December 31, 2006

Going Gently Into That Good Night

It seems appropriate (almost compulsory) on the eve of the new year to reflect on the year we are leaving behind. In the past few weeks James Brown, Pres. Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein made the headlines by dying. Was there ever a stranger triumvirate? Also, just today the 3,000th soldier died in Irag. Lord, have mercy. Let me say just this, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz have much to answer for.

I started this blog and like many I started strong then got winded. It has not become what I intended and has become many things I never intended. This blog was meant to be a place to express ideas and satisfy my urge to write. It has become more or less, the chronicle of my Orthodox journey. Many of the entries are poorly written. For these I apologize. I appreciate good writing and I appreciate how hard it is to write well consistently.

There are so many other good blogs (Orthodox and otherwise) that I am often reluctant to speak up. I am also very uncomfortable revealing too much about myself and my life. This is partly professional caution and partly my natural tendency to know but not be known (a part of my personality I am just now beginning to really understand).

The most significant date of the year was Nov. 6, when my wife, my daughter and I were Chrismated. I cannot find words to express the sensations of that day. We are humbled but glad to be home.

It all started with an Aikido sensei. He was a catechumen at the time and we spoke often of spiritual matters. He gave me some books to read and I attended Divine Liturgy with him in Savannah. I can still hear my wife saying not to even talk to her about Orthodoxy. We had recently been part of a Lutheran congregation that had gone under. We had no idea where to go or what to do except stay open to whatever God had in mind. I told her Orthodoxy made so much sense and answered many of the questions with which we struggled. To her credit she humored me and also began to read. Soon we visited St. Justin Martyr in Jacksonville. We got there after the Divine Liturgy and met a man who was working on the sprinkler system. Jim, a former Methodist minister, gave us a tour of the church. I remember the aroma of incense still lingering in the air and being struck by the beauty of the place, the sense of reverence, of worship. I had the same experience this morning.

In 2006 I learned some things about my wife I never expected (I’m sure she would say the same about me). She has stood by me through the best and worst of times. She is the most supportive, caring and forgiving person I have ever met. I look forward to many more years together.

In 2006 I assisted our seven-year-old daughter in learning how to ride a bicycle. She soloed on her second try. I also tried to get my 19-year-old daughter to catch the college bug, but she appears to remain immune. She went, but grudgingly. She has the intellect and the writing skills to do anything she wants and I hate to see her not avail herself of the opportunities.

Between the two (especially the oldest) I am learning every day how to be a better father. The youngest is full of unconditional love and has so much energy she can barely sit still. The oldest is full of angst, longing desperately to be out on her own. I told her recently that many of the struggles we are going through and the issues she is facing are part of the process. That this is how God designed it. I am learning to let her make her own (big) decisions even if I don’t agree. To let her learn from her mistakes, to stay calm, not respond to anger with anger, to model a father's love as best I can.

I turned 46 this year, ten years older than my father when he died in 1971. I have written about this formative event here and elsewhere but I cannot seem to purge myself of the pain. The echoes of alcoholism and abuse reverberate across many generations of my family. Hopefully my siblings and I have brought some of it to an end.

On a lighter note, in 2006 I read many good books but not as many as I would have liked. I just finished Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Fascinating read. Also just finished Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson. A very long but well written book about the war that we call the French and Indian War and how it shaped people, events and governments and sowed the seeds of the Revolutionary War.

I listened to a lot of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. I find myself going back to Cash’s epic Live at Folsom Prison, Willie’s 1975 masterpiece Red Headed Stranger and to Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes and Wanted! The Outlaws. Before you get to thinking I am a redneck stuck in a time warp, I also purchased Youth by Matisyahu (Hasidic Jew reggae artist).

Time is short. I want to post this before midnight. Happy New Year!

December 23, 2006

On The Cusp

As I write this it is almost midnight December 23. As our priest reminded us at Vespers, it is already the Eve of the Nativity.

The Vespers service seemed especially poignant tonight as it also apparently did for Deb on the run and for many, many others. I needed this time out of the steady stream of worrying about shopping, wrapping, cleaning, over doing it and all the other things that clutter my consciousness and rob me of peace of mind. It was very difficult to set it all aside.

In addition to the holiday hubbub it was also an extremely hectic week at work. Without getting into too many details there was a lot of back and forth with the media, I went to the scene of a man who had been dead for about 10 days and saw a mentally ill young man arrested for molesting a three year old family member. So it was good for me to have this sanctuary, this calm, to lift my voice in prayer and praise, to reflect that this is the time when we celebrate God with us.
Today the Virgin comes to the cave
to give birth to the Eternal Word.
Hear the glad tidings and rejoice, O universe!
Glorify with the angels and the shepherds
the Eternal God, who is willing to appear as a little child!

December 20, 2006

Triple Connection

In Fr. Thomas Hopko’s book, The Winter Pascha (Reflection 20 The Two Comings of Christ), he quotes Ode 9 of the canon of the compline of the second day of the prefeast of the Nativity:

Christ Our Judge commands us to be vigilant.
We wait expectantly for His visitation,
For He comes to be born of a virgin.

At Your awesome second coming, O Christ,
Number me with the sheep at Your right hand,
For You took up your abode in the flesh to save us.

At Your first coming to us, O Christ,
You desired to save the race of Adam;
When You come again to judge us,
Show mercy on those who honor Your Holy Nativity.

He then comments:

The Christmas prefeast hymns, especially the canons, consciously refer to the hymns of the services of Holy Week before the springtime Pascha. In many of them Easter paschal themes are replaced by Winter paschal themes, with just a few words being changed in each verse. Thus, what is effected at these services is a sort of “triple connection.” Christ’s Nativity, with His Epiphany in the Jordan, is referred to His Passion and Resurrection, which is then referred to His Coming at the end of the ages. In making this triple connection, the entire Mystery of Christ is placed before the believers for their contemplation and communion.

This interconnectedness is one of the things I am learning to appreciate about Orthodoxy.

December 19, 2006

Calm Anticipation

Historically, I’ve never done Christmas well. The false frivolity, the rampant commercialism and some bad personal experiences combined to make me a bit of a Grinch. But experiencing the Nativity this year from an Orthodox (new and unlearned) perspective has opened my mind and warmed my much too cold heart. Taking part in the long preparation has given me time to see the larger picture, to consider more deeply the Theotokos. This year it’s not a giddy, greedy joy (almost dread) in anticipation of gifts and goodies, but a calm anticipation, knowing Nativity leads to Pascha, indeed is Pascha. That this is the season when Eternity stepped into time, when He began the journey to empty Himself and to save us.

Sorry, couldn't resist posting one more photo from the Nativity program.

December 18, 2006

Prayer Request

A family from Maryland was traveling southbound on Interstate 95 early Saturday morning and had a horrible traffic accident. In their van were the mother and father and their 10 children. The youngest child (just five weeks old) was killed and several others suffered grievous injuries. Please lift this family up in prayer.

St. Justin Martyr

This photograph was taken yesterday morning following the Divine Liturgy at St. Justin Martyr.

December 14, 2006

'Tis The Season

My postings will be sporadic over the next few weeks. Like many of you I am caught up in church, work, home and the season.

December 4, 2006

Life In A Bowl

When I first moved to coastal southeast Georgia more than 11 years ago I found the place to be strange and unattractive. Everything was too flat, the roads were too straight and there were no hills. Everything felt too wide open with no proper sense of horizon and very little changing of the seasons, just from summer green to dull winter brown then back to green. And there were way too many insects, with palmetto bugs, love bugs, sand gnats and banana spiders just to name a few. I did, however, find the mild winters and longer winter days particularly attractive and I see now that this area has a stark, subtle beauty all its own (see the photos on the previous entry).

Part of the problem was the contrast and comparison. I spent most of my younger years living on the eastern edge of Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley (see above photo), a place of ancient mountains worn, but not mellowed by time, still immense, still formidable. Of deep green valleys, rolling hills, a pastoral beauty with a palpable sense of history. It was life in a bowl. I felt protected, hemmed in, nestled in the bosom of creation.

