Tuesday, August 31, 2004

First day of the GOP convention

Vile, terrible partisan shots directly at John Kerry coming up --> God bless America. We can win the war on terror. George Bush has been an inspiring leader in that fight. We'll never forget the men and women who were victims in the 9/11 attacks. We'll never stop thanking and admiring the men and women who voluntarily put their lives on the line to fight against a violent and evil enemy. Michael Moore is a chowderhead.

There! Now you've seen the first day of the GOP convention. Did you miss the shots at John Kerry? So did I, but we must not be trained journalistic professionals, because the headline today from an AP story was, "GOP fires opening salvo at Kerry." Yep, the media's not biased or anything, so the rest of us must just be stupid.

But I'm not going to let that get me in a bad mood today. When I watched the convention, I felt ... good. I felt proud. I felt humbled. I felt inspired. Not just by George W. Bush, though of course he's the Product all of this is packaging. But inspired by us, by Americans. We get accused the world over of singing our own praises, but last night I would just tell the world, "Go and do likewise." You must have legislators who can give speeches about what you're doing right for a change. You must have ordinary people who can bring you to tears just by telling about their struggles. You must have men and women in service who deserve to be lauded for the sacrifice they're making. Do it, and feel a warmth that doesn't come from a mere desire that your guy win and the other guy lose.

American liberalism has never been able to create that warmth. Do you get the impression that they're profoundly uneasy with the idea that men and women are laying down their lives for this country? When they say "We support the troops," I think they mean, "We support how that bastard put you in there under false pretences, and we will continually cut him to ribbons to prop you up and support you in every effort you make to revile him, hate everything and cut and run at the first opportunity."

I don't think that's because liberals are cowards; I think it's because they are overwhelmingly secular. Their belief system -- to use their own terminology -- doesn't include any weapon powerful enough to face down human self-interest (or even face up to it, interestingly enough). Liberals consider the Judeo-Christian God to be outdated and hold Christianity in contempt, and so they've cut themselves off from the only thing that can really strengthen them for the entire fight of this world, not just the battles they'd like to pick.

Conservative sand liberals seem to be looking at each other across a widening chasm. We hardly speak the same language any more. We Christian conservatives think we're saying, "We know an eternal and loving God -- come and be nourished by Him," and they hear, "We have a terrifying superstition -- come over here so we can force it on you and make you stop doing everything fun." Liberals think they're saying, "We want to empower all people to make a world where there is no more oppression or poverty -- join us," and we hear, "We want to crush the infrastructure that has held civilization together so far and put up ice cream castles in its place -- come over here so we free you from the shackles of decency, self-restraint and faithfulness."

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Troparion for the day

(More wistful thoughts on losing my church. Skip if you don't like maudlin.)

I walked past my keyboard, and felt a little sadness. Tomorrow is the first Sunday that I won't be going to the church I'm calling St. Nicholas. I'll start going to a new church in a few weeks, but tomorrow it's just little me.

So why the keyboard sadness? I was the choir director. At this time on Saturday night, I would be logging onto the OCA Web-site and printing up the variable hymns. And the keyboard provided a little help in case there was anything I couldn't quite get. In case of a special occasion, it would help me find out if the special prokeimenon or theotokion of the day was one that our little choir could handle, or if it needed to be chanted just to keep the service running smoothly. I had several jobs at St. Nicholas, but the choir director duties were the most dear to me.

I couldn't resist. I opened up my liturgical guide and found out what tomorrow is. Good heavens! (Um, no pun intended.) It's the Feast of the Beheading of the Forerunner.

A symptom of the problems at St. Nicholas was that less and less feasts were celebrated as they should have been, if at all. At the Feast of the Dormition two weeks ago, we had one reader, three in the congregation and one choir member -- me. When I feel low about St. Nicholas, I remember the fasts and feasts that we ignored, and I feel galvanized. I want to join with Orthodox again. I want to feel the rhythm of the Church and the poetry of millennia washing over me and taking away the filmy grime of the week.

Here is the Troparion for the Beheading of the Forerunner (if you got to hear it, count yourself blessed):

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the
Lord's testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner. You were shown in truth to
be the most honorable of the prophets, for you were deemed worthy to baptize in
the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold. Therefore, having suffered for
the truth with joy, you proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the
flesh, who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

Blog flog: Thoughts of a neophyte

Hey, unsolicited testimonial! Karl gave me a comment: Nice blog.

Good to hear, naturally, but I still showed what a newbie I am: I snickered. I'm sorry. I want to be good, but "blog" is still a funny word to me. Imagine if technology ever brought together a million wonderful miracles so that someone could tell you, "Hey, congrats on the glorf," or "Good job on your garkle."

