Friday, February 16, 2018

The Mirror of Waiting

My work regularly requires me to create something from nothing.  Whether it is a lecture for a class, an article, a chapter in a book, a sermon, if I don’t do anything, nothing will happen.  The same thing for bigger events like missionary home assignment, schedules for visiting parishes and supporters, or even back here in Kenya, an entire job description, where the contours are agreed upon but the details are entirely blank.  This kind of life requires a lot of initiative, a lot of pushing, a lot of trial and ever-accompanying error.

I have not always been very good at this way of life, but I have gotten better at it over the years.  So much so that I can coast along quite efficiently about the tasks at hand, or, to use another metaphor from a circus act, I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping a bunch of plates spinning on top of sticks.  Sure I have the obligatory prayer rule and service attendance.  But they are all contained within that bubble of things that I control, that I make happen.

Although I, and possibly others as well, prefer to maintain the illusion of living in contexts that we can control, I think we all know that life constantly conspires to throw us out of our bubbles.  While there are many different scenarios that can send us reeling, I am experiencing one this week that, while one of the more simple factors that arise to disturb one’s equilibrium, I am also finding it a powerful tool in that process of theosis, of becoming more and more like God in our character, our choices, our love.  The opportunity comes about when one is faced with circumstances over which one has no control.  And at it’s most basic level, it is caused by the act of having to wait.  Waiting itself is neither good nor bad. Rather benefit comes when waiting becomes a mirror that reflects our heart.

I have become reacquainted with waiting this week.  I have spent hours waiting through a two day process of clearing my air freight through Kenya customs. I have spent another two days of waiting in the Kenya government’s immigration processes.  I have also been reacquainted with the traffic on Nairobi roads.  And as I write this I am in my third day of waiting for my car’s broken transmission issues to be remedied so I can move to Kisumu.  In each of these situations I have been faced with circumstances over which I have no control, circumstances that have prevented me from doing what I would rather be doing.  And in the process of this forced waiting, I am allowing myself to see that I have some issues of the heart that I was previously paying no attention to.

I have realised that I am impatient - wanting thing done according to my schedule and according to my plan.  I have realised that I am easily angered and cross when things don’t go my way.  I have realised that I have a tart tongue (the older way of putting it)/am snarky when dealing with people whose attitude I don’t like (an altercation with a security guard at the customs place comes to mind).  I have realised that I am a pro at allowing perceived grievances against another to justify my own wrong ways of dealing with it.  I realise that I have been rushing through my own prayers (as I coast along) and by doing so holding God at arm’s length hoping that God will not notice my selfishness and my self-centeredness.  It should not surprise  anyone that God in his mercy is not so easily distracted by my ridiculous evasions.  Which is probably why I am having such a bumper crop of opportunities to wait.

When my agenda was being thwarted by the events engulfing each of the enumerated items on my to-do list earlier this week, I was feeling frustrated.  Already exhausted by travel and reentry, my attempts to push through, to accomplish all the ‘necessary’ things on my agenda exhausted me, and I have felt spiritually empty.  But in God’s mercy I have realised that all this is actually a grace moment that I can embrace or shove aside.  Waiting has given me a chance to be reacquainted with myself and what’s really going on in my heart. Being sidelined from the rush of my self-imposed deadlines gives me a chance to see a reflection of my essential soul.  And being reacquainted I realised anew how still dominated by my selfishness I am, and as a result how sick I am, how in need of a Saviour I am.

The world rushes by around me.  I should be in Kisumu now, unpacking my things, kitting out a kitchen, huddling with the Bishop about what the next weeks hold.  But instead I am lying on my bed in my empty room in Nairobi, looking in the mirror, for a change.  Grateful for the God-given delay, for a change.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Repentance. Seriously.

I arrived safely in Nairobi on Friday afternoon.  That night, Fr. John asked me to preach Sunday at the cathedral.  And on the parable of the sheep and the goats no less.  Ready or not, I'm back in Kenya.

Sermon text:  Matthew 25:31-46

Fra Angelico's Last Judgement Triptich

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

This is, of course, Meatfare Sunday, the Sunday we Orthodox say goodbye to meat until Pascha.  It is also Judgement Sunday, another in the series of preparatory Sundays before Lent where we deal with issues of our sin and we find the way back to God through repentance.  And in particular we read every year at this point in our journey into Lent Jesus’ awesome and terrible parable of the Great Judgment, or the Sheep and the Goats.  This parable has always struck me, as I am sure it has you, with it’s immediacy, it’s urgency, and the power of Jesus’ words to cut through every excuse.  If we have a soft heart this morning, we cannot help but hear the Lord calling out to us in mercy, reaching out his hand to us in love.

