Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Joy and the Bother of Giving Alms

All of the following pictures are from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 Advent is one of the major fasting periods of the Orthodox Church.  From November 15 until the Christmas day Feast of the Nativity, Orthodox Christians are doing without meat and other animal products, with the exception of fish on certain days.  But these Fasts are intended to be about more than just doing without certain kinds of food.  The fasts are meant to be a means of repentance in our lives as well.  And an opportunity to help those in need around us through almsgiving.

Poor and handicapped people selling tapers outside a Church

I have discovered that there is no ‘look at me’ pride in doing these fasts because everyone else at Church is doing it, too.  This frees me to focus on the interior issues that need to be dealt with as the fast goes on.  Repentance is one of those issues, and all of us will make a time to spend with our spiritual father in confession.

But almsgiving is meant to be a secret discipline.  Jesus says, ‘Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’  Jesus then amplifies what He means: ‘When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.’ (Matthew 6:1-4)

When I lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I felt on some days I had been transported back to Bible times.  In front of Orthodox Churches or Mosques there would be laying in the dirt men with limbs twisted by polio or grotesquely enlarged by elephantiasis.  Women with club feet or with faces marred by tumors.  Children with deformities.  And lepers.  At intersections actually governed by a traffic light or policeman, we drivers would be approached by one, two or even three different people begging for alms.  I discovered that there was a leper hospital near where I lived.  Once these men and women had their Hanson’s disease under control, they might be capable of working, but because of their disfigurement, no one would hire them.  So they had to beg or their families would starve. 

Kenya has its share of desperately poor.  There are more opportunities to help than there are people willing to do so.  An ocean of souls in desperate straights.  Whether in Kenya or Ethiopia, it was easy to press some coins or cash into the outstretched hand and continue walking on.  It is much harder to stop and look the person in the eye and greet them and ask them their name and where they are from.  It is harder because suddenly and with a jolt I am treating the beggar, the opportunity, as a person, a person like me.  By stopping, by talking, by treating him or her as a person, I am not only giving some money but conveying dignity as well.  And dignity is something in short supply if you have been shoved aside by the community as useless or somehow cursed.

But I also discovered that not only did these beggars have faces and names, they have lives.  And regardless of what disease or misfortune had done to their frame and form, they were still, at heart, an image of the living God.  This is where giving gets hard.  It is much, much easier to give a coin or two, or write a check, or swipe a card.  But when I began recognizing different men and women and children because they were there day after day, week after week, month after month, charity took on a different meaning.  ‘Charity’ is, of course, the old fashioned English word for agape love, narrowed unhelpfully to mean doing something for the less fortunate.  But ‘charity’, love, calls me out of myself and into a relationship with the other.  We try not to go there, because relationship is hard.  Relationship means that love must enter the picture.  And with love comes engagement, time, giving and sacrifice.  Our culture is allergic to engagement, giving and sacrifice, and so are most of us, especially when it comes to engaging with those who are not in any position to give anything back to us.

Don’t get me wrong.  Giving money is better than giving nothing.  But if the exercise does not call us out of ourselves and towards the other, then it remains an exercise and not the intended engagement, not the intended relationship.

I live in my head most of the time.  The Advent disciplines of fasting, repentance and almsgiving are one of God’s signal means to draw me out of myself, in love, to love.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pictures of Reconciliation and Joy

Wounds heal.
Hearts change.
Love blossoms.
Joy returns.
'Nothing touches the tired spot,' Abraham Lincoln said when bowed down by the terrible burden of leading the country during the Civil War.
But even the darkest night give way to the light of morning.
Repentance can lead to reconciliation.
Love can be reborn.
Joy can heal a broken heart.
Here are some pictures that evoke these things for me.

The woman caught in adultery
He/she who is without sin is welcome to cast the first stone.

Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.

She washed Jesus feet with her tears.

We have been given the Ministry of Reconciliation.

John Paul II meeting with and forgiving Mehmet Ali Agca

The Sacrament of Repentance

'Reconciliation', outside Coventry Cathedral (UK)

Tears of joy come when things are right.

It is a great gift to grow old together,

And to see the joy of one's children.

and to die in the knowledge that you are loved.

All's well that ends well :-)!

Pictures of Grief and Loss

The heart is deep.  Who can know it.
If icons serve as windows into the reality of God's perspective, other pictures can be mirrors of the heart.  I found these while working on another project.  They touch something deep.  in me.

