Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Money Is More Important than People

I have been working for the past 15 months at a not-for-profit fitness center.  The pay has been one notch above minimum wage.  The hours have been random, sometimes very early, sometimes very late, sometimes 3 hours a day, sometimes 13.  But I have had great people to work with, and I have really appreciated the site manager and the several directors who have responsibility over our panoply of programs.  My task has been to man the front desk, answer all questions, deal with all issues, and essentially be the cheerful face of our organization.  These things I have done with increasing competence as the year has gone by.

I didn’t have much of a choice in terms of employment when I returned to the US in May of 2013 on what I thought was a short furlough.  No one was interested in giving me a job in my area of academic expertise (um, that would be Early Modern British History) or professional experience (instructor at the undergraduate and graduate level in Christian theology and history).  And even when I lowered my sites to any job (grocery store stock guy, landscaping companies, ditch digging, etc.), nobody was hiring.  Eventually, the county certified me to substitute teach.  But I quickly discovered that I only knew how to teach students who wanted to learn, and had no idea how to cope with students who could care less.  So when this organization offered me part-time work with the option to pick up additional hours as a sub, I jumped at it.  And here I am, 15 months later, towards the end of what will be my last week on the job.



I found out this past Monday that I am being downsized.  I do not blame the organization for the employment model it has adopted or the policy choices it has made.  It looks to me like they are following so-called ‘best practice’ – doing what such organizations think they must in order to survive.  But while such ‘practice’ may allow the organization as such to survive, and may allow the people at the top of the food chain in that organization to continue to do their thing and draw their salary, it feels like the rest of us are viewed as expendable.  I guess this proves that we are.

My first clue about this utilitarian stance towards employees came early.  None of us hourly employees are allowed to work so much as to obligate the organization to pay us benefits.  Evidently, more than 30 hours a week throws the benefits switch.  As a result, there are about 10 of us part-time employees, some of whom are students, others of whom are part-time by choice, and others of us who would like to be full-time if we could.  Because I could not work full-time hours even if I wanted to, and because I’ve been paid an hourly wage (I got a raise at the beginning of summer from $8.50 to $11/hour because I was given a ‘management’ portfolio) without benefits, I was forced to find my own insurance.  If the Affordable Care Act had not been in place, I would have been numbered among the nation’s uninsured.  The policy I did find cost nearly $500/month.  Given that I make maybe $1100-$1300/month aggregate from my several part-time jobs, I think you can see why insurance would have been untenable for me without help.  A $390/month subsidy from the ACA has saved me from that debacle.

So I’ve been in a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not provide benefits, a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not pay a living wage.  I’ve watched news reports on TV about fast-food employees going on strike to demand wages that would enable someone who works full-time to actually live off their wages without having to resort to food stamps or Obamacare or so-many other supplemental jobs that they do nothing but work so their kids can go to school or have something to eat or, in my case, so I can pay off my daughter’s university loans so she can start her life not saddled by immense debt.  I now have considerable empathy for all those distressed fast-food workers.  I am them.


And now, because our mother organization has racked up a sizeable amount of debt (though our branch actually turned a profit this past year), the directors have decided that everybody (not just them but us as well) must make draconian cuts in their budget.  One of our program directors saw her entire position done away with (and since she was the director of our fitness programs, it seems to me an odd move for a fitness center to get rid of their fitness director, but who am I?).  Our own director, trying to blunt the force of such mandated-from-above ‘cost-saving measures’, is moving the former fitness director into the job that I now hold, that of front desk manager.  And since she will now be filling a 40 hour week at the front desk, and since there are 9 other part-time front-desk staff, it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that there are not enough hours to go around.

I am not being forced out, or fired, or relieved.  But as a ‘part-time’ employee, my hours are being reduced from about 40 hours/week to maybe 5.  So the reason I took this job – make enough money so that I can survive until I can hopefully return to my ‘real’ job in Kenya – is no longer viable.  I handed in my resignation on Tuesday so as to give my successor a free hand in creating a front desk schedule that will keep as many of my other colleagues at least as they have been in terms of hours.  Because I, at least, have the hope of a potential new position that will enable me to return to my teaching life overseas, I’ve not been freaking out.  But should that potential position not work out, I’m in trouble.

