Saturday, September 29, 2007

No Surprises Here!

So, how do you turn out?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Click to view my Personality Profile page

On Simplicity

The Orthodox Church here in America faces a number of fairly pressing, and for better or worse, public problems. Reciting them at the moment serves no helpful purpose since the problems we are distressed with are in fact not the problem we face; what has got our attention are only the symptoms of a deeper problem.

Let me explain.

Often in our spiritual life God allows the enemy of souls to tempt us. Not infrequently, God will allow us to fall in the face of those temptations. But God never does this from malice. Rather our failure in spiritual warfare is meant for our salvation--typically to humble us.

How might God being humbling us? What might we be missing or overlooking in our shared life in Christ?

Thinking about the overall health of the Church here in America I realize by how little regard we have for simplicity. Looking back over the history of monasticism--both in the East and the West--I am struck by how often monastic leaders and reformers--Anthony, Benedict, Basil, Bernard, Francis, Dominic, Theodore, Sergius of Radonezh, Herman of Alaska, to name only a few in no particular order--have all stressed the centrality of poverty and humility in monastic life.

In a word, these great leaders in the spiritual life valued simplicity.

If monastic witness is essential to the health of the Church we might do well to listen to the witness that is offered to us down through the history of the Church. Here in America Church life--East and West, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical--is rarely characterized by economic, social or personal simplicity of life.

Instead Christians in America, of whatever tradition, are all too often rightly perceived as arrogant, triumphalistic and (and this is the real charge), WEALTHY. Our different Christian communities are divided theologically, but it seems we are united in our desire for more and more wealth and the many things (material and social) that wealth can purchase for us.

Lost in all of this is the mission of the Church: The salvation not simply of souls, but of the world. It is our great privilege and responsibility as Christians to return to God the world He has created and which, by our sin, we have defaced. Above all else, to be a Christian is to have accepted Christ call to be missionaries, to preach each in our own unique way "the Gospel to all creation" (compare, Mark 16.15). Our unparalleled material wealth, our politic freedoms, all of these are given to us by the Father through the Holy Spirit so that we can fulfill Christ's command to us.

But we have failed to use wholeheartedly, generously, really sacrificially, what we have been give. This is why I think we in the Orthodox Church have to suffer scandals born of the rather petty desires of men. God is humbling us and calling us to repentance.

To say we are called to repentance is to say something that at least those who are professionally committed to Christ all already know. It is also to say anything we all can easily dismiss due to its lack of specific content. So let me play the fool and say that in the current situation our repentance must take the form of a simplification of Church's life in both its personal and communal forms.

When I served in the Pacific Northwest I was often taken aback by the success of so-called non-canonical Orthodox groups. Reflecting on their success I have come to realize that--whatever else might have been the case--there was an integrity to their witness because of their relative poverty. Yes, there were a great number of other problems with all of these groups--but they embraced the very simplicity of life that I think is essential to the health of the Orthodox Church here in America.

This view, by the way, is not mine alone. It was first voiced by the late Fr Alexander Schmemann in series of essays published in the mid-1960's (for an overview see Fr. Robert Arida's"Problems of Orthodoxy in America: A Retrospective of Father Alexander Schmemann's Analysis of Orthodox Spirituality In America"). In the third and final of these articles sub-titled "The Spiritual Problem," Schmemann offers his solution to the problem I outlined above. He writes:

Finally the third essential dimension of the religious restoration in the parish is the recovery of its missionary character. And by this I mean primarily a shift from the selfish self-centeredness of the modern parish to the concept of the parish as servant. We use today an extremely ambiguous phraseology: we praise men because they "serve their parish", for example. "Parish" is an end in itself justifying all sacrifices, all efforts, all activities. "For the benefit of the parish" . . . But it is ambiguous because the parish is not an end in itself and once it has become one—it is, in fact, an idol condemned as all other idols in the Gospel. The parish is the means for men of serving God and it itself must serve God and His work and only then is it justified and becomes "Church". And again it is the sacred duty and the real function of the priest not to "serve the parish", but to make the parish serve God—and there is a tremendous difference between these two functions. And for the parish to serve God means, first of all, to help God's work wherever it is to be helped. I am convinced, and it is enough to read the Gospel just once to be convinced, that as long as our seminaries are obliged, year after year, literally to beg for money, as long as we cannot afford a few chaplains to take care of our students on college campuses, as long as so many obvious, urgent, self-evident spiritual needs of the Church remain unfulfilled because each parish must first "take care of itself"—the beautiful mosaics, golden vestments and jeweled crosses do not please God and that which does not please God is not Christian whatever the appearances. If a man says "I won't help the poor because I must first take care of myself" we call it selfishness and term it a sin. If a parish says it and acts accordingly we consider it Christian—but as long as this "double standard" is accepted as a self-evident norm, as long as all this is praised and glorified as good and Christian at innumerable parish banquets and "affairs", the parish betrays rather than serves God.
This is hardly new information is it? But it is Good News!

We need to commit our lives to Christ and in the current circumstances that means we must simplify our lives. God is humbling His Church and we would do well not only to understand that, but bring our lives into obedience with the simplicity of life that God has called us to live.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Thoughts On Ministering to Baptized Seekers

At right: Icon of the Bodiless Powers of Heaven.

Over on Intentional Disciple, Sherry W offers some thought provoking observations by Christopher Ruddy:

I acknowledged then and acknowledge now that church-world tension, but I think it is wrong to conflate that unavoidable tension with a Donatist desire for a purer church. A church that is not in some sort of substantial tension with the world is either corrupt or deluded.
Hard words, but I think words that, as an Orthodox Christian, I need to give serious consideration.

Several months ago I was at a meeting with a number of priests when one of the brothers asked why it is that the Church (which in context meant the bishops and the administrative powers that be) never seemed to quite respond in a proper or timely fashion to sexual or financial misconduct in the Church. At the time I did not offer an answer. But as I've thought about his question (which is also one that other's ask and which I ask myself) I've come to realize that when people act in a manner that I perceive as irrational, I have that perception because I don't understand their rational, I don't understand the why of their behavior.

Let me make this clear: When I say your behavior is irrational, I mean that I don't understand your reason(s) for acting as you do.

This isn't to take a stance on the validity of the other person's motivation. It is only to point out that the judgment that someone's behavior is irrational or incomprehensible at a minimum reflects my lack of empathy for their situation.

This empathy it seems to me is the key to understand why it is that for many Orthodox Christians the tensions between the Church and the world simply does not exist. Why is it that, in large numbers, we prefer to structure the Church around the needs and desires of the complacent rather than, as I pointed out earlier, around the seekers in our midst?

Again, Ruddy's observation are helpful:
[A] concern for identity and orthodoxy cannot be reflexively reduced to a fear-driven desire for purity and security. One can be confident and open, as I believe [Pope] Benedict [XVI] is, in the face of a difficult, even hostile situation. His words and actions as pope give little evidence of a fearful, cramped man. On an impressionistic level, he looks relaxed and happy; he wears the yoke of his office lightly and does not seem burdened as Paul VI was.
At the core, our acceptance of complacency as the practical norm around which we structure the life of the Church in America, reflects our habitual fearfulness. Both individually and as communally, we lack the confident openness that Ruddy sees in Pope Benedict XVI.

In its place Ruddy identifies two different, but equally unhelpful responses that I think embody and foster in us a fearful disposition of heart: "sectarianism" and "cooptation."