We learn a couple of things about the great and final judgment from Jesus in this parable, and though we hear this parable every year, it’s good to be reminded of them.  First, the last judgement will be a universal judgment.   It will involve every person.  It doesn’t matter how old they are or how young they are.  It doesn’t matter how poor or how wealthy.  It doesn’t matter how powerful or how powerless, how wise or foolish, how smart or stupid.  Everybody must give an account of what they have done or not done with who they are and what they have.  All of the nations will be gathered before his throne, all of the living and all of the dead.  No one will be able to bribe their way out of having to stand before Christ, no one will be able to blame anybody else.  The last and terrible judgment will be a universal judgement.

But it will be a fair and a just judgement.  No one will be able to say to God, ‘You have not treated me rightly or fairly.’  No one will be able to hide or pretend, because God sees and God knows.  And like the people in the parable who question how God is judging them, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you?’  The Lord simply says, ‘Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’  

It will be a judgement not based on what you believe but on what you do.  The people sent from the presence of God into hell seem to have believed the very same things that the people who were welcomed into eternal life.  They address the Son of Man as Lord.  They sound properly religious.  But the Lord doesn’t judge anyone on whether they are religious enough, on whether they make pious prayers or go to church.  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘Many of you will come to me on that Day and say, “Lord! Lord! Did we not prophesy in Your name and cast out demons in Your name and do many wonders in Your name?” And I will declare to them, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness for I never knew you.”’ (Matthew 7:22-23)  The Lord is not impressed with our loud claims to be a Christian, or to be Orthodox, or to be ‘born again’ and ‘saved’.  The Lord is concerned with what we have done with our life, with our time, with our talents and gifts, with our possessions, with our money.  Have we used what He has given us for His Kingdom and for the sake of others, or have we spent it on ourselves? The Lord Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

If this is the case, then there are a lot of self-deceived people around us and maybe even right here among us this morning.  We think that because we are Orthodox that we will go to heaven.  But that simply is not true, according to Jesus, at least.  We think that because we can make pious sounding prayers, or we shout and dance at church, or we are involved in this or that group, that we must be among the saved.  But that too is simply not true, according to Jesus.  Instead, Jesus says that we will know the tree by the fruit it produces.  What comes out of our lives tells us more clearly than anything else what our final destination will be.  But like I said, there are a lot of deceived people around us.  Some 84% of the people in our beautiful country of Kenya claim to be Christians, claim to be ‘saved’.  But at the same time, this country is one of the most corrupt nations on the planet.  The powerful abuse the weak in the rush to grab more power and more of the perks that come with power, the rich bend the rules to favour themselves, the greedy scramble for more and more of everything. Politics is all about personal gain.  Even so-called Christians resort to bribes, steal their neighbour’s land, take their neighbours to court.  If 84% of Kenyans were in the process of being saved, then Kenya would be a paradise.  The fact that we aren’t, that we are so far away of being the paradise that God has called us to be, should be an indication that the so-called Christianity of too many here is nothing but a sham.  And the last judgement won’t tell us anything new about any of us, it will just reveal everyone for who we all are.

Jesus is doing many things in this parable , but one thing in particular that I want to focus on in conclusion is this.  Jesus wants to wake us up.  All of us are on one of two paths right now, a path leading towards Jesus, towards becoming like Jesus, towards eternal life; or a path leading away from Jesus, away from becoming like Jesus, a path heading towards everlasting punishment.  And every year our Orthodox Church brings us back to Jesus, back to this point, this parable, to wake us up.  We have another chance to consider which path we are one, another chance to consider what fruit our life is producing, whether we are sheep or whether we are goats.