This is a very small drama in a very small organization.  But I’ve been back in the US long enough to realize that there are a lot of people in my circumstances, who are trying as hard as they can to ‘make it’, at least according to the standards of our society, and who are constantly teetering on the edge.  Because we are not numbered among the unemployed, because we are not among those lining up for government help, because we are not among those grateful for a shelter or for a soup kitchen, our society seems to think that we are all ok.  But the very fact that we exist, that we are working hard to contribute, are trying to support our families or meet our obligations, the very fact that we are trying so hard and not making it is a symptom that should tell anyone with any sense that something fundamental is not right with our system.  This is the economy that ‘trickle down’ Reaganomics and its subsequent avatars has produced.  And it has worked very well for a few of us, and not so well for the vast majority of us who may not have access to millions of dollars to invest in stocks or companies or real estate.

Best practice might be saving our organization a few thousand dollars every month, according to their own business models.  But it is costing them some of their best employees, the very people who make this organization what it says it wants to be.  I know it seems like a hard choice from a business standpoint – money or people?  Do we try to maximize profits for the sake of a few  at the expense of the workers who generate the services or products that make those profits possible?  Is it not possible to find some median place, where we make a modest amount of money and we take care of the people who make the organization work?



But what do I know?  I don’t sit in the boardroom, nor is my desk in the director’s office.  I do know what it is like to spend a lot of hours of my life every week working at a front desk, trying to make people feel welcome and happy, processing their applications, solving their problems and answering their questions.  I do know what it is like to do all of this while making a cut above minimum wage.  And I do know what it is like to be subject to the whims of management who seem to feel more obligated to manage their money well than to demonstrate any sense of obligation to their people.  Having experienced this personally now, I am in a position to say that this isn’t working so well, at least for us people.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Where's My Water Buffalo?

Forgive me. My children grew up in the age of 'Veggie Tales' and I managed to memorize just about every 'Silly Song' that made it to video tape.

So when I saw this picture this morning:

Contestant competes during the 'Mekepung', a traditional water buffalo race in Negara, Bali, Indonesia.
it all came rushing back; the 'it' being endless Veggie Tales, including the famous (among VT aficionados) 'Silly Songs by Larry', of which 'The Water Buffalo Song' was the first and quite possibly the most silly.  Yes it is as bad as I remembered it to be, bad enough to make it a classic.  You can watch Larry the Cucumber sing 'The Water Buffalo Song' here.

And in the meantime, here are some more exciting water buffalo race pictures.  Makes me just want to run out there and decorate my water buffalo, hitch up my wagon and head to the races!






Who knew a water buffalo could move so fast!  Where is Alfred the Asparagus when you need him?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Problem with Sanctification - A Personal Story

Conversing over doctrine with members of Protestant churches is like trying to engage with a constantly morphing shapeshifter.  Various doctrines are, of course, construed differently from denomination to denomination, and given various levels of significance.  But then even within the same denomination there often is a spectrum of belief about particular doctrines, usually measured in terms of more or less ‘conservative’ and more or less ‘liberal’.  So it is possible for Presbyterians, for example, to use a similar vocabulary about ‘predestination’ and yet for more ‘liberal’ Presbyterians to mean something very different than their more conservative brethren.  It is obviously impossible, therefore, to speak definitively about what Protestants believe about this or that doctrine, since there will almost always be exceptions.  What follows are some of my own reflections on my over 40 years of ‘sanctification’ in Protestant contexts.  I am attempting to describe my experience only, which may or may not have wider ramifications.  This is not an attempt to say something about all Protestants at all times.

Ring Around the Rosie
I became a Christian in a Presbyterian church.  I will always be grateful for the men and women there who loved this boy and teenager and taught me the Scriptures and helped me understand what it meant to become a follower of Jesus.  I was taught there that I was ‘saved by grace’, that if I believed in Jesus, trusted that his death on the cross was for the forgiveness of my sins, said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and really believed it, then I would be reconciled with God, that my sins would be forgiven, that I would ‘go to heaven’ when I died.  I was taught that this salvation was Christ’s work, not mine, that I could do nothing to save myself, that none of my works would ever earn my way out of condemnation, that only Jesus could save me and that, once saved, I was saved and no one or nothing could snatch me from his hands.