It is easy to say that complacency in the Orthodox Church largely follows along with an emphasis on maintaining a given ethnicity as normative for the community's life. Yes, I think it is true that in these communities, the Church has in large part been co-opted by, and put at the service of, the agenda of a particular ethnic identity. But even among converts it is rather easy to assume that the agenda of the world is identical with the Gospel.

There are many people who come to us from a cultural or theological or liturgical conservative background. There interest in becoming Orthodox is often less from a sense of vocation and more in the hope of finding a refuge and even an ally from liberalism and an ally in their own conservative agenda.

There is a similar parallelism to be seen in the sectarian temptation. "Old hippies," so the joke goes in my old northern California stomping grounds, "never die. They just become Russian Orthodox." American spirituality has always had strong utopian, and hence sectarian, tendencies. It is very easy to see in the Orthodox Church the vehicle for those utopian desires. Especially when it is mixed with an emphasis on ethnicity, one finds a ready made way to opt out of the larger culture.

What I'm saying is this: At least for the Orthodox Church in the United States, sectarianism and co-option can, and often do, exist hand in hand. When we succumb to one, we also give credibility to the other. And again, but grow out of and foster in us a fearful disposition of heart.

Compare this to what Ruddy says ought to be the case:
God's people are elected, called out (literally, an ek-klesia) through no merit of their own, precisely in order to exist for others, to reveal to the world God's will for all peoples. Election and openness go hand in hand, they call for each other. Donatists and their heirs get election, but forget openness. Some Catholics [and Orthodox Christians] today get openness, but forget election. Thinking of the church as a contrast society--and living as such--helps one to see how brilliant intensity and broad openness can coexist.
It is worth noting that just as sectarianism and co-option exist hand in hand so do election and openness. Let me go further, election/openness are the cure for the sectarianism/co-option dynamic that afflicts not only the Church, but is the common lot of fallen humanity.

The call to repentance is call to participate evermore fully in the life of the Most Holy Trinity and thereby transform sectarianism/co-option into a communion that embraces the whole of the cosmos. Again, as Ruddy express it:
We are all mediocre, God-beloved people called to conversion and to divine life in community. No one is perfect, and one of the strengths of Catholicism [We are all mediocre, God-beloved people called to conversion and to divine life in community. No one is perfect, and one of the strengths of Catholicism [and Orthodoxy] is precisely its mediocrity, its anti-elitism, its willingness to welcome all who are willing to come.
Ironically, even the sectarian, for all his zeal, is also mediocre and will also always and "repeatedly fall short of that standard, doesn't take away from the intensity of that call, which 'costs not less than everything,' as T.S. Eliot put it."

Overcoming the fear that breeds sectarianism and co-option is the work of conversion and as such of the whole Church. This is why the Church--East and West--grounds the Christian life in the grace of the sacraments. We cannot lift ourselves out of the fear we are in--it requires God bring us into the light of His Life. Christian live an eschatological life, a life that both participates in, and bears witness to, the New Heaven AND the New Earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"(Rev 21.1-5)
The sacraments are the means by which we come to participate in this New Heaven and this New Earth. While it is easy to say that we should minister to the seekers in our midst and not cater to the complacent, we can't forget that the goal of our ministry is the Kingdom of God and not the seekers as such.

Yes, t is not only easy to say that we should minister to the seekers in our midst, it is the right thing to do. But, and this is key, just as we ought not to allow the complacent Christian to set a limit on the ministry of the Church, so too we cannot allow the seeker to circumscribe the Church's ministry.

What God offers us in Jesus Christ and through the sacraments in not new things, but old things made new by grace. Whether we are complacent or a seeker, God desires to renew us--to make us new. And whether I am a complacent Christian or a seeker, it is this newness that I fear above all else.

The great tragedy of being a sinner is that I am not terrified that God will NOT give me my heart's true desire, but that He will. What I most deeply desire is God, but when I am offered Him, I am like the prophet Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: " Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!" And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said: " Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts" (Is 6.1-5).
Like Isaiah, I need to have my lips cleansed by the burning coal of the Eucharist and, only then, offer myself to be sent in His Name to say what He would have me say to whom He would have me speak:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:
" Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged."

Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying:
" Whom shall I send,
And who will go for Us?"

Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."
And He said, "Go, and tell this people:
' Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.'
" Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed" (Is 6.6-10)

Yes, we must focus our ministry on the baptized seekers in our midsts. While we never could, it is becoming increasingly clear that we can no longer cater to the complacent Christians among us.

But in this we can never forget that our ministry to the baptized seekers in our midst does not exempt them, or us, to being undone. Nor does such a ministry excuse us from remembering that those who don't hear the Gospel, or who hear and don't understand, are in that situation for reasons that are not at all clear to us.

All I have to offer is the Living God and I cannot offer God unless I first encounter Him and am myself undone.

As I hope I showed above sectarianism and co-option are our constant temptations and we cannot allow ourselves the facile assumption that, however essential, structuring the ministry of the Church around the baptized seekers in our midst exhaust what it means to be obedient to the will of the Living and Thrice-Holy God in Whose Presence even the angels hid their eyes.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Last Lecture

This last lecture by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch. Dr Pausch a computer science prof at Carnegie Mellon, gave his last lecture on September 18. He was upbeat, funny, fit - even doing push-ups on the stage. But he knew, as did his audience, the his recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer will end his life in a matter of months.

The lecture is uplifting and I am not a little ashamed of myself for my own whining.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hat tip to Monastic Musing.

From Google Video:

Almost all of us have childhood dreams: for example, being an astronaut, or making movies or video games for a living. Sadly, most people don't achieve theirs, and I think that's a shame. I had several specific childhood dreams, and I've actually achieved most of them. More importantly, I have found ways, in particular the creation (with Don Marinelli), of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center (, of helping many young people actually *achieve* their childhood dreams. This talk will discuss how I achieved my childhood dreams (being in zero gravity, designing theme park rides for Disney, and a few others), and will contain realistic advice on how *you* can live your life so that you can make your childhood dreams come true, too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ever Wonder What I Sound Like?

The OCA parish where, together with Fr Peter Pawlack, I am currently serving as interim pastor has a great website: Holy Assumption Church. In addition to a many great links and information about the Orthodox Church, they also have my rather iffy attempts at preaching. You can hear Fr Peter and me by clicking on the Homilies link.

Please pray for Fr Peter, the good people at Holy Assumption and me as we work together to enter into the next phase of the community's life in Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

So What Are You Going To Do?

An interesting post this morning by on the First Things' blog On the Square Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., the Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver . The part I quote is from a talk given in September at an Indianapolis men's conference for Legatus, a Catholic men's group. Their mission is one that Orthodox Christians would do well to emulate. From their web page:

Our threefold purpose is to:

Study: Ongoing education is at the heart of Legatus. We are matching members, who have a thirst for knowledge, with the most profound and convincing body of religious knowledge in the history of human thought.

Translating the teachings of Christ and the social teaching of the Church into practical applications helps our members become eminently pragmatic about their faith.

Legatus is the Latin word for "ambassador". Our members don't typically wear their faith on their shirtsleeves. They spread the faith through good example, good deeds and high ethical standards.

With that, let me now direct your attention to Archbishop Chaput's concluding remarks.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

So what are you going to do? How are we going to convert this world? I want to suggest an answer from history.