Unnamed by Robert and Shana Parkeharrison

'The Grief' (ipad) by chaseroflight

'The Loss' - artist unknown

'The Divorce' - Moshe Rynecki

'Water Veil (Virginia Don't Drown)' - Anne Pfaff

'The First Grief' - Charles Spencelayh

'Rachel Weeping' - Charles Willson Peale

'Why?' - Donald Bruce Wright

'Grief' - Cynthia Angeles

'Man in Chair' - Vincent van Gogh

'The Return of the Prodigal Son' - Rembrandt

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Living on the Edge

We were preparing to go as a family to Ethiopia and were speaking at a church hoping to find a few more individuals who would be excited to join our support team.  After our presentation, while we were chatting with friends before moving on to the service, a very  nicely dressed woman came to me and asked the question that was probably on many minds that morning.  ‘How in good conscience can you take your girls and raise them there in Ethiopia?’  Our girls were 10 and 8 at the time, and her question was asked in such a way as to make it quite clear that she considered ‘there’ to be a highly undesirable place to take children, much less have them stay there.  I’m not normally quick on my feet, but somehow I responded, ‘How in good conscience can you take your kids and raise them here in the US?’  I later noticed she wasn’t among our supporters.

Firstborn on the edge in Ethiopia

I have observed that we in the US who are privileged to be of a certain economic status possess an astonishing illusion of security.  We accumulate insurance policies for every possible disaster. We no longer worry about Dad getting us lost again, GPS will guide us to our desired haven.  Debit cards, credit cards, charge cards facilitate the disbursement of our treasure.  We have checking accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts.  We spend our adult lives pulling down our small barns and building larger ones.  We leap on the latest technology like hyenas on a fresh kill.  We abandon our early adulthood grotty apartments in the cheaper parts of town for increasingly spacious homes amongst the better sort.  If more stuff is a sign of the kingdom of heaven, then we of all people have surely arrived.

Secondborn on the edge in Ethiopia

And yet for all the security we have amassed, all the resources we can access, all the learning opportunities and educational experiences we provide for ourselves and our children, all the media with which we can distract ourselves, I can’t tell that it has reduced the number of families that fail, or the number of men and women who struggle with depression.  Alcoholism continues to destroy lives, as does addiction to narcotics of all kinds.  We are in denial over the scope and damage of child sexual abuse, as well as the devastating impact divorce and ongoing dysfunctional marriages has on the lives of many of the children who are involved.  It’s not enough for our kids to run around outside with make believe guns playing army.  Images of horrific violence are omnipresent on the screens in front of not only our grown-ups but our boys and girls, too.  And kids who have smart phones and tablets and computers are kids who not only can access pornography but most likely do.  And if these things weren’t distressing enough, despite our vaunted health care system and all those medicines that are touted when I am trying to watch the evening news (Don’t you just want to run out and try Cialis?), the death rate remains dismayingly high at about 100%.  However much we fork over for security and peace of mind, sooner or later reality will overtake us – there is no safe place.  Why would anyone want to raise children in a world like this?  Ethiopia was an island of sanity in comparison.

Driving on the edge in Addis Ababa

It turns out that all of us are living on the edge.  There is no safe place in this world.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim is in fact Everyman (and Everywoman).  All of us are fleeing the City of Destruction.  We find ourselves at various points mired in the Slough of Despond, or drawn like moths to the flame of Vanity Fair, or engaged in mortal combat with Apollyon himself.  This is for real.  Some of us won’t make it.

Ok, maybe not on the edge, but certainly on the equator.  Literally.

I’ve seen it again and again.  Maybe at some time we were ‘on fire for the Lord.’  We were active in a student fellowship.  Went to prayer meetings.  Went to Bible studies.  Went to church.  But when we left the hot house, we got a job.  Maybe we got married.  Maybe we had kids.  And those kids grew up and were involved in sports or music.  Maybe we started going to church with them.  Maybe we did our turn teaching Sunday school or keeping the nursery.  We sat in our regular spot on Sunday mornings and went about our very busy life the rest of the week.  And if someone would have asked, of course we are Christians.  We go to such and such church. We say grace before we eat supper.  We do no more and no less than everybody else we know.  It’s like that big dresser or bureau in the bedroom, with drawers for my running kit in the bottom, shirts in the middle and socks and underwear on top.  In the dresser of our life we have a drawer for our finances, a drawer for our family, a drawer for our professional life, a drawer for fun, and a drawer for our spiritual life.  It is the classic, ordinary American Christian life.

