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.