Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson's Death: A Sense of a Life Badly Misdirected

Dear Parish Faithful,

I am not all certain how to react to the death of Michael Jackson, perhaps the last in a line of "kings of pop" that has run its course for about a half-century in America. Or, at least there is no "heir-apparent" on the horizon waiting to lay claim to that crown and mantle. My lack of any coherent reaction is primarily due to the fact that his music and pop persona held no attraction for me. (Perhaps some of you just breathed a sigh of relief and reassurance). Yet, that is not at all meant as an implicitly condescending dismissal of pop culture, as if I am somehow claiming to be "above" something like the Michael Jackson phenomenon. Since my birth was pretty much coterminous with the mainstreaming of "pop culture" in the meteoric rise of the first - and for many the "true" - king, Elvis, I have had my share of attractions within that ever-expanding field over the years. But Michael Jackson struck no chord with me. I have no recollection of "Thriller" and "Bad" whatsoever, never watched MTV, and only a rather vague recollection of the innovative "moonwalk." (Impressive as that "step" was, I will still give the nod to James Brown as an electrifying dancer). I do recall the appearance of the Jackson Five, but my interests were elsewhere, and my reaction to them rather tepid: even for "pop" it was just "too pop." I pretty much missed the 80's and 90's outside of being aware of what my children may have been interested in. This also spared me from the whole "Madonna thing" - both name and persona - which I consider "unfortunate."

If poor Elvis at the time of his demise was a mere shell or, even worse, a bloated caricature of his early days; then it seems almost impossible to describe what Michael Jackson turned into. The word that most readily comes to my mind is "bizarre." Even his most loyal followers must have felt some unease at the spectacle of this baffling transformation. The attempts at trying to somehow get a handle on the later persona that both attracted and horrified the public - "man boy," "Peter Pan," " a person of arrested development," etc. - were inadequate stabs at trying to provide points of reference toward some kind of recognizable prototypes for his baffling change and character. I am left with the impression of a kind of latter-day Howard Hughes who sought semi-reclusion from the dangers of the public world at large (even though he was planning a massive comeback). Here was a star adored by many but who seemed totally distant and cut-off from that very adoring public. One recent commentator - David Brooks of the NY Times(!) - said, that at one of Micheal Jackson's concerts that he attended, there was no rapport with the audience; but that Jackson was somehow performing "above" the crowd. I wonder if this disconnect is one of the reasons that the "grieving" process for his countless fans around the globe was quickly turned into a "celebration" of his life and art. If the only recent comparison to Michael Jackson's death in terms of global response was the untimely death of Princess Di, then it is clear that there was a far deeper and longer-lasting sense of grief over her death. If he was indeed "addicted" to a massive quantity of prescription drugs, then this only heightens his personal tragedy. Actually, others can judge as to whether or not he was truly a tragic figure or "only" a sad or pathetic figure in the end.

I am just sharing a few thoughts since we are all aware of the death of Michael Jackson, unless you just returned from the North or South poles. I will leave all of the moralizing essays to others - though God knows how one can moralize here! He was a cultural phenomenon of massive proportions witnessed to by massive media coverage. I would readily agree with anyone who dismissed all of this concentration on Michael Jackson as a massive overdose. Some of the "testimony" that I am reading about his greatness and place in history makes me wince. One may be sympathetic or one may be repulsed. Yet, if in the end, there is a sense of a life that became badly misdirected; and if there is a sense of something basic to our humanity missing in his life; then our 'better side" must be saddened to some degree when thinking over his untimely death. Or perhaps that is only the perspective of someone who is getting older.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Summer Bible Study

Dear Parish Faithful,

This evening the Bible Study will begin at 7:45 p.m., following Vespers at 7:00 p.m. We will be reading and discussing ACTS 19-20.