Not to push the conceit too far, but moving from Protestantism to Orthodoxy was the journey in reverse, from barren to bountiful, from less to more. From a tradition essentially barren to a tradition rich in history yet not compromised. The change really began with the move from non-liturgical (Baptist) to liturgical (Lutheran and to a lesser degree Episcopalian) when I realized that the emphasis should be on worship and the Church, not on the pastor and his/her rhetorical skills. For many, many years I sat there wondering if that was all there was to it. I came to church, gave money, was berated for being a backslidden sinner and for not doing enough proselytizing. I went home, said my prayers, read my Bible, felt guilty for never doing enough and constantly worried about Hell. It was a flat, monochromatic world.

In the Orthodox Church (and the Divine Liturgy) I found the sense of reverence, an acknowledgement of our proper position in relation to God. It was also a journey back in time, like coming home to a place I had never been before. A place of beauty, with changing seasons, where the hills and valleys are part of the journey, where there is always something new to discover just around the bend. A world of color and texture, a world of scent and touch, a place where worship is not just an intellectual exercise.

And more importantly for me, just the belief that we are on a journey, that we will stumble and fall but God still loves us. That the true faith has been kept inviolate and it is a message of love, not condemnation.

November 26, 2006

Day At Okefenokee

These photographs were taken on the afternoon of November 25, at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It's an amazing place.

November 22, 2006

Signal 7 and Thanksgiving

It was not a promising beginning to the Thanksgiving holiday. At 7:52 this morning I received a page that said, “Signal 7, 80 year old female.” A Signal 7 is a death. Then at 11:35 I received another that said, “9 month old baby not breathing.” I later learned that the baby was also Signal 7. This evening at 7:24 I received yet another page that said officers were investigating a possible 10-67 (sexual assault). Despite the fact that I live and work in a fairly rural county is south Georgia, sadly, such days are not all that atypical.

Responding to the death of a child has always had a profound impact on me (and evryone else involved). One of the worst was when a mother had innocently put an adult blanket into her baby’s crib to keep her warm. Sometime during the night the little girl became entangled in the blanket and smothered. I was with another officer and he was dealing with the family while I stood at the door to the child’s bedroom to keep everyone out. I could see that the baby had died face down as the fluids had begun to pool in her cheeks and the tip of her nose. The paramedics arrived shortly after we did and went into the bedroom, realized the obvious and almost immediately walked back out. I was not aware at the time that the mother was still harboring hope that her daughter was alive. When the paramedic walked back into the living room she let out a wail/scream that I will never forget, it still raises the hair on my neck. It was like the sound of her soul leaving her body.

My youngest daughter at the time was about six months old, the same age as the baby girl who died. I took it very hard, but I got to walk away, to get up the next day, to hug my daughter and still have my family complete. When blinded by grief as that mother was, there is no hope, no giving of thanks. The same with the families today, mourning the loss of a matriarch, the loss of innocence and the loss of their dearest treasure. Today and tomorrow and for many days to come there will be no thanksgiving, no joy, no holiday spirit.

But eventually the pain will ebb, the tears will slow and the memories will either fade or become a source of comfort. The holidays will be hard but bearable. God has designed us to be able (in most circumstances) to absorb such emotional trauma and somehow heal, to reconcile ourselves with the certainty of our limited time in this life. So while you can, hug your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents. Give thanks to God for your family and your loved ones.

And be careful if you’re traveling. There will be a lot of hurried, tired people and a lot of police on the roads with you.

November 20, 2006

The Gospel of John, Paul, George and Ringo?

I had an otherworldly experience at B&N the other day. Beside (literally) two volumes of the Philokalia was The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family. It was the clash of the Titans, ancient Orthodox wisdom up against Homer Simpson. Doh! It was surreal. No wonder our culture is confused and finds it easy to look dismissively at Christianity.

Two shelves down was an even more astonishing tome entitled, The Gospel According to the Beatles. Why are we not looking to the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John instead of John, Paul, George and Ringo? Does Hey Jude count? What’s next, Gospel Girls Gone Wild?

I know the argument can be made that The Simpsons are for the most part harmless fun and I understand that under all the bluster and one-liners Homer (despite himself) is a loving father. And I understand that The Beatles were revolutionary and brought unprecedented depth and virtuosity to popular music. But we have gone too far when we start diluting the Gospel and looking to secular culture for our spiritual guidance.

These examples are just a proverbial drop in the bucket. There is a whole wall stacked high with Christian books, thousands of them (not including the Bibles, that’s another large section), Christian history, Christian apologists, Christian critics, even Christian fiction. There is a lot of good to be said for this. Trying to make people feel better about themselves, to help them cope and to encourage them to explore a spiritual dimension are in and of themselves good things. It’s when the message gets lost in the medium that the trouble starts. I believe that the ELCA congregation with which I used to worship eventually folded the tent (at least partly) because we tried too hard to accommodate everyone. We changed everything including the name and even the liturgy to try to meet people “where they are” instead of letting them bump up against Truth and began to conform to it. Too many people dealing with spiritual issues try to find a creator, a higher power, a life force to suit their tastes. Sometimes we are left with no choice but the path that leads through the narrow gate.

Society is like a bell curve, with some people on each end of the spectrum and many meandering in the middle. I may not know exactly where I am on the graph, but I do know where I am going.

What I eventually found to read I found at our own church bookstore. It was exactly what I was looking for, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

November 16, 2006

The Symbol Of Faith

Standing in the darkened church faintly illumined in flickering candlelight, with the aroma of incense hanging in the warm air, together we recited these words...

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Such a simple act brought a tremendous flood of emotion. I felt caught up in the sweep of the past wondering how many times over the better part of the last 17 centuries, in dank caves and in gloriously illuminated naves, the same words were chanted? Not just language, not just print on paper, but ancient words that reflect the deep truths that define us collectively and individually. Sentences pared down to the necessary, nothing extraneous, everything essential.

In darkness and in light, in time of toil and in time of trouble, through feast and famine, through plenty and through depravation, through every possible trial, under every conceivable circumstance, day after day, in tongues foreign and domestic all those who have gone before us kept the flame of faith burning brightly. We are merely the next link in the chain that ties us to the past and offers a hand to the future, neither the first nor the last to hold firm to the faith handed down by the Fathers. I am reminded that we are called to be a light on a hill, a flicker of brilliant grace in a gray world.

Together we stood, tired and hungry, reciting the small Compline with the voice of the reader ringing clear in the near-darkness. Just visible outside the circle the icons glow, Pantocrator, Theotokos, St. John the Forerunner, St. Justin, Gabriel and Raphael seeming to embrace us, reminders that we are in good company as we pursue the path to Godliness.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

November 10, 2006

November Is the Cruelest Month

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Matthew Arnold
Dover Beach

Not to belabor the point, but below is an account of what happened 35 years ago this month. Some things you just don't forget.

The shelter squats at the foot of these solemn blue ridges where the forest, long dominant and ungiving, is now slowly dying. The dirty, white, battered shell that serves as a house is one of many that dot the mountains like wood chips on a rumpled blue-brown-green carpet. It is the last building on the left before the road succumbs to the mud and dies at the edge of the woods. Rough planks and irregular support posts serve as a partial bridge over the nearly omnipresent moat of mud that at this time of year is the front yard. A green tar-paper roof and crumbling red brick chimney only slow the rain water and melting snow. The house was thrown together without insulation and the wind whistles through the white clapboard exterior. The only amenities are electricity and cold running water.

Inside are three rooms with old beds. A living room with a round woodstove, a sagging three cushion floral couch and a torn black chair. Another room has the cooking stove, a table, five chairs and a sink. The sixth room is outside to the left of the front opening, about twenty yards down the path.

It is the day for giving thanks in the bitter winter of 1971. The bleak night blanketed several inches of new snow onto the old froth of mud and snow, temporarily camouflaging the chaos with a cold purity. Dirty, low hanging cotton ball clouds threaten to drop more snow as the green-sweet smell of damp wood trying to burn chokes the air, trapped there by the low clouds and no wind.

