Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why I Gave Up Being Pope

The short answer is:  it leads to chaos and I’m searching for peace and strength.  For the longer reply, read on.
Recently a video titled "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus" made the rounds in my circle of Facebook peeps and then a reply by my friend, Fr. Andrew, came down the pike and the comments and feedback exploded. See the video and Fr. Andrew's reply here.
Wow!  Many a feather are ruffled when it comes to talk about Jesus and “organized religion”.  The creator of the video, Jefferson Bethke, laments the disparity he sees between the two, in popular rap style which apparently made thousands swoon.  I might be content to let sleeping dogs lie on this one if it weren’t for the fact that I’m gearing up to write posts bridging the gap, albeit simply, between Protestantism and Orthodoxy.  The fact is, the friction illustrated by the video and subsequent response in blog posts and comments is a perfect starting point for my next series.
Why do so many see Jesus Christ as opposed to “organized religion”?  Why are some content to leave all that church stuff behind and forge onward with Jesus in one hand and the Bible in the other?  God has given me intellect, you might say, and that is enough to read and apply His Word to my life.  It’s just me ‘n Jesus and that’s all I really need.
Except for the fact there’s always that niggling little thing in Scripture that’s not quite understood...not quite clear.  And so, we’ll seek either one of several paths:  read commentaries to gain understanding, ask a pastor or other trusted, knowledgeable individual, or maybe peruse other verses believing that all Scripture is interpreted by other Scripture. Oh, I nearly forgot that other path:  toss it out.
That’s the jewel, or the abyss depending on your perspective, of American Protestantism and it’s one of the major reasons why I left the Protestant realm and found a hospital for my soul in the Orthodox Church.
Let me explain that a little further.  If you’re a serious student of God’s Word and honest, you’ll know that all things written there are not crystal clear.  Some verses need explaining, require context and an understanding of the language. Inevitably, there needs to be something else with which to understand Scripture.  Otherwise the Ethiopian eunuch would not have asked for understanding of the Scripture he read (Acts 8:26-40). When you take in the landscape of American christian organizations you can see the essence of this Scriptural conundrum;  we have literally thousands of Protestant denominations.  Why?  Because each leader of each congregation says, essentially, “I have the answers.  I have the proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture.  I have the Holy Spirit that leads me into understanding.  I am Pope;  I get to decide.”  You see where I’m going with this?  If all these pastors have the “correct” lens with which to view Scripture, how can they all be TRUE?  Is the Holy Spirit divided?  And what happens when my church has a division?  How do I know which leader’s viewpoint and congregation is the one to follow?  aagghh... it’s up to me to arbitrate Truth; that’s so much pressure!
For many years I followed a variety of those aforementioned paths when I encountered something from the Bible I didn’t quite understand. Or, more importantly, I sought for wisdom when my own denomination (American Baptist) was taking a turn in the theology they had held since their inception.  If Jesus Christ is unchanging, (Hebrews 13:8), how can the teachings of Christ change?  Our culture evolves but Christ does not.  Praise God!  he is the same yesterday, today and forever...It is only in this way that we have a foundation at all; Truth is what holds the world.
When I discovered that this church - this body of believers- existed who held onto Truth since the day of the apostles, who held onto the traditions of the faith, whether by word or epistle (2 Thess. 2:15), I knew I was home.  After a tiring journey of much debate, theological posturing and apathy, it felt good to rest in the arms of the Church.  I am not the arbitrator of Truth.  Truth IS,  whether I acknowledge it or not... just as the world is round whether people living on it recognize it or not.  It’s unchanging and fixed.  Hallelujah! I don’t have to be Pope!
Now FreeThinkers invariably say, ‘Fine.  You’ve simply forfeited your right to think for yourself by resting in those boundaries set forth by the Church.’  I disagree.  I see it more like using my freethinking- freewill - abilities to craft a raft with which to abandon survival mode and float down the river toward civilization.  I have found that Rock that informs and nourishes my entire being.
What I find humorous about the atheists and agnostics is the fact that they refuse to ask certain questions.  But of course, they have to, in order to maintain the finesse of their lightweight paradigm.  A paradigm that never investigates its own foundation because they know it’s detrimental to do so.  Asking about origins is fruitless to them who have a great faith in the things that are; exonerating the leaf to be free of the tree.  Origins don’t matter to those whose existence is based upon reason, logic and empirical proofs.  It’s really not so humorous, but rather sad.  I think people who hail free thinking often have ailing spirits, as they are rarely nourished.  How can one nurture what they don’t know to exist?