Did you ever wonder how the early Church did it? I mean, how did a handful of very ordinary men, disciples of an obscure man executed as a criminal, wind up changing the world—conquering an empire and founding a whole new civilization on the cornerstone of that executed man's life and teachings? And they did it in just a few centuries, without armies, and usually in face of discrimination and persecution.

Never before had a religion taught that God loved people personally and that God's love began before the person was even born. Abortion and birth control were rampant in the Roman Empire. Christians rejected both of them from the beginning. Athenagoras, a Christian layman, explained why in an open letter he addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He said: "For we regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care."

Before Christianity came on the scene, no religion had ever taught that God could be found in our neighbor. The world largely ignored the poor, the hungry, the stranger, and the imprisoned. And it still does. And yet Jesus said that we find God in our love for these least brethren of ours.

Christian love is not weak or anesthetic. It's an act of the will. It takes guts. It's a deliberate submission of our selfishness to the needs of others. There's nothing "unmanly" about it, and there's nothing—and I mean nothing—more demanding and rewarding in the world. The heart of medieval knighthood and chivalry was the choice of a fighting man to put himself at the service of others—honoring his lord, respecting the dignity of women, protecting the weak, and defending the faith even at the cost of his own life.

That's your vocation. That's what being a Christian man means. We still have those qualities in our hearts. We are not powerless in the face of today's unbelieving civilization. We can turn this world upside down if only we're willing to love—the kind of Christian love that is vastly more powerful than just a sugary feeling; the kind of love that converts men into something entirely new; the kind of love that bears fruit in a man's zeal, courage, justice, mercy, and apostolic action.

So I leave you with this: Be men who love well. Be the Catholic men God intended you to be. Be men of courage and fidelity to your God, your wives, your families, and your Church. Put your belief into practice. Do everything for the glory of God, even the little things you have to do each day. Love those who don't love you. Love—expecting nothing in return. Love—and those you love will find Jesus, too. Love—and through your actions, God will change this world.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Second Sunday of Luke (6:31-36)

Second Sunday of Luke

And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

The older I get the more I love St Augustine and find amazing comfort and insight in his words.

What I find most attractive in Augustine's work is his incomparable genius and skill in understanding and articulating the Christian life in all its glorious and paradoxically specificity. Reflecting on Christ's command to us, the bishop of Hippo says that Christians "are . . . prohibited both from loving the world and, if we understand rightly, are commanded to love it" as well because, as Jesus tells us in this Sunday's Gospel, we are to "love [our] enemies."

And who are are enemies he asks but "the world, which hates us"?

How are we to find our way through these two, seemingly, contradictory commandments? We are called by Christ to not love "what the world itself loves," that is to say we are not to love the faults that the world love. Rather,we are to love what "the world hates, namely, the handiwork of God and the various comforts of His goodness." The great sorrow of the world is that the "world loves the fault . . . and hates its nature. . . . [Perversely the world] loves and hates itself."

We overlook I think how easily our own self-hatred obscures from our vision God's love and mercy for us. Let me rephrase that please: In my self-hatred, I have blind myself to God's mercy and love for me, and for my neighbor. The content of this self-hatred is less wickedness, and more (as Augustine suggests throughout his writings and sermons) my disordered love of self--I love the very faults in myself that obscure my nature. I have, perversely, fallen in love with the pale imitation of myself that I have cobbled together out of the bits and pieces of my own experience and the half-truths I have heard throughout my life from society and other people. And it is this false image of myself that I have grown to prefer to the person I am in God's eyes.

St Ambrose says that the "law commands . . . revenge . . . . [But the] Gospel bestows love for hostility, benevolence for hatred, prayer for curses, help for the persecuted, patience for the hungry and [the] grace of reward" for those who, having stumbled, repent, rise from their sins and strive again to be faithful. So, if this is what the Gospel offers me, why do I not run towards it? Why don't I believe the Gospel that Christ proved through His death on the Cross?

This morning I read in the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast that in ancient times
[If] you reviled the idols, they would stone you or put you to a miserable death. Now in our times, every passion has taken the place of an idol. And if you reprove or criticize the passion that you see overcoming each person that all shour, "Stone him, because he has reviled our gods."
I do not believe because I have replace the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the rather little god I have made out of my passions.

Even though these little gods disappoint me, even though I know they will disappointment me and leave me humiliated, I worship them out of fear. There is something comfortable of worshiping a god of my own creation, that I can place right there on the shelf above my desk. To worship a god of my own creation makes me a god myself--I become what I fear and so become fearsome myself.

And again, the Church stands in stark contrast to all of this, the real question is how do I leave behind my fear and enter into love?

"How," St Cyprian asks, will you love your enemies and prayer for your adversaries and persecutors?" He continues:
We see what happened in the case of Stephen. When he was being killed by the violence and stones of the Jews, he did not ask for vengeance but forgiveness for his murderers. . . . [The] first martyr for Christ . . . was not only a preacher of the Lord's suffering but also an imitator of His most patient gentleness.
One of the great challenges of the Christian life is moving toward the good not out of the perverse self-hatred that Augustine identifies, but out of a real attract to what is good and with a sense, however immature and unformed, of our own worth as God's beloved child. Taking our cue from Cyprian, maybe we would do well, especially at the beginning of our spiritual life or at those moments when our spiritual life seems to be at a low ebb, if we simply imitated Stephen.

It seems to me that, whatever it might be in full flower, being merciful means to renounce vengeance. And if I can't quite renounce it? Well at least I should not want to want it. Though often out of fear or pride, I do not want to be punished or humiliated or shamed. No matter how deep my sin, I do not want to have someone take vengeance on me.

The beginning of mercy, the first step of fulfilling Christ's command in the Gospel is this: Let us not seek vengeance against those who have hurt us. If we, if I, can at least do no harm, I give goodness the chance to be planted, to root itself and to grow in my heart and yours.

In Christ

+Fr Gregory

What Kids Don't Want From Church

From Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con:

Via Amy Welborn comes this terrific list of guidelines for youth ministry from Father Philip Powell, OP, who does campus ministry at the University of Dallas. It's a list specifically for Catholic college students, but there's lots here that all of us can learn from. A couple of weeks ago some of us young parents from our Orthodox parish were talking about youth ministry, and how we need to structure it. Obviously the needs of younger kids aren't going to be the same as that of college students. But Fr. Philip gives us a lot to think about.

To read the rest of Fr Philip click here: Kids These Days: What they don't want from the Church

And now, my comments on Crunchy Con:

As both an alum of the University of Dallas and an Orthodox priest I think that Fr Powell is right on track. Whether we are talking about Roman Catholic, Orthodox or mainline Protestant or Evangelical Christian kid, they need and want a substantive faith. When I arrived at UD in '78 I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "conservative" Catholic. Actually I grew up in a "lapsed Catholic" family. What I encountered at UD was a view of Catholicism that I never even suspected existed. The combination of intellectual rigor and tangible piety has stayed with me all these years and has been a great asset to me as an Orthodox priest.

It is not a question of liberal vs. conservative, but insubstantial vs substantive. If, as Fr Powell suggests, there was a time when insubstantial & conservative converged in the Catholic Church that is no longer necessarily the case. What I think especially the Orthodox Church can learn from Fr Powell and Catholic institutions like UD is the need to raise our own intellectual standards and examine not only what we believe, but how we live as Orthodox Christians. We must also not be afraid of allowing our faith to illumine for us the larger world around us. For the most part Orthodox Christians--whether cradle or convert--seem happy to leave their faith in Church.

