Monday, August 17, 2015

The Further Adventures of Kenya Driver

Driving on roads in Kenya is sort of like visiting an amusement park in the US before OSHA started suggesting that safety might need to be a significant factor in one’s overall experience.  I remember watching a driver’s ed film when I was 14 on ‘Potential Hazards’ one might encounter when one is behind the wheel.  The film depicted a calm drive (could not have been at more than 15 mph) down a leafy suburban street.  We were supposed to identify the potential hazards, and then be on the alert in case it becomes an ‘actual hazard’.   The car pulling out of the driveway in front of us.  The ball bouncing into the road followed by the boy.  The dog careening full speed from between two parked cars.  The car stopped in the middle of the road with no flashing lights.  You get the picture.

Such fun!

Perfectly safe.

This past Sunday I made the drive from Kitale to Nairobi, a 400 km journey.  I can now definitively say that everything about this trip falls into the useful category of potential hazards, with not a few of them veering (sometimes literally) into the classification of actual hazard, not to mention being quite the excitement to experience.

Ignore Machakos for the time being.

Kitale is a growing regional center of about 120,000 souls.  And I have determined that there is at least a one-to-one correspondence between the number of ‘pikipikis’ (small motorbikes) and number of otherwise innocent civilians that make up greater Kitale.  People use pikipikis all the time, because they are small, don’t have to stay in traffic lanes (as required by the rest of us mortals), can weave in and out of traffic and generally drop their passengers off at their destination much more quickly (and cheaply) than if one had driven there (which is not an option for most) or taken a matatu (a barely tolerated necessary evil) or walked (which many do anyway).  But it is the very rare pikipiki operator who one ever sees wearing a helmet.  Sometimes they have a helmet, but it is dangling from the handlebar (I was told it was for the passengers, or to have on hand for the ‘police checks’, aka opportunities for revenue collection).  Even though Kenya has one of the worst highway traffic fatality rates in the world, and even though motorcycles are already the most dangerous way to get around, and though there are thousands of pikipikis swarming down the streets of Kenya’s towns and cities, Kenya drivers are for some reason perpetually shocked to find that there was an unnoticed pikipiki precisely where they intended their car to go. One begins to see that whatever the short-term gains may be for owning one or riding one, the long-term numbers are not necessarily in one’s favor.

Kitale pikipiki drivers fueling up to better serve you.

So I left Kitale having to negotiate a dusty two lane road choked with traffic moving in every conceivable direction, and sometimes even forward.  Plus the excitement of having pikipikis coming at me from said multiple directions.  We were all going the speed of a human-propelled push cart.  The reason I know is that because twenty cars ahead of me (with pikipikis rushing by within arms-length on both sides of my car) was the very man and his push-cart, oblivious to the fact that he was doing a fantastic job of controlling the traffic flow on Kitale’s busiest street.  Of course the slowness of our advance invited others to take advantage of the opportunity to get to the other side, including smartly-dressed businessmen, traditionally-built market ladies, worker boys carrying sacks of cement or potatoes, and even chickens (I was too distracted to ask why…).

We eventually broke free of Kitale.  The reason I could tell is that the number of speed bumps in the road dwindled, allowing one to drive more than 50 meters before one had to ascend and then descend some construction company’s idea of speed control.  I would love to say that at this point, we could sail on to the next community (and their own clutch of speed bumps) at speed, but at this point the road had descended into a state of random disrepair.  Which means that at any point the road had disintegrated into a series of potholes.  In the community from which I just came in the US, a ‘pot hole’ consisted of the top layer of asphalt cracking and then turning into a slight bump as one drives from one layer to the next.  At which point a concerned citizen would call and the pothole repair crew would come and apply their patch.

In Kenya, if only. Many potholes are actually entrances into the abyss, or wormholes into alternative universes.  One doesn’t drive over Kenyan potholes, one drives into them, and then back out.  Also, most of the time, Kenyan potholes come unannounced, like an unwelcome guest at dinner time.  On some stretches of road, it’s so bad that you can watch five or six cars ahead of you weave all over the road like drunken drivers as they avoid car-destroying engagements with what appears to be a crater-pocked lunar landscape otherwise passing itself off as ‘the road’.  Happily, I didn’t encounter a road like that on this trip, but the potholes were not few and appeared without warning.