The morning sputters in to replace the night. The fading moon illuminates two monstrous oaks anchored in the mud. They branch together, tangled in a headstone arch over the house. The air is chilled and quiet except for patches of snow diving from trees and power lines to meet their grounded companions in a muffled whisper of recognition.

The home. In the sleeping room closest to the left of the living room, a man and woman blow faint mushrooms of visible breath into the frigid air. The woman's unsleep is a thin skin of exhaustion over a churning drum of desperate fear. The stick thin man has slept long and deep in the stupor of disease and alcohol. They have long been partners in dying, like two leeches set upon one another, struggling, fighting, sucking out life and soul but unable or unwilling to pull away.

More mushrooms of breath rise into the air. Three boys in two beds in the one room and two girls sharing a bed in the back coldest room. Their short young lives have been long and desperate. The eldest son is proud and defiant. He hates the father for the sins of the past and for the mire of the present. The oldest sister is proud but not defiant. She has to try to mother while still a child. The Middle Child survives in a world of his own making because he cannot bear the pain of existence. His wall of non-reality keeps too much out and too much in. The youngest son is a wildman straining in the skin of a boy. His wildness is his pain brought forth and hurled back to/at its source. The youngest girl, and smallest sibling, is potent sarcasm. Too small to fight physically, she poisons with words. She is the brunt and the receptacle of the family's anger.

The time. Reluctantly the mother sluggishly slides into her cold, stiffened clothes. The trousers and blouse, coat, gloves and slippers slide on with the familiarity of long acquaintance. Once dressed, the mother ghosts steadily and easily through the tomb-dark house. A menthol non-filter cigarette, ignites a furious fit of coughing. Despite the healthy objection, her lungs greedily suck in the carcinogens.

The fire is nearly dead. She packs the stove full of Kroger bags and dry kindling. Then the now roaring mouth of the stove is crammed with the last of the wood from last night's stacking. The heat from the stove slowly fights off the biting, numbing cold.

The cold. The house and the woman fight the clinging cold and habitually meet the day. Poised on the fulcrum, she balances a delicate act between despair and grief, always tinged by both but not engulfed by either.

The rosy fingertips of dawn. Morning eternal. The time of waning light and strengthening morning, a limbo, a brief eternity between Luna and Sol as the timeless balance pauses between the endless rhythm of the heavens. The ebb and flow of day and night hold for a time and the essence of both is present in a state of calm flux. It is at this time, on this day, that the scythe cuts its inevitable, inescapable arc.

The father's lungs heave in a suffocating panic. Sleep is ripped from his unconsciousness. Through the fury of coughing, a tearing abdominal pain. He rises from the shroud of blankets out of the darkness, through the cloth door and into the warmth. The wife dismisses her cigarette as the husband emerges from the tomb cold room. He gropes through the room fighting for balance, passes through to the kitchen and uses the pot kept there for cold winter nights. The wife waits, hesitant, frightened as he slumps over the pot and nearly falls to the floor. In a motion of pure instinct, with his heart and brain dying from oxygen deprivation, the father lunges upward, back into the living and dying room. Oh my God.

The mother's scream, the essence of her pain, dragged the Middle Child from the panacea of sleep. At the open bedroom door they all witnessed the sight that haunted and scarred, the sight and the moment that defined their existence.

Their father's long, heavy body had fallen unto the mother, pinning her to the couch. His handsome face was horrible and red. Now only a battered shell, emaciated and gaunt outlined through the blood, phlegm, urine, sweat, and nicotine stained pajamas. His eyes and mouth were open, frozen in the last moment of ultimate reality, horrified by the abyss. Scarlet saliva escaped out of the corner of his mouth and left a dark spreading stain on her blouse. The oldest brother ran to the nearest sociable neighbor to phone for the rescue squad. They could only state the obvious and carry the once-father away.

The new day rose and merged with the old horror and grief of desolation and isolation. The noble, limping old gentleman, the ambassador of goodwill, brought a banquet of fresh food from the Salvation Army. He gave thanks, broke bread and brought hope. Then, the night settled again, and was long in lifting its cold hand from the hearts and lives of those who lived at the end of the road.

As the night lies down in the deepest darkness, the snow turns into rain.

October 31, 2006

In The Hands Of An Angry God

My wife, my daughter and I will be Chrismated on Sunday. We will take the saint names of Anna, Sophia and John respectively. My mind has been much on my life confession and for some odd reason I thought about this:

“The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood . . .The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

Pretty strong stuff and there is a lot more of the same in the complete sermon here. The quotation is from a famous sermon entitled “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” delivered by Jonathan Edwards in 1741 during The Great Awakening.

Are we talking about the same God?

October 29, 2006

Arrested Development

Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, `Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I hungered, and ye gave Me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me in; naked, and ye clothed Me; I was sick, and ye visited Me; I was in prison, and ye came unto Me.' Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, `Lord, when saw we Thee hungering and fed Thee, or thirsty and gave Thee drink? When saw we Thee a stranger and took Thee in, or naked and clothed Thee? Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison, and came unto Thee?' And the King shall answer and say unto them, `Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.'
Matthew 25:34 - 40

I spent the better part of two nights last week locating and arresting a variety of actual and potential felons. There were a dozen of us in several vehicles serving warrants across four counties. For me it was a chance to get out of the office and to sharpen some skills that have become dulled by inactivity. It was a surreal experience, a quick trip into the land of the living dead and the walking wounded. It was at once exhilarating and depressing, great anxiety infused with deep sadness.

I was reminded that it is far too easy to judge people, to come to believe their label, their criminal history that defines them as sex offender, drug dealer, wife beater or thief. Don’t get me wrong. I fully understand that there are vile, wicked people in the world who enjoy their depravity and will not change. With them we use due caution and take nothing for granted. But many times we fail to see the humanity, the part of all of us that is the image of God.

Often the ones we see as the bad guys are in fact victims of every conceivable form of abuse. Their physical, spiritual and emotional development arrested or at least stunted by poor diet, no connection to anything beyond their harsh physical existence and never experiencing unconditional love. As an example, one of the men we apprehended was a registered sex offender who had not fulfilled all his necessary registration requirements.

As the officers made entry through the front door, his parents arrived from somewhere and demanded to know why we were taking their son. They wanted to see the warrant. From our perspective we were doing our job as quickly and as efficiently as possible. From their perspective it was nothing short of a midnight abduction of their beloved son. They began to interfere with the process and it was quickly escalating into something ugly.

When one of the officers asked the mother to step back, the son thought we had insulted her, said we were not going to talk to his Momma that way and became violent. He was quickly restrained, put into the car and whisked away. The picture at the top was taken at that moment.

Given what I saw inside and outside the trailer (there was unbelievable squalor, dog feces throughout the residence) and how the family interacted with themselves and with us, there is a very good chance that the man we arrested had been the victim of a variety of abuses. That does not justify or explain away his actions. That does not ease the burden of the one he victimized, but it does soften the edge of our revulsion. How to offer compassion to such a man? I don’t know. Can there really be a divine spark in the soul of a sex offender? How can a man who has sex with children (and enjoys it immensely) even belong in the same creation? But does it really help anyone to treat them with rage and derision? I have to humble myself and believe that in everyone exists the potential for change. I hate the sins, but the Church asks us to love the sinner.

I say all this because there was a time in my life when many people thought I was headed for self-destruction, that I would follow in the footsteps of my father and succumb to the lure of an early death, that I would be a good for nothing drunk. In the Baptist church (of all places) I met I man who changed everything. He was not a cure-all. My life continued to spiral out of control for many, many years after I last saw him. But in him, for probably the first time in my life, I found unconditional acceptance. He saw the potential. He saw the God spark in me and he did not turn away. It was because of his influence that I even considered going to college. I was at the time a high school dropout with a GED working in a body shop painting cars. He helped me to believe that I was capable. He demonstrated Christian love. He was not afraid to love his neighbor as himself. Without him, you would not know me.

I learned that we must not see only the horrors of humanity, we must not be blind to the beauty of rebirth. Yes, we must protect ourselves, our families, our children. But our development as Christians and as humans stops if we become too battle-hardened. When we see only the spiked hair, or the filthy clothes, or the odd behavior, or the rundown home we are only seeing the effect, not the cause.

