Friday, April 28, 2006

Not post-Christian, but post-church

“The church is not a building, it’s the ‘called out’ community of followers of Jesus Christ, and if you use the Greek word for ‘church’, that is, ‘ek-klisía’, you really can’t think of it any other way.”

This afternoon something I've been saying a lot lately (quoted above) struck me in a new way. The thought took an unexpected turn—what if the church is not only not a building, but also not an institution? Well, that has implications. One of them is what I've used as the title of this post. Can it be that we really are thinking about the present era in the wrong way? We've been lamenting today's world as ‘post-Christian.’ What if it’s nothing of the sort? Today's world could only be post-Christian if the rapture had taken place, and we had all departed ‘to meet the Lord in the air’ and ‘left behind’ those who really could be called the ‘post-Christians.’ But the rapture hasn’t happened yet. Instead, what we have is a lot of unhappy church professionals trying to figure out how to fill the empty places in the pews. Ghastly! That’s why I think we might be in what could be called a ‘post-church’ era, but only if we mean by ‘church’ what is really the institutionalised societies of Christians, some of whom are followers of Jesus, and some who are there for other reasons. I’m certain this is not an original thought, but it is for me. It does give one a lot more reason for optimism, however. Church ‘growth’ is not in our power, to evangelise the world is. All we have to do is live fully immersed in Christ, through studying and applying the Word of God, through real prayer, and through authentic fellowship with one another. In other words, do nothing for show.

The pastor of a Baptist congregation in Portland, Oregon has a blog which I have begun to follow and comment on. His latest blog is entitled “What A Sociologist Taught Me About Church.” Here's the link to it:

After reading his latest post, I left a rather lengthy comment, which I've decided to post here in my blog, as a way of explaining a little more what I’m getting at, or what’s getting at me, about ‘church.’ Don‘t forget, this is a Greek Orthodox talking. Here’s what I wrote.

Deep down I really feel that "attending" church still smacks of the spirit of religion, even for born-again Christians who have a developed relationship with the Lord. I also feel that the historical institutionalisation of the church is what makes for its disunity.

In my "perfect Christian world" the followers of Jesus would simply "be church" wherever they happened to be. As such, they would meet locally in homes for fellowship EVERY DAY as far as possible. There would be fewer and smaller "worship buildings," and people would gather in them wherever they were for services. They would not necessarily depend on them for regular spiritual sustenance like "every Sunday 11 am to 1 pm" and so forth. There would be worship going on at least every Sunday but only ONE service per day on ANY day, and people would normally worship in the "church" closest to their homes. EVERYONE would be together for that ONE service. But it wouldn't be a big deal if some of the people didn't go every time, or even very much, as long as their spiritual lives were being supported by Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship.

Neighborhoods would organize various circuits for charitable work and other community activities. In fact, what are now public buildings, such as park buildings, etc., would be able to function as recreational centers, both for recreation (fun activities together) and for re-creation (teaching, feeding, healing the community). It would be easier for non-believers to transition into the new birth in Christ, because there would be no institutional wall to get over. When the unsaved saw how we lived together in love with each other, AND WITH THEM, that would be a more powerful witness than even the best crusades we could ever launch as denominational churches or ministries.
The disunity we have in America especially is doomed to effect a petering out of church attendance amidst wild attempts to encourage it, which mostly fail. Meanwhile, some of the mega-churches will continue as they are, maybe growing, because what they provide is not really pure worship (which should be the main focus of a Christian "naós" or temple), but rather a stimulating, almost entertainment-style presentation of (usually, but not always) Biblical teaching.

By letting ourselves be too proud to coalesce with one another in simple discipleship to Christ, and worship together, teach one another, witness and minister to the unsaved, assist the needy, etc., as the Word of God plainly directs, we find ourselves opposing the very things we say we want to promote.

Let's forget about our traditions and teachings being so important, and stop being so defensive against each other. It's too late to indulge in that luxury.

The church is the people of God and the Bride of Christ. We all accept that. Let's stop worrying about building our "churches" and just seek opportunities to love each other in the simple truth of the gospel, and throw away anything that keeps us divided. If our lives are only "in Christ" we can respect one another's special and different gifts as parts of the same Body.