I did pass by several construction sites.  The reason I knew was because there were men working with big machines and the road was a total mess, or a small solitary sign announced ‘Diversion’ and pointed that way.  Back in the US, road construction projects are announced differently.  For at least a mile before anything happens, orange and white cones or barrels sprout like a plague of mushrooms at predetermined distances apart, being our first clue that we might be asked to do something unexpected up ahead.  Then comes flashing signs, more orange and white cones, reduced speed signs, flashing arrows, and then yet even more traffic cones to move us out of this lane into that lane.  And then even more signs warning us that traffic fines are doubled in a work zone.  And then one comes to the actual work site and discovers a crew repainting lines on the road, or cutting the grass off the road.  I appreciate the emphasis on safety in our country.  But just imagine a place where no orange and white cones exist, where no flashing lights get our attention, where no warning whatsoever may be forthcoming as you come to a place where the old bridge is out and the new bridge is still under construction.  Welcome to Kenya!  Even on the major four lane highway through the outskirts of the capital, should a road crew cut out the area around a very deep pothole making it even deeper and bigger (and then for reasons unexplained just leave the resulting yawing cavern unfilled and unmarked for days, even weeks on end!), there is no flock of orange cones, no sign warning of impending apocalypse, nothing on the road at all to suggest that there is a very deep hole right in front of you as you and everyone else blast by at 100 kph.  A friend of mine hit such a hole in such a place at just such a speed, resulting in the total obliteration of his tire.  He was lucky that he and his family were not killed.

We eventually got to the city of Eldoret.  Eldoret is the fastest growing city in East Africa, and has about 230,000 folks in it.  Unfortunately for us and for everybody else, it still has the same road infrastructure as it had in the 1980s.  That means the main and only road running through Eldoret is functionally two lanes.  That means it only takes one person wanting to make a turn across traffic to cause a first class traffic jam.  For some reason, there were scores of people wanting to make this maneuver when we were there.  So it becomes a highstakes scrum between huge lorries, jaded car drivers, heartless or brainless matatu drivers (or both), and pikipiki drivers, creating a rather miasmic effect.  Heaven forbid one has a pre-existing blood pressure issue on a trip like this.

Eldoret.  What more need I say?

Somehow we endured Eldoret.  We were making relatively good progress about 150 kph into our trip when we heard the unfortunate and alarming sound of something metal scraping underneath and behind us.  We pulled off the road and discovered that our tail pipe was hanging by a shred of metal.  After determining that the muffler was otherwise ok and nothing else was about to fall off or apart, we pulled the tailpipe off and tossed it into the back to deal with later, and continued our journey.  Kenya roads are not just hard on drivers, they are hard on cars, too.

From previous trips I was hoping to encounter again the most interesting road phenomena that I have ever come across as one skirts the western edge of the escapement of the Great Rift Valley.  There is a place along the road where exists, evidently, a geological hot spot, produced by magma coming relatively close to the earth’s surface.  As a result, the temperature of the road occasionally gets so hot that the pavement actually melts, creating ripples in the road that are quite exiting to drive across.  I looked in vain for this section, but we never came across it.

However, we did make are way down the escarpment and into the valley floor as we travelled to Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya (350,000 or so people), and the place where I spent my first summer in Kenya as a short term missionary back in 1980.  Needless to say, Nakuru has changed, not least in the number of pikipikis.  We stopped at a shopping mall (!) and ordered a hamburger and fries (!!) for a late lunch and then carried on our way across the Rift Valley, past Lake Elementaita, Lake Naivasha, through a wildlife conservancy where zebra and gazelle were grazing by the road.  It was lovely.  Except for the lorries (Kenyan/British for trucks).  I have yet to figure out why, but for some reason lorries in Kenya seem to be predestined by God to travel at a speed of absolutely no higher than 45 kph and usually less when going up hill, which seems most of the time.  And for some reason, the smaller the lorry, the slower it must go.  This is an interesting fact when studied in isolation.  But when one is driving the only road between Nakuru and Nairobi, and when the only road is two lanes, and when only occasionally will there be provided a climbing lane (extra lane when climbing up hills), this part of the trip descends into nightmare territory.  Behind every lorry there may be twenty or more cars all wishing they were going at least twice as fast.  But there are an equal number of vehicles coming from the other direction and in the same predicament.  It’s at this point that I can personally attest that otherwise sane people lose their minds.  There is no etiquette that says the person behind the lorry passes next.  It’s everybody out for himself or herself.  In order to get around said truck, the moment there’s a break in the oncoming traffic every car behind it leaps into the passing lane and then attempts to get around.  All well and good in hypothetical situations.  But in this case, oncoming traffic nearly obliterated a number of cars that took a chance when perhaps the driver might have been better advised to wait till next time.  But no.  This cycle repeated itself upwards of fifty times.  By then, my body had quit responding to adrenaline.

Slow lorry lumbering on left.  Petrol lorry passing in middle.  Big bus passing on right off road.
Just think about it.

On the way to drop my friend off, I encountered my final potential hazard.  Many Kenyan drivers are just like me, we are reasonable people who have good driving skills and we want only to arrive safely at our destination.  And then there are the few who are in danger of being on the wrong side of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest.  I encountered one such man who was driving so aggressively that I was forced by his aggressive driving to hit a canyon of a pothole stretched across my side of the role.  He went on to be a menace to several other drivers.  Fortunately my tank of a car emerged in one piece (having already removed my tailpipe!).  But it just reminded me that one can be almost home and then an unexpected potential hazard emerge to become an actual hazard in the snap of a finger.