At the same time I was taught that my behavior as a ‘born-again Christian’ was important, that as a Christian sin no longer had ‘dominion’ over me, that I could expect victory over  those temptations and the resulting sins that so vexed me.  And because I was at the time a teenager, the temptations and sins at the top of my list of concerns were, of course, of a sexual nature.  I observed both voids of silence and a significant amount of silent shame around me when it came to these temptations and sins.  Some of this shame was projected outward from my own afflicted conscience.  But there is no denying that I experienced puberty and adolescence thinking that I was the only one who struggled with these things.  Sure there were plenty of my peers who had no struggles at all.  It never seemed to cross their minds that there was anything wrong with trying to get as much sex as they possibly could.  Or at least that’s what their incessant boasting implied.  I, on the other hand, had been taught by people in my church that sex outside of marriage was wrong, and that pretty much anything having to do with sex should be avoided because it was almost certainly wrong as well.

But most of this perspective on sex was osmosed.  Because these things were simply never discussed.  Not at home.  Not in Sunday School.  Not in the Bible studies I took part in. Not in the church’s youth group.  Not at boy scouts.  Not at school.  Except for the one day when there was an all-school assembly at my junior high school.  I was in the 8th grade and the school had arranged to have a doctor come and speak to all of the students on venereal disease.  And the doctor invited to speak was my father.  I. Was. Mortified.

There was, of course, plenty of talk about sex going on, but it was of the junior high and high school boys’ variety.  And it was the sort of talk that I worked hard to avoid, seeing as I had been told that Christians don’t engage in such conversation, that Christians are to keep themselves ‘separate’ from the influences of the ‘world’, and that Christians should keep themselves pure from sexual sin.  People who engaged in this sort of behavior while claiming to be Christians were considered to be ‘hypocrites’ at best, or simply and hopelessly reprobate.  Christians who succumbed to ‘temptation’ and ‘fell into sin’ were considered to have ‘backslidden’ and under threat of God’s judgment unless they ‘repented’.  It seemed to this teenager that all such warnings against sin I ever heard were aimed at avoiding the sexual sort.  None of the adults I knew who were Christians, or my fellow Christian teenagers, seemed all that concerned about gossip or greed or envy, or self-centeredness or idolatry or drinking too much or any of a host of other matters that the Bible addressed in addition to sexual mores.  In true Augustinian fashion, sex was viewed as the problem, best dealt with by denial, prohibition or avoidance, not to mention heaping on the guilt should anything unspeakable actually happen.

It’s at this point that my theological inheritance began what would become a 40+ year conflict with my experience and observation.  First my experience.  As a healthy teenage guy, I experienced healthy sexual urges.  My theology taught me that acting on them was wrong.  So I was constantly in a state of spiritual crisis, trying to ‘live a life of purity’, experiencing sexual temptation and ‘falling’ into sex with self, feeling ‘convicted’ and praying prayers of repentance and swearing never to do this again.  Only to do so again.  Repeatedly.  To this young man with a tender conscience, it seemed that my sincerity as a repentant sinner was called into question because I kept struggling with the same cycle of sin.  And of course, I was getting no help in sorting this out from Christian friends or from church leaders because nobody was talking about it.  It seemed I was the only one who had this problem.

My silence was reinforced on a regular basis because the only times such things were talked about were those cases of spectacular moral failure when some poor person was revealed to be a fornicator (because he got someone pregnant or more usually because she got pregnant outside of marriage) or an adulterer (running off with another man/woman and breaking up a marriage or two) or a ‘pervert’ by getting arrested by the police for some unexplained crime of indecency.  Such people were gossiped against and shamed out of the church, held up as an anti-example of what happens when a person ‘backslides’. Of course lip service was given about the offender coming back if he or she ‘repented’, but I never witnessed such a miracle, probably because the offenders really didn’t want to be restored to a community that had treated them is way.  And who could blame them.