So far, in my humble opinion, the Bible Study has been rewarding on the qualitative level. Our participants are prepared and our discussions have been very stimulating. I appreciate the time and energy dedicated to our communal study of the Scriptures. Yet, quantitatively, the Bible Study is rather poorly attended and, I believe, shrinking from summer to summer. In a contemporary, urban-centered parish with highly educated parishioners living in a world with every conceivable intellectual, moral and spiritual challege hurled at us on a daily basis; with an almost militant attack upon the very integrity of the Scriptures and various speculative attempts to "deconstruct" traditional Christianity; and within a parish of the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" - the "true Church" as we like to style ourselves - that claims to properly understand and interpret the Bible; one would think that a Bible Study would be an eagerly-anticipated and rather widely-attended event. That, however, is not the case.

Nevertheless, the Bible Study will be an ongoing "summer event" of the parish and all Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians (and non-Christians) are invited. So, if you are available, perhaps you will decide to avail yourself of the opportunity to study the Holy Scriptures together as a parish community enlivened by the Word of God.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Suffering and Prayer: An Indelible Image

Dear Parish Faithful,

Our parish Prayer Request List is currently, as is often the case, filled with the names of men, women and children who are in some condition of illness, suffering or loss. We have recently been praying for our own beloved parish child, Elias Wendland, who has been in the hospital struggling with pneumonia; and a child in our sister parish in Columbus who appears to have been born with a debilitating or fatal illness. In fact, such prayer lists are by nature a sustained chronicle of the kind of human suffering and misery we pray and hope to avoid. As we pray to God for relief and recovery from these flesh-and-blood manifestations of our "human condition," we fulfill a ministry that all Christians need to embrace with seriousness. Our part is to hold these persons before God in prayer. The results we leave up to God. It is only human to pray with greater intensity when a particular person in need of prayer is close to us. But we need to pray for everyone who is on our "list" as the names come to us. That is one of our roles as the "people of God" who are aware of living in a fallen world that has yet been redeemed by Christ.

I am not going to embark on a meditation concerning God's mercy, justice, and love in the face of human suffering: the question of "theodicy" as it is often called. That will always remain a mystery. However, we should always bear in mind that the New Testament makes no promise of a life free of precisely the kind of human suffering we are speaking about here. There is no "bargain" or "deal" with God, that in return for our faith and belief in Christ, we will be given a long, peaceful and prosperous life! That fantasy may exist in the minds of TV evangelists and "name it and claim it" preachers, but it is not in the Scriptures. Christians with a mature faith know better. (We of course believe in the possibility of "miraculous" recovery, and have countless instances of such healing throughout the Church's long history. In fact, the Sacrament of Anointing is based on our openness to just such a possibility. But that is a different issue. ). Jesus Christ suffered and died on the Cross. His resurrection from the dead transformed that suffering into a passage that leads to a glorified life with God. As the Lord, He is the "first-fruits" of that promised resurrection and glorified life. That is the hope of Christians in the face of suffering and death, both of which are absolutely inevitable. And that is a hope that unbelievers cannot share regardless of how "optimistic" they may be about life - in my humble opinion, a very unconvincing optimism. That hope may be realized here and now in the recovery that we pray for, or it may have to patiently await its eschatological fulfillment at the end of time.

To move this reflection from the general to the particular, I would like to bring up a recent experience. In a prayer request submitted by Presvytera Deborah just last week, I read the following: "Please pray for Juana, a young beggar girl we encountered in Antigua who has no hands or feet. Pressing on my heart." I would like to further provide a bit of background about our short and unsettling encounter with this little girl. Our Mission Team made a trip to Antigua toward the end of our recent stay in Guatemala, after visiting the monastery of the Holy Trinity and celebrating the Liturgy there with Madres Ines and Maria. Antigua is a very old Guatemalan city popular with visitors and tourists. This is a typical one-day excursion for most Mission Teams - an opportunity to "wind down" and relax a bit after a week or more of work at the Hogar. It is a kindness organized by the Hogar which also provides the transportation in the person of Jorge, brother of Madre Ivonne and indefatigable Mission Team coordinator - a wonderful and good-hearted man. As is our "tradition" on our many parish teams, we visit one of the many fine restaurants in Antigua for a group meal together. This year we took eight of the senoritas with us so that we could treat them to a meal and some shopping.