What are we waiting for? To really be non-denominational is NOT to create a new "magnet" congregation around an inspired preacher or Bible teacher, but to just "be church" where we are, and to acknowledge one another fully as heirs to the Kingdom, and seek that Kingdom first, really.

Then we will not only believe, but also see, that "all these other things will be added to us as well."

As a Greek Orthodox, I also want to introduce a link to a web site which I found particularly interesting. This may not be of interest to non-Orthodox, but if any of you care to see what is happening at (what I believe may be) the cutting edge of this ancient ‘church’, here it is:

Just check out the first topic or message at this site, entitled: Apostolic Priorities
The material on this web site is the death knell to ‘religious spirits’.

Jesus Christ did not come to inaugurate a new religion, but to bring us a restoration of our relationship to the Father. At its best, Christian ‘religion’ has preserved the Word of God and the saving message of the Gospel for every generation, though only those who really want it make use of it. That's the scary part. That saving relationship has been known to every generation. Now that we may be coming to the end of days, those who use ‘religion’ for their own ends should be frantic. But those who know and love the Lord, who ‘make His Word their home,’ have nothing to fear, and nothing to learn from, the ‘kósmos’ (the world). The Liberator, the Desire of the ages, is very near.

“Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him. Those who prove victorious I will allow to share my throne, just as I was victorious myself and took my place with my Father on his throne. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

— Revelation 3:20-22

Monday, April 24, 2006

Although one falls…

Although one falls, he does not forget the love of his Father; and although he is loaded with trespasses of every kind, his zeal for the service of good is not held back, nor does he desist from his course, nor abhor to stand in struggle against these things anew and with the same chance of being vanquished, nor cease from demolishing every day his building and beginning a (new) foundation.

And the word of the Prophet is in his mouth: ‘Till the hour of my departure from this world, rejoice not against me, O mine enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in the darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me.’ And he will not cease to struggle until his death.

— Isaac of Syria

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Into the eye of Orthodox Easter thru the pupil

Greeks love punning. The title of this post is intended to be a bi-lingual pun on several levels. Of course, the way to get light into the eye is thru the pupil. In this case I'm trying to get light out of the eye. This is possibly my sixteenth Pascha (Easter) as an adult Orthodox since my family was reunited to Christian Orthodoxy after a 37 year absence (on my part), so I am just a pupil, hence the title. The punning crosses over into Greek where "pupil" is "mathitís" (disciple) when referring to a learner, and it is "kóri" (pupil of the eye) when referring to the eye. "Kóri" also means daughter, maiden or virgin. Funny how words are related. What follows are just the ramblings of a pupil…

Pascha, (the Lord's passover) is only called Easter, so it can be related somehow to Western religious categories. Sure, it is the annual observance of the resurrection of Christ, but for the Orthodox, every Lord's day (kyriakí, Sunday) is a blatant reminder of that fact. Notice, I said "fact" and not "event," because for the Orthodox Christian, tho it happened historically, the resurrection of Christ is not proven or believed mainly for the empty tomb. In a missionary blog called "Under the Acacias" there's a wonderful posting that explains what we mean by the resurrection. Rather than reinvent it, I just want to turn your attention to the original—check this out:

At the "Under the Acacias" page, move down to the posting for April 16.

Pascha, running from the Saturday of the raising of Lazaros, right on thru "Great Week" and climaxing at the Vigil of Pascha (midnight of the Great Sabbath) was once again overflowing with lessons for this pupil (mathitís).

Back-tracking just a bit into the 40 Days ("Sarakostí", Lent), what did I find out there in my desert? I found that my entire life, despite my efforts to improve myself in my own eyes and in God's, has still been a losing struggle with the flesh, that built-in law of failure that spoils my every good intention and action. This, above all else, proves to me my need of "outside help." And that help has been provided, that is, the cross of Jesus, by which I am crucified to the world in my sinful flesh ("sarks" in Greek, really sounds like what it is!), and the world to me. After that revelation, it made the next step so obvious and easy.

