Sunday, January 28, 2007

Uphill at 55 in a head wind

A sunny not too cold weekend in Portland, and after church services and a phone call to my friend, I hopped on my bicycle for the first time in six weeks, and headed down to visit Athanasios and Nektaria, about forty blocks away. I never wear a jacket when I bike. Just the thin cotton shirt I wore to church covered my skin, and my best cargos clad my bottom half. I'm not a sweaty person, especially on a chilly day. (By the way, the guy in the cartoon is NOT me!)

The ride down Mount Tabor heading south was great, wind in my face. "On the way home, wind'll be at my back. Good!" I thought to myself. As I turned to head west the slope gradually softened. Sunny and brisk, the way I like it. I felt like I was flying (my favorite dream). Happy to be alive and away from my weekday cubicle, I sang as I glided gently downhill through the Clinton neighborhood, an old Jefferson Starship song…

"Last electric Sunday morning,
waitin' in the park for the dawn,
listenin' to all the animals
in the park and in the city beyond,
flashin' with my lady,
sky turnin' black to blue,
she said, I got a surprise for you…
a child is comin',
a child is comin',
a child is comin' to you…"

I guess I was feeling young or something. After all, I am a 29 year old man trapped inside a 55 year old body. This weekend I saw a lot of babies, out in the world, and at church. I guess it made me feel like a young dad again, seeing all the young dads, and remembering how much fun it was to be young, poor, and in love.

In my exuberance I didn't notice that the wind was at my back on the way down.

The visit with Athanasios and Nektaria was great. I always feel at home there. They already had company, but when I arrived, they all made me feel like I was the guest of honor. The fellowship flowed like wine. The life of the unearthly Triad that draws us into Itself through the holy Spirit impressed itself on us like the crosses that the seal stamps on the communion loaves. Living the mystery of divine brotherhood in unaffected, childlike simplicity. Psalm 133 realised.
Two hours passed, but I felt we had been together for two days. The evening was coming on, time to hit the trail home.

After a round of hugs, kisses and well wishes, I snapped on my helmet, hopped on my bicycle, and off I went on my eastward ride home. The two blocks north flew by in a flash. I turned the corner to head east and… whoa! nearly fell off my bike as a strong east wind gusted me first to a grinding halt, and then, buffeted me so my progress was slow, like riding your bike in a foot and a half of flood water. I down-shifted as low as safety permitted, and then braced myself in the now almost icy wind, to make the uphill journey in the unexpected head wind.

Oh, that's right. The title of this ramble. You didn't think "uphill at 55" meant 55 miles per hour, did you? No, it's just about getting a 55 year old 6'1" frame weighing almost 200 pounds uphill, and in a winter head wind. Hey, but who's complaining? Though at times I had to just stop and stand there until my muscles would pump again, it was delicious to feel the icy wind blowing through my cotton shirt, and still feel the faint heat of the setting sun's final photons tenderizing the back of my neck.

It's always the last leg of my bike rides that's the killer, though coming home from Athanasios' house is the easiest uphill of any of my usual rides. I've never had to walk my bike coming home from his place, though riding up to the top of Mount Tabor from almost any other direction, I have to hop off the bike, walk it for a few blocks, and then ride the last block or two, so "it looks good" to myself and the neighbors. Wouldn't want the neighbors to see me walking my bike home!

The last leg, though, is the hardest. After I turned the corner to head north again, I noticed the headwind was mostly gone. The mountain is in the way. Still, my body was feeling like it was going to cramp up and roll me into a little ball like a frightened sow bug. So I stopped, looked up to the sky, and prayed, thanking the Lord for getting me this far and asking for strength for the final ascent. Two or three minutes was all, but when I hopped on, though it hurt and I was parched, I felt a second wind from the inside of me.

My mind separated from my body, which seemed to go on "automatic." My eyes focused on the cracks in the sidewalk (I was riding on the empty sidewalk now) like they used to when I was a small child and was made to walk further than I could bear, somewhere a counting was going on inside me like the voice of my Mom whispering, "we're almost there." My mind, to busy itself for the final few minutes of uphill challenge, began meditating.

"It's always easy to glide downhill, especially with the wind at your back. Anyone can do it. But how about the journey home? It's not easy, is it? Uphill is hard enough, but with the wind in your face! Hah! …People don't realise, when they think they're having a good time, when it's sunny, they're feeling on top of the world, they're in charge, young, beautiful, successful. They don't realise how easy it is to glide downhill, they're just enjoying it. Anyone can do it. Just join in the fun. But what happens when they have to get back?"

What was really at the back of my brain, stewing, was a matter that has nothing to do with my bike ride, except by analogy.

On my way to see my friends, I was happy, looking forward to seeing them again, singing, because I was happily remembering those days of youth, poverty and love. Like when I first got back to Orthodoxy, to Holy Trinity. It was a community that was young, poor and in love, in love with the Lord, poor in spirit but rich in grace, young in the ways of the world. A mighty man of God, Elias Stephanopoulos, was the pastor. Men of the church did the upkeep of the grounds. We made our own candles, recycling the stubs, us men doing the heavy work of dipping, assisted by boys, them women doing the lighter work of cutting the candles off the frames and boxing them. We charged 25 cents per candle then. We did this two or three times a year. The fellowship was natural, real, unaffected. We did this out of love. The choir sang under a director who was from us, who labored without pay. Many women and men gave their time and talents, because treasure was scarce.

Since those days, we have caught the American virus of "growth is success." We have been taught that we value God as much as we're willing to write checks to church for. We've been enlightened by the superior model of "church as mystical business." The ride was so smooth we didn't realise we were heading downhill with the wind at our backs. At what many thought was the beginning of the height of our glory, the classical school (Agia Sophia Academy) which was to develop into the first Orthodox day school in Portland, and which was lodged in our facilities, is leaving us (after this semester) for a smaller, humbler congregation on the West side.

Today we had a town hall meeting after church to talk about the prospect of Holy Trinity being raised to cathedral status. Mostly attended by the well-to-do, and mostly the well-to-do taking the open mic, we heard nothing but congratulation for us being selected for this honor.

No mention of the fact that a real ministry, the day school, had fled the ship. Even one such sign should've been enough to make one think. Instead, a successful businessman and promotion man enthusiastically told us that he studied a lot of data and found that our congregation has done more, gives more, and is in all respects superior to most other churches that are already designated "cathedrals." He said with justifiable pride and enthusiasm that we are "worthy" of this distinction. Another person speaking at the open mic a few minutes earlier had remarked that it's too bad that none of the "rank and file" members were present so we could hear their views. Well, I'm rank and file, but I know better than to pipe up, because I am only a "mystic" and not a "skeksi".

My wife, however, as usual had the last word on the open mic, so there, one of the rank and file got her two bits in. For some reason I couldn't quite hear what she said, except for little quips of "Holy Spirit" this and that. She's a diehard supporter of anything that smacks of prosperity, especially if you tack the word "God" on to it. Appropriately, she got a round of applause, and then the whole meeting drew to a quick close. What they're going to do next, God knows, but He's not telling me. I guess I'm not worthy.

Funny that all this should take place on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." I suppose the saying's true only within the context of the Divine Liturgy, but when you're back out in the "real" world…

If you've made it to the end of my worthless ramble, bravo! but now, PLEASE, turn off the computer and go read your Bible!

The Book I Didn't Write


Friday evenings, after attending Shabbat services at Ahavath Achim, and maybe taking in a movie, Brock and I schmooze a bit over coffee at the Borders book store, and sometimes have a bit of mindless fun looking at “Christian” and “Inspirational” books that are sold there. The sheer numbers of these books and their awe-inspiring titles simply blow us away. Sometimes we spend nearly twenty minutes just showing each other the new ones we hadn’t noticed before, and we gape at them with dropped jaw and mesmerized eye like the two am ha-aretz that we are.

On one of our visits to the book store, overwhelmed as usual by these books that “have the gospel for sale”, I remarked to Brock, “You know, I’m really bored to disgust by all these other books written by people who just have to get it out and show the world how they’re right about this, or how they’ve discovered that long lost truth that will change your life or help you enter a new world. I get the feeling I’m plummeting down an Alice’s rabbit hole lined with unending shelves of other books. Wouldn’t it be great to walk into a book store and find this title? The Book I Didn’t Write.”

I have, in fact, a copy of that Book. In fact I have several copies in different editions. The one I’m showing here is my first and favorite, but there are others just as good. Even in all their different editions, they’re still the same one Book: The Book I Didn’t Write.

Now, as for the review. Here’s what some well-known commentators have said about this Book:

“Turn it this way, turn it that way, everything is in it, keep your eye on it, grow old and aged over it, and from it do not stir, for you have no better portion than it.”
—Rabbi ben-Bag Bag (Pirke Avot, 5:29)

“Read God’s Book continually: Nay, never let the sacred volume be out of your hand. Learn so that you may teach. Hold fast to the words of faith according to sound doctrine, so that you may be able thereby to exhort and refute the gainsayers.”
—Jerome (On the Duties of the Clergy)

“Study first of all the Divine Scriptures. Study them, I say, for we require to study the divine writings deeply, lest we should speak of them faster than we think. And while you study these divine works with a believing and God-fearing intention, knock at that which is closed in them, and it shall be opened to you by the Porter, of Whom Jesus says, ‘To him the Porter opens.’”
—Origen (Letter to Gregory Thaumaturgos)

“The way in to the Holy Scriptures is low and humble, but inside the vault is high and veiled in mysteries.”
—Augustine of Hippo (Confessions, III, 5)

“In the Holy Scriptures, Truth is to be looked for rather than fair phrases. All sacred scriptures should be read in the spirit in which they were written. In them, therefore, we should seek food for our souls rather than subtleties of speech, and we should as readily read simple and devout books as those that are lofty and profound. Do not be influenced by the importance of the writer, and whether his learning be great or small, but let the love of pure Truth draw you to read. Do not inquire, ‘Who said this?’ but pay attention to what is said. Men pass away, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.”
—Thomas à Kempis (On the Imitation of Christ, I, 5)

“Everyone not ceaselessly busy with the Word of God must become corrupt.”
—Martin Luther (Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation)

“The Bible is God’s Word addressed quite personally to us, and the only way to know the truth of that is to start reading and using the Bible as though it were true. To approach it humbly and expectantly, to read it on your knees, to come to it as to a Word from God addressed with absolute appropriateness to yourself.”
—Richard Holloway (A New Heaven, p. 91)

Well, being the two dyed-in-the-wool sheep in wolves' clothing that we are, Brock and I have the same one track mind, our mind’s on its prey, we’re always on the prowl for, not what’s new, but for what makes new. What a blessing it would be if we could walk into a book store and find this Book alone on its shelves: The Book I Didn’t Write.

I humbly encourage all of you, my brothers, to throw away all your ‘other books’ (they will only make you miserable), and grab hold of The Book. Just say No, when the door-to-door peddlers come to the gates of your minds and wills, saying, “Come to us, for stolen waters are sweet.” Just hit the little delete button when you get an email advertisement from the purveyors of “Torah spades” (do not make of the Torah a spade to dig with). And lastly, consign your Amazon Wishlists to that little waste basket in the lower corner of your Windows desktop.

“All of it, my brothers! Throw it all away! It will only make you miserable.”
—Francesco di Bernardone, of Assisi

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Out on a Limb

Today is the Sunday of Zacchaeus in the Greek Orthodox Church. Here's the text, Luke 19:1-10 (NIV):

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a sinner." But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."

Father Jerry preached on this text, and everything he said was well worth listening to, but his obvious delight in the comment by the Church father, Ambrose of Milan, caught a hold of me too:
When Zacchaeus was ‘in the crowd’ he couldn't see Jesus. It was only when he rose ‘above the crowd’ by climbing the sycamore tree that he was able to see Jesus. In fact, not only was he able to see Jesus, but Jesus was able to see him.

And what did Jesus do?
Did He call Zacchaeus like He called His other disciples, Levi and the rest, with "Follow Me"? …No. Instead, He gave Zacchaeus a concrete order, a single command, “Come down immediately!” And to top it off, He told him the reason right then and there, “I must stay at your house today.” If this is not the ultimate case of ‘too good to be true’, I don't know what is!

To have Jesus stay with you! With you, personally! What would I or anybody give, to have that said to us, “I must stay at your house today"? Well, this is what Zacchaeus gave, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Talk about repentance! Talk about turning ‘about face’!

Is the ‘process’ of salvation really this easy?
You decide you want to see Jesus. You put yourself in a place where this is a possibility. You see Him, but more importantly He sees you. He gives you a concrete command. You do it. He enters your ‘house’ and you tell Him you want to make good on what you owe. And you hear Him declare, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” And what does it mean to be called a ‘son of Abraham’? The answer can be found fully in chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, which starts out, “It was for faith that our ancestors were commended.” (Hebrews 11:2 JB)

When people heard that Jesus was going to stay with Zacchaeus, a filthy collaborator with the Romans and a tax collector, they said “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But what does the Word of God say about people like Zacchaeus? “…God is not ashamed to be called their God…” (Hebrews 11:16 JB)

Back to Father Jerry's sermon, he made different points than the ones I just digressed on, but they honed in on the idea of leaving the crowd, rising above it, as the surest way to see Jesus, be seen by Him, and be given a concrete command. That command is one that only Jesus can give, and it will vary for each of us. Yet, I believe that the first thing the Lord wants to do with each of us is ‘move in’ with us, no matter what it looks like to others.

“Anybody who receives My commandments and keeps them will be one who loves Me; and anybody who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I shall love him and show Myself to him.” Judas—this was not Judas Iscariot—said to Him, “Lord, what is all this about? Do you intend to show Yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus replied, “If anyone loves Me he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We shall come to him and make Our home with him.”
John 14:21-23 (Jerusalem Bible)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Whose image is on this…?

Below is an excerpt from my son Jacob's web page (linked in my side panel), from an article called Break a Coin This Christmas, published 24 days ago. It's almost a sermon, really, or perhaps it was meant to be. I was startled by some interesting concepts I found there, beyond what I am quoting. I recommend you visit his site and read the rest of his article. It's interesting…
Break a Coin This Christmas

The coin pictured above is a denarius of emperor Trajan which used to be in my personal coin collection. Now, I only have the pictures. The actual coin shown to Jesus was probably a denarius of emperor Tiberius, known popularly as "the Tribute penny." I never owned one of these.

“When God created people, he ‘fashioned’ them – he molded them from material that he had woven together out of nothing. He didn’t ‘style’ the dirt to make it look like a person – he created a miniature version of himself. Only fashion has integrity – only the materials used to fashion a product will prolong a product and make it strong.

“When he was asked about taxes, Christ responded – “Who’s image is on this coin?” The answer, of course, was Caesar. “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar – give to God what is God’s.” Christ makes a few logical jumps but follow his thinking here:

“Coins have the image of Caesar – they are value assigned by Caesar and they function for Caesar – they are the currency of Caesar’s world.

“Human beings – people – have imprinted on themselves the image of God. Their value is assigned to them according to the image of God that they possess – their life. The life that we have flowing through our blood – the air we breathe – this is the currency of God’s world. All living things have value, but humanity has the highest value because it is stamped with imago Dei.

“So Christ says, in one pithy sentence, Caesar’s coins are valued according to style – and they are value assigned according to what someone thinks – a public philosophy. Our humanity is fashioned to look and work like its divine prototype – it is in the fabric of our cells to promote life in ourselves and in the world around us.”

—Jacob Gorny

P.S.—There's another really excellent article entitled "Denial is not just a river in Egypt" that I'd like to share with my readers—especially those who are college students—full of practical wisdom and quotable quotes, and fun to read. Here's the link:
Denial is Not Just a River in Egypt

Sunday, January 7, 2007

I started here…

Back in Romeoville, Illinois, in 1964 maybe, or a little later, skimming through a Reader's Digest issue, I stopped at this full-page ad by Religion in American Life. It grabbed me. Why? Because the boy in the picture looked about as close to me as you could get, skinny, brownish hair, sitting like that lookin' up… that was me! Well, not really, but I carefully tore out the page and stuck it in whatever book I was reading at the time.

By then, we were not a religious family. My mom stayed up and prayed way into the night while she listened to all-night radio (sometimes I'd get up in the middle of the night and keep her company, it was good music), but none of us went to church anymore. Well, I did, sort of. My steady girlfriend was a Roman Catholic, and so, for a date, I used to accompany her to mass, and then go over to her house to hang out with her widowed mom and two sisters. Back then, there was nothing to do as a teenager, no drive-ins, nothin' at all in this small town of a few thousand people, just ice skating on Lake Shirley (man-made mega-pond) or exploring the forest with my best friend Ed. Sheesh! Marijuana didn't even come to town till the year I left for college… to another small town of 5,000 people even further in the boonies, Carlinville. For me at college, a date with my steady girlfriend was lying side-by-side in a mown hayfield looking up at stars on a clear night! No hanky-panky! And then, stopping for a donut or two at a local bakery that opened at 4 a.m. on the way back to campus.

As I was saying, we weren't a religious family (except for mom). But something in me kept tugging, "why are we here?"…"Is there really a God, or is this all a bad dream?" Somehow, I kept going back to this page torn out of a cheap magazine.

I've kept it all these years, maybe because it accompanied me as I took the first few steps… venturing inside a Catholic church with my girlfriend, finding the old family bible and starting to read it (at Proverbs!) and take notes, starting to write poetry with spiritual themes, exploring the Eastern religions… Well, yes, I did take a few wrong turns, and that continued on through college. But it was there that I found my first Christian friends, kids like me who were struggling with issues of life and death (to us), and who tolerated me as a weirdo who wanted to hang around them and do InterVarsity Fellowship things even though I was, at very best, an "almost Christian."

Just a reminder that everything and everyone has humble beginnings, no matter how notorious they become in middle age…

Friday, January 5, 2007

Love without limits

As a young man, having just accepted the Lord at age 24, I was in informal apprenticeship in cabinetry to Philip, a man 32 years my senior, who became my spiritual father in every sense of the word. He was and still is my standard for what Christian manhood looks like.

Even though we both worked in an old inner city furniture factory and both on the time clock (though he was, in fact, the foreman of the whole shop), we both worked "off the clock" several times a week. He did it to make up for deficiencies and mistakes by the "crew". I did it because I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible.

One example of the love he showed…

A young co-worker was assigned the task of machine mortising a cart load of bed posts. Philip or I set up the machine. The fellow started off well, but somewhere along the way he got distracted and started putting the pieces into place the wrong way. By the time anyone noticed, thirty or more posts had mortises in the wrong place.

Philip passed by and immediately saw what was happening (I was following him). He said, "Norman, take Joe over to the parts racks and have him start putting away parts, it looks like he needs a break from this boring job!"

I grabbed the guy by the shoulder and said, "C'mon, let's go!" as Philip quickly moved the cart of ruined parts out of the way and covered them with a tarp, so the manager wouldn't see them. Then, when I got back, I finished mortising the bed posts that were left.

After work, Philip and I "punched out" and hung around till everyone was gone. Then we dragged out the cart of spoiled work, cut plugs, glued and hammered them into place, drum sanded them flush, and then lickedy-split Philip mortised the whole load, while I assisted him by offloading them. All this took about 2 hours. By then, it was dark.

Next morning, everything was ready to go, and no one but Philip and I knew how. What happened to the boy who made the mistake? Philip never told him. He got moved to jobs requiring less concentration. Philip tried to match every man under his care with jobs that suited the capabilities of each.

After working closely with this man for four years, the company closed and the equipment sold off piece by piece. Portland's furniture industry days were over, moved to the South. I got a new job as a cabinetmaker, Philip retired early.

Within the year, when I was home in Illinois visiting my Mother for (what we later learned would be) the last time, Philip quietly passed away. His wife came home from work one afternoon, noticed him sitting in his favorite chair in the basement rec room, and when she went to talk to him, found he was "gone."

Love without limits, without drawing attention to itself, quiet, strong, consistent love.
Love that he received from his Master, he was quick to pass on to others.

1 Corinthians 13

Monday, January 1, 2007

The prophetic call

The honorable prophet and forerunner John the Baptist is commemorated on January 7.

The book Touching Heaven by John Oliver contains the following remarkable passage about the prophet John the Baptizer. Upon reading it, it became clear to me that these are also the characteristics of those who in our day have received the prophetic call from their Master Jesus Christ. May these words encourage them.

The portrait of St. John that emerges from the Gospels is that of a sane man who lives as if he is mad. His toned and disciplined body is dirtied with the matter of earth—sand, animal hair, vegetation. He dwells not in the dizzying centers of commerce, but in the desolate spaces of caves and open desert. We do not quite see him as a loner, but as a man who will only move in company as fiercely single-minded as he. He is not diplomatic, but deeply humane.

St. John takes each step through the Gospel narrative with the strength of generations of Hebrew prophets behind him. Specifically, we are told that he comes in “the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). That prophet was a burning flame who engulfed idolatrous Israel and its wicked king in a spoken truth that was unrelenting, unambiguous, and untamed. So we are not surprised when John the Baptist delivers a similar blow to the gut of the Jordanian community. He is not polite, but he is loving enough to passionately call for people to do what is best for themselves: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). His advice is timeless.

The biblical texts devoted to St. John reveal not only a deep vocation to his life, but his keen awareness of it. He voluntarily dwells in the desert—a landscape of shadowy death that compels man to cling to the necessities of life. And what emerges from the pages of those texts is that what is necessary for life is more than food and drink. St. John is more interested in the soul than in the stomach. Our Lord tells us that the Baptist “came neither eating bread nor drinking wine” (Luke 7:33). There is, to St. John's life, a conspicuous absence of frivolity and wasted time. He is not a “reed shaken by the wind” who conforms to the whims and trends of his culture, nor is he one “clothed in soft garments” who cavorts among the prestigious and powerful (Luke 7:24-25). No, St. John lives simply and close to the earth. He is acquainted with the basic wisdom of nature. And he recognizes that Wisdom even from a distance when He comes to him to be baptized.

Skipping ahead just a couple of paragraphs, I want to close with this final thought.

People drawn to St. John must have been the kind who were ready to trust a promise. “I am not the One for whom you seek,” he announces with conviction, “but after me comes One more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” He tells his followers to wait a little longer, not in idleness but in a spirit of preparation. Jesus is coming.

Yes, indeed, my brothers and sisters! Jesus is coming… and soon, “for the time is close.” (Revelation 1:3).