What can we do? Christ said to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That’s a good place to start.

October 16, 2006

Strength and Honor

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt

My younger brother Terry and I greet each other with the words, “Strength and Honor.” It’s a line lifted directly from the movie “Gladiator.” Not a great movie and perhaps greeting each other this way is a bit hokey, but what appears on the surface to be just light-hearted bravado hides a much deeper significance.

I am the third of five siblings. Terry, the fourth of five, and I have always enjoyed a particularly close relationship and have many interests in common. Nevertheless, we were, and to a large degree still are, polar opposites. Terry was always handsome, strong, brave, impetuous and headstrong, even violent. I was always homely, weak, scared, cautious and compliant. Truly yin and yang. Our strengths and weaknesses complimented each other. Ours is a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration.

We grew up in an alcoholic, abusive household with our other brother and two sisters. My mother had us one right after the other and by the time she was 22 she had five kids. In the days before disposable diapers, in a house with only cold running water, no bathtub, no bathroom facilities. It was a poor existence. We often felt winter’s bitter bite. My father did not try to save us. He did not come to the rescue. He was not true or strong or brave. In fact he did everything he could to abandon us and leave us at the mercy of our alcoholic mother. By the age of 36 he was dead. I’m not sure how much his disease killed him or how much it was him simply trying to escape the pain of existence.

One of the mechanisms I used to cope was to develop a fascination with warrior societies. The Spartans, the Samurai, the Vikings. I even went so far as to join the U.S. Marine Corps at the ripe old age of 17. I realize now that this fascination served at least two vital purposes, it helped me to address the very real fear I felt and it helped me to define what a man should be. Most of my life has been the search for strength and honor. Trying to find internal strength to face the fears and trying to find a way to be a man of honor.

In 1986 Terry gave me a lesson in humility, a lesson in how to be a man of strength and honor. In that year he fell and suffered a spinal cord injury in a construction accident. Terry survived the horrors of rehab and now spends his days in a wheelchair. Only those who have lived with someone recovering from such an injury can understand the magnitude of the physical and emotional struggle involved.

Terry never finished high school. To be more accurate, he never finished junior high school. He was kicked out for being too violent. Later in life, after his accident, Terry got his GED. Then he went to college (we started the same semester when I was 27 and he was 26) and eventually graduated with a B.A. in English from James Madison University. Years later he worked for a while as a teacher at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind teaching deaf students (using sign language). He is now learning to play the bass guitar.

Terry is not handicapped in any real sense. He is completely self-reliant. He simply cannot walk. Terry has done more than most people without any physical impediment. He is a warrior and the bravest man I know. He has survived many trials. Not just survived, thrived. The fire of adversity has refined his spirit, purified his commitment to do whatever he sets his mind to do. One of the foundations of the Japanese martial art of Aikido is blending with the attack. If the attacker pulls, you push, if he pushes, you give way. By blending with the attack, you defeat it. Much the same in life, much the same with Terry. He took what came, blended with it and emerged complete.

I know Terry reads this blog. To him I say, strength and honor, brother.

October 12, 2006

Past Into Present

"In reality, the past is preserved by itself automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside."

Henri Bergson
(from Creative Evolution)

If you don’t think that past is present, ask any native Southerner. Even better, ask an Orthodox Christian. Both are immersed in a culture saturated with reminders of heroes, villains and stories from a past sometimes made fuzzy by time and circumstance. A somewhat skewed analogy to be sure, but for both a basic premise holds; tradition is good, hidebound tradition is worse.

To that point, there is a lot of debate/discussion in the Orthodox-blogosphere lately about newcomers to the Orthodox faith, and a somewhat surprising conversation about the meaning/purpose of priestly garb and accoutrements.

I think at the heart of these discussions is the question of how will Orthodoxy incorporate the past into the present? How to make compatible the Orthodox emphasis on slow change within traditional boundaries with the influx of new things, new ideas, and new people? This is certainly not the first time the church has been forced to have this discussion. Perhaps it is different here because America is such a unique place. Perhaps it is our hubris that makes us think so.

I have not experienced any of the “us against them” mentality or any ethnic bias. The majority of the parishioners are, like myself, converts who came looking for a place that was stable, a tradition that held to tradition, not a tradition of shifting standards and flexible truth. We are glad to be on the ark of salvation and we are not really concerned with what the priest does or does not wear, or whether or not it is what they would have worn in the old country, or the minutiae of what the buttons may or may not mean. We know we have found the true faith and (hopefully) we spend our time growing as much as we can. We don’t want change for change’s sake. We want what only the Church has to offer. We want to immerse ourselves in the reminders of the past, the Divine Liturgy, icons, incense, prayer, confession, fasting. We do not want to reinvent the Protestant tradition within the Orthodox Church. We spent too much time getting away to look back.

It is much the same here in the South. Anyone who has spent any time here has seen the ubiquitous Confederate battle flags, the innumerable other references to the Lost Cause. William Faulkner, and most other Southern writers, have as an enduring motif the notion that the past is still with us, inextricably bound up, and with, the present and has a palpable influence on everyday life and decisions. For Faulkner it is the lost antebellum splendor, the ghost of slavery, the pain of defeat. The past is of course not all good, the specter of Jim Crow, poverty, the good ol’ boy system, the Dukes of Hazzard. But there are so many good things to embrace: fish grits, manners, an acceptance of strangers, a certain piety, collective memory, family. The best we can do is to be willing to let go of that which harms us individually and as a people. We can hold on to that which is good, that which is right, to the ties that bind. We recognize and reject those who would hold on to any notion of inequality, separation or bigotry. Sometimes the past is best left there.

It’s the same way in relationships. The past can be a source of great comfort or great discomfort. It is a great place to look for lessons about dealing with the future. Sometimes the past seems so real that we feel trapped in it. Sometimes the past can be very comfortable, too comfortable. Inevitably we all have to (or at least should) face the reality that change in inevitable. People change. Relationships change. Everything changes. We are all in the process of becoming. It is much better if we are becoming what God would have us to be. Corporately and individually we must learn from our mistakes, forgive each other, be compassionate.

On a lighter note, here is my best try at a faux-Faulkner sentence. It’s a transitional passage from a much longer work:

“The man who put Yoknapatawpha on the Mississippi map showed him how to stand on the threshold of today, using new forms and experimenting, while casting an eye always backward for the sources, eeking out the effluvium of a past long, long dead, ghosting with ghosts that would not leave, shackled to the story of a war lost and an honor kept, embittered beyond recompense, seeking the antebellum splendor of a civilization that thought itself noble, but really now, even though the past was equal to present for those raised in ancestral families and on land long reaped by dissembling captives, was only a people still on the edge and still in the dark.”

October 9, 2006

Money, It's A Hit

I was watching television with my wife the other night and we happened upon one of the more prominent Christian channels, the Totally Bogus Network, and they were in the midst of one of their (never ending) fund drives. I can generally stand this insanity pretty well and occasionally even get a pretty good chuckle. Just remember the cardinal rule, whenever He is referred to as the Holy Ghost, something is about to bust loose. But this was beyond the ordinary. This was naked greed of a higher order. I wondered if this was even the same religion? Could this be Christianity? Did not Christ chase the moneychangers from the temple?

This is the verse they were milking:

Psalm 66:12 Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.

Of course the refrain was over and over, “into a wealthy place” like a mantra. Nothing about feeding the poor or clothing the naked, nothing about He must increase and we must decrease, nothing about fasting, nothing holy. It was worship all right, but it was not God worship. It was all about seed faith, about sending every last dime to them because God has promised that He will return the favor. They believe that God is bound to the contract, that if you give money, He has to give it back with interest. I read somewhere that if this were really true, and if they truly believed it, they would be giving their money away as fast as they could!