Me really on the edge in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia

This may work beautifully from a pragmatic American perspective.  But it is not a Christian life.  There are no ordinary Christians, who add ‘Christianity’ to an already overbusy life as if it were an elective one signs up for at school.  There are only men and women who have chosen to deny themselves and to take up their cross and follow Jesus.  The Lord knows no other category of follower other than disciple.  Being a Christian, in the New Testament sense, is not about adding yet another layer of illusory security, or some further spit and shine on an already successful burnished life.  Rather, Jesus more likely will deal with us as he dealt with the money changers in the temple.  Our carefully arranged tables of priorities get seriously overturned in this process.  Turns out ‘My Father’s House’ is about something different than me making money, or me being successful, or me achieving security, or even Me.

Yours truly playing with fire so far in the very south west of Ethiopia that it might be South Sudan.  Or Kenya.

So the American Christianity with which we are so comfortable, which is filled with ordinary Christians like us as well as with a few [choose your adjective:] really committed, holy, godly, sanctified, Spirit-filled [now choose your noun:] pastors, priests, monks, nuns, missionaries, hierarchs is in fact a mutant form of Christianity.  It’s just become so pervasive that we think it’s normal.  It isn’t.

Lots of edges to fall off of in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia

God doesn’t call the special people to go do special things and then leave the rest of us alone to lead our ordinary lives.  God calls each one of us.  Let me say this again:  God’s call comes to each one of us.  Every single one of us has a calling from God.  We are called by Jesus to be His disciple.  We are called to love God with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength.  We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We are called to engage the world around us, the world of contexts and relationships God placed us uniquely in, with the gospel.  And to paraphrase St. Francis, in doing so we may find it necessary from time to time to use words.  And the world we are living in has a very deceptive appearance.  It may seem to be a well-to-do suburban neighborhood with nice cars and lawns just so.  Or a busy college campus where everyone is above average.  Or a church full of people beautifully dressed and coiffed who probably couldn’t even spell the word ‘sin’ if challenged to do so.  But this world in which you and I find ourselves is terribly broken.  People are fallen.  Alcoholics shuffling down the blighted urban street are not the only ones medicating their pain.  The executive pushing others out of the way as he climbs up to what he thinks he needs and wants discovers that more money and more status cannot fill the black hole of his heart.  That woman’s husband batters her with his words and fists, but she is terrified to let anybody know because she is afraid that she will lose what’s left of the only life she knows.  That boy carries a secret too terrible to let anyone know – he is being abused by a relative.

Kermit the Frog on the edge in Kenya.

It is into this dark world that we followers of Jesus are called to carry His light and life and hope and peace.  Or, in other words, I may be called to be a missionary to engage in theological education in Kenya, but you are called, too.  You are surrounded by a crowd of people who don’t have the slightest idea what love looks like.  I may find myself living on the edge as I work to be Christ’s man in this time and place.  But you, too, are living on the edge.  It is what it means to be human, what it means to be working our salvation out with fear and trembling, what it means to love.  We are not ordinary people, and we meet no one merely mundane.

No ordinary people.

This of course is not a new idea.  C.S. Lewis says it as well as anyone else I have read or heard.  It is worth concluding by hearing this professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at length.  In The Weight of Glory he writes:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people. 

You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.  We must play.  But our merriment must be of that kind (and, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.  And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Harper One, 2001; posthumously published as The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1980), 45-46.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to Support a Missionary

[I wrote this for our upcoming parish newsletter, but I think it raises important issues concerning Christian stewardship, and a wider circulation might be useful.]

It was a revelation to me, many years ago, that missionaries had to raise their own support.  I had always thought that mission boards paid their missionaries.  Many years ago, in certain denominations, churches did pay a kind of ‘missionary tax’ or take special offerings to go to the denomination’s missions fund.  But the last vestiges of this way of funding missions died out in most denominations in the 1990s.  Today, almost all missionaries are dependent upon the pledges of individual donors and local parish budgets.  And because it may cost $40,000 or more to keep an American missionary family on the field, it takes a lot of people and churches to make each missionary ministry a reality.

From the missionary’s side, this means making contact with as many people and churches as possible, in the hopes that some of them may be interested in joining one’s support team.  As with many things, personal relationships make all the difference.  In my own experience, people who already know me and have a history with me are more likely to want to support me than someone who doesn’t know me from Adam’s housecat or who may simply be someone listening to ‘the missionary’ make a presentation at the parish coffee hour.  In my experience, relationship trumps even denominational identity.  I was surprised to discover, even after I converted to Orthodoxy from being a Presbyterian pastor and missionary, that most of the people who supported me as a Presbyterian were keen to continue their support once I had become Orthodox.  The same was not true with most of the Presbyterian churches that supported me, for obvious reasons.  And that is why it is important for missionaries to seek out new parishes and build relationships with the priests, parish and committee leaders and members there.