After 200+ years in America the Orthodox Church has not produced a Dorthy Day, a Martin Luther King, Jr, or a Billy Graham, to say nothing of an academic institution like the University of Dallas, a Thomas Aquinas College, a Grove City College or a Hillsdale College. If we wish to keep our young people we must, as Fr Powell suggests, be courageous and sacrificially generous in our efforts to help them pour their lives out for Christ.

As in the rest of the spiritual life, we only live by dying, we only receive by giving away--I have seen it again and again, it is only when I help young people discern and live out their unique vocation as Orthodox Christians that I have any hope of keeping them in the Church. Too often our work with youth reflect not a desire to help them be faithful to Christ's call for their lives but rather the dubious goal of holding them to our (my) standards for them.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, September 23, 2007

We Need to Serve the Spiritual Seeker in Our Midst

This morning I served at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

Attendance was probably twice what it was the week before. This was due to the fact that the church school program started this morning as well as a memorial service and breakfast after Liturgy for a member of the Cathedral parish who died last month.

After Liturgy I spoke with a couple who have left the Orthodox Church for an evangelical church. While I disagree with their decision, I do understand it. The sad fact of the matter is that Orthodox parish, especially those with a strong or dominate ethnic identity, tend not to preach the need for repentance and a vibrant spiritual life. Or if they preach this they are usually ineffectual in actual guiding people in the process. The reason this is so is that we naively assume that formation simply happens apart from any decision on the part of the individual Christian or the community.

This lack of effective spiritual guidance means that people tend to be rather mediocre in their commitment to Christ and His Church. The sad irony in all of this is that while priests and bishops and seminary faculty have all complained to me about the results of our lack of any intentional spiritual formation of the laity (and this includes our neglect of spiritual formation for seminarians), no one seems willing to actually take up the task of preaching repentance and implementing a program of spiritual formation.

We are often very anxious not to offend, or drive people away. While I understand this concern, the question needs to be asked how attached are the people really to Christ and His Church who we are afraid of driving away?

Absent repentance and spiritual formation how deep is the person connection to Christ and the Church?

And, absent our willingness to preach repentance and offer intentional spiritual formation, what does this say about us that people leave the Orthodox Church for other Christian traditions (typically Evangelical Christian communities)?

Who exactly are we afraid of offending or driving away? The lukewarm or those who desire for a deep relationship with Christ? This desire is so strong, their need for a relationship with a community of faith, with at least some sort of church, that they vote with their feet and walk across the road to the local megachurch.

So the question is really this: Why is it that we are willing to keep the lukewarm Christian at the expense of the baptized spiritual seeker in our midst?

The couple I spoke with after Liturgy had a list of reasons why they have joined a Bible church. I had to agree with their negative reasons--the reasons why they left Orthodoxy are simply true--or at least true enough for government work as my grandparents used to say.

But even their positive reasons attending a Bible church--to learn the Word of God, to develop a relationship with Christ, and to grow spiritually I also agreed with, even if I doubt they'll find what they want in a Bible church. In any event, what they are looking for, and didn't find in the Orthodox Church, all reflect rather poorly on their experiences as Orthodox Christians (and it is worth noting that they were both baptized and raised in the Orthodox Church, but in different ethnic traditions. The problem that they brought to my attention is not limited to one ethnic tradition or another.)

Thinking about their experiences, I wonder if it isn't the case that the Orthodox Church planted in them a spiritual hunger that we then never feed? In effect, we pointed them down a road, but then said, that they (we, and more to the point, I) didn't need to actually travel down.

In conversation after conversation, in sermon after sermon, in Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, Ukrainian and Carpatho-Russian parishes, from cradle Orthodox and converts, I have gotten a positive, even zealous, response to the possibility of new Life that comes to us through repentance and the sacraments.

But somehow, and again and again this has been my experience, at just the last moment, people falter. They see the prize, reach for it and then lose their desire and turn away.

And I've seen this as well not only with lay people, but also clergy and bishops. We know what we need to do, but we are afraid. And mostly what we are afraid of losing our relationship with those who will not follow Christ with us.

The time has come for God to renew the Orthodox Church. We've made little steps forward here and there, but these are not sufficient. We are still too attached to our wealth, our glorious history (as if any of us had anything to do with Byzantium or the "Third Rome"), our different ethnic customs, and above all our "True Churchiness."

Ain't none of this going to give us the "good defense before the fearsome Judgment Seat of Christ" that we pray for at every Liturgy. In fact, if we do not repent, if we do not value a deeper life in Christ more than our relationship with lukewarm Christian in our midsts, then all of these things--these real blessings from God that we have come to value more than God Hmself--will stand in judgment of us at the end of our life.

There are in every Orthodox parish lukewarm Christians who are dead set to remain lukewarm (It is odd if you think about it. The only way to stay lukewarm is to decide to be lukewarm. This is the only way I can imagine standing in the Divine Liturgy and NOT responding to Christ's call to repentance.) Our willingness to cater, and yes it is a catering, to the lukewarm is costing us presence and the gifts of the baptized spiritual seeker in our midst.

We must as a Church turn our attention to these people. It will in the short run cost us members, money and even some of the "grace proof" comfort we have come to enjoy. But if we do not change our ways we will lose our salvation--our inaction we leave us with no acceptable answers before the judgment seat of Christ.

And that my friends is scary biscuits indeed as one of my spiritual children would put it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, September 21, 2007

Prayer & Work: Thoughts on Vocation

My schedule for the last week has required of me a fair amount of traveling. Since last Friday (the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) I've made three trips to Pittsburgh (twice to serve Liturgy at St Nicholas Cathedral, once for the feast, once on Sunday and then on Tuesday give a lecture on God and Humanity at the University of Pittsburgh), two trips to Cleveland (the first of those then required I travel on to Toledo, twice, for the Called & Gifted Workshop, the second of my two Cleveland trips to begin planning a workshop on sexuality--more on that later). Tomorrow I'm driving to Canton, OH to participate in a parish health workshop. And Sunday it is back to Pittsburgh to serve Liturgy at the Cathedral and then to Cleveland for a party at the home of my friend Fr Michael. Oh, and least I forget, I've got a breakfast meeting in about an hour.

Now besides the transparent bid for your sympathy ("Oh, poor Fr Gregory! You work too hard!" is always rather nice) why do I relate all of this?

Simply put, my travels in the last week have brought home to me not simply how much I enjoy writing (of which this blog is only a small part--I've got four papers to finish by the middle of November), but how much I need to write.

Writing, studying, teaching are essential not only to my service as a priest but also to my spiritual life. In fact, with the exception of marriage to wife Mary (and she is the most important part of my life and what I am able to do for Christ and His Church), writing, studying, and teaching are the most important things in my life.

For a very long time I had trouble accepting how important writing, studying and teaching are to my spiritual life. You might be wondering, but what about prayer--private and liturgical--aren't they important for me, don't the figure prominently in my spiritual life? Why, you might ask, don't I count these as more important?

Well, for a long time I did--and it made me crazy. Let me explain.

In the monastic tradition--East and West--pray and work are intimately connected. Ora et labora is the Benedictine motto--"Prayer and Work."

