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.




Friday, July 25, 2014

'Safe' to Fly?

The CNN headline greeting me this morning as I caught up on the news is 'Air Algerie Jet "Disintegrated"' followed by a story about the discovery of the wreckage of the doomed airplane with 116 souls on board in Mali.  Whether it was blown up by terrorists, shot down over a war zone (which northern Mali is), or suffered some sort of catastrophic failure remains to be seen.  This is the third major airline crash in a week; the fourth if you include the lost Malaysian Flight 370 in March.  It has not been a good year for air travel.

Remarkably, just below the Air Algerie story, is this headline:  'Opinion: Despite Crashes, Flying Safe' linking to this story.  However else one might use statistics to make a point like this, what is clear is for the hundreds of passengers on these four airplanes, flying was 100% unsafe.  Despite remarkable advances in airplane technology and reliability, and regardless of what airlines, governments and tourist industry officials say, one takes a risk when one flies on an airplane.  The issue is not whether flying is safe, but rather at what point does the risk in flying become unacceptable, leading potential passengers to opt for other less risky modes of transportation.  In terms of casualty lists, many many more Americans are killed and injured in automobile accidents every year, with numbers in the tens of thousands. And yet the American public has deemed those numbers, and the realities they represent, to be an acceptable level of risk for the advantages afforded in driving a car.  Driving is risky.  Automobile safety standards and road safety standards and traffic laws,are all designed to promote safety.  And in combination they may work together to reduce the risk of traffic mayhem, but the risk remains.  Driving may be more or less safer than it was before, but it is not 'safe'.  Rather, we have agreed that the risk involved is an acceptable trade-off to the relative advantages gained by taking off in our car for our daily commute to and from work.

Media and industry claims that flying is 'safe' sound like rather cynical attempts to reassure future passengers that they can continue to spend lots of money on airline tickets, when all the evidence of the past week and months suggest that their claims, for whatever reason, are not entirely true.  Flying rather obviously involves risk.  Currently, four major 'incidents' in four months still constitutes an acceptable level of risk for most passengers.  But this could change.  Not everyone is rushing out to leap off jagged cliffs dressed in a body wing; not everyone is rushing to sign up for a package holiday tour of Somalia; not everyone is heading to Syria or Iraq on a summer mission trip, not everyone decides that a selfie with the grizzly bear and her cub in the background is a good idea.  And for good reason.

At some point, what is currently an acceptable level of risk will become an unacceptable level of risk.  I don't know when that tipping point will be.  But the current trajectory clearly is not good.

Acceptable risk?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

National Conscience, or National Enabler? Thoughts on the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine and the Role of Orthodox Christians

Russian Separatist fighter in Ukraine

Christianity is once again playing an all-too-familiar and unhappy role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  Russia, of course, denies any involvement or any responsibility for the events and violence occurring within the borders of its western neighbor, including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 two days ago.  Despite the fact that so-called separatists have been trained and, dare we say, deployed from Russian territory, and despite the fact that these separatists have been armed with increasingly sophisticated Russian weaponry rolled across the Russian-Ukrainian frontier in brazen view of the world, and despite the fact that the Russian leadership and press has voiced full-throated support of the ‘rebels’ and inflammatory denunciations of the Ukrainian government – despite all of this, Mr. Putin, Russia’s president, has denied any involvement with and any responsibility for the chaos, bloodshed and destabilization caused by what, regardless of the denials, are his proxies in the west.  The same appears to be true in this most recent horrific incident.  Given the amount of disinformation, denial, and recrimination already dominating the media/propaganda wars swirling around this brazen mass murder, we may never be able to say with absolute certainty who did it and why.  So hardened are the perpetrators that they would prefer it this way.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill with Russian President Vladimir Putin

In the meantime, both Russia and Ukraine have huge Orthodox populations, and their hierarchs have varying degrees of influence within their respective states, be it formal or informal.  Sadly, the Church in Russia has given the impression to the rest of the world that it is little more than the lap dog of the Russian authorities.  If they have attempted to introduce a Christian perspective to the political dialogue at the Kremlin, it has not been evident to anyone outside its gates.  The Russian president and his people have, regardless of their morality, been very skillful at revving up Russian feelings of patriotism and pride, i.e. nationalism.  And while this is not a bad thing in and of itself, history tells of one bloody tale after another when leaders of nations or ethnic groups fanned the blaze of nationalism or racism to pursue their own policy or personal goals.  The wildfire too often gets out of control and people use nationalism to justify all manner of horrific actions against other human beings. 

The Orthodox Church has sometimes been complicit in such outbreaks of nationalism-inspired violence, if not by active promotion, then by not taking a vigorous stand against it in the name of Christ.  Any ideology that causes one person or one side to feel justified in taking action that harms another person is an anti-Christian, anti-Christ ideology.  The advance of one people over and against another does not serve the cause of Christ.  Instead it serves the strategy of the Devil.

By not speaking out against every act of inhumanity, even if it means speaking out against ‘our’ side, we become enablers of that inhumanity.  Our words and deeds will find us to be servants either of our nation or our Savior; it is impossible to serve the interests of both at the same time.  This, in my opinion, is the great test facing the Christians of Russia and Ukraine (we could talk about Christians in the US, but I have done that elsewhere).  The Church and its hierarchs should be holding the leadership of its nation to account, not winking and nodding and providing tacit approval as the government foments and inhuman foreign policy and misleads its own people through a deliberate campaign of spin, half-truths and outright lies.  The Church, its laity and its hierarchs give the impression that they are more afraid of what Mr. Putin might do to them than they are of Christ.  Perhaps the Church and its hierarchs have too much to lose by crossing the government (pun intended).

Ukrainian Orthodox Priests in front of Russian tank in Crimea

Christians on the Ukrainian side of this conflict have no less momentous choices to make.  The temptation to make the Church merely the instrument of the State is almost overpowering, especially when one’s people appear to be on the wrong side of neighbor-state-sponsored bullying.  But when Church and national identity become confused, history shows again and again that it’s the Church that gets used and abused by the State, and not visa versa.

I fully understand that it is incredibly difficult to stand against the crowd, especially when it has been whipped up in a fever of nationalistic fervor.  Bad things tend to happen to people who cannot demonstrate that they are on ‘our’ side.  A few recent examples make this point in spades: Rwanda twenty years ago, Southern Sudan this year, Yugoslavia twenty years ago, Northern Ireland thirty years ago, Israel and Palestine right now, Pakistan right now, etc, etc.  It is, however, no credit to Christianity or to its Lord to be leading the charge against our enemies.  Especially since Jesus repeatedly takes the side of the oppressed, the powerless, the needy and the poor.  It is precisely at times like this when our true loyalties are revealed.  And most of the time our true loyalty is neither to Church or State, but to ourselves as we wrap ourselves in whatever colors will save us from harm.

Russian Separatists in eastern Ukraine

Being a follower of Jesus will cause one to take a different posture, to choose a different road.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., said  in so many different ways not so many years ago when Christians were facing equally momentous choices in our own country, we the Church can support the government when it chooses to do what is right, but we must stand against it when it chooses to do wrong, especially when wrong means real suffering to men, women and children.  We the Church can support the government when it speaks the truth, and when its analysis of the situation rightly reflects reality on the ground; but we must stand against it when the government by its repeated us of misinformation demonstrates that what it declares simply cannot be trusted.  We the Church can support the government when the interests, policies and actions of the government advance the cause of Christ; but we must stand against it when those interests, policies and actions discourage and destroy the mission of the Church.

I have no doubt that taking a stand for truth and love against the policies of subterfuge and war will result in suffering for the Christians who choose to do so.  But this is a very old choice, and Christians who have made this choice have often paid with their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  But those Christians who have chosen to side with the government may win for a time rewards and positions and power in this world, it will not go well when one finds oneself explaining to Christ the Judge why one chose Mr. Putin’s interests over those of the Lord Jesus’.



The bottom line is simply this – it is past time for Russia’s Christians, and Ukraine’s Christians (and America’s Christians, for that matter!) to start behaving like the Christians they profess to be.  There will be a very different reality on the ground in Russia and Ukraine (and the US) when this begins to happen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

There's Poverty, and then There's Poverty

I had the privilege of being part of a group of 9 from my church who traveled to far western Virginia, to the small town of Grundy, spending a week to work on a couple of dilapidated houses, restoring them to a liveable condition.  Our church has sent work teams for a number of summers, partnering with an impressive local organization called Buchanan [County] Neighbors United.  For us and a number of other work teams, BNU people identified needs, lined up work crews, bought materials and helped with getting to and from the work sites and even supervised and worked alongside us.  They have done a phenomenal job, by us at least.


I can’t speak for any of the other projects, but the needs we were addressing were deplorable.  One trailer that members of our team worked on was home to a grandmother and seven children 9 and under.  Two of her daughters were in prison on drug charges.  The trailer had 2 bedrooms, maybe 3.  The bathroom floor had rotted through, as had the floor in the main bedroom.  Our task was to fix the floors so the children wouldn’t fall through.


The second site was the home of a sick old woman.  What passed as a bathroom had totally rotted and collapsed, and she was reduced to relieving herself in a bucket.  One team tore out what remained of the old bathroom, another framed a new one in, another put a tin roof on it, and we were to finish the drywall, do the plumbing and put in the shower, vanity/sink and toilet.  Which is what we did, though not without the usual small dramas that accompany small construction projects.


While we were successful in completing our several projects, we were less successful in resolving the real issue behind it.  Buchanan County is coal country, and coal is not doing so good, which means that people are not working and having a real hard time supporting their families.  This obviously puts pressure on already challenged relationships, and already dysfunctional ways of coping, reflected in the high rates of alcohol and drug addiction, as well as incidences of domestic violence.  Men, women and children caught up in this maelstrom get hollowed out pretty quickly.  Some family systems have been mired in this quicksand for generations, which each generation inflicting on their children what was done to them by their fathers and mothers.


In both cases that we were helping with, both the grandmother and the old woman had family who lived nearby.  Not a single one of the extended family members offered to help us.  And we determined from talking with our hosts that both situations were allowed to deteriorate to the present unlivable and dangerous situation in full view of an extended family who in both cases chose to do nothing.  Of course we weren’t privy to family histories or family dynamics, but at the very least, I think one could say that something wasn’t right here.


I also observed that ‘poor’ is an elastic concept.  The house I was working on had a lot of stuff.  There was a TV with cable, a fridge, stove, washing machine, and two annoying yap dogs.  But the house itself was not far behind the old bathroom in terms of soon going the way of all things.  The woman who lived there was either on the sofa, on her bed or on a chair on the front porch, or moving with difficulty in between.  She did have a daughter who was helping her, who was herself recently out of jail for drug issues.  The county provided an aide who came several hours on most days we were there to help.  Her situation was described by people who knew the family as ‘generational’.


I’ve lived in Ethiopia and in Kenya.  I’ve stayed in the homes of people who were much ‘poorer’ than these folks in Buchanan County, who had much less in terms of things, whose homes were made of tin or wood scraps, who had an outhouse maybe.  And yet my friends in Ethiopia and Kenya often didn’t seem ‘poor’.  Their lives were rich, with lots of family, lots of relationships, church activities, community activities.  There was no government handout to be had – they were on their own.  But somehow these families lived lives that were full of meaning and even joy.  I saw very little joy in the hollers of western Virginia.



Which raises the possibility that our normal ways of thinking about poverty may be too simplistic.  There is poverty of material things.  And there is poverty of heart and soul.  One poor in material things may be rich in relationships and quality of life.  One rich in stuff may be live in a relational and interior desert.  Evidently there’s poverty, and then there’s poverty.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Death Spiral in the Holy Land

Relations between Israeli authorities and Palestinians have never been good, in my memory at least.  And this past week merely added a fresh and bloody edge to the mutual hatred and fear that defines the fractures dividing these two peoples who have been forced to contend over the same tiny swath of territory for more than a hundred years.  It would be merely tragic if this patch of land was between Uruguay and Argentina.  But given that it encompasses many of the sites mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old and New Testaments and the Muslim Koran, and given that all three religions claim specific sites as holy to their faith, and sometimes the same sites for all three, the combustible potential for trouble has flared into barely contained hotspots again and again.

This past week is no different.  Three Israeli teenagers from a West Bank Jewish settlement were kidnapped and then murdered by men related to the Islamist Hamas party, the group that governs Gaza and which recently joined the Palestinian Authority in a unity government.  This was a horrific crime, as murder always is.  Within days, a Palestinian teenager was snatched from the streets of Jerusalem, and hours later his lifeless and burned body was discovered to the grief and outrage of the Palestinian community.  Given that Jewish extremists had vowed revenge and threatened to kill Palestinians in the several days leading up to this murder, Palestinians were quick to connect the dots and blame Jewish extremists for the boy’s murder.


Then came the Friday Muslim prayer services, the emotion exploding onto the streets, the funeral procession, the violence, the calling for revenge and a new intifadah.  We have seen this all before.  Again and again.


So we are in a cycle of violence and revenge and revenge to avenge the revenge that goes way back.   This cycle has not resolved anything on the ground in the Middle East.  The only thing this violence achieves is adding to the number of men and women and children whose lives have been cruelly cut short, or whose bodies have been maimed or injured or whose hearts have been broken.  And all of this carnage has been pushed by men (almost always men) who callously advance their political agendas and don’t mind using the ‘sacrifice’ of people less powerful than they or the purported values of their religion to achieve their own ends.  People caught up in these cycles of violence, whether they are in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan are losing their lives or being wounded for no good reason, often to replace one corrupt and murderous regime with another, which is another way of saying ‘no good reason.’



Revenge is easy.  But it never fixes the real problem.  Never. 

Revenge is the coward’s way.  Because it takes character and courage and the capacity to forgive and to love and to compromise to bring about real change and even transformation in our communities.


My family would go to the beach on holiday when I was a boy, and I learned both how to make sand castles and some disconcerting things about the sand-castle-making enterprise.  First it takes time and effort to make a really good sand castle.  Secondly, any 3 year old or fool or idiot can destroy a sand castle in about five seconds.  It is always much easier to tear down than to build up.  Where are the men and women of courage in each of these places who are willing to do the very hard work of building a society that is just for all people, that respects the rights and needs and aspirations of all people?  We all know that acts of revenge (whatever the justification) accomplish no good thing and only spin the cycle of conflict closer and closer to the point of no return.  And yet we keep doing it.  That would make us not very smart, among other things.


We in the United States of America are not immune to this sort of conflict.  No society is.  Every community, every city, every state, every nation has fault lines that could rupture with catastrophic consequences for everyone caught up in the conflagration.  One doesn't need to be much of a student of history to know that this has all happened before, and unless we figure out a better way, it will all happen again.  As it seems to be today in Jerusalem.