Reaching out to new individuals and parishes can be a challenge, as most Christians and parishes may have a more local perspective.  This is a good thing, and what I say here is not intended as a criticism.  It’s just that while a local perspective may be the default position – the way it is – among most Christians and in most parishes, the default position theologically is something very different.  My job as a missionary is to help local Christians and local parishes begin to see the world from God’s perspective, to see that salvation is not just about me, but that God intends me to be the means by which His salvation reaches ‘them’.  It means helping us to see that God’s love does not stop at the boundaries of our parish, or our jurisdiction, or our nation.  It means helping us to see that all the wealth of resources and technology have come to us from God’s hand not for us to spend on ourselves, but so that we might wisely steward His blessings to further His priorities.  These are counter-cultural concepts to try and communicate in the best of circumstances.  But they point to the reality that we find in both the New Testament and in much of Christian history, namely that the Church is primarily a missionary organization.  Our brief is straight from our Lord Jesus Himself, who said to His Apostles and thus to us, ‘Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations…’.  This is not one option among many, nor is it to be relegated to the ‘really committed super Christians’, a relegation that gets the rest of us off the hook.  No, it is our responsibility as Christians, to find our place in making Christ’s missionary mandate a reality in our generation.  For some of us, God wants us to go and make a difference in the lives of other people, following the incarnational example of our Lord.  For others of us, God has given us the means to help make this happen financially through our giving.  And for all of us, God calls us to join with all the saints and angels in the ministry of intercession, praying for our missionaries, their families and their ministries.  Missions is the work of the whole Church.  And it’s part of our calling as missionaries to help our people and our Churches grow into their God-given calling.

But how does this work at the level of my life?  How can I as an individual Christian plug into the big picture of what God is doing?  Let me share from my own experience.  God entrusts me with time and with resources.  And part of my own discipleship (as a follower of Christ) is realizing more and more that my time and my resources are not my own, but rather God’s, and that God has given all this to me so that I might be a steward of His good gifts.  This means that I am constantly in prayer about how God wants me to use the time and money that’s mine to use.  Some of this money and time I want to give to my parish.  But I also set aside a certain amount to help with special projects or ministries that come to my attention.  And say, when a missionary comes by and I hear of the need and I’m challenged to pray if God wants me to join his/her support team, I then ask God if this is something He wants me to do with the resources He has entrusted to me.  Sometimes God says, ‘Yes! Get involved!’  Other times God says, ‘No, I have other things I want you to do with what you have.’  But the key in all this is to ask God what He wants you to do.  I think God is particularly pleased when we ask Him to show us how He wants us to give and live.  I’ve never experienced silence when I’ve asked about these things!

Maybe you want to practice on me!  I’ve just been accepted as an Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) missionary to Kenya to help train the new generation of Christian leaders there, both at the Orthodox Patriarchal Seminary in Nairobi and at St. Paul’s University in Limuru and Nairobi.  I need to raise about $3330/month in order to cover my yearly budget.  I need a team of people who will commit to pray for me and my ministry, and I need individuals and churches who would be willing to pledge $100/month (or more!), $50/month, $25/month, or even $10/month towards my support.  OCMC makes this so easy to do so.  You can go to the OCMC website (http://www.ocmc.org )  and to their ‘Active Missionaries’ page (http://www.ocmc.org/about/active_missionaries.aspx) where you will find my picture under ‘Kenya’, with options to read about me and how to support my ministry.  OCMC will be happy to facilitate your giving, and will let me know what you’ve done.  Or you can let me know yourself through an email. 

So would you be willing to pray and ask God if this is an opportunity He wants you to be a part of?  The important thing is to ask.  One way or another, God wants to make you his blessing in the lives of many people.  And this is one of the primary ways He does it.

His Grace Bishop Innocentios, my spiritual father and now Bishop of Burundi and Rwanda
May God raise up many more like him.

There is nothing closer to God’s heart than missions.  We Orthodox hear again and again that God ‘loves mankind’.  And the gospel is the way God’s love is expressed.  And the gospel was never meant to stop with me or us.  It’s meant to go to every person, to the ends of the earth.  This is our glorious calling.  Will you make it yours?