As long as I'm in the mood to be honest, I'll say that when I approach these, I find that my tone goes back and forth. Am I being personal or general? Somber or funny? Should I consider an audience or do them just for myself?

I think that I package the thoughts more succinctly than I would if it were just for myself -- which is good. I think I also try to dress them up more -- which probably isn't such a good idea. And then I toss them into a space that I can't possibly understand, like tossing pebbles into a deep, deep well. Sometimes you hear a little 'kerplunk' of one going home; often not. You imagine that they would be capable of making great ripples; you have to live with the fact that they probably never will. It's a 21st century way of putting a note in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean. So at the same time that you can say whatever you want however you want in as much time as you'd want ... you still can't be unmindful of what impact it might have, and yet understand that it might never have any at all.

It's an interesting form of ... what? entertainment? communication? therapy?

Andy Warhol is famous for saying that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. When someone asked him about that comment about 20 years later, the only alteration he made is that he would shorten the time to 10 minutes. Blogging seems like everyone in the world being famous for about 14 seconds.

But I'll try to stop laughing at the word.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

When churches melt down

Well, I've come back from my last Sunday at the little parish that's been my home church for over two years. What a relief to get out of there in one piece.

If you look at the post called "Go all out for the House Blend" you'll get more of a rundown on what some of the problems are. I don't want to revisit them -- I'm just worn out.

The folks at this church (I'll call it St. Nicholas, just to give it a name) are going to hang in there. Our priest has quit, our only deacon is considering a leave of absence, and I'd give us half a year tops before the rest of the money is gone. They wish I'd stay, but I can't tell them the real reason I can't.

I want to go now so that I can grieve. If I stay I have to watch St. Nicholas become truly awful. We say the prayers, we face the icons, some of the men are vested, most of the women wear head coverings -- and then we leave the sanctuary, and we squabble and gossip and complain and argue. It was horrifying at first, then it broke my heart, but now I feel myself developing a coping mechanism I can't stand -- a cynical smirk, a graveyard laugh.

I don't think St. Nicholas will fail because it's finances are irreparably bad, but because there are people involved who would have to completely change who they are. This isn't just a matter for a little course correction; bones would have to be broken. Since there's no one around to break them -- the people involved won their power struggle with the priest -- they will put St. Nicholas on a slow but inexorable collision course. I can't stay and wait for the impact. I'm too cowardly and heartsick.

I'm remembering a story that a priest at another church told. Someone asked a famous monk why it was that going to church made some people better instead of worse. He answered that without the love of God, all the prayers and fasts and feasts make us worse. I don't say that to accuse others. Somehow we all failed. If we had truly had the love of God, the flame of it would've kindled our hearts and driven out lesser things.

I suppose part of the grieving for St. Nicholas is grieving for myself. After 18 years as an Orthodox convert, I'm not the woman I want to be.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Truth-seekers and Scripture

On Clifton Healy's blog (I'm finally getting around to, um, getting around), he has an excellent collection of quotes, including this one from C. S. Lewis: "Odd the way the less the Bible is read, the more it is translated."

It reminds me of a quote I've heard attributed to Mark Twain but never seen in print. "The parts of the Bible I don't understand don't give me nearly as many problems as the parts that I do."

I hope Twain really did say that, because it's lovable, gritty and surprising in its honesty -- just the sort of thing you'd expect from him. Hey, maybe we could've made a convert out of him. He only had a problem with organized religion, after all. ;-)

Friday, August 20, 2004

The problem of new wine in Old Iraq

What are we going to do about Iraq? We toppled a dictator so that democracy could have a chance and they've hated us ever since. We thought by overthrowing the brutish Hussein we'd break open a window and allow them, huddled-mass-like, to breathe free. But this New Iraq isn't breathing yet. The surgical removal of the cancer should have been successful, but it seems that what we've got now is a body so crippled by atrophy and misuse that it can't stand and walk. And by refusing to support them, as we must do to uphold our own standard of anti-imperialism, we leave them in a precarious position. Now other Westerners, no less than we ourselves, are nervously eying the clock and trying to figure out when to pronounce them able to stand on their own so we can scoot -- and I don't blame some of them for wishing that we'd never come. It's new wine in old wineskins, after all.

The Gospel reading for today was Mark 2:18-22, in which Jesus is questioned by the offended Pharisees why it is that His apostles don't fast. His answer, I expect, perplexed them into silence: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins."(Mark 2:22)

I'm grateful to the Orthodox Study Bible for help in understanding this verse. As long as I thought there was a condemnation implied in Christ's answer, I missed the point: Christ wasn't condemning the Old Ways, but He was trying to tell the Pharisees to expect entirely New Ways to follow. He was hinting that a new covenant was coming that would require new traditions.

