Monday, October 8, 2018

Good Grief - The Perilous State of American Politics

In the UK, it’s called ‘spin’.  It’s what individuals, political parties, corporations engage in to reduce the impact of potentially negative publicity, mistakes in strategy or poorly designed policy.  It’s intended to deflect responsibility and blame from where it rightly rests onto the shoulders of another person or party or group.  In the UK, the media were very keen on detecting spin when it was being practiced by the ‘enemy’ – the politicians (read Tony Blair) or political party (read the Labour government under Tony Blair) despised by various versions of the left as well as by the opposition Tories.

In the United States today, we are seeing a classic version of the same phenomena.  The Democrats had a weak hand – allegations without out corroborating evidence.  They played it as if it was a slam dunk surety to disqualify the conservative nominee’s further advance and, hopefully, from their point of view, stave off a conservative takeover of the Supreme Court.  This, of course, has always been the political goal of all of the smoke and mirrors deployed in recent months as the debate gathered steam.  The problem with this strategy is that now all of the progressive activists who despise a conservative perspective (and anyone who professes to hold such a perspective), taking their cue from their national democratic leaders, have decided that the weak and unplayable hand against the nominee should have disqualified him anyway and that anyone who disagrees is themselves disqualified because either they are male, white or conservative.  I have read rhetoric from some of these people justifying violence against people like me who happen to disagree with them on points of ideology and policy.   It’s like the prospect of losing influence in one of our branches of government has caused people to be de-ranged, to lose their minds, as if their world is coming to an end.  Please.  This is democracy and the way American government works.  It’s called checks and balances.  It allows the winner of the presidential election to fill vacancies by nominating people to the judiciary and even to the Supreme Court.  For forty or fifty years, matters took a decidedly liberal turn in terms of legislation and judicial interpretation.  And many of us were very unhappy with that turn.  But that's what happens in a democracy.  Sometimes we don't get our way.  But we don't try to intimidate all opposition and force the change we want when we can't get what we want, at least in the America that I have known.  And people like me, after patiently working over decades, however much we may dislike the person at the top of the ticket, we now have an administration with a decidedly more conservative legal perspective than what preceded it has come to power in Washington. And now it is doing what it’s supporters who elected it were hoping all along it would do – nominate conservative judges.  This is what all the shouting is about.  But this is not what one is hearing from the media.

The spin comes in because members of the minority party and their supporters are angry because their tactic of using a woman’s uncertain memory of an event that the accused says never happened did not succeed in scuppering his nomination.  And now they are blaming the FBI, the Majority Leader, the Nominee, the ‘unfair process’, threatening scorched earth in their attempts to take revenge for their defeat and remove a man from the Supreme Court, now through impeachment (!), that they have decided is guilty, though after months of trying, they have not been able to offer a modicum of evidence to establish his guilt.

Instead the whole charade, and that is what it is, is a rather transparent effort to push a vile political, ideological and legal agenda on me, and many people politically, ideologically and religiously like me, by a sham ‘trial’ in the judiciary committee, enabled by their major media fellow travelers who cannot even pretend to be even-handed in their coverage of the issue any more.  I would agree with Senator Graham who had the courage to call a spade a spade and tell his fellow members on the committee responsible for this attempted coup against justice that he is glad that they and their ideology and methodology will be denied the opportunity of putting someone in that empty seat on the Supreme Court.  The fringe left has already succeeded in implementing a culture of death in our country, where women are told that the act of murdering their baby in their womb is their right and anybody else who might be concerned about the death of another human being should mind their own business.  They have used the wedge of ‘rights’ to demand that LGBTQ advocates rewrite curriculum for Kindergarten and primary school children, to remove any hint of a morality that doesn’t think that gay sex is anything other than ‘normal’, or that gender confusion is anything other than ‘normal’.  And who gives these people the right to force their ‘morality’ down my throat?  Have I lost the right to disagree? To teach my children what my religion, my tradition, my culture teaches is the right way to live?  Well according to the wedding cake baker-haters, no right exists to disagree with them.  Because they have, in their arrogance, decided to redefine morality so that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  Because their sexual and identity ideologies are more important than any one’s rights to disagree.  Because we have come to the place where disagreement has been redefined as ‘hatred’, and ‘hatred’ (read: disagreement) triggers all sorts of bad feelings.  And we can use these bad feelings and the 'outrage' (yet another over-used word) engendered as the lever to put you in your place.  I have watched this linguistic sleight of hand occur over the past 10 years or so and now we see where it is leading – into a totalitarian society where one is either part of the collective (the Borg, for Star Trek New Generation fans), or one must be eliminated.  Constructing this sort of society is not as difficult as it may seem.  And efforts to do so succeeded famously in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, until a very costly hot war took down the Nazis and a very costly cold war eventually undid the Soviets.  I wish these people had a better grasp of history, because then they might just be alarmed enough at their own trajectory to plot a better course before they find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Anyway, the shallowness of thinking, the shallowness of perspective and the utter lack of humility is what is most distressing in all of this.  It’s as if the ideologues, the protesters, the senators actually believe that a rapist has been made a Supreme Court justice.  And so they are working themselves up into a self-righteous frenzy to undo what seems to them to be a gross travesty of justice.

