, Virginia, not far from where we lived and worked and went to college. When an “outreach team” from Twin Oaks made a visit to our college campus, I was there to hear every word, and always wanted – but could never quite manage – to make a visit to the commune. I wouldn’t say that I did anything consequential. My protesting the war didn’t bring it to an end; and while I would never negate the importance of each person doing what they can to conserve energy and water, and to recycle, and so on, I doubt that my contribution, even to this day, has really made the kind of difference my heart has always yearned to make. As much as I’d hoped otherwise, this is the only honest assessment I can make.

By the time we got to Woodstock,
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes
Riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation.

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time I finished seminary, over twenty years distant from the Woodstock festival, I had started to figure out why we hadn’t been able to change the world, and why the communal life exerted such an attraction. The two are related; and Joni Mitchell’s song about the festival, which was a monster hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, gave me valuable clues. My thoughts along these lines were triggered in part by an invitation a group of us received on the eve of graduation from seminary to consider becoming part of an ecumenical community of Roman Catholics and Episcopalians living and working and worshipping together in rural Maryland, not far from our campus; and by a chance event that took place a few years later while driving along California Highway 99 near Merced, while on my way to a youth ministry event. I happened to look up, and was shocked to see a B-52 flying at a relatively low level overhead. My thoughts immediately flashed to the line in the song: And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky… There it was – but it didn’t turn into a butterfly. Within a year’s time, I was the vicar of the mission in Atwater, at the time the home of Castle Air Force Base – closed a few years later. Castle Air Force Bases was home to a squadron of bombers; and one of the lay leaders of the mission, and a good friend, was a B-52 pilot.

The song begins: I came upon a child of God, he was walkin’ along the road… There are hints of the road to Emmaus, being traveled by two of the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, who are traveling from Jerusalem after His passion and death on the Cross. They are not aware that He has risen from the dead, even when they meet Him walkin’ along the road. It is not until He accepts their invitation to stay with them for the evening, and reveals Himself when He blesses and breaks the bread, that they realize what has happened. This is what is missing in the song. This is what Twin Oaks didn’t have; and this is why our hopes and dreams for a better world did not, and could not, materialize. Can you hear it? It’s in the last line of the chorus: And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden… What garden? Why, the Garden of Eden, of course! The Garden, the place of Paradise, where we lived in the immediate and intimate presence of God, Who would walk with us and talk with us, and we could, presumably, see Him face to face. We lost our place there by our disobedience – as the song says, We are caught in the devil’s bargain… An angel with a fiery sword was set to guard the entryway to prevent us from trying to get back; and the only way a return is possible is through our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing else will work; our strength alone is not sufficient; nor are we permitted to enter, unless we are joined to the Son of God Who gave Himself to make this possible, because of His great and unfathomable love for us; and Who, having risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, sitting at the right hand of God the Father, has done so with our human nature still joined to His divine nature – restoring us to living once more in the immediate and intimate presence of God.

Can we change the world? Maybe. The task of doing so begins by changing ourselves; by grasping what has been done for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. By His incarnation, our humanity has been united with His divinity. By His death, the power of death has been brought to an end. By His resurrection, we, too, are raised from death to life. We have been buried with Him in baptism, and raised by Him to a life that will not end. When we accept this incredible gift of God’s love, and yield ourselves to Him in love, and take responsibility for how we live, with the intention of allowing the life of Christ in us be seen in us, through what we say and what we do, in who we are – the hope and the dream of a better life is possible. Woodstock is only the beginning; and the joy of the kingdom of heaven awaits!

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Welshmen Do for Fun

I laughed so hard I cried!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Speaking with Conviction

This one is worth sharing...

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

I found this at Steve Robinson's blog, Pithless Thoughts - a site worth your time to investigate.

Here's an explicit question that arises from this presentation: What does your life say about your conviction? Do you say that Jesus is your Lord and Savior? Does the way in which you live say that Jesus is your Lord and Savior?

We all need to think about this...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bits and Pieces

Item: This Day in History

On June 22, 1941, the forces of the Axis powers, led by the German Wehrmacht, invaded the Soviet Union, their erstwhile trading partners, with whom a non-aggression pact had been less than two years earlier. The treaty had divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and, with the swift victory of the Germans against Poland, secured Germany’s eastern frontier against attack, making possible the “blitzkrieg” in the west that led to the fall of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. The fighting in this theater, which ended May 9, 1945, was unbelievably savage. More people fought and died on the Eastern Front than in all other theaters of World War II combined. Of the estimated 70 million killed in World War II, some 30 million, including civilians and those in the death camps of Nazi Germany, were killed on this front alone.

Other Events on this Day:

  1. 1633: Galileo is forced to recant his belief that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the center of the solar system.

  2. 1848: The “June Days” uprising begins in Paris, France.

  3. 1898: U.S. Marines land in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

  4. 1969: The Cuyahoga River catches fire, due to oil pollution in the river.

  5. 1976: Canada abolishes the death penalty.