Must be from the UK.  Everything would have been squashed by now if this were here.

Every time I get into a car, I pray, ‘Lord, protect them from me, and protect me from them.’  Who needs Hollywood action films, video games or amusement parks (OSHA protected or not), when one can sit in the driver’s seat in Kenya.  Or hop on the back of a passing pikipiki.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

So It Ends; Thus It Begins

Christ is in our midst!

I get up to make myself a cup of hot tea as I ponder what to write in my prayer letter that can help you and my other friends back home understand something of my new life as a missionary in Kenya. And then I put on a jacket over my flannel shirt as I sit in my room at my computer because it’s cold here. Because this is just what Nairobi is like in early August.

Chai and Chapati - it doesn't get much better than this!

I take a friend home from church and I find myself driving on beautiful new roads past kilometer after kilometer of well-to-do high rise flats whose occupants may be paying $1500/month in rent; and I stop at the ‘Nakumatt’ on the way home and find myself overwhelmed in the middle of a retail jungle every bit as immense as a Super-Walmart, crowded with middle-class Kenyans paying for shopping-carts-full of stuff with their credit cards.  This, too, is just what Nairobi is like.

I venture out in my purple 1995 Toyota Rav 4 and am immediately embroiled in a hair-raising traffic scrum with amoral matatus (minivans that hold ‘14’ passengers and are the primary/only way those without a vehicle get from one place to another in the city) and buses competing to subvert every known traffic law in order to get around/over/under or even pass through whatever is in their way, and when they do they immediately stop in front of you (no signal or brake lights, of course) so as to block everyone until their hapless passenger gets off.  One of these on the road is a menace, but a whole traffic jam of them is a total maelstrom.  This is just the way things are in Nairobi.

cartoon by Chris Freeman

I find myself in the ‘home’ of a man who works as a gardener (as I did not so long ago).  Only his home, a relatively short walk from where I live, is made of tin walls and a tin roof and is maybe 10’x10’.    For this room he pays $25/month.  He can’t afford a place with two rooms, because he simply doesn’t have the $50/month it would cost.  In this room he lives with his wife and their 8 year old daughter and their 4 year old son.  The room is divided in two by a sheet.  The daughter sleeps at night on a small sofa.  The boy sleeps on two chairs pushed together.  Mom and dad sleep on a small bed on the other side of the sheet.  In this room the children play, the daughter does her homework, the parents entertain guests and the mom cooks meals, although sometimes there is hardly anything so parents go without so the children can have a little something, because there is no money left to buy good.  The father has gone several months without pay because the organization he works for has no money.  While I was visiting, the man offered me orange squash and biscuits, and would have cooked up some eggs for me if I hadn’t stopped him.  And though by Western standards he is a poor man and lives in a slum, yet even in his poverty he joyfully offered hospitality to his guest.  This, too, is what one finds when one comes to Nairobi, where great poverty and great generosity often go hand in hand.

Not my friend's room, but his is about this big, only not as nice.

But I should add a further point of detail.  The gardener who lives in the tiny room with his family in the Nairobi slum is also an Orthodox priest.  The Orthodox Church in Kenya has always been poor, but the economic troubles in Greece and Cyprus, from where much of the funding for the Archdiocese in Kenya has come in the past, has put many priests and students and parishes and projects into very difficult straights.  It is true that these troubles are serving to move the Church here to think anew about stewardship and take responsibility for its own finances.  But a culture does not transform instantaneously, and necessary changes are incremental and painfully slow.  In the meantime, many people, like my friend who is serving an impoverished parish in the rural areas about 20 miles from here, are suffering.  In the midst of a Church that has come such a long way and has such potential, there is also profound need, and a poverty that threatens to blight any future growth before it can happen.

My old friend, Fr. John, at Orthros/Matins this past Sunday

On the other hand, when I drove through the gates of St. Paul’s University last week on my first visit upon returning, I could hardly recognize the place.  The University has somehow raised a huge amount of money and used it to improve in a massive way its infrastructure and teaching capacity.  I wandered through six new buildings – a new Student Center (with a cafĂ©, a gym, and a large auditorium among other things), a Post-Graduate Center (where I will be teaching many of my classes), a new administration building (enabling the library to take over all of the building it previously shared with admin), a conference center and hostel, two women’s dormitories.  But in the new offices I found old friends, my colleagues and supervisors from when I served as a Senior Lecturer here before.  And they were pleased to see me, too!  So pleased that they immediately gave me a Church History survey course to teach at the extension site in the Kenyan town of Kitale next week (August 10-15) and then a Masters-level course on the History of Monasticism back in Limuru at the main campus for the August 17-28 module!  So I guess I’m not the front desk guy at the YMCA anymore.   There are between 4000-5000 students at St. Paul’s, crowding our two main campuses here in Limuru and downtown Nairobi, as well as at extension sites such as in Kitale. This, too, is the Kenya I’ve come back to, crowded with young men and women who see education as the way to enable their dreams of bettering themselves to become a reality.