The real reason Jesus comes to us with this parable, the real reason our Orthodox Church highlights and underlines what Jesus is telling us, is not to condemn us but rather to give us one more chance to repent.  There will be a final judgment, the way we live our lives will be held to account, how we treat the people around us will be examined.  But I don’t have to continue to live the same way, I don’t have to continue to mistreat people, I don’t have to keep on making choices that hurt me and hurt others.  I can turn away from living that way, and I can turn towards Jesus and ask forgiveness.  I can decide to get off the path I’ve been on, and instead get on the Lord’s path.  I can be aware of the hungry and the thirsty and the poor, and the sick, the unclothed, and the broken, and choose to be part of God’s solution for them rather than continuing to be part of the problem.  Our prayers of repentance tend to multiply during Lent, and if that’s all they are - prayers - then they are completely useless.  But if our prayers are joined together with action, with doing something about what we are praying about, then our prayers will result in genuine repentance.

What path are you on?  To which destination are you headed?  What do the choices you are making today tell you about  your life and your relationship with God and your repentance?  What is the Spirit of God showing you to do right now?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at Sts. Cosmas and Damian Cathedral in downtown Nairobi, Kenya.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Murder, He Wrote

A throw-back title to one of my favourite shows from years ago.  However...
Warning. Bad poetry ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

Truth is dead, evidently.
It’s passing unremarked.
No longer useful for the loud narratives 
Sucking up all the air in the room.
Control. And power.
Bending sight and sound
And memory into easy slavery. 
My own anger burns, 
Fanned by gusts of pain 
Ignited by memories I cannot suppress.
But, surprise, I become the problem, 
Funny how that works.
Unwilling to sing from the provided score,
Upsetting the carefully crafted veneer of pleasantness.
The abuser controls the pulpit, the wounded blamed to scorn.
We are all about appearances here.  
Nobody cares if there’s more than what’s on offer.
Nobody wants to know.
The truth might complicate matters, make things difficult,
Make us reevaluate, and open doors nailed shut 
For reasons we would rather not know.
Truth is dead,
But not some nursing home pneumonia 
Wracking a worn out body.
It’s murder,
And evidence leads every which a way,
Too many suspects to arrest.
But only one side is allowed in this court.
No one asks why. 
Move along. Nothing happened here.
A victim victimised.  An abuser abuses.
Coyly covered by a conspiracy of co-opted religious folk 
Complicit in an ongoing crime
Who see what they want to see,
Straining out a gnat, while the camel is swallowed with ease.
It happens all the time.
But is no less destructive, no less painful,
No less real. 
Caustic judgment a-plenty is
Levelled against the one who disturbs our peace, 
Who interrupts our Wheel of Fortune, 
Our Jeopardy of good feelings.
Don’t confuse us with the truth, we know what we believe!
The blows to my face are not physical, 
The kicks to the groin not with booted feet.  
But words lay me open, and abandonment leaves me to die.
I wish I could just get over it it 
And get on with my life as if it didn’t happen, 
As if it isn’t happening.  
But it did, and it is.
My life was wrecked, my family destroyed,
(And not for darkly whispered reasons)
And that’s ok? 
Forgiveness fixes nothing. The wound still weeps.
While she is enabled by family, by friends, 
By colleagues and churches full of good people,
Who fawn and refuse to believe nothing but the best, 
None of whom thought to question the version they were fed,
Or to consider that it was in fact just a story
Posing as reality.
But a half truth masquerading as the whole truth 
Is but an untruth.
And if the actual truth itself ran free, 
A darker story would crawl out of the swamp,
And force us all to get the help we need.
But today, nobody needs help, thank you.
Nobody wants help.

And we are all content to step over 
The corpse that’s in our midst.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sit. Wait. Pray.

Minutes sling their slow long arc.
Another page, monotone intercom background clutter.
Tired of this seat, built for that waiting room look.
Gotta find a coffee. Take the stairs.  
Has it just been 15 minutes?
Waiting for a baby.  
The one I waited for so many years ago now struggles to deliver her own.
And I, once-removed from the slow sure crescendo,
Am out of the center, not even supporting cast.
The children take our place,
Their turn on the stage,
Their life driving the world.
While we wait for others to act,
Others to suggest,
Others to decide.
The long slow fade begins, grey around the edges.
The panning lens catches new subjects,
Whose beauty is still fresh,
Whose faults still not so obvious.
Dread creeps in under the door, around the edges.
I’m old enough to know what could go wrong.
I cannot be with them.
I cannot not be there.
And so I keep vigil, powerless to help.
I can only pray, 
And attempt with quiet words to move this mountain.
If I said nothing, if I were not even here, 
Would this grandson come, this daughter kept safe?
This thread makes no difference to the fabric of this hospital, 
Is nothing in the crazy quilt of this universe.
But God beyond reason partners with such nothings to make His something.
It makes no sense, the definition of insanity.
Even so I sit.  And wait.  And pray.
And wait, and wait, and wait.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Dearth of American Orthodox Missions