After repentance and our commitment to follow Christ, it seems to me that the real challenge of the spiritual life is two-fold. First, I must come to understand the intimate, and really essential, connection between prayer and work. These are not hierarchically related to each other--it isn't that prayer is more important than work, or that work is more important than prayer. No, these are not two separate things. Rather they are two facets of the same thing--two facets of our spiritual life.

In the beginning, when we lived in the Garden, prayer and work were a seamless garment. We had both an intimate communion with God, and each other, AND a creative stewardship over the Garden. Prayer and work were for us in the beginning together and this harmony made it possible for us to fulfill our vocation.

It is only as a result of the devil's envy that prayer and work become separate and in opposition to each other. But, this isn't how it was in beginning and realizing this, believing this, is as I said, the first great challenge of the spiritual after our repentance.

So what is the second challenge?

The second challenge is this: Having understood that prayer and work are meant to be a harmony, I must find that harmony for myself.

For too many Christians, prayer (if they consider it at all) is simply an escape from their daily work which they see as drudgery. Very few of us it seems love what we do or do what we love. Ironically, though there often isn't much love in our work, we do love--or at least desire--the material benefits work brings us.

Our work is often materialistic. This being the case means work becomes for us necessarily an event of marked by competition, opposition, anxiety, fear, dread, envy and shame. It has to be like this because materialism means relating to creation in a manner that is indifferent to God. Absent transcendence our life is constricted by increasingly small circles of immanence. If my work doesn't open up to God and look forward, and indeed participate in, the New Heaven and New Earth, then what I have, I have only at your expense. A world of pure immanence, a purely material world, is a world of ever diminishing resources.

The second challenge of the spiritual life then is finding the work that opens me evermore to the eschatological dimension of my own life. I have to find the right relationship between prayer and work. My work should lead me naturally, almost spontaneously, to prayer, even as prayer should inspire and guide my work.

Private and liturgical prayer in the full sense then are both sources and expressions of work. C.S. Lewis somewhere defends the dignity of those of us who pray best with a book in one hand and the nub of a pencil in the other. I suspect that so often people struggle in their prayer lives, both private and liturgical, because they see this as in someway different from, and maybe even in opposition to, work.

My work might be any of number of things. But unless that work flows out of my heart, our of my vocation, it will always be experienced as an event of conflict, of opposition.

And, likewise, for such a worker, prayer (if it has any meaning at all for him), will be experienced (hungrily) as an escape from work, an escape from life.

This isn't as it ought to be.

Human beings are stewards of creation, and this includes being stewards of our own lives. We need to exert the effort necessary so that, by God's grace and our own creativity, we can re-establish in our own lives the harmony of prayer and work. It is this harmony, possibly above all else, that is most lacking not only in the world, but even in our rather worldly minded churches.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

First Sunday of Luke (5:1-11)

First Sunday of Luke
Luke 5:1-11

At that time, Jesus was standing by the lake of Gennesaret. And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all who were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Commenting in the catch of fish in the Gospel story, St Maximus of Turin draws a parallel between "the dying fish . . . brought up from the deep" and held in the boat and "the human beings" who are in "the vessel of the Church." He says that in Christ we "have been freed from [the] turmoil [of the world]. . . . [and that] the Church gives life to those who are half-dead, as it were."

That at least is how it should be.

For many their experience of the Church is not a freedom from turmoil, but an increasing in turmoil, conflict, and anxiety. Often they feel more like Peter after a night of hard toil. If they hear Jesus' word to them at all, they often drop their net out of resignation rather than faith and more from exhaustion or frustration then obedience or hope.

St Augustine looks with a clear eye at the Church--at the actual men and women who fill the ranks of the faithful (and the clergy for that matter) and says that "it contains countless numbers [of men and women], both good and bad." It is only after "the resurrection" that "it will contain only the good, and [then only] a definite number of them."

Try as I might I cannot shake the conviction that, while yes, in fact the Church is meant to be somewhat motley group of saints and sinners---I am after all myself both saint and sinner (though if the truth be told more sinner than saint)--that can't be the end of the story. Too often we justify moral or spiritual complacency by saying we're all sinners, or that the Church is a spiritual hospital.

While this is all true, it should spur me to action, not cause me to shrug my shoulders (or worse) in the face of human sinfulness. That shrug, that shrug reflects my own lack of repentance, the lingering attachment to my own sinfulness.

It isn't however my attachment to this or that sin that causes me to be indifferent (or worse) to sin in my brother or sister. No, it rather reflects a deeper, more firmly rooted, unwillingness on my part to imitate Christ and bear the Cross for the salvation of another person.

Working to root out sinfulness in the Church is always hard work and always costly to us personally. It is frankly easier to simply shrug my shoulders and offer a bit of "cheap grace" then risk calling someone to repentance.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian "conception" of God (p. 45).

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. "All for sin could not atone." Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world's standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind (p. 46).
Offering cheap grace keeps my life comfortable. How? Well, part of the risk in calling others to repentance is that my own sinfulness will be exposed. When I worked with novice therapists they were always amazed that therapy was a very personal work--I can't effectively heal my client's wounds without becoming rather uncomfortably aware of my own hurts, my own little (or not so little) neurotic struggles, my own petty (or not so petty) narcissisms.

Unlike Jesus, when I pick up the Cross I pick it up as a sinful man and so the Cross exposes my sinfulness to me. So I shrug at moral or spiritual complacency and sinfulness in the Church because I am unwilling to have my own wounds brought to light. I never press the issue, and so there is no stress, and so my flaws are never brought to light.

I very much want to appear to outsiders, and to myself, as "forgiving" and "understanding." I want to appear to be a saint without having to actually do the hard work that sanctity requires. Put another way, I'm a spiritual poser. Or if you prefer, I like "having a form of godliness [while] denying its power (2 Tim 3.5).

So what are we to do?

Like Peter we have to confess our sinfulness. The problem of course is that those who shrug at sinfulness in the Church are precisely those people least likely to repent. And this is precisely why those who are angry or discouraged about the presence of moral or spiritual complacency in Church need to examine ourselves and not only step forward and issue the call to repentance, but also together and take up the Cross of Christ.

Fr John Chryssavgis in his book Light Through Darkness: the Orthodox Tradition, writes that the Cross "we encounter the struggle between the power of love (as it is revealed in Christ) and the love of power (as it is perceived by our world" (p. 141). He continues:
The powerlessness of Christ has always threatened the powerfulness of the world. And the silence of the cross is the most eloquent sermon about the power of love. Despite what we know in ourselves and whatever we see in our world [and at times even in our Church], the cross proclaims what love can and will achieve. The scandal of the cross is that, in spire of our wrongs and the wrongdoings of our world, God loves us to the point of death.
Practically speaking this means that while we shouldn't shrug off moral or spiritual complacency (to saying nothing of outright error and sinfulness) in the Church, our energy needs to be directed to caring for those who the world have forgotten. In response to every abuse or lapse in the Church we need to gather together around the Cross, lay aside our own sinfulness, and demonstrate by our actions and the integrity of our lives an alternative. Like St Peter, we need to drop our nets in the deep water of human need.

Am I concerned about sexual misconduct by the clergy? Then I shouldn't simply expose sinful clergy, but to educate, support and sustain clergy and laity. I should see that people have a wholesome view of human sexuality that conforms to the Gospel.