  6. 2009: The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) meets in Texas as it seeks to organize individuals, parishes, and dioceses who withdrew from the Episcopal Church over moral issues, and to be recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

This last entry is one that I have watched from the fringes, although I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t know a lot about what has been happening since we left the Episcopal Church for the Orthodox Church in November, 1995. There are at least three groups that I’ve heard of that withdrew from the Episcopal Church, plus one other body that withdrew back in the 19th century: the ACNA; the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA; the oldest of the 20th century groups, which was organizing itself during the last few years of our time in the Episcopal Church); the churches of the Southern Cone (if they have an acronym, I haven’t seen it!), who have aligned themselves with a number of the bishops and archbishops of dioceses in Africa; and the Reformed Episcopal Church, the group who left in 1873 in order to preserve its Protestant and evangelical beliefs in the face of the rising Anglo-Catholicism of the “Oxford Movement.” I have good friends and classmates who are caught up in what is taking place. One remains in the Episcopal Church; one has left it for one of the other groups (I’ve forgotten which); and some are in the diocese in which I served before resigning to be baptized and chrismated. Although there are a goodly number of priests and deacons who left the Episcopal Church for the Orthodox Church, I wish more would come our way.

Item: You Aren’t Serious – Are You?

The Church of England – the “mother ship” of the Anglican Communion – now has alternative worship services that feature disc jockeys, music by the Irish band, U2, video clips from YouTube, and offers prayers for Google, Walmart, and other large corporations, according to a report at the website. The aim of this program, called, “Fresh Expressions,” is to reach young people who are otherwise uninterested in the church, boosting church attendance with what the article describes as “more relevant and exciting services.” Comment: Really? Of course, these are also the folks who have given the C of E “rave” services and other “relevant and exciting” programs. More than anything, this trend is disturbing to me; and I cannot fathom why those whom I know, and know of, who are fighting the good fight in defense of the Faith once delivered to the saints, and are involved with, or, at least, watching to see what happens to ACNA, want to be in communion with an Archbishop of Canterbury whose office is responsible for programs of this type…

Item: The UK Bureaucracy Allows No “Conscientious Objectors” for Same-Sex Marriages

Theresa Davies, who began working for the Islington Council 18 years ago as a receptionist, and who, over time, earned promotions to the position of registrar, was offered the choice of either being demoted to an entry-level position as a receptionist, or be fired, because she has religious objections to performing ceremonies for same-sex civil partnerships, according to a report at the website. Apparently, while some councils allow those who object to shift the performance of these ceremonies to colleagues who do not share these objections, Islington has adopted a policy that all employees will perform these ceremonies. Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said, "It is fine for people to hold opinions but you can't use views to discriminate against other people.”

Repeat after me: “It can’t happen here…”

Item: Why Didn’t I Think of this Strategy for Boosting Church Attendance?

The website has been a great source for news that is both amusing (in a bizarre sort of way) and disturbing (in a very real and troubling way). Here’s the latest: Church Blesses Fathers with Beer website. That’s right: In an “alternative” blessing for Father’s Day, bottles of beer were given to the men in attendance at the Father’s Day services at St. Stephen’s Church in Barbourne, Worcester. The program has the support of the Right Reverend John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester.. The program drew objections from those working to help those whose lives have been negatively affected by alcohol, but these had no impact. The bottle of beer were given to fathers by the children of the congregation. Bishop Inge had this to say about the program: “Jesus created a lot more wine at a point in the party when some thought that there had already been enough drinking. He was all in favor of partying. We give wine away every Sunday, so giving away beer could be said to going down-market a bit, but it's an attempt to speak of God's generosity.” Comment: Saying that our Lord was “all in favor of partying” because of the miracle at the wedding in Cana? Equating the wine in the chalice that has been blessed to be the Blood of Christ with a bottle of beer? C’mon, y’all in the ACNA/AMiA/REC spectrum! Is that really the Church with whom y’all want to be in communion?

Item: Persecution and Martyrdom: The Future is the Present

According to a report by the Orthodox Christian Advocacy Institute (OCAI), some 176,000 Christians will be martyred this year; and the number is projected to increase to 210,000 martyred every year by 2025. This does NOT include those who are tortured, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted for their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The OCAI reports that the worst offenders, according to the U.S. Department of State, are China and Saudi Arabia; followed by Turkey, and the situation in Kosovo. The last two affect Orthodox Christians directly. For example, in Turkey, there were approximately 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians living in Turkey in 1923. Today, it is estimated that there are fewer than 2,500. In Kosovo, since the United States helped establish this region of Serbia as an independent state, the efforts to erase twelve centuries of Orthodoxy have been unrelenting. In the last ten years, 1,000 Christians have been killed, 250,000 forced from their homes, and 150 churches and monasteries have been destroyed – all under the watchful eye of 16,000 NATO “peacekeepers.” Each of the countries named in the OCAI report receive U.S. aid that reaches into the billions of dollars.

The author of the article asks three questions of the Christians living in the United States:
How do citizens, in a country that generally identifies itself as being Christian, reconcile the fact that their democratically elected government is facilitating the eradication of Christianity elsewhere? Why are they not protesting on behalf of their fellow Christians around the world? Why are they not demanding change in US Foreign Policy?
If we don’t act to speak out against the abuse and murder of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who will?

Item: Orthodoxy in America: Get a Grip…

Head on over to the blogsite of the American Orthodox Institute (AOI) and read the article, The Perplexing Problem of Obtaining an Accurate Census of Orthodox Faithful Living in America. Be sure to scroll down and look at the table with the number of parishes and people for each of the jurisdictions listed there. For ROCOR, it’s 128 parishes; while the Patriarchal parishes in the US add another 33. The largest group is the GOA, with 525 parishes; followed by the OCA, with 456 parishes. Also be sure to read through the analysis and insights offered in the report. We’ve got a lot of work to do, campers, before the Lord returns…

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Monday, June 22, 2009

In the Image and Likeness of God

The following video -- just a bit under a minute and a half -- shows an understanding of the Orthodox teaching on icons; and is a powerful call to action.