I gave this message this past New Year's eve Sunday in a parish in Pennsylvania.  This particular parish is actually one of the exceptions, trying to do their part with what they have to reach their community and also support Orthodox overseas missionaries.  There are other parishes like them.  And we have a fantastic and effective sending agency to facilitate the sending of Orthodox missionaries, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). But as we will see, we American Orthodox Christians and our leaders still have some work to do.

This coming Tuesday morning, everyone of us who is a student will get up, get dressed, have breakfast and put our warm clothes on and head out the door because of what?  Apologies, but You’re going to school!  And when you get to school, what are you going to do?  You are going to listen, take notes, discuss get in groups - you are going to learn.  And what’s the purpose of you going to school and learning?  So you can get into a university and do more learning.   And you go and do that because that’s one of our culture’s best ways of enabling you to support yourself and your family and to enable you to pursue your dream.  That means all the young people in this room right now have a mission.  To go to school and do the best they can so that with God’s help the right doors will open for you to be the man or the woman God is calling you to be.

And you men and women here this morning,  when you wake up on Tuesday or Wednesday, there’s a good chance that you are going to get yourself ready and then do what?  Go off to work. And what are you doing going to work?  Most of us work because we need to support ourselves and our family.  And that’s important.  But God has you there for an even bigger reason, so that you can be God’s light in that place, so that you can be God’s love in that place.  So you get up and go to work because you know that God is in the middle of all this and so you have a mission.

But what about us as a church?  Why do we exist?  What brings us together?  Someone might say, so that the Mysteries can be celebrated and offered.  And yes, that is very important.  Someone else might say so that we can grow in Christ and attain theosis.  And yes that too is very important.  But many of us have lost sight that this is not all.  There’s more!  We don’t just have a mandate to love and serve one another in our parishes, as important as that is.  We also have a purpose, a calling, a mission.  We don’t just face inward.  We face outward, and with intent.  But for most parishes [there are a number of wonderful exceptions, but they serve to prove the rule], it’s sort of like getting off a plane at an airport and then collecting my bag and then waiting with other people for a bus.  And a bus comes and we all get on, and then the bus starts going.  And it is a proper bus, with comfortable seats, and a loo in the back.  It might even have an entertainment screen on the seat back in front of you.  But after a few minutes you look around, and some of your fellow passengers have fallen asleep.  Others are watching a movie.  Others are engrossed in conversation.  But you are wondering, where are we going?  And so you ask the person next to you, ‘Do you know where we are going?’  And they don’t.  And so you ask someone else, and they don’t either.  And so you go up to the driver and ask her. And she doesn’t know either.  And so you check the bus number, and it is the right bus, its the ‘ortho’- bus so to speak.  We seem to be making good time, but it’s good time to nowhere, because nobody knows where we’re supposed to be going.

Makeshift Iconostasis at a Divine Liturgy under at tent in a newly organising parish in Kenya.

Or let me put it another way.  In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is set apart because he has a mission.  And he gives everything he has to accomplishing that mission, of preparing the way of the Lord.  And when the Lord Jesus comes, he too has a mission.  And he gives everything he has to accomplish that mission, the mission of bringing salvation to all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  And the apostles, and those other men and women who were around Jesus, who heard him teach, watched him heal and perform miracles, saw him die, witnessed him resurrected from the dead, those men and women also had a mission - to be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

And we, Christians today, we our Lord’s Church today, we have a mission.  Because our mission hasn’t changed from when our Lord Jesus commissioned his apostles and all his followers to go in his name and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And then he gave this promise to them - Look, as you go in my name, I will be with you always, from now until the end.  And my Holy Spirit will empower you and enable you to fulfil the mission I am giving you.

l/r Fr. Dcn James and his wife Jane, Bishop Athanasios, Fr. Agapios, and Dr. Bill,
on a preaching mission to Butali, Kenya in July 2017.