I ate lunch at the top floor cafe here just yesterday.

So it’s been a month of transition, saying farewell to my parish and friends, to my Linnea and her William, and my Caroline and her Will, to parents and siblings, as well as the rush to divest myself of everything that wouldn’t fit into three suitcases.  And then of my arrival back in Kenya, into my new room at the Orthodox seminary, and seeing so many old friends and already blessed with wonderful new friends.  These first two weeks I’ve been able to reorient myself and get a few things to help make my four walls feel more like home.  So I enlisted a local carpenter to make a couple of bookcases and I found a rug on sale and after much internal debate broke down and bought the floor lamp that gives light to both my desk and reading chair.

Home Sweet Home!  The exciting rug was marked way down :-). 
My work space (aka the other half of the room)

God is good.  And you have made it all possible with your prayers, with your encouragement, with your financial support.  I am grateful.

And now the real work begins.  I covet your partnership with me in prayer.  And here are some things you can pray for.

Altar boys during the procession at the consecration I attended two Sundays ago

First, praise God with me!  He opened doors I thought were shut.  He brought me to OCMC and led them to accept me as one of their missionaries.  He moved the hearts of many men and women to provide the funding that makes all this possible.  And He provided a place for me to live and serve here in Kenya under His Eminence Makarios and at St. Paul’s University.  This is like a dream.  I cannot thank God, and you, enough.

His Eminence has consecrated more than 150 Churches in Kenya, unprecedented for a modern bishop.

Secondly, pray that I might pull this Church History course together this week, and that my colleagues and I might travel safely to Kitale and back, and that we would have the energy to teach what will be a lot of content to these undergraduate students.  Pray that I would be an effective instructor for my students, both in Kitale, and also in my Masters-level class the following weeks.

Another new friend, and my next door neighbor at the Seminary, Fr. Athanasios

Thirdly, pray that I would be a friend and a servant among my colleagues here at the seminary.  Classes here won’t start until late September or October, so I have some time to be intentional about relationships.

Speaking of answered prayer, here I am with Fr. Evangelos and my car, the day after my arrival, for those who know the story.

Lastly, I already preached at my home Church, Sts. Anargyroi¸ this past Sunday; and I was welcomed back into my old choir.  I will likely be given more opportunities to preach in the coming weeks in surrounding parishes.  Pray that I would be a good steward of every chance I have to expound the Word of God, and that I might be used by God to encourage and edify His people.

Back with the chanters/Readers at Sts. Anargyroi this past Sunday.

I am on Facebook and I will be posting pictures of things that are going on.  You can find me as ‘Joseph William Black’.  I’ll be happy to be your ‘friend’.  I also have a blog called ‘Onesimus’ where I post brief articles and sermons, including my farewell homily at St. Nicholas and my homily this past Sunday at Sts. Anargyroi.  You can find it at . And as always, if you want to partner with me financially and become a monthly supporter of this ministry, you can do so online by going to my page on the OCMC website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom:

May you know God’s peace as you trust Him more and more and become His blessing to those around you.

By grace,


PS. Here are some more pictures from a very eventful month:

I said farewell to my home parish, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church near Charlottesville, VA.  Fr. Robert led a commissioning service for me after Liturgy.

And I said farewell to my friends.  And to my family.
My daughter Linnea treated me to lunch as I was on my way to the airport.

And this is from the reception celebrating my daughter Caroline's marriage 
to her husband Will in May.

I miss my girls to pieces.  But I have left them in good hands.

Once in Kenya, things just happened.  The Archbishop was invited by several Churches to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of his consecration as a bishop, and he invited me to come along.

And then there was the consecration at Sts. Rafael, Nicholas and Irene Orthodox Church in Thogoto.

And then this past Sunday, Fr. John asked me to preach during the Liturgy at Sts. Anargyroi.  The sermon I preached is posted below on this blog - 'When Walking on Water'.  I'm back in the land of 12 minute homilies, so it's not very long :-)!

So a lot has happened!  My future updates won't be this long.  But I thought you might want to see how things were going and how God is answering your prayers in some wonderful ways!


Dr. Joseph William Black
Nairobi, Kenya

Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(877) GO FORTH (463-6784)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

When Walking on Water

A sermon preached at Sts. Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral 
in Nairobi, Kenya on Sunday, August 2, 2015.