While in the restaurant I noticed an obviously poor young girl enter carrying a large purse. She may have been ten years old or so. Sadly, I noticed that her one arm was missing from just below the elbow, but she managed to hold up the purse at her elbow joint. A fuller glance revealed that both arms were missing at about the same point. It then became clear that the girl entered the restaurant in order to "beg," as she began to move from table to table with a rather awkward gait. (During her time in the restaurant, someone also noticed that she walked in a peculiar manner because she obviously had no feet. There was only a rather primitive contraption at the end of each leg, resembling a shoe, that helped her maintain her balance). The way the patrons were reacting told me that this was not so unusual of a sight. Reflect for a moment on how the management in one of our nicer restaurants here would "protect" their patrons from such an encounter! For all we knew, that same girl may have come to this restaurant often to seek alms, and I appreciated that possibility. It seems much more organic and honest, perhaps even breaking down some of the usual social stratification that we are so accustomed to. Yet, since our social and cultural setting does shelter us from such encounters, it proved to be unsettling for everyone, I believe, as mentioned above. It was impossible not to feel great pity for this girl.

Unfortunately, though, it appeared from my perspective that she was not being very successful that day. Christ taught us that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing in terms of almsgiving (MATT. 6:3-4). I do not want to violate the Lord's teaching, but I do not want you to think that we also ignored this poor little girl's request for assistance as others may have been doing. We called her over and put something in her purse. Presvytera asked her "what is your name?" and she answered with a very warm and friendly smile, "Juana." That smile alone rendered rather meaningless and empty a great deal of our "talk" about the "quality of life." With that same smile on her face, she turned and left the restaurant. We will probably never see Juana again - or perhaps on our next Mission Team visit to Antigua? Be that as it may, she left an indelible and haunting image that will be hard to forget. Hence, she is now a unique person and child of God not forgotten in our prayer. .

Such is the world we live in for countless human beings, including children. Juana is representative of the flawed and fallen world we inhabit. Think, just for a moment, of her future. Yet she, and the world as it is, are the "object" of God's continuing love. That love - incarnate in Christ - does not make suffering disappear, but it has transformed its meaning. Christians have to now incarnate that love in their care for others, making Christ present in a tangible manner whenever called upon to do so. That may be the most convincing "proof" of Christ's presence among us as a living reality, and not just as an ideal from the past.

Fr. Steven

Monday, June 22, 2009

Things to Remember for the Summer

Dear Parish Faithful,

In yesterday's newsletter/bulletin I included a short list entitled "Things to Remember for the Summer." For those of you who were not in church; and for those who are not inclined to read what is printed there on a weekly basis, I would like to share that list and the points made there as we now officially embark upon the summer. I will expand upon the list as I share it with everyone today, adding some further commentary.

Things to Remember for the Summer

There is hardly a good reason to be less "Church-centered" in the summer than during the other seasons of the year. When that mysteriously happens, it means that the "summer vacation" mentality has intruded upon our ecclesial consciousness. The fact that the Church School is no longer in session can contribute to this unfortunate impression among parish families with Church School-age children. Be that as it may, we know full well that there is nothing "seasonal" about God. If the God Who exists, and Who we believe in, were to withdraw His presence for a moment - for the "twinkling of an eye" - then we would simply cease to exist! God is "everywhere and fillest all things." As St. Paul told the Athenians while proclaiming the Gospel to them in the middle of the Areopagus (quoting a Greek philosopher/poet in the process!): "In him we move and have our being." (ACTS 17:28) The "unknown god" that the Apostle was appealing to is, of course, for the Church, the "holy, consubstantial, and undivided Trinity." This is the most basic theological and existential Truth that we live by.

Here, then are some suggestions meant to maintain our vigilance with the arrival of the summer months:

+ Inform me if you are travelling, so that we can pray for your safety and well-being in the Liturgy.