Did you know that we have a mission?  We Christians?  We the Church?  And do you know how we are supposed to accomplish this mission?  Paul puts it this way:  ‘How can they call on Someone of whom they don’t know?  And how will they believe in Him if they have never heard of Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?  And how can someone preach unless they are sent?  As it is written:  How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ (Romans 10:14-15, paraphrase mine)  We are Gospel people, says Paul.  We are either being sent, or we are helping with the sending.  And we are either being sent or helping to do the sending because we want all the people’s of the world to hear the good news about our Lord Jesus, we want to remove everything that might possibly get in the way of hearing and responding to His love.  And the church, our church is charged with making this happen.  Our vocation is to be a missionary community, both right here in our Jerusalem and over there in our Judea and Samaria, and even to the farthest corners of the planet.  God calls us to be his missionary people, either going ourselves in His name, or making it possible for others to go and be his love.

Divine Liturgy led by His Eminence Makarios for Maasai in the Rift Valley

Let me give you some statistics.  I was for 21 years an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  They have about as many members as all the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States have put together.  And they are one of the most liberal of the Protestant denominations.  They have about 1,700,000 members. Do you know how many missionaries the PCUSA has overseas right now?  About 200 full time missionaries.  There was a conservative split off the PCUSA about 40 years ago called the Presbyterian Church in America.  They have about 370,000 members. Guess how many full time missionaries they have? 800.  They are 1/5 the size and send out 4X the number of the larger more liberal denomination.  The Assemblies of God, a big American Pentecostal denomination, has about 2000 full time missionaries. The Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in our country with about 16 million members, they have 3,800 missionaries.  SIM is the largest independent evangelical mission organisation, and they have 4,400 full time missionaries. 

Talking to some guys about the Gospel and Orthodoxy

And now, can anyone guess how many missionaries are presently sent out by all the Orthodox jurisdictions of the American Churches?  19 full-time missionaries.  And I am one of them.  In fact, I am the only American Orthodox OCMC missionary serving on the whole continent of Africa.  We don't have thousands.  We don't have hundreds.  We have 19. Let this number sink in.  Because I think it shows us all where our priorities are not.  We have been called by our Lord himself to be a missionary people, to either go ourselves or to help in the sending.  Are there only 19 of us?  And this one standing before you is having trouble raising his support because I can’t find enough people either interested in or willing to help with what God is doing through the Orthodox Church in Kenya and all of Africa.  And the Orthodox seminary where I was teaching, where I was the deputy dean under HE Archbishop Makarios, was shut down 18 months ago because we have no funding.  We are the only school on the continent training Orthodox priests for the African Churches, and now we have sent all our students home because we have no money.  Our lack of engagement with our missionary calling as Orthodox Christians and parishes is having serious consequences, not just in Africa, but across the globe.

Me preaching at a Pascha day evangelistic outreach sponsored by a local parish

So let me ask you, what is your mission?  What is your reason for existing as a Church?  Are we riding around in a comfortable, beautiful bus but going nowhere?  Or is your heart on fire with the love of God the way John the Baptist’s heart was on fire, the way the apostles’ hearts were on fire?  The way our Lord Jesus himself is burning with love when he thinks of you, when he offers himself for you and me on the cross, when he rises again from the dead for you and me, when he sends his Holy Spirit for the very purpose of empowering us to be His witnesses starting right here in  your neighbourhood and crossing every ocean to every hamlet and village, every mega city and every slum, even to a place called Kisumu in western Kenya where Bishop Athanasius Akunda has called me to come and join him in his work there.  The Lord is doing a great work of salvation across this world, and he is calling you to come and join him.  Will you come?  Will you help?  Remember what Mordecai said to Queen Esther when the Jews faced annihilation?  ‘Do not say to yourself that you alone will be saved in the kingdom apart from all the other Jews.  For if you choose not to heed this request at this time, help and deliverance for the Jews will arise elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish.  Besides, who knows whether it is for this occasion that you reign as queen?’ (Esther 4:13-15)

Me speaking to 100+ university students who came to learn about Orthodoxy.

We Americans are blessed.  We have more than we could possible need or use.  God has called us to be his partners, he is giving us a mission in our Jerusalem, yes; but in our Judea and Samaria as well, and even to the ends of the earth.  Who knows whether it is for this occasion that you are an Orthodox Christian and an Orthodox parish in this place and at this time?

Makeshift altar for outreach service under a tree.

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