I need to keep this in mind the next time I'm driving... Isn't it amazing how easily we can get caught up in ourselves? Isn't it amazing how easily we can reduce others to being less important by what we think and do and say?

We also need to keep in mind that, while the word, "Orthodox" means, "right belief," the Orthodox teaching on "right belief" carries with it the charge of acting rightly (orthopraxis). All too often, it seems, that this "right practice" becomes a concern about whether or not we (or those around us in church) are appropriately attired, or are making the bows and prostrations and the sign of the Cross at the right times during the service, or have read all 27 ingredients on the boxed or canned or frozen food we're planning to buy, and putting it back because ingredient #25 of 27 is sodium caseinate, and so it is not "lenten"; the list can go on for quite some time. This is not at all to suggest that we should not be careful, and do our best to do these things. But we seem to think that God will judge us on how well we kept these types of rules, when the reality is set before us in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and also the point of this video: "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me." (Matt. 25:40)

FOCUS -- Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve -- can be found on the web, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Capital Punishment

For many years now, I have been, to use a label, “pro-life.” By that, I mean that I consider that an abortion is the unnecessary taking of an innocent human life. I will concede that there are sometimes circumstances in which this action is necessary, although extremely rare; and, given that so much of what we believe and do as Orthodox Christians comes out of the interplay of the tensions between the theoretical norm and the pastoral realities of life, I can live with that small exception to the rule that all life is sacred.

Running concurrently with my pro-life position has been a position in support of capital punishment. I have cited, as a basis for this position, the numerous instances in the Bible in which capital punishment is mandated. Of course, when I said, “Bible,” I was being, to a certain extent, disingenuous. The more correct statement would be, examples from the Old Testament of the Bible. Sitting here at my desk today, with thoughts prompted by an article in Christianity Today, it occurs to me that the instances of capital punishment that come to mind from the New Testament – the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the stoning of St. Stephen the Protomartyr – were not examples that support the modern-day arguments in favor of capital punishment. These do not negate the Old Testament directives; but we should be willing to consider the change in circumstances that is in operation now that we do not live under the Law, but under grace in this, the New Testament era.

This brings us to the case of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a medical doctor who was the director of one of only three clinics in the United States where abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy were performed . He was shot and killed while he was serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. In an article entitled, After George Tiller’s Death, Ted Olsen considers the implications of this on the on-going debate about abortion in the United States today. In the article, he quotes Professor Robert P. George of the Princeton University School of Law, who said, among other things, “Every human life is precious. George Tiller's life was precious.” Olsen also quotes Paige Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, as saying, “The murder is not wrong because it hurts the pro-life movement. It's wrong because it's wrong.”

Ms. Cunningham is correct: murder is wrong. The deliberate and intentional killing of unborn children by abortion is wrong; and so is the deliberate and intentional killing of those who perform abortions, and those whose counseling centers direct pregnant women to seek abortions, and those who support the “right” to an abortion. After all, if the response is to lynch physicians who perform late-term abortions, as did Dr. Tiller, why stop there? Why not kill all physicians who perform abortions? And why should those who assist – nurses, anesthesiologists, and so on – be let off the hook for their role in the process? Then, since it takes janitors and clerks and counselors, why not eliminate them as well? And since there are many, many people whose support for abortions creates the political environment that prevents state legislatures from limiting or outlawing abortions altogether, why not erase them from the face of the earth? After that, all we have to do is get rid of those whose silence and indifference kept them from supporting the cause, and everything will be fine – right?

OK, so, I indulged in a bit of hyperbole. So shoot me! Actually, I pondered whether to say that – because the same people who cannot see the flawed reasoning above, who cannot discern that the murder of Dr. Tiller is wrong, may take what I have said (in the ironic voice) as being serious. “Well, you see, officer, Fr. John told me to shoot him…” The vast majority of those in the pro-life movement have not hesitated to say that the murder was a reprehensible event, and that the person who committed this terrible crime needs to be punished to the full extent of the law.

Now, typically, a conviction for the charge of murder carries with it the risk of the death penalty. Here’s one place where the abortion/capital punishment lines cross. Should the murderer of Dr. Tiller, who was, without doubt, responsible for a large number of abortions, and so, in a sense, is guilty of murder… Should Dr. Tiller’s murderer, if found guilty, be put to death?

Is capital punishment – the term we use when the state, presumably after due process of law, puts someone to death – murder? My reason tells me that there are a great many differences between the two; and yet my conscience is tweaked by what Prof. George said: Every human life is precious. And I agree with him: even George Tiller’s life was precious. At some point in such a discussion, someone usually will ask, “Well, was Hitler’s life precious?” While this risks skirting "Godwin’s Law," the question remains; and the answer is, yes, even Hitler’s life was precious, even if it was so only to God. This is not to say that criminals, even in cases of offenses with which the death penalty today is associated, should not be punished. But it is legitimate, even necessary, for Orthodox Christians to consider whether the taking of a human life by the state is desirable.

I think not.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Paper Pulpit: Journey to Orthodoxy; October, 1995

I found the following in a file folder while looking for some notes from my seminary days. It’s from the parish newsletter of the small Episcopal Church in which I was the pastor when I resigned in order to be free to be baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church. I wrote a column called, “The Paper Pulpit”; the issue is dated October, 1995, which means I wrote it in September. Ironically, I resigned at the end of October – the same month in which the column was distributed. It’s clear that I hadn’t yet decided to leave at the time I prepared the article.