Matthew 14:22-34
22Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.  23And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.  Now when evening came, He was alone there.  24But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
25Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.  26And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid.”
28And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”
29So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.  30But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out saying, “Lord, save me!”
31And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  32And when they got into the boat the wind ceased.
33Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”
34When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus had called each one of his disciples to come and follow him.  And they had left their homes and their families and their businesses and their lives – there was something about Jesus: his teaching, the miracles he was doing, his authority over evil spirits, the way he opened wide his arms to people others considered to be ‘sinners’, his ability to heal the lepers and make the blind to see and enable the paralyzed to walk and even raise the dead to life – something about Jesus that enabled each of these men to take that step and leave their lives behind and give themselves instead to Jesus. They enrolled in Jesus’ school, they became his students, his followers, his disciples.   And here in the Gospel passage we just heard read, they have just seen Jesus break a few loaves and divide a few fish and from that handful feed the biggest crowd of people they had seen, more than 5000 souls who had followed Jesus hoping to hear what he was teaching, hoping maybe to see a miracle.  And when everyone had eaten, the disciples had each been given a basket and told to collect the leftovers, which gave them plenty of time to think about what they had just experienced.  Can you imagine?  Twelve baskets full of leftovers, and all from a little boy’s lunch.

Darkness is falling and Jesus dismisses the crowd and he tells the twelve to get into the boat and row across the lake back to Capernaum.  He stays behind because he wants to pray.  So Jesus goes up the escarpment that surrounds the Lake of Galilee.  And the twelve go down to the boat to begin their journey.  It’s not that far, five or six miles.  Not a few of them are fishermen.  This is their lake.  They know what to do with a boat.  This is, as we say today, a piece of cake.  Jesus has finally given us something we can do.

So they climb on board, put up the sail and shove off.  As darkness falls, they are making good time.  And then the wind picks up and starts to blow.  And then it really starts to blow.  And they have to take down the sail.  And the waves are getting big.  And they have to start rowing to keep the boat into the wind so it doesn’t get swamped.  And it’s a struggle.  And they remember the other time they were all in a storm, and Jesus was with them, but he was asleep.  And they had to wake him up and he spoke to the wind and to the waves and they became still.  But this time Jesus isn’t with them.  They are alone.  And the storm keeps blowing, and it just goes on and on.  The minutes turn into hours and it seems like they had been fighting this storm forever.  When suddenly, coming behind them, it looks like a light.  But no it looks like a person.  But that person is walking, he is walking on the waves.  And because people simply don’t walk on the water, the only other explanation is that it must be some kind of spirit.  And they are terrified and start rowing harder.

But then a voice shouts out to them.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s me.  Don’t be afraid.’  They all know that voice; it’s the voice of Jesus.  That’s Jesus! He’s walking on the waves straight towards them.  And Peter shouts back, ‘Lord, if it’s you, give the word and I will come to you on the waves.’  ‘Come on,’ says Jesus.  And almost without thinking, Peter lets himself over the side of the boat and starts walking to Jesus.  But then Peter remembers that this is a lake, and these are waves and this wind is very strong and he becomes afraid and looks away from Jesus and realizes that he is standing in the middle of the Lake of Galilee.  And he starts to go down.  But Jesus comes and grabs his arm and pulls him up and together they walk to the boat and get in.  And as soon as they get in, the storm and the waves and wind vanishes.  And it is calm.  And they are scraping the bottom on the shore at Capernaum. 

Once again Jesus has exploded their categories.  They do not know what to do with him.  What they do know is that they are in the presence of much more than just a man.  Because this man, this Jesus, keeps doing things only the God of Israel can do.  And Matthew the tax collector, who was in that boat with the rest of them, says they worshiped him.

The Fathers and the Church after them have always found this passage to be talking about the boat of the Church in the stormy sea of this world.  But there is a more basic, more fundamental issue going on here.  Because this passage first of all is telling the story of something that really happened.  And Jesus is concerned most of all that his disciples learn something about him.  If all the disciples had was a boat and oars and a sail and their own effort then they might rightly despair.  But Jesus comes and he saves them, he delivers them from the storm, he plucks Peter out of the abyss, he calms the waves and the winds, he brings them safely home.  And we can draw a direct line from there to here.  If all we have is a church building, and a liturgy, and some candles and vestments, if all we have is some singing and some bread and wine, then as the Apostle Paul says, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins, and death will be the end, and we are to be most pitied above all people because we are believing a lie and there is no reality behind anything that we are doing this morning (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).  But Christ Jesus has risen from the dead, and Christ Himself is in our midst, and he is here speaking to you and me right now, and he is feeding us with himself, and he calling us to be in a relationship with him, calling us by name to trust him and to follow him, stretching out his hands to touch us and heal us, meeting our repentance with his forgiveness, transforming everything we give to him into something he can use for good and for love and for blessing.  And so as Jesus comes to us, even in the storm, he shows us more of who he is, and calls us to respond, to trust, even to get out and walk to him.
But St. John Chrysostom reminds us that there is even more going on in this passage.  St. John reminds us that Jesus is not just in the background reacting to his disciples’ distress. But he is allowing this storm to happen to teach them about both him and themselves:

In midsea he permits the storm to arise.  This was all for their training, that they might not look for some easy hope of preservation from any earthly source.  He then allows them to be tossed by the storm all night!  This had the purpose of awakening their stony hearts in a most complete way.  This is how Jesus dealt with the nature of the fear, which the rough weather and the timing had produced.  He cast them directly into a situation in which they would have a greater longing for him and a continual remembrance of him. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50:1/PG 58:504-505/NPNF 1, 10:310)

Are you struggling right now?  Are you in a situation that is about to overwhelm you?  Are you in the middle of a stormy sea, lashed by wind and rain?  Did you, like Peter, respond to the Lord’s call to come to him, to follow him, and now you find yourself standing in the middle of a lake, afraid and sinking and going down? 

It’s been 26 months since I’ve stood here before you.  And I can say that they have been the most difficult, most painful, most challenging months of my entire life.  The wind was blowing and the waves were really rough before I left, but it just kept getting worse and worse and I thought I would never be able to come back.  And I know that I am not the only one who has been struggling, who has been afraid, who has felt lost or abandoned.  Many of us have been in a storm.  Many of us are still in the midst of it.  But I want you to notice this and take it home with you, it’s at this point, in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the darkness and the pain, it’s right here that Jesus comes, walking on the waves, straight towards us.  And he knows you are weary and afraid.  But he calls out to you over the gale, ‘Come!  Come to me!  Come to where I am!’  And many of us have heard Jesus calling us.  Many of us have climbed down from the boat.  Many of us are walking on the water.  But like Peter, it’s all too much.  The winds, the waves, the abyss below, the darkness around.   And we are afraid and we start to sink.  But I am here to say to you that the Lord Jesus who has called you will not let you sink.  He is here, he is grabbing you by the arm as you go down.  He is lifting you up to himself.  Together you are going back to the boat.  Together he is taking you home.

There is so much good news here.  Can you hear it?  Jesus is saving me from the storm.  And we see in our passage, that he can save you as well.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Joy and the Grief

In so much of life, especially as one gets older, the joy is entwined with the grief, happiness with pain, contentment with sadness.  It’s all there, with circumstances, memories, thoughts, places, even smells, calling forth one wave of the heart’s unvoiced cry after another, like an unruly sea.

Today is such a day.  It’s my Nameday, the feastday of the saint for whom I was named at my baptism.  I am named after St. Joseph of Arimathea, whom John the Apostle calls a ‘hidden disciple’.  He was a member of the Jewish council.  At some point he heard of Jesus.  At some point he went himself to hear Jesus.  At some point he may have even met Jesus and talked with him.  The record is spare.  What we do know is that on the day that the Romans crucified our Lord, Joseph was there.  He watched our Lord on the cross.  And when Jesus breathed his last and died, Joseph went to the Roman governor Pilate and asked for the body.  It was Joseph who oversaw bringing our Lord down from the cross, removing the nails, washing his body, and wrapping our Lord’s body in a shroud.  It was Joseph who gave for our Lord’s final resting place a tomb that he had bought for his own use.  There are several hymns we sing about Joseph during Holy Week and Great and Holy Friday and Saturday.  Joseph is significant to me because at great personal risk, once he understood who Jesus was, he gave himself to serving his Lord.  Even when it meant presiding over Jesus’ funeral.  Even when it meant doing so in full view of his colleagues and the governing authorities.

I am grateful for my Presbyterian upbringing and for the fathers, mothers and friends who introduced me to Christ and helped me early on walk the path into Christian life and ministry, but I was for fourteen years also a hidden disciple of the Orthodox Church.  Compelled by what I was learning about ancient Christianity and afraid of what it would cost if I followed through on my heart’s desire and converted, I lived in a kind of spiritual halfway house until it was made clear to me that I was being called into the Church, and that yes, it would be costly, but that following Christ regardless of the cost was the essence of one’s response to the Gospel.  I have no regrets, with respect to becoming Orthodox, that is.  I have plenty of regrets when it comes to my not recognizing soon enough the damage my self-centeredness was inflicting on those around me.  I made choices to handle my besetting sins in a way that hindsight reveals as wrong.  All these I wish I could undo, but in reality I can now only ask for mercy and for forgiveness.  After years of internal conflict and brokenness and increasing relational confusion, and of being in a religious context that seemed to me to provide no good way out, I have found in the Church a safe place where my soul can begin to heal.  The deeper I go, the further I walk, the more profound my need for healing is becoming to me.  It’s a journey, a process.  And I feel I have only begun.  I’m grateful to St. Joseph for the glimpse he gives of the power of Christ at work in one’s heart.  He meets me and you precisely where we are, without conditions.  And as we choose to walk with him, he undertakes to change us.  That is, after all, what I, for one, desperately need.