Am I concerned about financial impropriety? Then I need to be a clear and even shining example of the kind of behavior that I want to see in the Church.

And so on with catechesis, missions and evangelisms, the philanthropic, ascetical or liturgical dimensions of the Church's life.

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Mt 5.14-16).

Or, in another place,
By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13.35).
Again, we can't ignore ills in the Church. However painful, they must be brought to light and corrected. But above all we need to take seriously our call from Christ to bear witness to the Gospel with our lives. Rather then simply complaining about the Church, or worse walking away, we need to demonstrate how things can be different by how we live our lives.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

International Talk Like A Pirate Day 2007!

Avast, me hearties!

Today be International Talk Like A Pirate Day!

If you be interested in learnin' t' talk like a pirate (and who wouldn't be?) click t' box at starboard.

Or you can watch Captain Jack Sparrow and buckos!

Monday, September 17, 2007

How Much Is My Blog Worth?

Ah well, at least it is something.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

My blog is worth $3,951.78.
How much is your blog worth?

Thoughts on the Called & Gifted Workshop

Friday and Saturday of last week I went to the Called & Gifted Workshop at St Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Perrysburg, OH. With the workshop very much in mind, I in the sermon on Sunday morning, I sketched out some of the themes that caught my attention. Since I have a good relationship with the people at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh (where I served yesterday), I was interested to see how, okay, if, anyone would respond to the sermon.

Providentially the readings for the day (Galatians 2:16-20 and Mark 8:34-38; 9:1) were in line with the theme I developed: That God has called us all to be saints. Our becoming saints is dependent upon two graces (and here I borrow shamelessly from the Called & Gifted Workshop). First, there is the grace we receive in baptism that liberates us from the tyranny of the devil. Second, and along with the grace of redemption, God has given us gifts so that we can share in Christ's redemption of our neighbor. It is in and through our fidelity not only to the redemptive grace of baptism, but also the unique gifts given to us for the salvation of the world, that we grow in holiness. In other words, saints are Christians who are faithful to their unique calling from God.

After Liturgy I spoke with a half a dozen people who were genuinely excited about the vision I laid out in the sermon (hopefully they will follow up with an email to the Catherine of Siena Institute about participating themselves in a Called & Gifted workshop).

On the drive home I had a chance to think some about some of the pastoral implications of basing parish work in the charism that God pours out in our lives. At first blush I can imagine a parish priest taking umbrage at this suggestions since, not unreasonably, it might be inferred that this is NOT happening in our parishes. While not an unreason conclusion, this is not what I am implying--or at least not what I am implying without qualifications.

What often happens is that while we are more than willing to make use of the gifts people bring to the parish, it is not the gifts that drive our interest. If it were then we would commit ourselves to the disinterested work of helping people develop these gifts.

Instead we typically see a person's gifts in light of a "to do" list of tasks that the priest or the parish council or the "pillars of the community" see as important. More often then not these tasks are not only important, but essential to the life of the community. But when these tasks become the lens through which we see ourselves, our community and the people God brings to us, we try and fit people into pre-deterimined slots. Again, these "slots" more often then not represent real needs in the community--and that is the problem.

Our to do list very easily lends itself to becoming a "temptation of the right hand." As we grow in the spiritual life we discover with evermore clarity that the real source of temptation is our attract to lesser goods at the expense of greater goods. All too easily I can allow the real needs of the parish to be both the baseline and goal of parish ministry.

When this happens ministry, for all the evident success, remains external. Relative to what it could be at least, ministry remains superficial and does not result in the transformation of the person or the community. A task oriented approach tends to overlook the new opportunities that God is bring us in and through the gifts He has granted to members of the community. Since God's gifts to you, don't fit my pastoral agenda for the community, I simply don't notice what God is doing in your life (and by implication in mine).

Worse still, I may very well notice what God has given you to do and I actively try and marginalize, or even prevent, that work. I am tempted to do this because that work disrupts my plans for the parish. In any gathering of clergy it is not unknown to hear at least one or two priests praise someone's zeal and gifts and then in the very next breath let out a long heartfelt sigh and wish: "If only he wasn't so insistent."

Let me suggest another approach.

First we ought not to deny that there are tasks that need to be done for the parish to survive, much less grow. But rather then letting these tasks set the agenda, what if we were to ask this: "Looking at the gifts God has given us in one another, what ought we to be about?" The real resources of the parish are the gifts God has given each of us and the ministries those gifts make possible.

For example, after Liturgy yesterday I spoke to an attorney who is often asked to serve on parish council. This is hardly unreasonable, especially from a task oriented approach to parish life. But her real gift and joy is teaching church school. Here's this VERY successful attorney who is willing to serve on parish council, but who loves teaching preschool kids.

Looking simply at tasks and skill sets brings about a situation in which we ask someone to do something which they are competent in, but which brings them no real joy. And the real joy that they could have (and remember like despair, joy is infectious) is left unrealized.

By looking at tasks and skill sets not only does the community lose a joyful church school teacher, but there is yet another joyless person on parish council. Not only that, by not asking what are the gifts that God has give people, we fail to see in our midst the man or woman for whom serving on the parish would really be a joyful experience.

In my experience at least, nothing breeds resentment in a community like stifling the possibility of joyful participation and service. But in the gifts He has given each of us, God has already planted the seeds of joy in His parish. Our task, as clergy and laity, is to recognize and nurture those gifts so that joy might abound.

So I am not misunderstood let me say it again. Yes, there are tasks that must be done in the parish, the diocese, and for that matter the family, on the job, and in our personal lives. We have to work, we must be productive and effective in what we do.

But productivity and efficiency are not ends in themselves. God has brought us men and women who can be joyfully productive and efficient in the fulfilling of the tasks necessary for the life of the community. But to discover these people requires that we focus not on our own very narrow list of "jobs to be done," but rather "on the gifts God has given us" in the lives of the members of the parish.

One of the great challenges of being a sinner is that we, I, tend to want to live on the surface. I like living on the surface--I want to live according to the short list of the objectively good things I subjectively call good. This what I think the desert fathers were critical of in their condemnation of living by the senses, or being sensual, or living a life of comfort and pleasure.

I cannot, not make use of my senses, and remember Jesus restored sight to the blind. Nor can I not enjoy the good things that God has given me, since to fail to enjoy them means that I fail to see their goodness and beauty.

But what I can do, and should do, is not allow my life to be driven by the senses or pleasure. Or, to return to our theme, I can resist the temptation to live according to my own agenda as mine and instead follow God as He leads me through the people He brings into my life.

For the parish this means letting go of a task oriented approach to the life of the community and being obedient to God through the gifts He has given us.

One of the presenters at the Called & Gifted workshop, Fr Mike, O.P., writes this morning Intentional Disciples a few words in support of zealotry that are applicable here:

We can't be zealous in following Christ simply because he can help us lead a fulfilling life, or because he can help free us from attachments that screw up our priorities and make us addicted. We can be filled with zeal in following him only if we believe he is truly God incarnate, the sole Way, Truth and Life. While that zeal and full commitment might be preached differently in different cultures (and inculturation is a key point among many theologians working in non-Western cultures), the starting point is always Jesus, and not the culture [or my short list of what I think the parish needs].