To my mind, this is one of the inherent problems with sola scriptura. They (and it was a conspiracy) were using scripture out of context to further their own greedy agendas. Any bunch of self-ordained folk, with a so-called ministry can interpret the Bible as they see fit or to benefit their own bottom line. And more importantly, they are very good at getting others to buy into their corrupt message. Without tradition and church teaching, and in the wrong hands, scripture can become a very dangerous weapon.

At the same time, I am amazed and humbled by the faith of someone who can step so far out onto the limb and actually send their money. Even if they are following false prophets, some of them are clearly stepping out on faith. May we all be willing to do likewise.

October 4, 2006

Living Reliquaries

“According to the Orthodox belief the body remains a Temple of the Holy Spirit even after death. Redeemed, cleansed, sanctified by the blood of Jesus, consecrated by the indwelling Spirit, the bodies of Saints are drenched, as it were, to their very bones with divinity.”

Anthony M. Coniaris
Introducing The Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life

My daughter, who is a freshman in college but living at home, was given the assignment in art class of making a reliquary. She did an outstanding job and crafted a reliquary for an imaginary child who died in the Holocaust. As many things in my life tend to do, it got me to thinking.

When I was first introduced to the tradition of Orthodox reliquaries, I’ll admit I was a bit put off. At first it seemed very strange (from my non-Orthodox background) to want to keep body parts or other items of the departed saints and martyrs. Without getting into a theological discussion, I understand that at least on one level they are tangible links to the past. Keeping relics is an act of love, a way of piercing the veil between this life and the life to come, a way or treasuring memory because Orthodox tradition, in a very tangible way, defines who we are and illuminates the path we are to follow. Now I more fully understand why in each altar there are relics of one of the martyrs.

Then I realized that one at least one level it was no different than wanting to hold on to an item left behind by a loved one, an article of clothing, even a photograph. I think the basic desire/instinct is the same. In a very real sense we are all living reliquaries. We all carry around relics of lost loved ones inside us as memories. Not as ornate as those crafted by the hand of man, but much more precious as we are all created in His likeness and image.

For me the most significant memory is that of my father. He died from the effects of acute alcoholism when he was just 36 years old. I have referred to his death obliquely in this blog before so I won’t belabor the point. In many ways his was the example of what not to do as a father. Still, I carry the memories because I do not want to lose him.

When I think of a reliquary this way it makes absolute sense. Not so much because it is a physical remnant of the actual person (that’s a whole different discussion), but because of how special that person was, of the impact they had in our lives or in the life of the Church.

Note: I realize that many of the posts on this blog conccern death in one fashion or another. This is a learning process for me as I would never have imagined the blog would have taken this turn. I will try to include less depressing material inthe future.

September 27, 2006

Living In A Different World

When I ride around the county where I live and work I see the geographical landmarks, buildings, houses, roads. But I, and many people in my business, also see a very different county, like two different maps of the same area laid one upon the other. One world is physical; the other is a world of grief, of memory and emotion, a world of despair, a world of dreams long dead. As I drive around I remember a suicide here, a murder there, a fatal traffic accident somewhere else. So much mayhem. Children and elderly citizens neglected, spouses abusing each other and their children, leaving many with wounds that will heal and others that will fester for a lifetime. A world full of random acts of violence and senseless acts of destruction.

I was at a scene once where a man shot his wife in the head while she was on the telephone with 911 and while two of their children looked on. He then turned the gun on himself and compounded the injury to the children by also committing suicide in front of them. One of the young brothers who witnessed the incident said that the battery (the shell casing) from his Daddy’s gun had hit him.

It’s enough to test your faith.

The world used to seem out of control. Many times I thought I wanted no part of any God who would let this continue. How could a God who is omniscient and omnipotent not intervene? The only conclusion I could reach was that God did not exist. I believed (and was naïve enough to believe that it was an original concept) that we created God in our own image, as a sort of consolation prize. Given the choice between an eternity in heaven or an eternal dirt nap, many opt for the clouds and harps.

That was of course my own arrogance, my wanting to set myself up as God so that I would have a reason to not follow the rules, to justify my bitterness, to blame the evil in the world on the creator. It took a long time to reconcile God as I now understand Him with the hands-off god I once imagined

I finally realized I was the problem. Blaming God was the easy part. Being part of the solution was hard. Perhaps I was the one who was wrong. Perhaps there are immutable truths and eternal sources of consolation. Perhaps I had to conform. Perhaps I had to realize that I could not come up with all the answers. Perhaps in all the chaos I could be calm and quit being mad. Perhaps in God there is deliverance and redemption.

So when I am confronted with an act of barbarity I still feel the pain, I still mourn for the victim but I no longer blame God. I see Him in the healing, in the ability to recover from loss, the ability to hope when everything is hopeless. I still have the map in my head but now I see acts of grace in a world of wonder, a world full of dreams yet to be lived.

It has been a long, strange trip but for probably the first time in my life I do not feel alone. Not the everyday riding in the car by myself kind of alone, but the cold cosmic aloneness. God is here if I just open my eyes and shut my mouth.

September 26, 2006

Pursuit of Holiness

“I propose to you that Traditional Orthodoxy is not about the pursuit of happiness. It is about the pursuit of holiness.”

This quotation is taken from remarks given by Fr. John Moses at the Southern Missions Conference of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, on November 8, 2003. The complete text is here. Fr. John is the priest where my brother attends and where I ran into some folks I had not seen in more than 20 years.

The short version of the story is this: I was visiting family in Virginia and looked up the closest Orthodox church. That church was All Saints of North America. I arrived too late to attend the liturgy, but while standing in the parking lot with my brother and sister, neither of whom at the time had any knowledge of Orthodoxy, I heard someone calling my name. It was the sister of an old girlfriend of mine! We started talking, and I quickly realized that she and her sister (the old girlfriend) both attended All Saints. Even more amazing, their oldest brother John, was the priest. Needless to say, none of this was coincidence.

The point of this long rambling introduction is to say that the pursuit of holiness has been much in my thoughts lately. Especially that we are to always respond with love. It is the state of the heart that matters, not any outward display of peity.

Fr. John uses the words of St. Theophan the Recluse:

People concern themselves with Christian upbringing, but leave it incomplete. They neglect the most essential and most difficult side of the Christian life and dwell on what is easiest - the visible and external. This imperfect and misdirected upbringing produces people who observe with the utmost correctness all the formal outward rules for devout conduct, but who pay little or no attention to the inward movements of the heart, and to true improvement of the inner spiritual life. They are strangers to mortal sin, but they do not heed the play of thoughts in the heart. Accordingly, they sometimes pass judgments, give way to boastfulness or pride, sometimes get angry (as if this feeling were justified by the rightness of the cause), and are sometimes distracted by beauty and pleasure, sometimes even offending others in fits of irritation. Sometimes they are too lazy to pray, or lose themselves in useless thoughts while at prayer. They are not upset about doing these things, but regard them without any significance. They've been to church, or prayed at home according to the established rule, they carry out their usual business, and so they are quite content and at peace. But they have little concern for what is happening in the heart. In the meantime, it may be forging evil, thereby taking away the whole value of the correct and pious life.

Let us now take the case of one who has been falling somewhat short in the work of salvation. He or she becomes aware of this incompleteness and sees the incorrectness of their way of life, and the instability of his or her efforts. And so they turn from outward to inward piety. They're lead either by reading books about spiritual life or by talking with those who know what the essence of Christian life is, by dissatisfaction of their own efforts, by a certain intuition that something is lacking and that all is not going as it should be. Despite all of his correctness, he has no inner peace. He lacks what was promised true Christians-peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.... He comes to understand that the essence of the Christian life consists in establishing himself with the mind in the heart before God in the Lord Jesus Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In this way, he is enabled to control all inward movements and all outward actions so as to transform everything in himself whether great or small into the service of God and the Trinity, consciously and freely offering himself wholly to God.

I stand convicted. I have long struggled with too many times putting myself and my own wants ahead of the needs of others. Many times I have been blind to those around me and lived my life with no thought to the consequences. To those on the outside looking in I was a considerate, decent man who loved his family and was successful at his job. In reality, I was a fragile shell of goodness around a seething inferno of anger and hatred.