Christ provided the wine; He alone knew that it would be the work of the Church to provide the new wineskins. The new convenant was the salvation of mankind, but the context by which it could be lived out every day took centuries to build (if we're saying it's complete even yet).

Going back to Iraq, it seems to me they must find their own way to the good things that we would like them to have, if they are ever to have them. The form that freedoms and civil rights take in Iraq may look different to us. And certainly, the effort might fail completely. They might not be able to do what we would like them to do -- to go from the dark ages into the garish light of modern self-determination at enough of a clip that we can pronounce the experiment a success. I don't think we know how much we're asking of them to even expect them to try.

But we owed it to them, as we owe it to all people to give them the gifts that we've been given. Freedom may not look like a gift to the Iraqi people yet; it may look like a curse. But we're providing out of the bounty that we've been given. It's for them now to come up with the wineskin to hold onto it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Afraid of ghosts

I know a teenage girl who believes in ghosts.

That isn't uncommon these days, I'm afraid. Movies and TV shows are full of them, and the real existence of ghosts has come to be taken for granted. And unfortunately, teenage girls have always been attracted to this sort of superstition. But this teenager, whom I'll call Nadia, is Orthodox. She and her mother were chrismated into the Church over a year ago.

So where does one start? Or do you start at all? Is it just something to leave alone, hoping that it goes away?

When the subject came up, I found myself wishing that the Orthodox Church would combat such potentially dangerous superstitions. I tried to research the subject online, and came up blank. There weren't any pages on any Orthodox Web-sites, apparently, that would deign to discuss it.

I understand the inclination. There is something old-fashioned and almost silly about spiritualism, and perhaps making a serious refutation of it is a lot like Kurt Vonnegut's take on literary critics -- people getting all dressed up like a knight in armor to go attack a hot fudge sundae.

The problem is that by keeping silent or circumspect on the subject of what really does happen to us after we die, the Church has allowed this superstition to abound. Not that most people are checking with the Ancient Church these days, sad to say. Apparently, it's much more exciting to hold the ridiculous belief that some people after they die are doomed to haunt the earth and repeat scenes from their life and/or death over and over for the benefit (I suppose) of bored people. But I'm amazed that a young woman who came through catechism never got a clearer perspective on the spiritual world than that. For what possible reason would the loving and intelligent God that made and redeemed us allow these random acts of tragedy to be reinacted over and over again to the confusion and fright of those still living? If some credible humans have said that they've seen such things, isn't it worth remembering that there are unclean spirits in this world whose entire job it is to confuse and horrify us, to put us off of the narrow path and onto any way at all that leads away from it? And that, that being the case, we would do well not to consider such encounters as merely harmless fun?

Nadia who believes in ghosts isn't afraid of them. She watches horror movies with impunity -- increasingly realistic depictions of violent, murderous attacks by all manner of life-hating creatures is just entertainment, and the more gruesome and merciless they are the better. I suppose some people would think that was progress. I find it disturbing, because it smacks of an empty courage built on naivete and falsity. However flimsy the evidence of ghosts, there is nothing false about the reality of unclean spirits. If you don't recognize the face of evil when it's presented as fiction, how will you know it when you see it in your life?

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Go all out for the House Blend

Right now I'm thinking quite a bit about Fr. Jon Braun's wise thoughts of church diversity in his article called "House Blend" ( http://www.antiochian.org/745 ) , because if our parish church had only considered the point that he makes, we might not be presently facing the very real possibility of closing doors permanently in the next several months.

In "House Blend", Fr. Braun calls on Orthodox parishes to consider the makeup of their congregation: is it mostly convert, mostly ethnic or mostly cradle? It's not the way that we're used to looking at our memberships, and the point of taking it into consideration isn't to denigrate the contributions of any of these backgrounds, but to assert the strength to be found in a church that contains all a mix of all three -- a "house blend".

"Where an atmosphere of suspicion and belittling tends to peak is in those environments where cradle and convert are effectively separated from one another. And, conversely, those issues fade when they are together. At my parish, the proportion is 55% convert and 45% cradle. (I’m probably the only one in the parish aware of those figures.) But we don’t think of each other as cradle or convert. We think of each other as broth­ers and sisters in Christ: we see each other as Orthodox Christians, and members of the same Body. I must admit that when I’m outside my own parish and meet some cradle Orthodox, I occasionally still feel the suspicion so strongly, I’m sure they feel the same coming from me. But in my “house blend” parish, we don’t have that problem."

This strikes me as a very gutsy comment to make, and one that many Orthodox may not want to hear. Surely we don't stereotype each other, surely we who have inherited the richness of the faith handed down to us wouldn't abuse it by judging other Orthodox simply because they haven't used the same road to get to church that we have. But we do, and the only thing worse than behaving in that way would be to blind ourselves to it.