Father Jerry gave us a good word at the service of the Veneration of the Cross on Thursday night. Having discovered that all our efforts really do not bring us any closer to God, we have no choice but to lay them down at the foot of the Cross, and let Jesus take over in our lives, because we have no other helper or mediator but Him. Wow! That coming from a presbyter of the ancient church which has given us more commandments and rules than any other Christian church. Why doesn't that seem ironic? Because it's consistent with the "theoría" of Orthodoxy: God gave Adam and Eve ONE commandment; they broke it. Then, He tried again with Moses and gave us TEN commandments; we broke them. Then, the people of Israel were given 613 commandments; no one could keep them all—except the One, the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And what did the One do? He picked us up and put us back on the road to Paradise, and gave us only ONE commandment, "to love one another."

Wait a minute! Why all these commandments and rules in the Orthodox church? The church that has the strictest self-discipline for our spiritual training also has the most merciful and gentle way of correcting us. The rules of fasting and prayer and so forth are to build up the Body of Christ, to keep it together on the trail of salvation; yet we are truthfully reminded, these commandments are only expedient for the journey, but what the Lord wants from us is in the end very simple, that "we love one another, as I have loved you," because "love covers all offenses." And so, when we fail in the discipline, we do not throw it away. We take a moment to remind ourselves of Jesus and what He has done for us, and then following His call, we pick ourselves up, rejoin the flock, and follow the good Shepherd. When we look back, we don't see a road paved with the human commandments and rules by which the Lord disciplined us "as the children He loves." No, all we see is the Way, the narrow way one lane wide, the one way street of the ONE commandment, the new ONE commandment of the new Paradise, "love one another."

So, when I went on Friday to venerate the "epitáphion" (tomb of Christ), I took my entire life, with everything I did or tried to do, good and bad alike, which was nailed to the Cross, and I laid that life, that "old man", that "flesh", in the tomb. When I accepted Christ, I agreed to let Him put the "old man" to death. Along with Christ's body, my flesh lay in the tomb. That's what I came away with, the knowledge that my sins were nailed with Jesus to the Tree. Through the resurrection, that Tree has become the new Tree of Life in the Paradise of God. How that can be is not something that anyone can put into words, really. Except that we now have God's permission to "take from the tree, and live."

For forty days we did without food of animal origin (except for seafood, a strange anomaly of the Greeks!), no meat, fish, milk, cheese or eggs. This is called the food of paradise. Actually, I quite like it and, I think, most people today would prefer that diet for health reasons. But we were also supposed to pray, and give alms. I "broke" the fast at least half a dozen times for such things as "love's bread," and one of my son's birthday dinner, but that is in our power to do. Now that "bright week" is here, we're supposed to gorge ourselves on all the items we denied ourselves during the forty. This is nonsense! No, we just have been commanded "to live in the land where everything is permitted" because "perfect love drives out all fear" and that "love is not self-indulgent." Yes, tonight we will have some lamb souvláki (shishkabobs), drink a little Sangría, not worry about anything being "forbidden," and we will try to recognize that feeling, and carry it forward as we live the coming new year in God's presence, so we will be able to hear His voice calling our names in the Garden, and not be afraid to present ourselves before him, unashamed. He has work for us to do.

One last comment. When the Lord called me the last time, He taught me this: In serving the Lord, there is absolutely no loss, not now, not ever. Sure, we can "lose" material goods, maybe our reputation will be spoiled by the company we keep, we might even lose our health, or our earthly life. But it is what the Lord gives us that we really keep "unto life eternal." Never and nothing that we give ourselves, or pride ourselves on, is "for keeps." I was surprised, but very glad, to hear Father Paul proclaim exactly this message at the end of the Paschal liturgy last night. "There is absolutely no loss in serving the Lord, so let us run to do it." Yes, Father Paul! Ameen!

Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and to those in the tombs, bestowing life.