Several years ago, for reasons not relevant here, I began a conscious and (hopefully) fruitful journey to re-make myself, to put aside the old me and become someone I would be proud of, to be a worthy husband, father, son and brother. My journey to the Orthodox faith is the continuation of part of that process and yet the very beginning of a different and more rewarding journey.

I am beginning to realize just how much the struggle is within me. Part of the struggle (for me) is to not respond in kind to evil, not to keep track of wrongs, intentional or unintentional. I can feel the change in myself as I try to respond as I should, not as I want. With each day I realize more and more that I must decrease. It is so joyful to let go, to simply love and yet so easy to hold on, to grasp the wicked desires and hold them close.

In Orthodoxy I have the daily reminders, the emphasis on prayer, the structure that helps me stay focused on what is good, on doing (and thinking) what is right. In other faith traditions (Baptist and Lutheran) I found other sincere loving people who wanted to deepen their spiritual walk, but were ill-equipped or too consumed by the issue de jour. In Orthodoxy I have come home and I find myself becoming complete.

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

September 22, 2006

Lord Have Mercy

Many times I am greatly troubled by the world I have to inhabit. Not so long ago I stood in a courtroom as a man pled guilty to rape and multiple counts of child molestation. It was surreal to hear the litany of horror this man perpetrated on his young victim. The molestation went on for years, gradually getting to the point where the man was filming himself with his victim so he could watch his acts of deliberate depravity over and over to sate his abhorrent desire.

He did not look like a monster, or even a menace. Take away the shackles and he looked like any other small dark-haired man with wire rim glasses. Yet within this illusion of normalcy lived a creature so far beyond our point of reference that it is unimaginable. It felt like the devil was in the room.

Some get satisfaction that knowing while in prison he will most likely experience what it is like to be molested. He will feel the fear that comes when the predator becomes the prey. In the prison hierarchy he and his ilk are the bottom feeders.

To us he looked like evil incarnate, yet there must have been many times when someone was proud of him, proud to call him their son, brother or husband.

How could this be? How could a man with so much potential for good become such a broken vessel? He admitted to the court that he started looking at child pornography in 1996. On his home computer were thousands of images and numerous videos of child pornography. Our priest last week spoke about how the eyes are the window to the soul. This time the message really made sense. This man opened himself up to the perversion by looking at things no one should ever see, much less enjoy.

For me these particular situations, child abuse and child molestation, are where I am most awed by the power of Christ’s atoning death. If there is mercy for this man, if salvation is possible for this sick soul, and I have to believe it is, it is a grace far beyond my ability to comprehend. I pray that his victim, and all victims of child abuse, will somehow find peace.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

September 20, 2006

War, What Is It Good For?

Given the current state of tension between the Catholic Church and Islam this seemed like an interesting question. Is war, or the threat of war, ever ethically and morally justified? James W. Schall in Policy Review, No. 128 argues that there are times when war must be the answer because without the ability to bring the force or arms to bear those who seek to do us harm remain unchecked and free to do as they will. Schall says:

“A calm and reasonable case can and should be made for the possession and effective use of force in today’s world. It is irresponsible not to plan for the necessity of force in the face of real turmoils and enemies actually present in the world. No talk of peace, justice, truth, or virtue is complete without a clear understanding that certain individuals, movements, and nations must be met with measured force, however much we might prefer to deal with them peacefully or pleasantly. Without force, many will not talk seriously at all, and some not even then. Human, moral, and economic problems are greater today for the lack of adequate military force or, more often, for the failure to use it when necessary.
This view goes against a certain rhetorical grain, but it is a fact that needs attention and comprehension. We are not in some new world-historic age in which we can bypass these “outmoded” instruments of power, however rhetorically fine it may be to talk that way. Human nature has not changed, neither for better nor for worse. Human institutions, whether national or international, have not so improved that they themselves cannot be threats to the human good. Who watches the watchdogs remains a fundamental, if not the fundamental, question of the human condition. It is an issue with philosophical, theological, and political dimensions.
This is a counter-cultural position. It goes against much articulate liberal and religious sentiment. Yet I consider these often ungrounded sentiments about abolishing war to be themselves part of the problem of war’s dangers… We need not collapse before tyranny or terrorism or those who sponsor either, but we must effectively do something about them. “Peace and dialogue” do not work in the absence of a force component. The more the reality of measured force is present, the more dialogue and peaceful means — including religious means — are present. In practice, this “doing” peace must include adequate and intelligent force. The intense concern that weapons of mass destruction not fall into the hands of Muslim or other leaders is not fanciful. Every holiday since 9/11, some email comes, warning of the possible use of “dirty bombs” in some American or world city. That they have not been used, I suspect, is more because those who would use them have actually been prevented by force. Units that would blow up major installations, if they could, do exist. All they lack are delivery capabilities.”

I’m not so sure he’s correct. It’s one thing to say that war, or at least the threat of war can be rationalized as an effective even necessary deterrent, in essence a weapon of peace. It’s something else to actively call for war.

Some in the big dysfunctional Christian family go way too far. Texas televangelist, John Hagee, one of the more prominent evangelical Christian Zionists, is a case in point. I used to admire Hagee, not for his message, but for his rhetorical acumen.
No more. Any man who calls, almost hopes, for nuclear war believing it will bring about the end of days has gone too far.

Hagee’s reasoning stands on a false foundation. First, he is absolutely certain that his version of Christ’s return is absolutely correct. There have been a number of so-called prophets throughout the Christian era who thought the same thing only to be proven irrefutably wrong by the merciless march of time. Second, there are many things I doubt, but I believe with all my being that the gospel is a message of love. Hagee, and a great many other misguided souls, actually believe that the sooner the final war between Russia and Israel starts the better.

To fan the conflagration is foolhardy. We must unite in our prayer for peace. God's will will be done.

September 16, 2006

Elevation Of The Cross

September 16

The Afterfeast of the Elevation of the Cross.

Troparion - Tone 1 O Lord, save Your people, And bless You inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians Over their adversaries. And by virtue of Your Cross, Preserve Your habitation.

Kontakion - Tone 4 As You were voluntarily raised upon the cross for our sake, Grant mercy to those who are called by Your Name, O Christ God; Make all Orthodox Christians glad by Your power, Granting them victories over their adversaries, By bestowing on them the Invincible trophy, Your weapon of Peace.

September 11, 2006

Words of Comfort on 9/11

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.
6 The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
11 The LORD of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

September 7, 2006

A Harrowing Weekend

It was the kind of message I always dread getting on my pager: HOUSE FULLY ENGULFED FIRE 2 CHILDREN TRAPPED UPSTAIRS. Many such messages, based on the very first information, are inaccurate. Sadly, in this case, it was all too true. When I arrived at 5:30 a.m. flames were devouring the two-story home. Time became elastic as it will do, and it seemed like a very long time before the fire was out and the searchers headed in.

Less than 48 hours earlier, on a Saturday morning, I attended the funeral of a state trooper from the local post who had died from injuries sustained in an on-duty automobile accident. It was, in the vernacular of some parts of the South, a homegoing, a celebration of the trooper’s life. In this case there was no need for eulogies that colored in the man’s good qualities while leaving the bad in empty outline. This trooper was a true man of God, a man who unashamedly lived his faith.

The next day, Sunday morning, a priest friend of mine spoke about masks. More specifically about the church being a place where we can take down our masks and reveal our selves. We cannot hide, God knows our face. In the arms of the church we find consolation. We can find peace when there is no understanding. The trooper’s funeral was not sad. Here was a man who lived a good life with no regrets, a man who had his reward, a man who had had no need to hide behind a mask. But in the funeral were many masks. Masks of stoicism, men and women in uniform uniformly resigned to not let themselves go out this way, to be more alert, more careful, to go home at the end of their shift. One of the best things about law enforcement is the camaraderie, the very real sense of brotherhood, the thin blue line. I counted at least three hundred peace officers at the funeral, many of them had never met the trooper, but all were his brothers in arms.

Back to Monday morning, back to the house fire. Standing there looking at the home burnt to the foundation and still smoking, with two young brothers in body bags on the front lawn, we were all unmasked. For a few quiet minutes we let ourselves be human, let ourselves mourn. Stripped down to what we all are, fathers, uncles and sons, silent sentinels in the acrid air.

I would argue that some masks, at least in the short term, are necessary. Not to hide behind, but just to keep going, just to get home. We put our masks back on. We became what we do. But later, for me it was when I finally went to bed, the mask fell off and tears flowed. The priest put it this way, “There is nothing wrong with a mask from time to time so that all your emotions aren’t out front all the time. There is nothing wrong with seeming like you have your act together for the sake of another. There is something wrong with believing the lie. There is something wrong with thinking you are the only one wearing that mask. There is something wrong with not letting God in to that cesspool of old junk you carry around. There is something wrong with missing the real healing God has for you because you have to act like you’ve got your act together.”

With the masks off the healing began. But we are the fortunate ones, left with only macabre memories that will slowly fade but never leave. What about the families? They’re left with a hole they will always feel but never fill. I pray they find peace.

September 1, 2006

Primal Fire

Here is another story from the Window Pain work. It's another attempt to deal with some issues that were pretty common in my family when I was a child. Note: This is a work of fiction. I'll get back to the essays soon.

The fleeting yellow tongues of flame lick the air. They give off their heat and their light but exact a price from flesh that comes too close. He had watched the flame for so long that his eyes were finally dry. Here was a solace. Here he could look without shame. Here there were no eyes of pain peering back. He held his unsteady hands up to the heat and looked through the strong battered fingers. Hands that were supposed to be creative. How could they be capable of so much destruction? Even now he struggled to keep the rage inside. Inside where it harms only him.

The blows were few but hard. Tender flesh torn in furious battle but not battle because battle requires opponents, more an onslaught, an attack. He could not rationalize the anger, could not understand this revelation. Could not accept this new dimension, this sickness of self that he had seen in his father and his uncles and his grandfather. Knowing that despite the help, the education, the honest attempt at change, that he might only be a product of what he had seen and come to know so well. A living echo, a reverberation of the same impulse to seek violence and to be destruction.

Immediately pulled back to all that he sought to escape, the feeling of insecurity, of self-loathing, the knowledge of being trapped in a backwater dump where the people are lost, never to be found, happy in their desperation. Forced into being either a man with a big truck, a big thirst, and a Confederate flag or to be in some dogmatic denominational prison, held in check by the promise of hell and a hint of heaven. He had walked both roads and found them to be really both about the same. These were the choices, neither acceptable.

But this, this was worse. He could not, and never would, try to rationalize or minimize his responsibility. The fault was his own and he would always bear the stigma, would be seen as something that deep inside he knew that he was not, had never been and yet the scene was there in his mind, irrefutable proof of his malevolence. In trying to find a new road, a road out of and away from the tangled, chaotic and ultimately destructive childhood he found that he had doubled back on himself and remained lost. An act that called into question all that he thought he knew about himself. Somewhere inside was a darkness that resisted the light.

So he weeps. Tears of shame flow unchecked down his face. A small steady hand touched his back. He got up to apologize, to say that he would leave so that this would never happen again and then caught the muzzle flash, heard the deafening roar. He felt his body collapse, his knees buckle, his heart stop, but he did not feel his hand as it fell into the yellow tongues of flame.

August 24, 2006

Clouds of Apocalypse

I wrote this narrative more a decade ago. It is taken directly from a real dream (an oxymoron?) my brother (and best friend) had. The dream profoundly changed him and called into question the state of his soul. The story is meant to go from reality into the dream and back to reality.

The rain. It began its slow cleansing march up the dusty valley somewhere west of the Middle Child's house. An incredible solid wall of water from earth to sky. The boy stood alone on the porch of the soiled white house that squatted beside the road, watching the whirling wind twist the leaves to pale undergreen and the water advance down the hill changing dry gray pavement to a shiny black streak streaked with rivulets of new mud. The division between the gray and the black is a straight edge of glistening cleansing water. Where the storm has passed the world is vibrant and alive, breathing anew, glad to be free rid of the ubiquitous dust.

The rain smell. That smell of newly turned earth saturated the air flooding the child with ancient memories of other storms that always smelled the same. Not the smell of burying earth. The earth smell of plowing, sowing, pushing the seed deep. The charged air is the calm turmoil that the boy always imagined it would be like in the eye of a hurricane. This is not a storm of malevolence but of replenishing. The Middle Child thought of mighty Mjolnir ringing the heavens with the hammering thunder, sparking the lightning as Thor forged his fury. The clouds are sooted cotton filling the horizon. The turbulent grace of a summer storm has the boy more alive than he has ever felt. The storm essence rushes into every pore, every sense, flooding his being as nature can do to those young enough to know the sublime. The raw grandeur charms him, holds him enthralled, standing alone on the porch.

The rain dream. The clouds. The memory, once triggered, took the boy back. To the brink. Of many things. Three nights earlier he dreamt dreams of desolation. It came upon him. He fully understood the grave reality of his experience. This dream was not. It was more, it was is the searing manifestation of the inescapable reality of mortality. Through a paned window, a portal, the wall between two worlds crumbling. Fierce clouds. Black beyond black. Writhing, coiling, twisting in a fury spawned in the death throes of creation. More than clouds. Snaking clouds of blinding wrath and immobilizing fear hailing the advent of the blade blindly slashing into the Middle Child's dream reality. The full force bore down, filling his senses, his soul. Every fear, every hidden hope flooded with the awesome, all impinging dread. Forgive me.

He stood his ground till it melted away pouring over the edge of the abyss his feet stuck as his legs changed to earth. Unable to turn away knowing he would possess the knowledge of the storm. The blackness enveloped him like a dark suffocating blanket then he saw his being drawn away up through a long long dark tunnel tube, twirling swirling faster and faster with traces of faces and demons that looked familiar. Then the plunge into the thick tangible well of black fear, quickly reaching terminal velocity, sensing the hard bottom rushing up to meet him then suddenly dropping free of the black clouds only to see the earth, terra cognita, Dies Irae, so close the worms were crawling. This time he did not awaken.

Beside him his future niece slowly coiled into a fetal ball in the center of a patchwork quilt. Unable to grasp, to contain, the approaching apocalypse. The Middle Child caught, in his eye, to the right, as he stooped to touch the girl, brightness bright. From the depths of a well wrought chest escaped a light that the storm would never darken. Hope. A panoramic rectangular three dimensional canvas in motion, painted by the vision. Mottled doves, in full flight, pause before his face then disappear in a cacophony of motion. He turns to fully face the light. Sky blue and clear. Ground green and firm. He knew. He could keep his back to the storm. Become light. It nurtured his hidden hopes and shadowed those fears best left unexposed. He awoke in tears and in laughter, on the threshold of a scream. Remember the epiphany. The mask of God peeled away. A soul touching, no a soul wrenching intimacy that few survive, the final personal knowledge of certain death and possible redemption.

The Middle Child stands on the porch, in both worlds, the natural one purified by the rain and the unnatural one forever tainted by the emotional filth and physical squalor inside the house, thrust to the brink of manhood, his mind slowly releasing the dream vision for the reality, trembling as the memory pauses, watching the water further erode scars in the yard and the sky dusk not from the storm but from the waning purple and gold sun as it finishes its zenith, scarring up the sky, sliding down to the horizon on this the day of the summer solstice.

The mother, brought from her stupor by water in the windows, appeared in the doorway black in silhouette, a solid caricature with hair flattened and disarranged by sleep, haloed in clouds of spent smoke.

"Bo?" It is the mother's name for him. The boy hates it.

The second son did not respond. With his mind still full of visions of desperation, no longer able to face the hopeless despair, he turned to face the spent fury of the storm and the solidity and hope of the road.

August 23, 2006

Far On A Dark Wind

Oedipus: God. God.
Is there a sorrow greater?
Where shall I find harbor in this world?
My voice is hurled far on a dark wind.
What has God done to me?

Choragos: Too terrible to think of, or to see.

The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil
of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the
boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone
with competence and courage the danger fades.
Joseph Campbell

I am a chronic late bloomer and did not go to college until I was 27. At that time in my life I was deeply entrenched in the Southern Baptist experience. Early on in college I read The Epic of Gilgamesh, and to borrow a cliché, nothing was ever the same again. It was a huge epiphany, or maybe a reverse epiphany, as it pushed me away from The Truth. I began to see the forest, or more correctly I began to realize that there was a forest and not just my little sacred grove. When I realized that the Noah flood story, as well as many others, was common across many cultures my already tenuous acceptance of the Baptist indoctrination stretched beyond the breaking point. Like so many before me I thought I had found the answer and felt content in my newly minted agnosticism.

Then I happened upon The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (and to a much lesser degree Frazer’s, The Golden Bough). This was truly a watershed moment and pushed me further away from Christianity. It was exhilarating and liberating. When I understood that everyone must go though the metaphorical cave, with or without a guardian, face their own fears and emerge bearing the torch to guide the next generation, I felt I had found an explanation for many things that I had long questioned. I also found a way to understand my own life and caught the first glimpses of what I needed to do to be an adequate man, husband and father. The key to my making sense of it all and defining myself was this understanding of myths in culture. They called to me across the limitations of time.

Part of my problem was that I was raised without any father figure to speak of. I did not have the rituals in my life that most young men experience on their way to manhood and I was thrust into it unprepared. In the first years of my adult life I was truly blown far on a dark wind and succumbed to many temptations. Thus, the late blooming.

But this was really a re-awakening. I remembered the old, staid Mythology by Edith Hamilton from seventh grade. Rereading them with an adult mind, especially the Greek and Norse myths was like opening the door to the underworld. I became, fascinated by this deep cauldron of art, psychology and religion.

I realized that, paradoxically, myths seem to be able to express the inexpressible. They are the lens through which our ancestors saw the world when they looked for deeper meaning, for glimpses of the truth hiding in the unfriendly bushes of reality. They came up with fantastic tales that are really signposts on the path of understanding their relationship with all the myriad forces, some beneficial or neutral or arbitrary and capricious, that molded their lives. Over every time and in every place when Man was cognizant, self-aware, and was able to ask from where, and how, and most importantly why, myths provided the answers.

Greek myths have such a strong appeal for me because they explore, perhaps better than any other tales, our emotional underworld. They are simple expressions of an infinitely complex issue. They show that we are messy, complicated beings. Even a cursory appraisal reveals that the stories associated with these names are part of the fabric of our culture and have long endured because they are paths to truths. Consider some of the names: Sisyphus, Oedipus, Tantalus, Daedalus, Icarus, Midas, Pandora, Narcissus, Jason, Medea, Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods) and of course Odysseus. There really is nothing new under the sun.

Norse mythology appeals to me because it is directly a part of my cultural heritage and because I love the narrative and the names. Consider: Yggdrasil (the World Tree), Ragnarök (the end of days), Bifrost (the bridge leading from the realm of mortals, Midgard to the realm of the gods, Asgard), Valkerie, Fenrir , Thor, Loki and Odin with his two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory).

But I digress. Understanding Christianity in a mythological context enhanced my faith, providing me with an infinitely deeper comprehension. We have been given the complete Truth for which these myths were aiming. We can see them for what they are, attempts to see the face of God, to know His mind, to find solace in a cold world.

Our faith, like the myths to our ancestors, gives us tools to live, providing an ethical framework, a justification for seeking that which is good and spurning that which is evil. Myths were a way of expressing the inexpressible to people in their own cultural time and place. Faith does the same for us. All are manifestations of the story of our journey to Him and the perils along the way.

Before dismissing my perhaps misguided ruminations consider this core tenet of Christian belief: By drinking His blood and eating His flesh, by ingesting God we save ourselves, we secure our safe passage through the underworld to the shining city beyond. Taken literally this is a stunning statement. As a pastor friend of mine remarked last week in his sermon, some said this is a hard truth and many turned away.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that Christ is a myth. I am not saying that Christianity is disguised mythology. I believe that He is the Way, the truth and the Light. Coming to a deeper understanding or the role of myth across time led ME back to the true faith.

This I believe: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Amen. But to close our minds to these stories and dismiss them as just heathen tales is to do ourselves a tremendous disservice. There are too may similarities across too many cultures to ignore the significance. Without questioning our beliefs, how can we accept them?

August 18, 2006

Death And The Deepest Darkness

This morning I received a very disconcerting telephone call from M, an old family friend. M told me that her former daughter-in-law, the mother of her granddaughter, had died. The woman who died was in her twenties and left behind a seven year old daughter who is one of my daughter’s best friends. Not to get too Dickensian, but it is for them truly the best and worst of times.

The granddaughter is now motherless, but she will now be moving back to Georgia to live with her father and grandparents in a more stable environment. During the course of the conversation M told me told me that her own mother had died when she was just seven years old. The call took me back to a cold November morning almost 35 years ago when my own father died. I was eleven and it was the defining moment of my life.

One of the ways that I have tried to grieve through the loss is writing about it. Below, and I won’t do this very often on this blog, is one of the things I have written. The facts and the sequences of events are all accurate. It will be fairly obvious where I have tried to universalize and depersonalize the story. Note: I am a middle child, the third of five.

I wrote the narrative more than fifteen years ago. It is part of a series of other eight stories that were designed to fit on a single sheet of standard 8 x 11 paper as part of an attempt to meld the writing art and the visual arts. The stories are placed on a large black canvas and are meant to look (more or less) like window panes. I have long been interested in form and function, that the art do or be what it says. Each story is a different window and provides a different perspective of the big picture/view. Reading the sequence of stories from different starting points, or even in reverse order, produces different tales. Each sheet/pane is modified to look like what the narrative on that particular sheet/pane addresses. For instance, one of the stories implies that the protagonist jumps from a window to his doom. I took the sheet of paper, wrapped it around a rock and threw it out a window. It is torn and mutilated and has grass stains. I smoothed the paper back out and affixed it to the canvas. Form and function. I even came up with a hokey name for the finished work: Window Pain.

The Deepest Darkness

The rosy fingertips of dawn, morning eternal, the time of waning light and strengthening morning, a limbo, a brief eternity between Luna and Sol, a pause in the endless rhythm of the heavens. The ebb and flow of day and night hold for a time and the essence of both is present in a state of calm flux. It is at this time, on this day, that the scythe cuts its inevitable, inescapable arc.

The father's lungs heave in a near pneumonia panic. Plunged into pain, a fury of coughing, he rises from the shroud of blankets out of the darkness, through the cloth door and into the warmth. The woman waits as her husband emerges from the tomb cold room. The father gropes through the room fighting for balance, and passes through to the kitchen and uses the pot kept there when winter brought its bitter bite. She halts, hesitant, frightened as her husband slumps and nearly falls to the floor. In a motion of pure instinct, with his heart and brain longing for air, he lunges upward, back into the living and dying room. Oh my God.

The mother's scream, the essence of her pain, pulled the Middle Child from the panacea of sleep. At the open bedroom door they all witnessed the sight that haunted and scarred, the sight and the moment that defined their existence. Their father's long, heavy body had fallen unto the mother and pinned her to the couch like a perverse Pietà. His handsome face was horrible and red. A dirty ghostly white battered shell, his body emaciated and gaunt outlined through the blood, phlegm, urine, sweat, and nicotine stained pajamas. The eyes and mouth were open, frozen in the last moment of ultimate reality, horrified by the abyss. Scarlet saliva escaped out of the corner of his mouth and left a dark spreading stain upon her bosom. The oldest brother ran to the nearest sociable neighbor to phone for the rescue squad. They could only state the obvious and carry the once father away.

The new day rose and merged with the old horror and grief of desolation and isolation. The noble, limping old gentleman, the ambassador of good will, brought a banquet of fresh food from the Salvation Army. He gave thanks, broke bread and brought hope. The night settled, quick and true, and was long in lifting its cold hand from the hearts and lives of those who live at the end of the road.

As the night lay down in the deepest darkness, the snow turned into rain.