But entwined with the joy of the feast is the grief over what is lost, especially on this day.  This day is also the 33rd anniversary of the day my wife and I exchanged vows in front of our family and friends and were married.  I certainly didn’t intend for our relationship to shipwreck, and I could scarcely take in as it was happening that we were in trouble, much less that our relationship had died.  Accommodator that I am, I kept trying to fix and change me and thereby somehow make things right.  And yet the remedy was and remains beyond anything I could ever effect.  But regardless of the cause, the result has been a bereavement so sharp I thought I might not ever breathe again.  Many people lose their homes, we all will lose loved ones, and families that seem so permanent can evaporate for many reasons.  But to lose a spouse under these circumstances is to lose one’s life even though one remains alive.  It’s as if two plywood boards bonded by some powerful glue are then ripped impossibly apart, the violence of which leaves great shards of me torn out and still attached to the other, and visa versa I presume.  The pain subsides, but the scaring of my heart testifies that something horrific took place here.

So this day, the 31st of July, marks two of the deepest, strongest currents in my life and where they cross at the point of my living this day.  The sea has no storm disturbing its surface.  But underneath, mighty waters roil and churn, as the currents of this heart deep beyond language work to find some way through.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Farewell to St. Nicholas Parish

St. Nicholas Icon from 1500

Romans 15:1-7
1We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,’ writes St. Paul.  Or another way to say it is, ‘Accept one another, as Christ has accepted you.’ Or, ‘Appreciate one another, as Christ has appreciated you.’ Or ‘Embrace one another, as Christ has embraced you.’ Or, ‘Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you.’  Or as Jesus Himself says, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’

However you want to say it, this is what the gospel does.  This is what happens in a community when ‘Christ is in our midst.’ This is what Christians look like when they are being the Body of Christ.  This is what I found when I came to St. Nicholas more than two years ago.

Now before we get a big head and get all complacent, I’m not saying that we are perfect.  Um, I’ve been here long enough to know that we all have plenty of room to grow, individually, and we together have a lot to learn about what it means to be Jesus in this place.  I didn’t know what I would find when I walked in through that door in May of 2013, but it didn’t take too long before I realized that Jesus is here.  And where Jesus is, it doesn’t matter if the place is a beautiful cathedral with floor to dome icons, or a mud-walled hut, it doesn’t matter if you have a brightly colored flock of clergy bustling about or a lone reader chanting a service, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a ton of programs for every demographic or if you are struggling to find somebody, anybody to teach Sunday School to the children.  Because where Jesus is, where Jesus shows up, love happens.  And where love happens, healing happens.  And where healing happens, lives are changed.  And where lives are changed you find people looking and behaving more and more like Jesus.  And when that happens, we’ve become a beachhead of the Kingdom of God in this place.

When I came here 26 months ago, I was, as we say in South Carolina where I’m from, a hurtin’ puppy.  My marriage was falling apart.  I’m a pathological accommodator, among other things, and after years of trying to make it work, it wasn’t working.  We were long time missionaries in Ethiopia and Kenya and came back home for furlough hoping that some marriage counseling might help us get back to our lives and what we loved to do in Kenya.  The fact that I am still here is a clue that things did not go very well.  When I started attending here, I was in pain.  I was disoriented, I was ashamed, I was trying everything I knew to keep my life as I knew it from falling apart.
The months went by and it became painfully obvious that we were not going back to Kenya.  Even worse, it became painfully obvious that I no longer had a marriage.  And then I no longer had a home.  Or a family.  And then it looked like my calling as a missionary educator was history, too.  This all happened in slow motion.  I went from being a university professor to losing my family, my home, my job and my calling, living in a small room provided by a kind old man in a little town in central Virginia of all places.

But as this small tragedy was unfolding in my small life, I was coming here week by week.  I got to know Fr. Robert.  Several of you decided to take a risk and sit next to the new guy during our fellowship hour.  And I decided to take a risk and let some of you know what was really happening.  I’ve been in many contexts before where the sort of things I had to share would result in being removed from positions or ostracized from the community I was a part of.  But instead of being shunned or punished, you listened to me, and you loved me.  In those moments, in those dark days, you were the very love of Jesus, listening to me, encouraging me, giving me a hug.  I will forever be grateful.