So the lessons I learned at this stage of my Christian life were that Christians don’t, won’t or can’t talk about their sins in general, and their sins of a sexual nature in particular.  I learned that if it did get out that I was a sinner in any of these areas, that I would likely be treated by my fellow Christians in a way that was best avoided at all costs.  I learned there was no safe place for the struggler.  I learned that I was ‘saved by grace’, but I also learned, to my confusion, that I wasn’t really saved by grace unless I subsequently lived a life free from sin.  So while the ‘gospel’ which was regularly preached all around me was ‘come to Jesus for salvation’, the ‘gospel’ that was lived all around me was ‘you better not sin’.  It should therefore be no surprise that every church I was ever involved with throughout my life as a young Christian, a Christian at university, a Christian in parachurch ministry, a Christian in seminary, a Christian in pastoral ministry, a Christian in missionary service, I was surrounded by for the most part wonderful people who, whatever else they might be, they weren’t sinners.  I remember as a pastor looking out on congregations of 40, 70, 300, 1600 people during my 20+ year career as a Protestant minister, and everybody I saw presented themselves as the model Christian, all dressed up on the outside and on the inside.  There were no sinners in the house.  Or in the ministry, or on the board, or in the mission.  Only godly, Jesus-loving men and women of the purest motives and lives.  And then there was me.

I did succeed in finding circles of accountability wherever I went.  Looking back, I now see that this is how I survived as a Christian engaged in Christian ministry for so long.  I worked hard at finding an individual or group of people with whom I could share at least in outline the nature of my struggles.  But all of us realized that what we were doing was risky.  Sure, no church leader was going to gainsay our being vulnerable with each other, our confessing our sins to each other, our holding each other accountable.  But all of us were aware of what happened if someone got ‘caught’ in sin.  In too many instances, such a person was dragged out in public shame, or bid a hasty exist out a side door so as to minimize any scandal.  And with no Jesus evidently around to write in the sand, there seemed no shortage of people willing to cast the first stone, figuratively speaking.

A Pocket Full of Posies
After receiving my MDiv from a reputable evangelical institution and pastoring for nearly a decade, and after going back to grad school in the UK and receiving my PhD, I found myself on the mission field teaching systematic theology in a succession of Protestant undergraduate and graduate schools of theology.  I mention this simply to say I knew my Bible.  And I knew my theology.  Especially my soteriology and my theology of sanctification.  And as a result I became increasingly vexed.  Mainly because what seemed so nicely expressed on paper was not at all reflected in what seemed to be preached and taught in the churches, nor was it what I experienced in my own life nor saw happening in the lives of those around me.  Sanctification was defined as that progressive process by which individual believers become increasingly like Jesus in character by the working of the Holy Spirit within them (or as Wayne Grudem puts it: ‘Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.’ Systematic Theology, 717-718).  

Another nicely put explanation of the difference between justification and sanctification.  On paper, at least.

But as far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything progressive going on inside me at all.  I was still fighting the same temptations I had fought as a teenager with respect to lust, and with similar results.  Only the stakes had gotten higher with increased responsibility in Christian ministries combined with the advent of the internet and the availability of seemingly anonymous online sexual gratification.  Over the decades I had labored to put up barriers of accountability as well as block access to online pornography through filters.  But my problem was more profound than access to pornography; I had learned an entire way of coping with conflict and relational pain that made use of self-sex as a self-medicating drug.  And as long as I kept getting into conflict, say with my spouse, or with my elders at church, or experiencing relationship pain, I would fall into the same pattern of seeking the only relief I knew that worked.  And this, of course, was done in secret because the consequences of anyone finding out would be the end of my life in evangelical ministry.  Except I had brought people in on the inside of my struggles. In every new place we lived I found another guy or group and shared as much as I felt was safe to share.  Even my wife was on the inside of my struggles, as I shared with her from the beginning what I felt was safe to share.