I would propose that it might well be the postmodern West that will be the most opposed to the kind of zeal called for in the Scriptures, and the western consumer-oriented culture in which it might be the most difficult in which to be a passionate - and unencumbered - disciple of Jesus.
I wonder if the most Orthodox parishes, if most Orthodox Christians, can find in themselves the courage, the faith, hope, and love, needed to be as Fr Mike writes, passionate and unencumbered disciples of Jesus Christ.

The poor, meek, sorrowful, persecuted for the sake of Jesus are blessed precisely because they are not attached to things, status, and good feelings, but are attached to Jesus, for whom they willingly suffer persecution. This is a kind of zeal that is seldom found within Catholic [or Orthodox] Christianity these days. We reserve such singlemindedness to the saints.
But what if we no longer reserved singlemindness to the saints--or, and this is betterm what if we ourselves worked to become such singleminded saints?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, September 13, 2007

East, West find common ground

Catholics formally gift holy relics to Orthodox church

pico van houtryve/THE PRESS-TRIBUNE Deacon Joseph Ruocco-Brown and Father Christopher Flesoras, left, of Saint Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Roseville, listen as Metropolitan Gerasimos Michaleas of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco and Bishop William K. Weigand, of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, discuss the upcoming ceremony in which the Catholic Church formally gifted the Holy Relics of Saints Joachim and Anna, on table at left, to the Roseville parish.
The West was adorned in crimson and gold. The East wore basic black.

Between them stood 2,000 years of blessed antiquity, half of which were spent in common prayer, the latter half as two faiths traveling side-by-side on a spiritual journey, separated only by the fine lines of doctrinal dialogue and the broad path of Patriarchal versus Papal pre-eminence.

But in Sacramento on Saturday night, the Western Roman Catholic Church joined the Eastern Orthodox Church in a celebration of their common past, as Bishop William K. Weigand of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento presented Metropolitan Gerasimos Michaleas of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco the Holy Relics of Saints Joachim and Anna, the maternal grandparents of Jesus, in a ceremony at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

From there, the relics traveled to Saint Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Roseville, where on the following night, Metropolitan Gerasimos designated the local parish as a "shrine to the sanctity of marriage and family," the first of its kind in the world.

Speaking to the crowd of nearly 1,000 people in attendance Saturday evening, the Metropolitan spoke of the "youthful and vibrant parish in Roseville," where "these holy relics will sanctify this land and her people."

The Orthodox Church then presented Bishop Weigand a hand-carved icon of Jesus from Thessalonica, Greece, in recognition of the original gifting of the relics by the Catholic Church in a private ceremony ten years ago in Greece.

Bishop Weigand spoke on the importance of "bridging the division," between East and West, and referenced Pope John Paul II, who in 2004 returned the relics of St. John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory Nazianzen to the Metropolitan of Constantinople.

The magnitude of the event was not lost on the clergy in attendance, both Catholic and Orthodox alike.

"The whole weekend was a great blessing, far beyond my expectations," said Father Michael Kiernan, Pastor of Holy Family Parish in Citrus Heights. "The atmosphere was joyful and prayerful, all in the true spirit of the relationship between Orthodox and Catholic churches."

To read more: East, West find common ground

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

God Save Us From "Good Intentions"

The following is a guest post from, Chrys, one of the more frequent commentators on this blog. Chrys sent me the original privately a while ago and I encouraged him to allow me to post it here--he has finally agreed!

You may or may not agree with everything that he says, though I happen to be fundamental agreement with his analysis. As always, I would welcome your comments and/or observations. Also if anyone would like to offer a guest post, I would be edger to consider what you have to say for inclusion here.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

One of this year’s Greek Orthodox Sunday School themes is “Saving the Earth.”

It is important to recognize that stewardship is a critical element of our discipleship. In fact, I would suggest that “gardening” is actually a central motif in the Bible, emblematic of our calling to serve God in the cultivation of and care for the earth. (Indeed, it may be for this reason that Jesus is mistaken for the gardener after His resurrection.)

Even so, the focus is egregiously misplaced. I would argue that – especially for children – it is more important to focus on those basic resources that they MUST always use (their time, energies and bodies) rather than those that they can not yet (and may never directly) use – “the earth’s resources.”

Worse, by reducing stewardship to "saving the earth" – especially in this political climate and for those who can have little to do with the actual use of it – the Church ignores the foundational components of true stewardship in the service of what strikes me as little more than propaganda.

This strikes a particularly sore point with me. It appears to be the case of the Church once again abandoning its critical role in the transfiguration of the Universe (!) for the sake of a misbegotten, self-congratulatory and all-too-passing trend. Misplaced priorities are to expected from the confused, the insecure and the foolish -- but not from the Church, which has been given a truly cosmic role to play.

Beyond the abandonment of the ultimate for the transitory, the clergy commit other errors. This is inevitable whenever anyone speaks outside of their area of expertise – a folly apparently not reserved to Hollywood. In this case, those who are (rarely) schooled in the environmental sciences and lacking an informed, critical appreciation of the problem merely assuming the popular and oh-so-political posture on the nature and causes of the issue. Regarding Climate Change, for instance, the science is far from settled; the models, methods and equipment are all still inadequate to the complexity of the task. At best, we see as through a glass darkly. Since a meaningful solution depends upon an accurate diagnosis of the problem, it is presumptuous (at best) to begin to apply the certitudes of moral suasion to such tentative concerns.

Worse by far are the economic admonishments. While most of our understanding of the environment may not exceed popular assumptions, ignorance of simple economics is difficult to excuse. Take, for instance, the oft-repeated belief that America “consumes” a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources. While this is true, it is true in the same sense that Satan was correct in his quotation of Scripture to Jesus in the desert. It is a conveniently truncated fact bereft of the context that reveals its meaning. America "consumes" resources . . . in order to “produce” a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. We aren’t just “eating” resources, we are using them to “make” something of value.

If our enlightened anointed would even briefly review history, they would discover that free exchange within a reasonably well-regulated market has produced a boon to mankind - quite apart from the intentions of the participants. (This, by the way, is the real meaning of Adam Smith's "invisible hand.") It was Ford who made transportation available to the masses – which allowed city streets to be rid of the stench and filth left by that other popular form of transportation: horses. It was Rockefeller and what became Standard Oil that made cheap oil available so the poor could affordably heat their homes. Not only did this prevent the poor from freezing, but it also saved the whales from extinction since it was their oil that had been the primary source of heat prior to kerosene. It was Edison and what became General Electric that made reliable, safe lighting available to all. It was Carnegie and what became U.S. Steel that made that remarkably strong and flexible material cheap enough to build the buildings in which we worked. The wealth of these “robber barons” was not bequeathed through the luck of happy parentage – it was earned by providing exceptional value to so many people.

Consider our tribal ancestors. As P.J. O’Rourke noted, the basket maker could not kill his meat very well with his baskets. The spear maker could not carry his meat well with his spears. When each is free to exchange what he has for something he values more, ALL are made richer, made more productive and are thus better able to meet his families' needs. It is not a zero-sum game. By rewarding those who offer the greatest value to their neighbors – that is, by blessing their neighbors in the way the neighbors actually need and want, all are blessed. In this way the market actually creates wealth. By structuring the world in such a way that man can bless himself and his family only by blessing his neighbor, God has devised the perfect system to teach even those with dim moral lights how they should behave. Adam Smith saw this in 1776. Incredibly enough, most of our “educated” leaders remain blind to it still.