“Several weeks ago, a member of the congregation said to me (somewhat energetically), ‘Stop trying to make this an Orthodox Church!’Instead, this person wanted me to focus on making it an Anglican, or Episcopal, Church. My response, when this comment was offered was, ‘I am not trying to make this an ‘Orthodox Church.’ I am trying to teach the truth, as the Church has always known and done.’

“I must be honest with you: this isn’t entirely true. Of course I want this to be an ‘orthodox’ Church. But what does this mean? It means that I want this to be a Church that is both ‘believing rightly’ and ‘worshipping rightly’; holding to the Truth of the Gospel and the Christian life in both belief and practice, despite the pressures of our world and culture. I am certainly trying to make this an ‘orthodox church’ in this sense.

“But that’s not all – there’s more to the story. Certainly, in seeking to teach and practice the truth, I have drawn, as did Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the other English reformers, upon the early fathers of the Church. Their teachings have been incorporated in sermons, in classes, in counseling, and the like. I have also tried to embrace influences from the Eastern Churches: especially in music, in the icons in the church, in my wearing a prayer rope (not only during the liturgy) – even growing a beard. Blame this, if you will, on my experiences with the people and the Church – the Orthodox Church – of Russia.

“Why? It’s not easy to describe. I’ve seen and experienced something there that has given a new depth and power to the Christian faith. There is no doubt in my mind that these people, some of whom have truly suffered in body, mind, and spirit for the Christian faith, have, in their worship experience a marvelous – and life-changing – expression of the Christian faith, with a expression of the Truth that has genuine power.

“I don’t know what this ‘something’ is. Candles? Icons? Incense? Music? All of these are valuable and essential parts of the liturgy, of the praise and worship of the Lord God. But I suspect there’s more: it is in the hearts of those who gather to worship, with a sense of their being the Body of Christ. Of course, those hearts were shaped both by the suffering endured, and by the liturgy – a reciprocal process of development. But it is this experience, above all, that I have experienced: and that I long to give to you. If the only way for you to receive this blessing is to become Orthodox – then, yes, I want this to be an Orthodox Church. Not because of wanting a ‘label’ – but so that you might experience the majesty, the mystery, the wonder and the glory of the reality of the presence of the living Lord, Jesus Christ. Not because of wanting a certain outward expression or form – but so that each of you might be able to know the Truth, and let the Truth set you free; so that each of you may save your souls, saving others as well.

“Can we do this in the Episcopal Church? In my mind, it is possible – but it is becoming more and more difficult to do so. Certainly, at the national level, the leadership of the Episcopal Church USA has surrendered the Gospel, and has embraced apostasy and heresy, especially in the realm of morals. We no longer know how to proclaim the good news of salvation; and this is, in part, because we have lost the knowledge of sin. At least Adam and Eve, when they became aware, covered their nakedness! Our society is experiencing a growing level of the flaunting of convention; people openly revel in their sins. Not only do they expect us to permit them their sins; they demand the right to practice them where and when they please, with the rights and protection of law! (In fact, they not only expect us to permit them their sins; they expect us to join them.) If we dare to speak of the will of God, the righteousness He requires, and the coming Judgment, we are ignored, ridiculed, reviled, attacked… and heaven forbid that we Christians should offend someone by daring to suggest the need to repent, to confess, and to transform their way of living! Is it any wonder that our culture is sick and depraved, since we are no longer salt and light? We need to be about the task of saving our own souls, dealing with our own sins, fasting and praying to God for forgiveness, and help, and deliverance, and salvation. We need to be at the work of being transformed in the power of the Holy Spirit. This, by itself, can be a powerful witness to the life-changing power of God. But how much support for this endeavor comes from our leaders, from the bishops, priests, and deacons, and from the key leaders of the laity? And yes, for the moment our churches in the Diocese of <…> are safe… but that can change, more quickly than we can imagine.

“What can we do? Fast; pray; live spiritually disciplined lives; give alms for the Church; and do all that must be done to fulfill the ministries entrusted to us by God. We must acquire the Spirit of peace, the Peace of God which passes all understanding. We must live as orthodox Christians… but I’ll have more to say about this in our next newsletter.”

There was no “next newsletter.” At the end of September, 1995, it became clear that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, which had for so long been a bulwark against the agenda to change the faith and practice of the Episcopal Church, had fallen victim to the assault of the spirit of the age, and would approve a proposed canon that would establish the very real possibility that those in the ordained leadership of the Church could be defrocked for continuing to oppose the changes; and that even lay leaders who dared to speak out could be removed from their offices. On October 7, 1995, having met with the diocesan bishop a few days before, I issued my letter of resignation, effective at the end of the month. About five weeks later, we were baptized and chrismated at the parish of St. Herman of Alaska in Sunnyvale, California.

Why bring all this up? It was difficult to read today what I had written in the newsletter and in my letter of resignation. In part, it is difficult because, for those we left behind when we came to the Orthodox Church, things have continued to get worse. I could not help them there; I desire to help some remnant now, if that is possible. I hope these words, this part of my own journey, might be found by someone who can no longer endure what is happening in what was once a bastion of true Christianity, and is searching for a safe harbor. That place of safety is the Orthodox Church. May those who seek to love and serve the Lord be brought to our safe harbor; and may we welcome them as the storm-tossed, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them home.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

An Orthodox Church in America?