Profound as these relational fears were, my theological struggles nearly undid my faith.  If I was saved, as my Calvinist faith declared, then my life should of a course be transformed by the power of the Spirit and the reality of gratitude for my salvation.  But it wasn’t.  So what was I to think about my so-called ‘salvation’?  Was I really saved after all?  Or did my cyclical struggles with lust betray the fact that I, pastor and missionary and teacher, was deluded and in reality living a lie?  Could someone be a Christian and a sinner at the same time?  The morality plays and ritual firings I saw put on by churches and evangelical institutions on a regular basis all around me did not allow for much encouragement and hope.  Why did the church so often present itself as a museum of saints? Why did churches and institutions insist on putting their ministers up on a moral pedestal and hold them to standards that the members themselves would be hard pressed to keep?  Why did the churches and schools and missions so often feel obligated to drag their wounded leaders out and shoot them?  Why did my churches, my schools, my mission, my institutions, even my marriage seem like such unsafe places?  Was it me or was it them?  And after trying so hard for so long, why was I still struggling after all these years?

Despite the rhetoric of salvation, church and parachurch attitudes towards actual sin and actual sinners seemed designed to make liars and hypocrites out of everyone.  Who in their right  mind would want to own up to this or that sin if it was going to result in public shaming and being thrown out of the church?  As I got older, I began to suspect that the vast ocean of evangelical silence was not because I was the only one who struggled; it was because everyone else like me was afraid of the consequences of being honest.

In many respects I have been fortunate.  In the 2000s I endured a series of depressive episodes that I now recognize as a series of mental rebellions over not being able to handle the cognitive dissonance from my struggle with sanctification and with worsening relational issues in my marriage, none of which I felt able to share with others because I was in a Christian ministry context where I was afraid of losing everything if it emerged that I had ‘issues’ or was less than Christ-like.  I am sure that every one of my colleagues at the time would protest that my fears had no basis in reality.  But when I was later pushed out as pastor because, in an effort to be vulnerable with my fellow elders I talked about my struggle with depression, and the board chairperson and several others said I needed to go because I was ‘mentally ill’, no one of the 1600 people who attended on Sundays came to my defense, with the exception of three friends, all of whom were shunned by the same board.  I learned from this that people perceived to be ‘damaged goods’ by fellow Christians are toxic in ministry situations and are best removed out of sight and thus out of mind.

This experience nearly undid me.  Further depression led to not caring any more led to attempts to self-medicate the pain led to despair and ultimately to planning my own suicide.  I then realized I was in serious trouble and I reached out to help and mercifully found it at a local counseling center.  I got help for my depression and also began to unpack what had brought me to this point.  Five years later, I am still unpacking.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
One of the casualties of my experience was the death of my marriage, which would take a book that has yet to be written to begin to describe.  Another casualty, just as profound, was my Protestant understanding of salvation and sanctification.  Previously I had thought that the Protestant understanding of salvation had corrected the defective Roman Catholic understanding of salvation, and that both positions reflected opposite ends of the spectrum of soteriology.  But as I became more aware of Eastern Orthodox theology, I realized I had been misled into thinking that Protestant soteriology was the only viable show in town.  From the Eastern standpoint, both Protestants and Catholics make salvation the resolution of our legal issues with God.  From this Western perspective, there is much emphasis on our breaking God’s laws and of God’s justice and wrath needing to be satisfied.  Setting up salvation as God’s dealing with our legal issues so that we can be declared righteous by Christ’s work on the cross and therefore saved is, of course, very tidy.  This tidiness is accomplished by decoupling sanctification and glorification from the train of salvation.  This may have seemed necessary by the Protestant Reformers to counter certain perceived Roman Catholic mistakes, but such a move doesn't happen in the New Testament.  This decoupling, moreover, has put Protestant soteriology in the ever awkward position of saying both that sanctification is not necessary for salvation, and that sanctification is totally necessary for salvation, with all the resulting confusion that one might expect.  And given that 99% of Protestant Christians are not as theologically sophisticated as the theologians who write so clearly and persuasively in their systematic theologies, the legalistic orientation of Protestant (and Catholic) salvation often gets translated into mere legalism, with sanctification relegated to mere moralism.  This is what I ran into again and again.  This is why churches are often such shame palaces when it comes to dealing with the sinners within and without their walls.  This is why hypocrisy is so prevalent – the constant threats against sinners and their sin results in double lives rather than progressive Christ-likeness.

The Eastern Churches make no such grandiose claims – no one in the Eastern Church says ‘I am saved’.  That’s because salvation in the Eastern Church is not about the resolution of legal difficulties.  Salvation is not a status gained.  Salvation instead has to do with being reconciled through the cross of Christ in our relationships (primarily with God the Holy Trinity, but with all those others made in God’s image around us as well), with forgiving and being forgiven, with the transformation of our characters, with our lives becoming increasingly what we were created to be and, ultimately, to be set free from the power of death and raised to live forever as part of God’s new creation.  All of this is a process.  This is because love has to do with relationships and relationships are always a process  None of this happens notionally; rather, it - salvation - happens in space and time and in real life.  And that is because love happens in space and time and real life.  And so Eastern Christians have learned to say that we are being saved.

Because salvation is a process that involves saving people from their sin and its consequences (all of them), Eastern Christians make the assumption that the church is not a museum of saints on display but a hospital for sinners.  We are all learning how to repent and how to pray and how to love.  The sacraments are given to help us repent and pray and love.  The Christian life is about repentance and prayer and love.  Twenty months ago I was afraid to tell my priest and spiritual father that I was separated from my wife.  I was ashamed and was afraid that I would be hauled before some tribunal and called to account and kicked out of whatever association I was in.  When I finally told him and said that I would be willing to step down from choir and the other things I was doing at the church because it wouldn’t do to have someone who struggles like me up in front of everyone.  My priest turned and looked at me, and then he said, ‘We Orthodox, we struggle together.’

For Orthodox Christians, sanctification is not something separate from our ‘salvation’, nor is sanctification necessary for our salvation, as if it were a kind of good work.  Instead, sanctification, or becoming like Christ, is salvation.  Just like our reconciliation with God and each other is salvation.  Just like our being forgiven and our forgiving each other is salvation.  Just like the resurrection of our death-destroyed bodies will be our salvation.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, there are too many Christian contexts that have no room for someone who is divorced, or struggling with substance abuse, or with pornography, or with same-sex attraction, or maybe have had an abortion.  And heaven forbid if someone is a murderer, or a rapist, or a thief, or a gang member, or a prostitute.  This is a serious problem.  Since all of these and more are the people Jesus came to save, churches and Christian organizations that have no room for people like this are sending mixed messages at best, and have more likely disqualified themselves from using the adjective ‘Christian’.

I have discovered that the Eastern Church is a safe place for sinners like me.  This is because the bishops and priests and deacons and laypeople that I know in the Church make the assumption that all of us are sinners.  All of us need a savior.  All of us are struggling out of the hole our rebellions dug for us.  All of us are learning to be what we were created to be, learning how to pray, learning how to repent, learning how to love.  And because all of us receive grace and forgiveness from Christ through our own confession and repentance, we are prone to meet other sinners like us with the same forgiveness that has touched our own lives.  It is in this communal context of safety that I can practice ascesis, that I can practice praying, that I can practice loving, I can practice using my spiritual gifts – in short, I can work on becoming like Christ.  These things can only happen when I am in relationship with fellow Christians who are themselves experiencing what it means to repent, pray and love.


I regret that I did not discover these things sooner, though I am grateful to have found this church as a late convert, even as one untimely born.  Is it the perfect church?  Due to the presence of all us sinners, we do have our issues.  But having been at this for nearly 2000 years, this Church has done a pretty good job at being faithful to the original emphases of the Apostles and their successors as we all learn how to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses and follow Christ down the road of his salvation.  It is where I have experienced the love of Christ, and been given the means to become more and more like him.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fresh Evidence for the Existence of Satan. As if We Needed More.