I think we're on the trail to something very good here.
Glory to God!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ramblings of a prodigal dad

Well, where do I start? Perhaps by asking forgiveness of any reader who might chance upon this blog and actually read it, because it may become too long and will probably be a waste of your time. By the way, that's me in the icon with the purple wrap, yeah, the prodigal father. Here's my unworthy ramble…

It's the Saturday before Easter (for me, thô, it’s Lazarus Saturday, ‘cause I’m a Greek Orthodox, and tomorrow is Palm Sunday for us—we’re always late, it seems!), and I start out by attending the morning services with my ‘koumbaro’ Brock. (My apologies to my Greek brothers—‘koumbaro’ means a ‘godfather’ or else something like best man at a wedding—I use it here to define a relationship which in English might be called a ‘godbrother’, that is, someone who you rely on and trust even more than ‘blood kin’ because ‘what is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the spirit is spirit’, John 3:6; also, Proverbs 17:17, Ecclesiastes 4:10.) Afterwards, we had breakfast in the church hall, and then went our separate ways after a word of prayer together. I really wanted to spend more time with him, but we both had ‘things to do.’

When I got home, I found that what I had to do took very little time. So I, at least, was free to do as I wished. Three of our sons still live with us, thô I see two of them rarely. One son works with me in the same office, so at least I see him at work. Young men have a lot to do. But I really felt a burden for my second son, a talented musician, who is full time student as well as working almost a full time job. To see him I have to stay up till 2 a.m. and maybe I could see him—but then, often he uses the few hours he is ‘at home’ to do his composing and/or recording his compositions. I feel a burden for this son because, althô he is a trained Byzantine cantor and used to chant the services, since last summer he has absented himself from services. Why?

The chief cantor had a disagreement with him. They were both short on patience one morning. My son, who had just returned from Greece (he went to get additional training in chant) and had also been up two consecutive nights taking part in a recording session of Byzantine chant, had more than his share of jet lag. He told the chief cantor ‘I’m going home!’ And the chief cantor called after him, ‘If you go, don’t come back!’ At least, this is what I understand happened. And so, my son has stayed away since that time. And here it is… Pascha (Easter) just around the corner. We are hoping that reconciliation can happen at least now. Will it happen? Only God knows.

When I got back from services, my son had gone out for the day. I called his cell phone and, fortunately, he answered. The questions I wanted to ask, of course, I couldn’t. I know he hasn’t abandoned his faith, but his life is very opaque to me right now. I just wanted to touch him. “Where are you, son? Is everything alright?” He was downtown at Saturday Market (the Portland alternative bazaar) setting up to play guitar. Afterwards, he would be going to his regular coffeehouse to work on some music, and then off to a party with some law student friends of his. Without telling him, I decided to go downtown to see him perform. I called my ‘koumbaro’ and asked him to lift me up in prayer, because I was going after my son. He knew what I meant. His prayer had an effect: I know the Lord is faithful, and thô I cannot see what He’s doing, He does it well—I just have to wait.

So I got downtown, and there was my son playing his guitar under a bridge with his back to a wall. The train stops under the bridge and commuters are getting on and off at intervals. Saturday Market looms ahead across the tracks and, against the wall, side by side with homeless people wrapped in blankets for warmth (it was 44° and rainy), I stood in my ‘missionary’ outfit—cargo khakis (my bible in one of the pockets), short sleeve shirt, sport jacket. I stood behind him so he wouldn’t see me. Eventually he noticed me, “It’s okay, I play for all kinds of people.” While he played, I silently listened, prayed, and read my bible. (When he noticed me, I was reading it, not out loud.)

A meditation. Here he was, playing most beautifully, music he had composed, without regard to whether anyone listened or not. Behind him the homeless reclining in their blankets, smoking, and a prodigal dad among them, standing to stay out of their smoke in the downwind. Before him, a flow of passers-by intent on wares, on the make for flesh, flying their flags, a few stopping to listen and even to throw anything from a few coins to five dollar bills into his guitar case. One unfortunate homeless man kept pitching lighted cigarette butts and leftover crumbs of whatever he was eating at him; but he didn’t notice. How beauty inhabits the fallen world! How the Lord infuses everything with divine beauty, yet we persist either in our homelessness or our busy-ness, only a few noticing, casting a token of our treasure in His direction. And why should we do more? Like my son, dressed poorly, hair unkempt, sitting with ‘bums’ under a windy bridge playing music, the Lord comes among us not with glory and might to force our worship, but in a way we don’t want Him, in a way we can’t accept, meekly offering us the Word of Truth.