+ While travelling, make a point of of trying to be near an Orthodox parish on Sunday for the Liturgy when you are out of town. Sunday is the Lord's Day, from which a "vacation" makes no theological/spiritual sense. In addition to this over-arching liturgical principle, it is good to avail ourselves of the opportunity of visiting other Orthodox parishes. It strengthens our sense of "connection" with other Orthodox Christians and allows us to experience some of the "variety" within our common liturgical tradition. If you intend on receiving Holy Communion on a given Sunday, inform the priest of the parish ahead of time as much as that is possible.

+ Think of making a pilgrimage to an Orthodox monastery. If you are "on the road" there is the possibility that a monastery may be in "striking distance" at least for a brief visit. Not all of our vacation time needs to spent in the atmosphere of entertainment and "fun." A visit to a monastery can make a strong impact on an impressionable child and enforce his/her faith. Possibly stronger and longer lasting than any "Disneyworld-type" experience. And, of course, there any many good Orthodox summer camps for our children.

+ Remain vigilant is preparing for Holy Communion: respect and keep the weekly fast days of Wednesday and Friday; and keep a total fast (no food or drink) from at least midnight on the eve of the next day's Liturgy. Periodically confess your sins, etc. Make your evening before the next day's Liturgy peaceful. Come to Great Vespers!

+ Participate in the Summer Bible Study, usually preceded by Vespers, thus "connecting" the Sundays in a meaningful manner.

+ Be aware of, and keep the "summer fasts," further fulfilling the fasts by participating in the Feast Days they lead up to. We are currently in the Apostles' Fast and the wonderful "summer pascha" of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Aug. 15) is preceded by a two-week fast that all serious and practicing Orthodox Christians need to observe (Aug. 14). There is also the beautiful Feast of the Transfiguration and the blessing of fruit on August 6.

+ Choose another quality book related to the Faith for summer reading. We now have a good parish library in the Education Center in the church basement. I would be glad to suggest titles or offer guidance in any particular subject you may want to read about.

+ Do not let your daily rule of prayer lapse during the summer months. Perseverance, according to the saints, is one of the keys to an effective prayer life.

If it is any longer even possible to experience anything resembling "leisure" in our fast-paced, high-pressured, and endlessly demanding schedules, it would most probably be during the summer months. Actually, we may now have the opportunity to actually do some of the things mentioned above without the same pressures that we normally experience - beginning with such basic Christian practices as prayer, reading of the Holy Scriptures, attending more church services, etc. Again, this means resisting any temptation that leads us toward a "vacation" mentality away from our life in the Church. "Redeem the time" with mindfulness of God rather than just "fill the time" with mindless distractions.

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:21)

Fr. Steven

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Have No Fear of Them..."

Beginning June 5, responses to this meditation will be posted on our Orthodox Q&A Blog.

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

I discovered while reading The New York Times, that a new and "provocative" DVD has been released entitled "The God Who Wasn't There." According to Newsweek, this film "irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed."

That sounds a bit too ambitious - if not patently absurd. An anti-Christian film directed and produced by, and "featuring" some of the world's most prominent atheists - "the usual suspects" such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. - should be more modest in its goals if it is going to be taken seriously. That Jesus never actually existed is an old 19th c. thesis that has easily been discredited and now relegated to the level of perhaps intriguing, but ultimately useless, trivia material. (If it appeared on Jeopardy, as "this 19th c. person proposed the theory that Jesus Christ never existed," I highly doubt anyone would come up with the answer. I know that I wouldn't). Such an approach, therefore, sounds desperate. Atheists should stick with their usual material of Christianity's historical failings, hypocrisy, fanaticism, and "fundamentalism." It sometimes sounds as if a politically active "Christian fundamentalist" strikes more fear into an atheist's heart that a fully armed legion of Muslim terrorists right outside the door. But the film will probably not disappoint on this level either. The extensive, full-page ad I read through in the Times promises a great deal of material that will also take on these other issues just mentioned. So, in case the skeptical viewer is not impressed by the arguments gathered together to disprove Jesus' existence; then the full frontal attack on the integrity of Christianity and Christians will be there in reserve to convince you that even if Jesus did exist, the Church and Christianity should not.