I spoke with a long-time friend last night about the meeting that is going to take place soon in Cyprus. It is a meeting of Orthodox hierarchs, called by the Patriarch of Constantinople, to discuss the administration of the churches in the "diaspora." Apparently, none of the hierarchs who are dwelling in the USA at present are going to be in attendance. Among other things, this means that a decision may very well be made about our future by a group of men who do not know us, without any input from us.

Now, I'll be the first to concede that the paragraph above is about 100% of what I know about what's going on at the present time. In other words, quoting the immortal Sgt. Schultz, "I know nothing!" There's plenty enough to do here at the parish level; and there seems to be little point to expending much time or energy about something over which I have no influence or control. Oh, and before someone else mentions it, with regard to the topic: The OCA may be in America, but it is not the Church "of" America, despite what the name says. No disrespect of the OCA, by the way, is intended in my comment here. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the person (and personality) of Met. JONAH, the OCA will be a "player" at some point in what happens here, should the meeting in Cyprus actually set anything in motion.

So what do you think? Is there anything to be afraid of? Anything to prepare for? Is the prospect of coming under the direction and authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch a good thing, or a bad thing – and why?

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Porpoise Driven Life

Christ is risen!

As it says in the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes:

"The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem: There is no new thing under the sun."

But perhaps there is:

Not available in stores! This is a limited time offer, so you must act now! Operators are standing by to take your order!

What will they think of next...?

I first saw this at

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New Hampshire, Marriage, and the Military

According to reports from various news services, the state of New Hampshire is on the verge of joining its neighbors in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as the state of Iowa (where, it should be noted, it was an action of the state's Supreme Court, and not the Legislature, which brought about the "legalization"), redefining the statutes governing marriage so as to establish same-sex marriages as legal and valid in the state. Action on the final piece of legislation (of three measures) needed to accomplish this goal was delayed when the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted down language sought by Governor John Lynch to protect churches and religious organizations from lawsuits in the event that they decline to perform same-sex marriages. The House hopes to negotiate a compromise with the Senate with an eye toward passing the bill by early June; the governor has stated that, without the language which expresses his "core principles," the measure might be vetoed. Legislative leaders from both parties say they hope to avoid such an outcome. According to one story from the Associated Press, the governor "wants to be sure an organist employed by a church opposed to gay marriage could legally refuse to perform at a gay wedding."

The Legislature in the state of New York is also considering similar legislation, which some hope might be enacted by the end of June.

I am thankful that the New Hampshire legislation will, apparently, make an explicit exemption for churches and religious organizations, and their employees, protecting them against lawsuits and other aspects of the power of the state. If such language is, indeed, incorporated into the measure, which then may become law, the church will be safe -- for a time, at least -- from such threats. However, what a legislative body can grant, it can also remove. We must never become complacent, or allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. A day may come; I believe that day will come, when any such protections will be stripped away. We must be ready at that time, without malice, without hatred, and without whining or complaining, to stand firm in the Truth, and, if need be, to suffer if that is what is required of us to be faithful to the Orthodox Faith.

We also need to be careful, in our words and in our actions, not to vilify those persons who may have been misled by our culture into believing that any impulse they experience is meant to be expressed. As Orthodox Christians, we must clearly act to show that those who use the Gospel as a source to cover their hatred, such as those groups who blame events such as Hurricane Katrina, or the deaths of soldiers and sailors in combat, upon the tolerance, and now growing acceptance, of homosexual behavior in this country. Is there anything as reprehensible as appearing at the funeral of someone who died defending our country, and raucously pronouncing that the death was God's punishment, as family and friends mourn the loss of one close to them? In the process of trying to find more specific language for the protection of the faithful in the New Hampshire legislation (a quest that was, alas, unsuccessful), I ran across an article from the San Francisco Bay Times -- or, as it might be called, the "Gay Times," given its target audience. Yes, as usual, I go for the cheap laugh... While the main focus of the article addresses the review of Proposition 8, by which the voters of California overturned a ruling by the state's Supreme Court that allowed, for a time, the recognition of same-sex marriages, it also took up the issue of the military's policy of, "Don't ask, don't tell," and President Obama's re-evaluation of that policy. The author noted that Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force with nine medals in his eighteen years of service, including one given for heroism in combat over Baghdad, was dishonorably discharged from the service two years short of his pension. The following is the description of his heroism as set out in the article:
As U.S. infantry men and women were marching on the Baghdad airport just after our invasion, Colonel Fehrenbach noticed a sizable ambush set up directly in their path. With his wingman crippled, he took on direct enemy fire for 20 minutes, unloading both his and his wingman’s arsenals and destroying the encampment as the army advanced, saving many lives.
The article also quoted some of the comments found associated with a report of the discharge on a web site. I won't ask you to imagine what these were like. The hatred and bigotry was remarkable. My own effort to verify the comments was unsuccessful; repeated attempts to view the page produced the article itself each time, but there was always a message: "Failed to load comments for this thread."

Every one of us is a sinner. Some of us struggle with temptations that involve our sexuality; and here it doesn't matter if our sexual orientation is toward members of the opposite gender, or our own gender, or "a little of both." Others struggle with a desire for fame, or for riches, or for power and influence, or with desire for food, or drink; or with despair that drives some to seek to escape from this life, either for a time, or for all time. None of these sins is better or worse than any other; and all sin separates us from God, from each other, and even from ourselves. As sinners, none of us should think ourselves better than someone else; indeed, if we will listen to the Church Fathers, we are to think the best of everyone else, and consider ourselves to be the least worthy, the first of sinners, the worst of all people.