I was freezing to death under that bridge. My son’s fingers, how could they keep plucking and strumming those strings? He must be freezing too. As I later found out, his fleece was wet from the rain, and he was really cold. But I stood there, watched, listened, prayed, waiting for him to finish, so I could have a word with him, maybe go for coffee with him. (A youngster toting his guitar stopped in front of him, and listened long and hard. I caught his eye, and winked. He signaled me, and I walked over to him, “Are you a talent scout?” I suppose it was my clothes, my jacket is a gold-toned fabric, and I wear sandals, even in wet weather. “Not exactly.” We chatted a bit, and I told him I was the musician’s dad, come down here to listen to him play live, ‘cause I was tired of listening to his music on CD.)

He finished playing. We hopped the train (it’s fareless downtown), got off and went to a tobacconist first, then walked thrû an almost downpour to his habitual coffeehouse. Everybody knows him. Thô it was still raining pretty hard, we sat outside, so he could have a smoke. We talked a bit. He told me how Father Paul came downtown and had coffee with him there a few days ago. His friends were a bit confused, thinking Father Paul was some kind of Catholic priest, because he came dressed in his blacks (a cassock-like robe), and talked with a sprinkling of expletives, perhaps to fit in better with the surroundings (which as we know, is unnecessary; young people see thrû that pretty quickly). It sounded like the tête-à-tête was mostly learned and philosophical, talking about ‘apatheia’ (the state of being beyond the passions) and relating it to Buddhist texts. I could have hoped it were otherwise, but God knows what His servants are doing, and why. Me, I am pretty simple, the Word of God, prayer, and loving the brethren—and being willing to wait. My attempt at communicating meaningfully with my son was, from my point of view, a failure; but I hope not what I said or didn’t say, rather the fact that I came out looking to spend some time with him on his turf and time, will be what counts. Sometimes it’s what love cannot say in words that counts. Meanwhile…

One of my son’s friends walked up and the talk at the pedestal (well, it’s supposed to be a table) turned to music and technical things I do not understand. So, this young woman next to me, turns to me and asks, “What do you do?”

I think she noticed the icon button of Joseph (in Egypt) that I was wearing on my lapel, which intrigued her. I didn’t know this at first, but later it came out. We chatted awhile on books and anthropology sort of stuff, which was of mutual interest, and the subject of the Hopi religious myths came up. I remarked that to some people these myths would seem very foolish and absurd, but not to me, because I see a lot of meaning in them. Without waiting for me to explain further, she responded something to the effect, “Well, they’re nothing as absurd and foolish as this concept of a God who would send his son to be crucified and die for the world's sins, and then come back to life, and fly back up to heaven!”

That really took me by surprise because up to now, we had not said anything at all about Christ or Christianity as religion or history. I paused, pondering. Then I looked right at her and said, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be disrespectful or anything, but you know, I am a Greek Orthodox Christian, and everything you just said is exactly what I believe in and wholeheartedly accept.” Without giving her a chance to respond, I continued talking, and gently told her that perhaps her ideas about what Christians really believe might have been gathered from third or fourth hand sources, and that she ought not dismiss Christ as lightly as that.

There was absolutely no confrontation or bad feelings between us as I talked to her more about the Lord as I know Him and as scripture describes Him. We talked about literature and art again, too, but I think some good seed was planted. We also talked about languages, and Greek in particular. This young woman was of Korean birth but totally American, not knowing her ancestral language. When I explained a bit why I love Greek as the bible language that helps me understand what the Word of God is saying, she seemed to agree. All in all, this was a pleasant exchange. I gave her a card that has the saying of Elder Porphyrios (it is in my very first blog entry in March) about how we should see Christ.