The rest of my time here is like a dream.  Out of the wreckage of my old life, at my lowest place, when I was back in Nairobi in February of 2014 to sell all our furniture and things and draw a line under my life in Africa and my career as a missionary – it’s at that point that God opened His door.  Two days before I was to come back to the States, Fr. Evangelos, a friend of mine who was now vice rector of the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi, asked me, ‘Now tell me again why are you leaving us?’  And I said, because marriage is likely ending in divorce.  I think I’ve pretty much disqualified myself from being of any further use in Christian ministry.  To which he said, ‘You know, this is precisely why Jesus came, so that our sins might be forgiven.  And not only that our sins might be forgiven, but that we might be given a second chance.  Joseph, we really need you here, we really want you here.  In fact, His Eminence Makarios, the Archbishop of Kenya wants you to come and teach at the seminary there.’  I was stunned.  I had actually come to his office to sign over my car to the Archdiocese, because I was donating it for their use.  But Fr. Evangelos took the papers that I had just signed and said, ‘I’m not going to take these papers to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Instead, I’m going to put them in this folder, and put them in this drawer and keep them right here.  Because when you come back, you are going to need a car.’

I could tell more stories.  But it’s enough to say that somehow, God then opened the door for OCMC to take me on as one of their missionaries.  And somehow, with the astonishing help of this parish and many of you, I was able to raise two years of what it takes to keep a missionary on the field.  And that brings us to right here right now.

Tomorrow, I’ll be getting on an airplane that will take me first to Paris and another one on to Nairobi, and then I will get settled in my new home at the seminary and start teaching courses at the University.  I actually start teaching on August 10th, and they’ve assigned me a church history course to teach, ‘The History of Monasticism’!  But being a missionary is not about going overseas and being a university professor and teaching courses, even Christian courses.  Instead, that’s just a front.  I could be a gardener, or an auto mechanic, or a sales person, or a stay-at-home mom or dad, or the front desk guy at the YMCA.  Because the real thing that a missionary does is reach out to the people God brings to me, in this case my students and my colleagues, and love them as Jesus has loved me.  Any spiritual transformation that takes place will not happen through the readings I assign or the assignments I give (though God can certainly use them).  But His ordinary way of touching the lives of people with His transforming power is through relationships.  My mission is to make disciples, and that happens conversation by conversation, relationship by relationship, through serving, giving, listening, welcoming.

I’m going to Kenya.  OK, that’s pretty exotic.  And I’ve been given the label ‘missionary’, and that’s really exotic.  Sometimes the presence of people like us missionaries and us clergy give people the impression that we pay those people to do the ‘ministry’ so that we can live our ordinary lives and then come by every week or so and benefit from the good things they do.  That’s a common attitude in the churches and amongst Christians of all stripes.  But that’s not what we find in the NT.  That’s not an attitude that’s shared by the Apostle Paul.  It’s what one might call missing the point when it comes to what Jesus is doing when He calls us to Himself.

It’s really pretty simple.  Have you been loved by Jesus?  Have you been welcomed by Jesus?  Have you been embraced by Jesus?  Forgiven by Jesus?  Blessed by Jesus?  ‘As I have loved you,’ says the Lord, ‘so you should love one another.’

You see, from Jesus’ perspective, I am not the only missionary in this room right now; I’m not the only called one.  There is a call on your life today.  And there is a call on this parish today.  Many of you have already demonstrated that you get it.  Because when this hurting, confused soul wandered in your door a couple of years ago, you loved him.  And you took him by the hand when the storm got fierce.  And you helped him get to his feet when he was knocked down.  And now you are sending him on his way.

God is going to bring someone else into your lives, into this parish, for you to welcome, for you to love.  And then someone else.  And someone after them.  And as you take risks to love people, you will find that God helps you, He gives you the energy. He gives you the vision.  Resources are provided as if from nowhere. Love is a lot like the muscles of this body of ours.  Use it or lose it, I’ve been told.

But most people don’t just show up here like I did.  Most people have no reason to walk through those doors.  Most people have no idea of the hope that is the center of your life.  What Jesus said to his first disciples He says to you and me right now:  Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.  It’s not just missionaries!  It’s our call as Jesus’ disciples today, as Jesus’ Church today.  We don’t wait for the fish to come to us; instead we go to where the fish are and we throw our nets.

So here’s my parting challenge, both to you and to me.  Who are those individuals that God is bringing into your life right now.  Who is God asking you to welcome, to listen to, to help, to support, to hug, to come alongside of, to be there for?  Now that you are beginning to see, make a plan and do it.  Find ways to love this person.  And then see what happens and learn from your experience.  And then for us as a parish.  Who is God calling us to engage with?  Are these people who we will find coming through our door, or do we need to go where they are, or both?  Do we need to do something intentional with the university community?  Do we need to gird up our loins and pull together some sort of focused, intentional outreach like a bookstore or coffee shop or a school?   The need is there.  The call is there.  What will we do?  Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:14-16)

My prayer for you as I go is that when other people come into your life, or find us as a parish, or those we get to know as we follow Jesus and reach out to those around us – My prayer is that each one of these people that God will bring across our paths will see Jesus and experience His love, just as I have, in this place.  I am so very grateful.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Parish, a year or so before I arrived.  With His Eminence Metropolitan Antony.