Please bear with me as I try to say this. When it comes to the question of "gays in the military," I think we perhaps are fixated on a question that really doesn't matter. For those who are adamantly opposed, let me ask, what if your neighbors -- a man and a woman who are married to each other -- chose to express themselves in a way that is better kept in private within the sight of others, even your children? Would you approve? Probably not. As Orthodox Christians, we must proclaim the Truth as it has been entrusted to us, and that includes communicating the morals and ethics of the Church. The gift of sexuality is meant to be expressed between a husband and a wife, but not at all times and in all places. Is it my business to know what goes on behind closed doors in someone else's house? Well, yes, in a way, it IS my business, IF they are an Orthodox couple who make their confession to me as their priest. But apart from that, no. If my neighbor asks what is right, it is my responsibility to tell them what God has said, and how the Church responds -- but it is not my responsibility to peek through their windows to find out whether or not they are following that path. The same is true in the military. It would be inappropriate for one person to make sexual advances upon another outside of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual. In the absence of a problem, why seek to expel those who want to serve their country, and who either exercise complete restraint of their sexual desires, or act upon them with the utmost of discretion? Within the military -- which, after all, is not the Church, but a part of the secular society (which, admittedly, we seek to reach with the message of the Christ-like life) -- those who are indiscreet regardless of their sexual orientation, can, even should, be removed from among the ranks as a disruptive element; but those who are discreet are, I think, entitled to their privacy.

All of us will answer for what we have said, and what we have done, and what we have left unsaid and undone, on the great and terrible Day of Judgment. If we are going to seek to uproot and destroy evil, as we should, let us begin with ourselves; but let us be merciful and gentle to all others, praying earnestly for them to be delivered from their passions and the sins to which the passions lead them, and judge them not, lest we also be judged.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Prayer for the Salvation of Russia: The Yoke of the Godless Authority

In the fourth edition of the Jordanville Prayer Book, published in 1986, there is, toward the end of the Morning Prayers, this intercession:

O Lord Jesus Christ our God, forgive our iniquities. Through the intercessions of Thy most pure Mother, save the suffering Russian people from the yoke of the godless authority. Amen.

As of May 17, 2007, when the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and that part of the Russian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow were reunited after decades of separation that came about to a very large degree because the Church in the Russian homeland had, indeed, fallen victim to the yoke of the "godless authority," this language was changed – at least, as it was written and heard in the litanies offered in the public worship of the Church. However, if there was a suggested change for the text in the prayer book, it has not been widely publicized.

Even before the restoration of communion between ROCOR and the ROC-MP, I had added a phrase to the prayer as part of my own devotions. After the phrase, "save the suffering Russian people," I added, "and the people of my native land" – that is, of course, America. After May 17th, I followed the change made in the litanies in my prayer book, replacing "suffering" with "God-preserved." These changes have produced the following text:

O Lord Jesus Christ our God, forgive our iniquities. Through the intercessions of Thy most pure Mother, save the God-preserved Russian people and the people of my native land from the yoke of the godless authority. Amen.

Why bother to mention this at all? A part of the reason is to offer one suggestion to those who may not know what to do with this prayer, the text of which is no longer consistent with the realities of today. One option, of course, would be to simply omit this prayer entirely from the morning office – but when I tried that, somehow it just didn't feel right. So, if you aren't comfortable with the prayer as it was printed, but you are likewise uncomfortable with simply omitting it, a change in the text is necessary.

But the greater reason for mentioning this is found in the last part of the prayer – the part that prays for deliverance from the yoke of the godless authority. Clearly, this was a reference to the brutal domination of the land of Russia and her people by the Bolsheviks, either by that name, or by the name they later adopted, the Communists. Their day in power has ended – at least, the open exercise of power. So, is the prayer still relevant?

Another way of understanding the phrase, "the godless authority" is to see it as a reference to the "prince of the power of the air" – a Biblical euphemism for Satan, the Adversary, the "evil one." Certainly the agenda of the Bolsheviks for the destruction of the Church and the faithful who are the Church, advanced as well Satan's efforts to overthrow the worship of God, and to destroy that which God had made, and found that it was very good – human beings, made in the image, and after the likeness, of God. As such, the prayer is still very much relevant in today's world, even though the circumstances today, on the surface, are not the same as when the prayer was originally written and included in the prayer book. Not only that: When we see that the "godless authority" Is not limited to the Bolsheviks, then it makes sense to pray, not only for the deliverance of Russia, but of every land. The Bolsheviks have not come to power in the United States; but that does not mean that we do not need to be delivered from the yoke of the "godless authority."

What forms might that yoke take? We who are the Body of Christ should be prepared against the day that might see the return of the confiscation of church property, the desecration of holy icons, vestments, and the sacred vessels used for the communion of the faithful with the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We should be ready in the event that believers are once again arrested and charged as being "enemies of the state" whose only crime is that they will not deny that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and will not accept the substitution of the rule of the state in place of God. It happened in the land once known as "holy Russia"; and there is no reason whatsoever to think that it cannot happen here.