Church as Hospital
In the video by Bethke, he says that church should be a hospital and I agree.  I take it from his angry approach, however, that he didn’t experience it this way.  How dismal and misguided is it to say you love the Bridegroom but hate the Bride?
When I began attending the Orthodox Church in 2004, it was, in every instance, a hospital for my soul.  A non-Orthodox person once described an Orthodox worship service as “listening to the sounds of God”  and I can relate to that.  The sounds you hear in an Orthodox service are otherworldly... the English and Arabic chanting, the bells, the censor, the prayers of the people, the out-of-view choir all add a beautiful dimension to worshipping God.  
It’s a mystery how God ministered to my soul during those early years in the Orthodox Church.  I might say it was in the lighting of candles or smelling that heavenly incense...or the kindness of an elderly gentleman who shared his antidoron (blessed bread) with me during a particularly deep valley in my life.  Maybe it was the homily and hearing the words of God being read...maybe it was the reality of what ‘sacred’ truly means.  Maybe it was the beauty and thoughtfulness provoked by the numerous icons.  I can more easily define what it wasn’t.
It was not the friendliness or the social aspect of church at all; indeed, I deliberately avoided this.  It wasn’t the books I read from the church library or the sweets offered at coffee hour or the numerous children’s programs and opportunities.  No, it was none of that.  It was something intangible, yet profoundly palpable because my soul experienced healing through Divine Liturgy at the Orthodox Church. A peace and stability was evident there. Worship through all my senses was present there.  Worship with my mind, body and spirit was present there...
God touched me and lifted my spirit through Orthodox really was -and is- as simple as that.
Praise Him who bestows grace upon His unworthy servants!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lesson on Love and Letting Go

Hand woven crosses in our prayer corner

Fr. David, in his final podcast from Afghanistan, enunciated clearly something I’ve thought of writing about for some time:  lessons on love and letting go.   It’s been a painful life lesson, but a necessary one in my spiritual growth and so, I’m thankful for it.  Perhaps now that some time has passed and my perspective is better, it’s worth sharing.
I have learned, in a very intense way, over the past 5 years that I do not love others as I should.  Christ tells us to love others as ourself and to even love our enemies.  But what does that mean exactly?  How easy it is to love those who love us back... and how difficult is it to love those who do not love us in return.  I am speaking of relationships and friendships in particular.  I’m talking about how good it is to share our life with one we trust and confide in, the joy that comes with being understood and nurtured by others’ words and actions.  And the pain that comes when all that ends...abruptly and without explanation.    Maybe you’ve been there. 
Listening to Fr. David this morning and analyzing the events in my own life, I feel as though this lesson has come full circle for me.  I pray it’s one I don’t forget and choose rather to learn from it and grow because of the wisdom within.   In my experience, I learned that I was loving other people, but with strings attached.  I wanted something in return, I wanted to have my needs met, too.  My need for companionship and being heard.  And when they weren’t, I felt hurt and disappointed...and even angry.  And it made me question the motives of my heart: Did I really love and care about this person at all?  Or was it a purely selfish relationship?  Caring just enough so that my own needs were met?
I realized that our feelings can be deceptive and that sometimes God crosses our paths with others for a very specific purpose.  If we have our eyes fixed upon that, upon Him, then we are less deceived by the ever changing currents of our hearts.   When we truly love another person, as Christ intends, there are no strings attached.  It’s selfless and kind...generous and peaceable....expecting nothing in return.  How many of us truly love like that?  I want to love like that...but I know it’s attainable only by the grace of God.  I’m not equipped for it, as I am a very weak vessel.  Through Christ, though, all things are possible.  I have realized the peace that comes on the other side of pain, the clarity that comes with wisdom and of love born from the eternal source of love, Christ Jesus our God.
This lesson, too, has deepened my love for the Prayer of St. Francis, whereby I am encouraged to seek to console rather than being consoled, to understand rather than to be understood.  It’s complete selflessness.  It's loving fully, but lightly...being willing to share and give and comfort and then let go.  It’s having your cup filled with the grace of God so that you have something to give another, not wanting nor expecting anything in return.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Izzy's Christmas

Keep on Smilin'!
Izzy, Christmas 2011
What a fun time we all had this past Christmas!  Thanks to ALL of you out there across the globe who took the time to send a happy Christmas greeting to Izzy and her family!  As you may have read here previously, Izzy never actually made a request for a million Christmas cards, but she has enjoyed receiving them nonetheless.  We didn’t make an official count, but the cards came in by the thousands.  Our family divided them up between 3 households in order to open them all before Valentine’s Day.

Izzy especially loved the ones that had an animal on the card and we all enjoyed the handmade creations, ornaments, bracelets and other crafts.  A lady sent in one with a photo of her pet duck and her story and this made Izzy smile BIG : D  Other folks drew pictures or made puzzles for Izzy, sent coloring sheets and cards that played music...some sent money or gift cards or candy...the list of colorful creations and warm wishes seems almost endless!  

hand drawn creation

handmade card

Many schools sent stacks of cards and I was touched by the sentiments expressed by children.  Reading through those leaves no doubt as to why Christ says we must become as children or we’ll never enter heaven.  The faith and joy revealed through their words is incredibly uplifting and I know we’ll read these again and again through the years.    Of the relatively small portion of cards that my mom went through, over 20 states were represented as well as numerous countries, including Germany, Ireland, Korea, France, Israel, Afghanistan and Thailand.  She received warm wishes from a few famous people too, such as our former governor, now US Senator, Joe Manchin, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Justin Beiber and several women vying for Miss USA.   

Thanks again, for taking the time to bring cheer not only to Izzy, but the entire family. 

Izzy and her Uncle Will putting make-up on her doll
Izzy with her big sister on Christmas Eve 2011

Smokey...the new kitten at Izzy's house

In other news, our family celebrated Christmas like always, with a large gathering including lots of food, toys and laughter.  Even though I was disappointed not to have a white Christmas, the mild weather did allow us to visit the ice arena where Izzy put on ice skates for the first time....

Izzy at the ice arena over Christmas holiday 2011 

There’s nothing this kid can’t do ; ‘ )  

As always, we ask for your prayers above all else and wish everyone a very happy and healthy 2012!

Glory to God for all things †

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Quick word about Izzy and Christmas Cards

I know many of you continue to check in here for updates on Izzy and especially with regard to her Christmas cards... I will get to it soon, as we are still going through all the mail.  It has been so heart-warming to hear from so many of you....from all around the U.S. and many other countries, too!

Izzy is in good spirits and I promise an update and photos soon... and will attach a special place for Izzy on my sidebar so you don't have to search for posts about her.  Thank you for continuing to check in and for your prayers!  God bless †

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Beacon in Afghanistan; thank you Romania!

Orthodox Chapel at Kandahar Air Base

Did you know about the only existing christian church in Afghanistan?  In a country where over 90% of the population is either sunni muslim or another muslim sect, it must be an incredible and often heartwarming sight for christian military to see that cupola from the air field at Kandahar.
The building of this church isn’t recent news, but it was new information for me to learn yesterday while listening to a podcast by Fr. David Alexander on Ancient Faith Radio.  Fr. David is an Orthodox priest and military chaplain serving our U.S. forces in Afghanistan, although I believe he has returned to the states at this point.
From him I learned the story of how this beautiful little chapel came into being:  
When the seven coalition countries first came to Afghanistan to provide the initial diplomatic and military response to the attacks of 9/11, Romania was one of those countries.  Each host nation built their own compound at Kandahar and Romania desired a church to be a part of their compound.  One of their contacts from back home in Transylvania, Romania sent photos of a monastic chapel.  From these photographs, an ethnically Romanian, American civil engineer along with the Romanians and Americans built this chapel in a matter of days.  The chapel is complete with an altar, a full iconostasis and even a bell house out front.
Fr. David describes it as a place where “beauty meets simplicity” and likens the church to St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel (New York) and St. Herman’s Chapel in Kodiak, Alaska.  How wonderful to hear of such a rich jewel in an otherwise barren and camouflaged landscape.
Listening to Fr. David speak of the hospitality of the Romanians and the diverse worship services held in this chapel, including Americans,Canadians, Russian contractors, Macedonians, Bulgarians and Dutch military, calls to mind a beautiful image of Afghanistan.  May the Lord bless and preserve those in defense of freedom everywhere...and may our Lord touch many more souls through the example of those who serve Him.
You can listen to a variety of Fr. David’s podcasts here and see more images of the chapel here, from the St. George Orthodox Military Association.  The podcast in which Fr. David is speaking of this chapel is titled, "Paschal Joy, Paschal Lessons, Paschal Rest".

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Twelve Minutes... show you miracles.  Not many nations around the world understand the persecution of christianity as well as the Russian people.  Today Russia is witnessing the restoration of nearly 30,000 churches and monasteries; a monumental rebirth of Orthodoxy!  The fact that this extraordinary exhibition, celebrating Christ and His Church, would take place around their country is nothing short of amazing.   I agree with what others in the Orthodox community have said, seeing the striking images of persecution (about mid-way through) under communism is powerful...!

Thank you Mat. Emily for sharing such an inspiring, well-crafted video of the amazing, high-tech, 2012 Exhibition of Orthodoxy in Russia.  

Read related article: The Voice of Russia

To God be the glory for all things!

Protecting Peace

Design by Cari Buziak

A joyous 2012 to you!   I hope your new year is off to a good start, with warm remembrances from 2011 and a positive outlook for this new year.  I don’t make resolutions, but prefer to set goals.  The difference?    Resolution seems the weak counterpart to goal... resolution implies ‘I’ll do my best’, while a goal sets the standard and provides a path to tread.  At least, that’s how I see it.
One of my goals for 2012 is to protect peace.  I’m speaking of inner peace, that blissful state free of misleading emotions that allows for clear thinking and decision making.  That inner place that is filled with God’s sustaining grace and enables the soft, still voice of God to speak and be heard.   Too often I have believed this peace to be born of circumstance or environment, but it is a blessing from God and one that should be sought (Psalm 34:14) and protected.  As the Lord gave to Moses, (Number 6:22-26) this priestly blessing is one of my favorite verses from Holy Scripture:
“The Lord bless you and keep you;  the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;  the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  

The following prayer made me think of something Fr. Stephen said during his homily on Sunday.  Something I want to remember throughout the year:  'that person that most despises you, or you him, is not your enemy.  He is a victim of your enemy, a casualty of your enemy.'
A Prayer for Peace
We thank Thee, Master and Lover of mankind, King of the ages and giver of all good things, for destroying the dividing wall of enmity and granting peace to those who seek thy mercy. We appeal to Thee to awaken the longing for a peaceful life in all those who are filled with hatred for their neighbors, thinking especially of those at war or preparing for war. Grant peace to thy servants. Implant in them the fear of Thee and confirm in them love one for another. Extinguish every dispute and banish all temptations to disagreement. For Thou art our peace and to Thee we ascribe glory: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
- from the Orthodox Book of Needs, St. Tikhon’s Seminary, Pennsylvania, USA
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