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.