The yoke may, however, take a more subtle and insidious series of forms. Look at the battles being fought on the culture front, right here, right now. The culture of the West has dropped almost all restraints when it comes to criticizing and denigrating our Lord Jesus Christ and the Church and her faith – even as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to speak negatively about any other religious beliefs. You can mock our Lord, and ridicule those who seek to follow Him, in ways that would put you at risk of being prosecute for a "hate crime" if the same mocking and ridicule is directed at another religion. God has been removed from our schools; the efforts continue to remove any reference to God from the vast majority of the public square; even the phrase, "In God We Trust," printed or stamped on our currency, is under attack by those who do not want that statement being made by the government. Christians who oppose abortion may find themselves being labeled as "domestic terrorists"; those who speak of what God has said and the Church has taught with regard to sexual morality are at risk of committing a "hate crime"; it is even becoming more and more difficult in some settings to greet someone with the cheerful statement, "Merry Christmas!" It's hard to imagine what the result might be of we greeted everyone at this time of year with the traditional Orthodox greeting of, "Christ is risen!"

In this, we can see that we are already coming under the yoke of the godless authority. We are silent at times when we should speak out about our Lord Jesus Christ, and our faith in Him. We do not easily – or ever – make the sign of the Cross when in public. We have accepted the cultural practice of compartmentalizing the time we spend with God, if we spend any time at all in seeking Him, restricting the time to the few minutes required to read our prayers in the morning and in the evening, and to blessing the food at the start of a meal, and attendance at the divine services of the Church. The rest of the time, we are caught up with the worries and cares and responsibilities and burdens of life in the world – becoming, even with the best of intentions, like Martha, the sister of Lazarus, when we should instead be more like Mary, who, we are told, sat at the feet of our Lord, to be taught by Him in humility and with devotion. To the extent that we do not realize that every moment of our lives is spent in the immediate presence of the God Who loves us, and calls us to share our lives and being with Him without ceasing, we have come under the burden of the yoke of the godless authority.

The days are evil; and I have no doubt that, as was heard at the start of every episode of the 1960's television show, "Batman" – the worst is yet to come. We must be watchful, and take care to guard our hearts, lest the night come upon us and catch us unprepared. The Lord says to us, His disciples, that we must watch, and pray always, that we may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Updates: Swine Flu; Same-Sex Marriages

+ A thirty-three year old school teacher in Harlingen, Texas, is the first American citizen to die while infected with the H1N1 virus, the cause of the "swine flu." However, the news reports also indicated that she had other unspecified "chronic underlying health conditions"; and as of now, the H1N1 virus is not the cause of death, although, presumably, that has not been eliminated as a possibility.

What makes the death of Judy Trunnell even more tragic is that she was pregnant when she became ill. While she was in the hospital, she went into a coma. A few days ago, she "gave birth" (through a C-section) to a healthy baby girl.

COMMENT: May the Lord have mercy upon her, her newborn child, and her family and all those who mourn her departure from this life. May He also grant us His protection; as there are some experts who are predicting that, as has been the pattern in other flu pandemics, the initial appearance of this virus in the spring, while mild, is not the end of the story. The virus may mutate so as to become more easily transmitted from person to person, and return in the fall and winter seasons with far more devastating effects. Or perhaps not. I remember an outbreak of a swine flu in the mid-1970's, while an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland-College Park. All students were strongly encouraged to be vaccinated; and I recall being in long lines at one of the larger buildings on the campus, waiting to receive an injection from an air-gun system that was supposed to be "better" than using needles. The shot was given in the arm, and brother, did it hurt! As it turns out, more people were adversely affected by the vaccine than by the flu itself, including some who contracted Guillon-Barre Syndrome. Only God knows what will happen this fall; but it is prudent, nevertheless, to prepare.
+ Meanwhile, as was expected by many, the state of Maine has become the fifth state to recognize same-sex unions as "marriages." Legislation changing the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman to simply being between two people was passed by the legislature in Maine, and signed into law by the governor. Similar legislation in New Hampshire is pending, and is expected to pass, although the governor there has not yet indicated whether the measure will be signed or vetoed. The legislature in Rhode Island has also introduced such legislation, but it does not appear that it will pass during this year's session. Maine joins Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont in the northeast, and Iowa as states now recognizing same-sex marriages.

COMMENT: Is anyone surprised? This issue is not going to go away; and the efforts to utilize whatever means are necessary to extend this to all fifty states will not cease. Eventually, the civil authorities are going to give up the fight, and this practice will become the law of the land. This may not happen in my lifetime; but I'd be surprised if it does not happen during the lifetime of our children. According to the Senate Majority Leader in Maine, the legislation there does not negatively affect the position of those religious groups for whom same-sex marriages are not possible; but he added that the action taken in Maine was, "long overdue." As to whether religious groups will be affected in Maine, we'll just have to wait and see. I'd be surprised if there isn't already someone planning a lawsuit, charging a religious group with a hate crime because it will not perform a same-sex marriage service.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Bits and Pieces (in no particular order of importance)

1. “I’m from the government, and we’re here to help you.”

Driving home today (no, this isn’t going to be one of my “highway rants”), I heard a report on the radio that Congress is going to be holding hearings on… the BCS system for college football bowl games. The rationale? Depends upon who has been asked. One elected official noted that college football involves hundreds of millions of dollars each season – although so far, apparently, no one in Congress has figured out how they can get a cut of that money. Another wondered who elected the persons responsible for administering the BCS, and making the decisions as to which teams are eligible for the system, and which are not. More than one noted that three members of Congress, who have introduced legislation addressing the BCS, are all from states with universities who have recently had football teams that have done extremely well, even going undefeated, but were either passed over when it came to the national championship game, or were not in the BCS “mix” at all.

I am not a college football fan. As such, while I’m aware that there are many people who dislike the BCS system and either want it changed or eliminated, I don’t lose any sleep over which teams are in, and which teams are out. But as a citizen, I have to wonder why the U.S. Congress is taking the time – and spending our money – to hold hearings about the BCS system. What, they don’t have anything better to do? Perhaps someone can show me where the regulation of college sports is found in the Constitution of the United States? I can’t seem to find it, myself…

• Just a little bit…
OK, one little bit of highway ranting. Isn’t it amazing how people can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on an automobile, have it equipped with all the latest gizmos and gadgets, and yet forget to buy a car with turn signals that work? Maybe they think the other drivers on the road are all psychics, and so already know when they’re going to change lanes, and in which direction?

2. The Coming Flu Pandemic?

The World Health Organization – and you have to figure that whoever came up with the name has a sublime sense of humor: “WHO?” “Exactly!” – today raised its forecast for the "Influenza A(H1N1)" virus – aka “swine flu”; “swine-avian flu”; and “Mexican flu,” among others – to a level 5, one step below the maximum. This action was taken only a day after the WHO had increased the level from 3 to 4. Turn on the news from any source, and you’re going to hear more about this virus than seems possible. Last time I checked, no one outside of the country of Mexico has died from having been affected by the H1N1 virus; and a report I heard this morning on the television while preparing breakfast said that the number of deaths in Mexico has been revised downward to a total of ten deaths. Now, this is not to minimize those deaths – each person is precious to the Lord, and is loved by Him, as well as by the families of these victims – but do we really need all the hullabaloo about the swine flu (isn’t that nicely alliterative?) and the fear-mongering about a global pandemic? Some perspective is needed here. Depending upon the source, it is estimated that the everyday regular old garden-variety flu results in complications that kill thirty to thirty-six thousand people every year. Granted, the majority of those are among the very young and the very old, and those whose immune systems have been compromised for some reason; and that the H1N1 virus seems to target instead those usually not likely to suffer from the flu – but come on! To be closing schools, and arguing about closing borders, and canceling public events such as concerts and the theater and sports when some very basic steps – don’t cough or sneeze on other people, and wash your hands frequently – seem to be enough to defeat this thing?

As such, it may prompt you to wonder why so much attention is being focused on this virus. Of course, bad news sells; and threats of catastrophe are almost as good as the real thing for driving up ratings and increasing sales. More troubling is the possibility – not that I think this is what is happening, mind you, but there is always the possibility, however remote – that one of two things is driving the news reporting. The first that comes to mind – at least, to my mind – is the parallel to the central plot in Tom Clancy’s book, Rainbow Six. For those not familiar with the book, “Rainbow Six” is the name of an international emergency response/counter-terrorist team of experts; and they are called in when it is discovered that a sophisticated group of terrorists have cultured a strain of the Ebola virus that they plan to release at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. A factor in the plot is that the method of exposure will cause the effects of the virus to be spread around the globe, resulting in a pandemic that will topple all the nations of the world, kill millions, and allow the select group of survivors to “save the earth” and begin a new human culture that is environmentally “sensitive.” There. I think that describes it, without giving away too much! Could this be some sort of test?

Way back in 2006, in a remembrance of the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, I wrote:
But I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t more at work here; whether or not the government is using the remembrances of that day to stir us up anew to efforts in the “War on Terror” that is changing us as a society and as a people; and whether or not the media is complicit, knowingly or unknowingly, in this effort by the government. Yes, I know I’ve ranted here before on the parallels I see between the “War on Terror” and the state of perpetual warfare depicted in George Orwell’s novel, 1984; but the parallels are there – I can’t ignore them, nor be silent about them, nor be concerned about the direction we are taking, which, in many ways, leads us closer to that nightmare world…
Again, I’m not saying this is what is happening, nor even that there’s any real likelihood that such a thing could happen; but there is always the possibility, and I’ve been around government enough to know that the most important question is always, “How do we stay in power?” (Just ask newly-Democratic Senator Arlen Specter about that…) Oh, and since you asked: yes, I enjoyed the movie, V for Vendetta, with Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman…

3. A Realization

If you get an email from me, you’ll find that I sign the reply (at least, the first of the day), “Your unworthy servant in Christ, Priest John McCuen.” Above all, I do this to remind myself that, despite all the efforts of good people in our congregation and elsewhere, who treat me as if I am worthy of respect, that I am not worthy of that treatment. Indeed, those who will not enter or exit a building before me, who step aside to allow me to go first to venerate the icons, who allow me to go through the buffet line first – when they haven’t instead seated me at the head of the table and served me there, with no need to go through the line at all – and other courtesies, by doing these things, do so – hopefully, knowingly – to honor our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose representative in their midst is part of the vocation of the ordained clergy. I’m OK with that; and will, from time to time, try to gently point that out. But the realization today came as I was typing a reply to an email with my usual signature line, what that also includes. Every time I get disgruntled when, at the last minute, there is a request for a molieben or a pannikhida or the prayers before traveling, or whatever it is that has upset me, I need to recall that our Lord Jesus Christ, Who certainly is worthy of being honored and glorified, did not allow this to deter Him from “emptying Himself,” as St. Paul writes in his letter to the church in Philippi, and becoming a servant, even unto death on the Cross – for the sake of our salvation, and for love. I am but the unworthy servant of the Servant-King; and need to respond in the same way. Well, by God’s grace – and if you will do so, by your prayers – perhaps one day I will achieve in my being the words I write when sending a letter or an email.