Indeed, our moral betters would tell us that this is not so because it is not perfectly so. (The requirement of perfection is a curious standard since perfection can be found nowhere; it does, however, permit the user to universally "justify" his intervention.) They tell us that it is they who care more for the earth and its limited resources. Self-regard aside, what have they actually done? Do they, in fact, care more? I would argue that they have confused intentions with effects. In its ultimate form, the result is self-flattery bordering on delusion.

For example, who REALLY cares more about the state of the world’s forests - the academics or the paper mills? If all the trees are destroyed, the mills are out of work. Not surprisingly the Paper Companies pour millions into the cultivation and maintenance of the forests. By focus and practice, they are the real experts. Do they have an agenda? Certainly: the perpetual profitability of their business. Does the "disinterested" academic have agenda? Certainly: the identification of a need or crisis or novel understanding upon which to justify and built his career. The academic, who has no "skin in the game," may be completely wrong, but his career will be over and done before the damage is felt. The company, on the other hand, is designed to exist beyond that and must live with the consequences. The livelihoods of all involved in the company depend upon a healthy outcome.

We see this everyday on the “street” level. The neighborhoods that are well cared for are privately owned. If you want to see wanton destruction of property, visit a government housing project or a college dorm. If one receives no meaningful value from the improvement of a thing or incurs no meaningful cost to maintain it, there is little incentive to expend the energy needed to be "care-full" with it. Thomas Merton pointed to the monastery bicycle as the perfect example of “un-invested” neglect.

Yet enlightened elite flatter themselves for their good intentions while judging harshly others whose motives may not match their own. Experience exposes the emptiness of this posture. Whenever people become sufficiently concerned about their environment that they are willing to actually pay for it, there are myriad enterprises willing and able to use their ingenuity to create solutions – whether that involves “green” buildings, fuel-efficient planes (Boeing), reclaiming a strip mine or simply reclaiming a front lawn. Creative, entrepreneurial energies do far, far more to provide real, meaningful solutions than the best intentions of the next “live aid” concert with its massive carbon footprint.

On a purely practical level, then, I am irritated by clergy who major in motives but ignore effects. (Somehow I do not think this would pass muster when it comes time to raise money to pay the Church’s bills.) I am troubled by clergy who focus on matters for which they are ill-equipped. But the offense that is especially egregious arises when these same clergy abandon their great gift and high calling to grasp at momentary "relevance." For IF I am a Christian pastor, then I should know that the REAL cause of global destruction is not a particular market, economic system or cultural phenomenon. I should know that the REAL solution is not a series of “green” behaviors. As simply a “mere” Christian, I should know that the REAL cause of environmental distress is . . . sin. If I claim any theological insight into life at all, I should understand that the "root cause" of these recurring concerns (whatever the form of the crisis “du jour”) is really sin. It astounds me that those who would claim the right to lead the faithful could be unaware of this – all the more so since it takes real effort to miss (or avoid) what Scripture clearly says:

"For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God's children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the first fruits —we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:20-23)

Had they taken their calling as Christians more seriously, our "leaders" would see that the real cause of the “corruption” of the earth lies in sin and the real solution depends upon holiness – which is, in fact, (or so I am told) within their proper area of expertise!

If only more Christians – especially clergy – would simply be more “Christian” in their analysis of issues of the moment. By stooping to popular political agendas (for which they are very poorly qualified), by trying to be “relevant,” they trade their glorious inheritance for a mess of pottage. Since, as Oscar Wilde put it, they “can resist everything except temptation,” it appears that my children may learn how to "save the earth" but not themselves. I would rather that they learn how to save themselves and then, as St. Seraphim said, thousands around them will be saved. Indeed, the cosmos will be saved if St. Maximos is correct. Presumably this includes the earth.

Some Greek Orthodox links on the environment:

Our Faith: Environment

Ecological activities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Memorium: September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001 my wife and I were living in Redding, CA.

That morning as I was getting ready to start my day, my phone rang and one of my parishioners, Chris Pearson, was on the other end. He told me to turn on the news because a plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I turned on the t.v. just in time to see the second plane crash.

I had a psychology class to teach that Thursday morning so, after calling my wife who was at a conference in San Diego to make sure she was alright (because all air travel was canceled, she would have to stay there for several days), I went off to the college.

As I recall, people were understandably upset, angry and confused. Mostly though folks were scared. The president of the college canceled classes for the day but asked the faculty to go to our classrooms and lecture halls to be there for the students.

Like the faculty and staff, many of my students were upset--some scared. But mostly they were angry. A number of students had seen early news reports from the Middle East. In the video they saw people dancing in the streets and firing guns into the air to celebrate the attack on the U.S.

At this point it wasn't clear who had launched the attack--the reports of the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 were just coming in--but some of the students (correctly it turned out) blamed Islamic terrorists. For my own part, I urged caution in the lack of evidence and reminded the students that the Oklahoma bombing had been perpetrated by an American.

In all my years of teaching this was the first, and only, time students dropped my class after the first week. I lost a fair number of students that week.

After class I again called my wife in San Diego to see how she was doing. While scared, she and her colleagues were safe (for those who aren't aware, San Diego has a number of military bases that might very well have been targets had this been the start of a conventional war).

Over the next few hours and days, I kept a lonely vigil in my church. I said Trisagion services for those who lost their lives in the attacks and asked God to bring peace.

While the events of that day were horrible, we later learned that they were less horrible then we all initially feared.

Again and again on that day people asked me what I thought about what we were hearing on the news. And every time I said the same thing, I have no frame of reference for this many deaths (the early reports put the death toll at over 5,000) killed in this way.

It happened that on 9/11 I was in the process of writing an essay for the local newspaper the following week (though it ended up not appearing until October 6th). Looking back on what I wrote, I am less then impressed with my attempts at being even handed, it feels now to me like well-intentioned, but nevertheless an inappropriate example of moral equivalence.

Mechanically, the essay is also unimpressive; my syntax isn't very good, my analysis and argument are weak. I'm not really sure what, if anything, was the point I was trying to make beyond the fact that now that war had come to us we need to pursue justice, but avoid revenge. How that was to be done is totally absent from the piece.

My essay ended in this way:

I think that war in some form or another is now tragically unavoidable. As is best in our character as Americans, we have chosen not to allow the forces of chaos, violence and terror to prevail. To combat evil we have chosen to place ourselves between the terrorists and their future victims. We ought not to debase the sacrifice that many of us will make with warmongering cries for a justice untempered with mercy. If we wish to be a Christian nation, "let us seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14); let us temper our desire for justice with mercy, "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13); and let us find it within ourselves to forgive our enemies, as Christ forgave us even as we crucified him (see Luke 23:34).
To be honest, I'm not sure if what I wrote, I wrote out of conviction or duty. Probably it was some combination. Do I believe now what I wrote then? Yes, but I hope I could say it better and with a bit more humility or at least less pretense.

Thinking about the events of 9/11 and how they have subsequent unfolded, I am frankly divided about the morality and prudence of the whole range of responses, American, European, Middle Eastern; Republican and Democratic; Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular.

I think the best response to this, and possibly any, war is offered to us by Abraham Lincoln at the conclusion of his Second Inaugural Address (Saturday, March 4, 1865)
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
May God grant eternal memory to all who have lost their lives in this, and all, wars.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory