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.