Fr. Braun goes on to lay out the advantages to be found in the "house blend" and ends with a concise point of perspective that would sound extreme if it were not (in my very limited experience, at least) the truth:
"... the house blend must not be overlooked, and we will see more and more of these parishes as the distance in time and culture from homelands grows, converts increase in numbers, and Orthodox life grows stronger on this continent.

In other words, the Orthodox churches in America that want to succeed won't ignore the aspect of being not just convert, ethnic or cradle but a mixture.

If only someone would've been looking out for our little church with this in mind! We are a small church with perhaps 10 families. Our foothold was never very secure, and yet the parish managed to hold on for decades. But our core group is all from one background -- cradle Orthodox and closely related (the Old World model of extended family being one of the things, for better or for worse, that ethnic Orthodox have in common). So are their needs for the church bad? No, but this group is present in such a high proportion that their needs are overwhelming. There is simply too much of one kind of understanding of what church should supply and too little tolerance for what others might want. The people involved love this church -- they want it to go on forever. But they are suffocating the thing that they love the best.

Lest I sound like I'm only coming down on one side of this, the church I moved away from in another state had the opposite problem. It was peopled almost entirely of converts from the EOC movement of the 80's (of which I'm also a "graduate") and was in the midst of some severe growth pains because it couldn't let go of what it was and accept the input of those Orthodox who had been worshipping in the Church since childhood. The core group was, again, too much of one thing. And I've heard recently that that church is facing some dire possibilities in the immediate future.

It's a sad and terrible thing to watch the end of a parish church. I don't mean to speak ill of either of my two churches by airing their difficulties this way. But there are things that could have been done differently, and it seems to me worth being blunt in the interest of passing on the lessons we should have learned.

Friday, August 13, 2004

The privacy of your own home

Well, the news about the governor of New Jersey having an extra-marital affair with a young man (http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/26824.htm) would have been a scandal that would've ruined careers a century ago -- now it's just today's talker story. But as if to shoo away the appearance of condemning actions that are certainly worthy of condemnation, I've heard even the conservative talk show hosts repeat frequently, "Now, I don't care what anybody does in the privacy of their own home ..."

The privacy of our own home. Is there such a thing?

As far as the judicial and legislative branches are concerned, there certainly has to be. If the only answer for human fallenness is that another law should be passed, then by all means, consider the privacy of my home to extend far and wide.

But as people living together in this complex time, I think it has become too easy to overlook a Christian truth -- what I do in the privacy of my own home does affect others. Have you ever noticed how some weeks in church you can just tell that you're not the only one that had an argument with your spouse? Or that there's something else, something indefinable that is amiss with the congregation? The connection that we have with each other as humans is something we can't really fathom, and much as we would like to dismiss it casually at times when it's inconvenient or would lead us into temptation, we're all in this together. Our attempts at righteousness and our failures are not merely our own.

I don't wish to sit in judgment of Mr. McGreevy or the young man who now says he was the victim (why am I not surprised?), but what was done in private did matter. It would have mattered even if it hadn't come out. The circle of influence was widened by its being broadcast on the radio and television, but it was always there. If it's too difficult to say such things, then maybe it's the sort of thing that best to call to remembrance for oneself and leave the private actions of others to the only Righteous Judge. What I do matters, in my own home or elsewhere.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Why I think Bush will win

Might as well get this out of the way right off the bat. It's what everyone seems to have on their mind these days. I'm a forty-something and I've never seen Americans occupied with an election as much as they are now.

So since I'm no pundit and have absolutely no credentials in this arena, I thought it was vital that I pop off on the subject like everyone else has. I think Bush will win, and I think it's just possible that he'll win by a significant margin.

It's may be just wishful thinking, because I admit that I would much rather that he win than Kerry. But I think that Bush will win because liberals have engaged in a level of hate-speak that offends many people. They have villified him completely and now use the kind of language and venom to talk about him that religious people save for what is truly evil. And because the liberals haven't made a very convincing case that their hatred is tied in with the perceived unfairness in the 2000 election or even with the current war, I think there are many people who will reject the acidic bile-spewing that the liberals call rhetoric, and with it reject the message and the candidate.

These are ugly times. The left has been making the term 'Christian conservative' an epithet for many years. I think like many I would like to ignore the invective from the left, choose not to be hated. But it's less possible than it used to be, and if Bush does win, liberals seem likely to explode into a new level of outrage and passion. In the long, long run, I think that conservatives will lose, as they've lost in almost every country but this one. But those times aren't quite here yet. I think there are many Americans that aren't Christian or conservative who just aren't ready to embrace this level of pure hatred.