The promo mentions coverage of the following:

  • The early founders of Christianity seem wholly unaware of the idea of a human Jesus.
This sounds more than a little odd, when you simply think of the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. Also, the trend among skeptics today is to claim that the New Testament writers were unaware of a divine Jesus.

  • The Jesus of the Gospels bears a striking resemblance to other ancient heroes and the figureheads of pagan savior cults.
Another 19 c. theory from the "History of Religions" school of thought that has been thoroughly discredited through good historical scholarship.

  • Contemporary Christians are largely ignorant of the origins of their religion.
This is much more interesting, because it rings true whether or not we are willing to admit it. Let us imagine, then, that you decided to watch this video, and a series of scholars are being interviewed who make radically skeptical comments about Jesus, the origins of Christianity, etc. Would you be able to respond informatively and intelligently? Would you be able to immediately pick up the huge gaps in their claims, or the one-sided distortions, etc.? Or would you be forced to concede "I didn't know that," and then feel uneasy about their "scholarly" deconstruction of long-held beliefs that you assumed were unassailable? Finally, would your faith be shaken?

I am not making the claim that we must all read a library of scholarly books on this or that historical or theological subject so that we can answer any conceivable objection to Christian belief. Some of our great saints were, according to worldly standards, fairly illiterate! Our belief does not simply rest on scholarly "proof points." Ultimately, we cannot definitively and irrevocably "prove" that Jesus is risen from the dead, or even that God exists. Our knowledge of these truths is based on faith. And yet our faith will never contradict historical probing or veracity. But we should know enough to see through bogus and groundless claims and criticisms. Or to see right through some of the flimsy arguments posed by angry atheists determined to discredit everything noble and good about Christianity, beginning with the very existence of Jesus Christ! "Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (I PET. 3:14-15)

Since we live in an "information age" we do need to be fully prepared for the barrage of (mis)information that will endlessly come our way through various forms of the media concerning Christianity. It is "open season" these days on any conceivable aspect of Christianity, and even against Christ Himself. Uninformed non-believers are not only entitled to question the truthfulness of Christianity, they are now free to throw any filth that they want onto Christ. If the Lord "bore" the Cross, then He can certainly bear this also. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, we should accept this as rather inevitable and either ignore it, or respond to it with some knowledge and intelligence. That places the responsibility on us to prepare ourselves as well as possible. We should not expect our parish priests to answer all these questions on our behalf. Every Orthodox Christian should be "interested" enough to make this a priority in his/her life. (By the way, please let me know what you consider to me more interesting. I am very curious).

For the most part, the contemporary Orthodox parish is equipped through its seminary-educated priest to offer substantial teaching, guidance, direction and insight into the types of issues that the skeptically-minded will probe as possible areas of weakness in Christianity. No one can answer all questions or rebuke all challenges. But we should be able to get the basics right. This is done partially through homilies, but also through non-Sunday programs such as Bible Studies and education classes. If and when these parish-wide events are ignored or poorly-attended it is not a good sign of that "healthy hunger" that leads parishioners to learn more about their faith. Rather, it could be a sign of indifference, complacency or sheer distraction. If atheists spend a great deal of time familiarizing themselves with the New Testament and Christian theology and history just so that they can later debunk it; then certainly the faithful should be able and willing to "keep up" with an even greater enthusiasm! Participation in such "parish programs" needs to be ever-expanding and not slowly shrinking as the challenges of the postmodern world are themselves not shrinking but exponentially expanding. However, besides all of that, it is a matter of where the heart is centered: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:21)

For those who may be interested, the DVD "The God Who Wasn't There" is selling for $24.95 (free shipping!) If you see it, let me know what you think of it.