Then I gave her my calling card, which has this icon of Christ the Sower on the front, and my information on the back, so she could get in touch with me, if she wanted. She was very much taken with this icon and asked many questions about it. She said that this icon contains all the things she has learned about visual art, and she wanted to know where it came from. I told her that I would try to find out, and have the information ready for her when she found time to contact me.

After this, we both got up to go. I interrupted my son’s music discussion with his friends, told him I was going home, and asked if I could take any of his gear with me. He let me carry home is amp, which weighed a ton! Well, I thought to myself, I used to carry him on my shoulders when he was a little boy. At least now I can bear this burden of his musical equipment, and on the several blocks walk to the train stop, and then several more blocks to my car, I rejoiced that I had been given the opportunity to carry this load, knowing well that the Lord is carrying mine.

Rejoice, brothers! Christ is risen, the first-born of them that sleep! He is risen indeed!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

John Chrysostom's Easter Invitation

Orthodox Christian Pascha occurs one week after "Latin" Easter this year. I want to introduce my evangelical brethren to the wonderful Easter invitation of Patriarch John Chrysostom, which is read in Greek and English in most Greek Orthodox churches in America at the conclusion of the Paschal midnight liturgy between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday (April 22-23, 2006). The text I am using is NOT the one normally heard in church, but rather a more amplified translation by Walter Mitchell, found in the book "Early Christian Prayers," © 1961 Longmans, Green & Co., London.

Do you honor God? Do you love him? Here's the very feast for your pleasure.
Are you his servant, knowing his wishes? Be glad with your Master, share his rejoicing.
Are you worn down with the labor of fasting? Now is the time of your payment.
Have you been working since early morning? Now you will be paid what is fair.
Have you been here since the third hour? You can be thankful, you will be pleased.
If you came at the sixth hour, you may approach without fearing: you will suffer no loss.
Did you linger till the ninth hour? Come forward without hesitation.
What though you came at the eleventh hour? Have no fear; it was not too late.
God is a generous sovereign,
treating the last to come as he treats the first arrival.
He allows all his workmen to rest,
those who began at the eleventh hour,
those who have worked from the first.
He is kind to the late-comer,
and sees to the needs of the early,
gives to the one, and gives to the other:
honors the deed and praises the motive.
Join, then, all of you, join in our Master's rejoicing.
You who were the first to come, you who came after,
come and collect now your wages.
Rich men and poor men, sing and dance together.
You that are hard on yourselves, you that are easy,
honor this day.
You that have fasted and you that have not,
make merry today.
The meal is ready: come and enjoy it.
The calf is a fat one: you will not go hungry away.
There's kindness for all to partake of and kindness to spare.
Away with pleading of poverty:
the Kingdom belongs to us all.
Away with bewailing of failings:
forgiveness has come from the grave.
Away with your fears of dying:
the death of our Savior has freed us from fear.
Death played the master: he has mastered death…
The world below had scarcely known him in the flesh
when he rose and left it plunged in bitter mourning.
Isaiah knew it would be so.
The world of shadows mourned, he cried, when it met you,
mourned at its bringing low, wept at its deluding.
The shadows seized a body and found it was God;
they reached for earth and what they held was heaven;
they took what they could see: it was what no one sees.
Where is death's goad? Where is the shadows' victory?
Christ is risen: the world below is in ruins.
Christ is risen: the spirits of evil are fallen.
Christ is risen: the angels of God are rejoicing.
Christ is risen: the tombs are void of their dead.
Christ has indeed arisen from the dead,
the first of the sleepers.
Glory and power are his for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Ramblings of a God-hunted man

Yesterday evening, the Wednesday of the fifth week of the Forty Days, the communion service called "of the pre-sanctified gifts," the western bronze doors of the temple wide open to the evening sun, streaming in and falling on the eastern wall of icons, causing them to glow fiercely golden in our eyes, as we stood patiently awaiting, waiting for… Him, the Lord, the promised One, to come and "stay with us, for evening is at hand, and the day is past."

I was taken by surprise. One of the acolytes, a very tall, black-robed, middle-aged brother with a bushy beard and hair tied back in a pony-tail, came up to me where I was standing, and said, "Brother, would you assist with the cloth?" I stepped into the aisle behind him as we turned to the east, facing the holy gates, while the deacon stood in the gateway, raising aloft the pre-sanctified gifts, announcing the Presence and inviting the people to come forward to receive them. We bowed slightly during the invitation, then I followed the acolyte up and took my place to the right side of Deacon David, telling him that I had never assisted before. He said, "Just hold the cloth under their chins, so none of the holy gifts should fall to the floor."

What a wonder! There I was, and all I could do was smile, as they came forward, young, old, tall, short, Greek, non-Greek, to the deacon who held the jewelled cup and the golden spoon. What impressed me was that we kept bobbing up and down as we adjusted our height (the deacon and I are both tall men) to fit the height of each one coming to receive. I loved it when little Angeliki, a tiny girl of about three, walked up and we had to practically kneel before her, to get the holy spoon into that beautiful, eager little mouth. "The handmaiden of God, Angeliki, receives the Body and Blood of Christ, to the remission of sins, and life eternal…" I couldn't help whispering "Ameen!" after each one received the holy gifts and wiped his or her lips on the cloth I held carefully under their chins. And still, they came, the deacon blessed and fed, and I smiled and whispered. What a wonder!

I thought back. Many years ago, at a small country church, I was grabbed along with one or two of my sons, out of the congregation where we were standing, and handed tall candlesticks to hold during the "great entrance." On another occasion, at a small church on Christmas Day, in the mountains of British Columbia, the presbyter arrived a little late. The people were all standing, waiting. I heard the father call out, "Katerina! Katerina! Where is the cantor? Do we have a cantor?" I didn't hear Katerina's response. A second or two later, the priest came out through the holy gates and asked, "Can anyone here chant the service with me?" No one came forward. I knew many of the chants by heart (in Greek), and so with youthful naiveté I unselfconsciously said, "Yes, father, I think I can chant the service with you." So he said, "Let's begin." We started with the "Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace and goodwill toward men." Father chanted with me at the cantor stand, probably to get me "jump-started." Then he went back behind the icon wall, and did "the priest's part" of the divine service. When all was over, I went back and stood with my family in the congregation. Father came out, looked at me and said, "Who are you? Where did you come from? How do you know how to chant?" I said, "We are from Holy Trinity, Portland, Oregon. I learned to chant by listening to Father Elias." The presbyter became animated, "Well, Father Elias has done a good job of training you, then, didn't he, my brothers and sisters? And here the Lord has sent these strangers into our midst, so that I could have someone to help me chant the service!" Later, I found out that the cantor in this small community was unable to come to the service because he was old and sick. So, the Lord gives us opportunities to serve Him, and we just have to respond to His gracious call.

Back to the evening service, and its aftermath…

We have a light supper together in the hall. There were more than the usual number of people present, at the service and, now, at the supper. I was already seated with my wife, and then Presbytera Maria and her children sat with us at table. Soon, Father Jerry came and sat beside me. He would rather just finish off the plate of his young daughter, instead of standing in line for his own plate. She hardly touched her food. People were still coming in and getting in line.

Suddenly, here comes Father Paul. Looking around at all the people and the available seats and tables, "Deacon! Deacon, we need more tables and places!" Instantly, my wife stands up and tugs me, "Let's go and get more tables!" Father Jerry and I go off with the Deacon David and Father Paul into the adjacent hall to fetch tables. My wife, seeing that we've got it covered, sits back down and continues her supper and fellowship with Presbytera Maria. We bring three more tables and a dozen and a half chairs. Others, guests and children, run to the kitchen to bring place settings and cups. In just a moment, everyone was seated, feasting on the modest supper of rice pilaf, salad, and oranges… and fellowship in the Lord. This is what God's House is all about.

How good, how delightful it is, for all to live together like brothers!
— Psalm 133:1

Monday, April 3, 2006

Martyrdom is fullness

"Martyrdom is fullness, not because it finishes a human life, but because it brings love to the fullest point."

— Clement of Alexandria (circa AD 215)