The image is jarring.  This is what I saw when I read the news on the BBC website this morning:


This is a Russian-supported rebel leader in Eastern Ukraine speaking at a news conference. In this news conference he admits to 'extrajudicial' killings by rebels in order 'to prevent chaos'.  Translated, rebels took men and perhaps women who they considered dangerous (i.e. who disagreed with them) and shot them without due process or any respect for their humanity or their families. This sort of thing is drearily familiar enough in civil conflicts across the world.  But it is the prominently displayed flag behind the rebel spokesperson that makes me sick to my stomach.  It is an Icon of Christ.

Evidently Christ is being paraded out in support of these sorts of atrocities, in support of this so-called movement, in support of this so-called rebellion.  Jesus, who never sanctioned violence against Rome or against Jewish leaders who opposed him, who never sought to lead a rebellion of any sort against the occupying Roman powers in Palestine, who never sanctioned guerrilla-style raids against local infrastructure,  who never ordered men and women who disagreed with him lined up and shot, who never gave any orders to shoot passenger aircraft out of the sky - this Jesus is evidently being forced by men who have lost all sense of right from wrong and who think nothing of ending the life of another person who, like them, is made in the image of God, this Jesus is being used by these men to give the appearance that God himself supports their cause and the means used to accomplish their ends.

It is helpful at this point to be reminded that the Jesus portrayed on the icon said, 'This is how you will know those who follow me, because they will love one another.'  And the apostle Paul says in another place, 'But the fruit of the Spirit is love'.  Wherever you find love, and the deeds of love, and the giving of self for the sake of another, there in that place and in those lives you will find Christ.  The presence of love is the incontrovertible evidence of the presence and work of the Spirit of Christ in a person and in a community.

But where there is hatred, where there is murder, where there is lying, where there is drunkenness, where there is robbery, where there is rape, where there is abuse, where there is bullying, you can be sure that the spirit  at work in the lives and in the circle of people from whom such things pour forth is not from Christ, but rather from the father of lies himself.  As Jesus himself once said, 'The way to know the tree is by its fruit.'

It is evidently a very easy thing to display an icon of Christ.  It is another thing altogether to live in such a way that one becomes the reality so portrayed.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Today Is My Name Day


Today, July 31, is my ‘Name Day’.  When I was baptized into the Orthodox Church in 2011, I took the make ‘Joseph’ for St. Joseph of Arimathea.  The particular resonance for me at the time is that Joseph had been a secret disciple of Jesus for some time until the events of our Lord’s passion moved Joseph to declare himself by very publically requesting from the Roman Procurator Pilate custody of our Lord’s body.  Joseph then helped take down his body from the cross and helped with preparing our Lord for his burial.  Joseph even offered his own unused tomb for our Lord’s interment.  In his love for his Messiah, Joseph did what he could and gave what he had, though it probably cost him the esteem of many of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin.

I, too, was a secret disciple of Orthodoxy.  For fourteen years I learned what I could from the outside of the Orthodox faith until I made the decision to leave my Protestant identity behind and follow Christ into His Church.  These were costly choices, but ones I have never regretted.
Name days are celebrated throughout the Orthodox world.  In many cases they are more important than even one’s birthday.  For me, it is enough to remember my namesake, and to take heart from his own costly  pilgrimage to Christ, and his bold love for his Lord when all seemed to be crashing down around him.

I get a daily compilation of Orthodox Scripture readings and lives of the saints being commemorated that day.  Here is what Tradition says about St. Joseph of Arimathea on this the day when we remember him.

Righteous Joseph of Arimathea
Righteous Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As a member of the Sanhedrin he did not participate in the ‘counsel and deed’ of the Jews in passing a death sentence for Jesus Christ. After the Crucifixion and Death of the Savior he made bold to go to Pilate and ask him for the Body of the Lord, to which he gave burial with the help of Righteous Nicodemus, who was also a secret disciple of the Lord.  They took down the Body of the Savior from the Cross, wrapped it in a winding-cloth, and placed it in a new tomb, in which no one had ever been buried, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the presence of the Mother of God and the holy Myrrh-Bearing Women (St. Joseph had prepared this tomb for himself).  Having rolled a heavy stone before the entrance of the tomb, they departed (John 19:37-42; Mt. 27:57-61; Mark 15:43-47; Luke 24:50-56).  St. Joseph traveled around the world, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.  He died peacefully in England.