Fr. Steven

Beginning June 5, responses to this meditation will be posted on our Orthodox Q&A Blog.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hastening to be Present for the Feast of Pentecost

Dear Parish Faithful,

"For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost." (ACTS 16:20)

The Apostle Paul's so-called Third Missionary Journey lasted about five years (A.D. 53-58), and he spent most of that time in Ephesus, on the western coast of ancient Asia Minor (present day Turkey). Yet, for some reason, he felt compelled to return to Jerusalem. And, as the above verse makes clear, St. Paul strongly desired to be in the Holy City for the celebration of Pentecost. Was this for the traditional Jewish celebration of Pentecost? Or was there an already-existing Christian celebration of the Feast by that time? It would seem that by the mid-50's, the early Jewish Christians of Jerusalem would have marked the great Feast of Pentecost with their own experience of having received the gift of the Holy Spirit on that fiftieth day after the Passover (ACTS 2:1-11). These great commemorations of Passover and Pentecost that were so essential to Jewish life and piety, had been "Christianized" or "Christified" by Jewish Christians who understood the Death and Resurrection of Christ, together with the descent of the Holy Spirit, as the divinely-ordained fulfillment of the already-existing feasts that revealed God's special relationship with Israel. The crucified, risen and glorified Messiah had renewed Israel, and the emerging Church was the "holy remnant" of Israel that would take the Good News to the ends of the known world in order to bring salvation to all - Jew and Gentile alike. This is why the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES is such an exciting book, as we read there of the Spirit-guided mission of the apostles - especially the Apostle Paul - in extending the presence of the Church "in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." (ACTS 1:8) We are the recipients of that "extension" to this day.

Everyone is invited to (re)experience that excitement as we read and study the ACTS together in our Spring/Summer Bible Study. We will do our best to bring to life these great accomplishments of the early Church and to actualize them in our own quest to share the Gospel to this day with the world around us.

Be that as it may, I would like to concentrate on the Apostle Paul's desire and commitment to arrive in Jerusalem by the Feast of Pentecost. The Feast of Pentecost, seven weeks following Pascha, is not just "another Sunday" (in itself a poor expression that we may be prone to use at times). It is the Feast that brings to fulfillment and completion the paschal mystery of the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. Without the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the risen and ascended Christ would no longer be present to us, but rather absent, and thus making us "spiritual orphans." The Holy Spirit is the other Parakletos (Advocate/Comforter) that Jesus spoke of as recorded in the Gospel According to St. John.

"And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever - the Spirit of truth ... " (JN. 14:16-17)

"But when the Comforter comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify to me." (JN. 15:26)

"However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth ... " (JN. 16:13)

The Risen Lord sends the Spirit, and it is the Spirit who makes Christ present to us. As Lev Gillett wrote: "The Spirit is sent to us by the Son, the Son is revealed to us by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a substitute for Christ, but prepares us for Christ, forms him in us, makes him present in us." It is precisely here that we are so aware of the reciprocal work of the Son and the Holy Spirit - the "two hands of God" according to St. Irenaeus of Lyons. On the Day of Pentecost, we liturgically actualize the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit as did the apostles on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection. Then, following the Liturgy, during the Vespers of Pentecost, we "bend the knee" for the first time since Pascha, as we offer special and theologically-rich prayers to the Holy Spirit, seeking His abiding, healing, and transforming presence among us.

For these reasons we too "hasten" to be in church for Pentecost, as did the Apostle Paul. For St. Paul that meant another potentially perilous journey by sea, with shipwreck or pirates an ever-present danger. We will travel a shorter distance and with much greater comfort. Only unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances would give us a "reason worthy of a blessing" not to be present for the Feast. The church should be packed for Pentecost! And for those who would like to partake of the Feast on a fuller level, there is Great Vespers on the eve on Saturday evening. This festal Vespers further reveals to us the meaning of the Feast through its rich hymnography as well as allow us to experience the liturgical cycle to a greater extent. The Feast of Pentecost will test our "ecclesial consciousness," and yet simultaneously "reward' us with the fruits of the Spirit if our minds and hearts are open to the outpouring of the Spirit.

Fr. Steven