All along, I and many on the Conservative side of this issue have said, show us your evidence and we will agree that such a person should not go further in the process.  But no evidence was ever brought forth.  Outrage is not evidence.  Heated rhetoric is not evidence.  Spin is not evidence.  We can have sympathy for Dr. Ford and what she remembers she went through, but that alone is not evidence.  History teaches us again and again that we simply cannot trust one person's account, especially when so much is at stake.  What these people refuse to understand (perhaps they simply cannot understand) is that if we allowed their allegations to remove someone from a nomination process, or from a position of responsibility and power, with no corroborating evidence, then all of us are in danger of the same thing happening to us.  What these people cannot grasp is that the requirement of evidence to support an allegation actually protects them!  Once the requirement of evidence is done away with, then justice is made captive to whim, to rumor, to desires for revenge, to petty greed.  And under such conditions, ‘justice’ becomes a tool of those in power as a means to maintain themselves and their ideology in power. Trust me (or at least trust history), that is not a society that anybody, even those on on the fringe left, want to live in.

So I am listening to the fire-breathing recriminations from politicians and media reporters and opinion writers, petition-signing lawyers, and so-called (liberal) experts with dismay.  They really do not know what they are doing.  And unless they come to some sort of enlightenment, we are in serious trouble.

Friday, October 5, 2018

An Orthodox Prayer for Orthodox Disciples

O Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You sent Abraham to a land unknown to him, to bless his household, that they might become a blessing to all nations. From his seed, You raised up the people of Israel, who you also sent to a land unknown to them. You called them to be set apart through holiness of life in order that they too might become a blessing to all nations. From this people, You brought forth the ever virgin and sinless Mary, that she might become the Theotokos, the bearer of God.

And so in the fullness of time and through synergy with your beloved creation, the eternal Logos became human and dwelt among us. In his earthly life, our Lord Jesus Christ, preached good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He set at liberty those who were oppressed and proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord. He called ordinary fishermen to follow him and raised them up to become his disciples whom he transformed into fishers of men.

In the light of his glorious death and resurrection, He affirmed that all authority was His and promised to be with us to the very end. He gave His disciples His peace and empowered them with the gift of the Holy Spirit. As the Father had sent Him, so He sent them to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation; to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name; to make disciples of all peoples and to initiate them into His church through the sacrament of baptism and the observing of his commandments. He sent them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In every generation from that day until now, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has continued to call ordinary men and women to become His disciples and to be sent out into the world as salt and light.

I desire, Lord Jesus Christ to be sent by you into this day that you are creating. I ask for the gift of your peace and your Holy Spirit for the known and unknown work of this day. You have promised that apart from You I can do nothing. Therefore, I desire Lord Jesus to abide in You and for You to abide in me. Reveal to me what I must do to receive you fully today.

Lord Jesus, bless my heart that it might be inflamed with love for You and that which You love. Bless my mind that it might be illumined with the truth. Bless my eyes that I might see You in each person and in all circumstances. Bless my ears that I might listen to You and others and hear their true needs. Bless my lips that I might sing Your praises and speak life giving words. Bless Lord my hands for the working of miracles. Make radiant my face with the joy of Your salvation. Grant me today to seek unity with and between others that we might be one as You and the Father are one so that the world might believe that you have been sent not to condemn but to save.

I desire Lord Jesus to pick up my cross and to follow you today. Lead me today to the person of peace who’s life is mystically interwoven with my own for the purposes of your Kingdom. Make soft our hearts; open our ears to your promptings and our eyes to see you in our midst and in each other. AMEN.

This prayer was written by my friend Geoff Whiteman, who is an OCMC Mission Specialist (assisting in missionary care) and who is a marriage and family counsellor/therapist in Asbury, KY.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

When Grace Takes Hold (strange things happen)

‘Christ does not demand anything from you to give you His holy gifts other than to acknowledge that anything good you happen to have belongs to Him.  Sympathize with him who does not have gifts.  Don’t judge him because he doesn’t have any, saying that he is a sinner, depraved, evil, a babbler, a thief, a fornicator, a liar.  If you acquire this knowledge, you will never be able to judge anyone, even if you see him committing a mortal sin, because you would say right away: “He doesn’t have Your grace, my Christ, and that is why he sins.  If You leave me, I shall do worse things.  If I am standing, it is because You are supporting me.  This brother does as much as he can.  He is blind.  How do You expect him to see without eyes?  He is poor.  How can You demand riches from him?  Give him riches.  Give him eyes to see.”

If you seek justice in anything - when your neighbor treats you unjustly, dishonors you, reviles, you, hits you, persecutes you, or even plots against your life - you are unjust if you consider him to be the cause or passionately criticize him.  For you are seeking from him something that God has not given him.  If you understand fully what I am telling you, everyone will seem unaccountable for whatever his faults may be, and only you will be accountable for everything.’

Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (Florence, AZ: St. Antony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, 1998), 77.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Shame. Shame. Shame.

Have women been subjected to sexual assault and rape by men in positions of power and authority for as long as can be remembered?  Absolutely.  Has the recent awakening of women and subsequent willingness to stand against and call out their abusing bosses and colleagues been a good thing?  Absolutely.

But the tawdry spectacle witnessed the past few days in the US Senate and on multiple networks and blogposts across the country has not just been disgusting, but a flashing red light warning anyone who cares to notice that we have entered a very dangerous place as a nation, as a society.

These hearings should never have happened and these accusations, plus the accusations of the other so-called victims should never have been given play.  The reason has nothing to do with the heinousness of rape or sexual abuse or attempted sexual abuse.  Women who have experienced these things have been legitimately traumatized.  Our society, which is governed by laws, laws which state that such behavior on the part of men against women (and other men) are serious crimes which should be prosecuted, owes these women justice.  Women deserve communities and workplaces and public arenas where they can be free of and safe from the unwanted predations of men.  Based on the revelations that have come forward on the part of courageous women over the past year or so, we do not yet live in such a society.

However, what we just witnessed in this extraordinary hearing which gave an airing to Dr. Ford’s accusations and Judge Kavanaugh’s response, makes a travesty not just of justice, but of the so-called ‘Me too’ movement itself.  I read commentators falling over themselves to say how ‘courageous’ Dr. Ford was in coming forward, and claiming that we had just witnessed ‘powerful, credible and compelling’ accusations against a teenaged boy more than 30 years ago.  What these commentators are assuming is that an accusation should be enough to bring down a powerful man.  Let me restate that.  An accusation alone, an uncorroborated accusation, an accusation without further witness support.  The entire media circus, the entire political process has been coopted to ensure the destruction of one man who represents significant opposition to the rampant liberal/secular ideology that drives their political and cultural agenda.  Dr. Ford may actually be remembering something.  But in our system of laws, one doesn’t bring forward accusations that one cannot prove.  Sincerity, credibility, persuasiveness do not equal proof.  Never have, never will.

Instead, Dr. Ford has been used by people who ultimately, despite their flowery commendations, do not care about her as a person, only about what she can do as an alleged victim to ensure that this political process be stopped.  It’s not the other party that should be blamed for asking of this plaintiff difficult questions.  It’s rather the party that brought her forward, prepped her, and then paraded her as their big reason why such a terrible man should not be put on the Supreme Court.  The unspoken (and in some places, spoken) implication is, what does this tell us about that political party, about Conservative policy and politics, that they would put a RAPIST on the Supreme Court?  This is meant to be our take-away.

Please.  Even Dr. Ford, in her own words, never alleges rape.  She alleges that the boy was in the room with others.  That certain things were done to her that, if true, were reprehensible, but not rape.  But none of the companions that Dr. Ford lists as potential witnesses are able to verify her story.  We, therefore, don’t know what really happened.  Did it happen as Dr. Ford remembers?  We don’t know.  Is Judge Kavanaugh’s version of events the better reflection of what happened?  We don’t know.  Without witnesses and evidence, we are left with ‘he said, she said.’  And our society’s laws wisely do not pass judgment on anybody on the basis of an accusation alone.

And the reasons for this are not difficult to trace.  People lie all the time.  Credibly.  Powerfully.  Persuasively.  People may be motivated by revenge, to get back at someone, and so they concoct a compelling story to get that person in trouble.  Jealousy, envy, hatred, even politics may be enough to try to destroy another person.

In this case, I personally believe that Dr. Ford and her incomplete, unverifiable story has been used by people, ideologues in the minority party to scupper a nomination that, if successful, could keep their enemy’s ideology from a controlling stake on the Supreme Court for years to come.  In this case, motive for such behavior is rather transparent.  And the desperation evidently felt to stop this at any cost has led to using testimony that would not be allowed to stand in any legitimate American court of law.  It is actually a very weak hand the minority party is playing.  They are plainly hoping that public (i.e. partisan) outrage will push the process into chaos and prevent the President’s party from what is their constitutional right – filling vacancies on the Supreme Court.

But in the meantime, they are willing to destroy a man and his family, and willing to use a woman and her high school experience to achieve their ends.  And if political ends justify these sorts of means, then not one of us is safe anymore.  If all it takes is one accusation to undo a man and his career, his family, his reputation (or a woman, her career, her family, her reputation) – this is where the flashing red light comes from.  This is the way totalitarianism begins.  This is how movements gone wrong clear the room, or the board, or the society of it’s ‘enemies’, i.e., those who from conscience-sake choose to disagree.  These people begin to disappear.  All for the sake of the movement, for the ideology.  This is what I am afraid is going on here.  History itself shows us that this thing can happen from the Left (Czarist Russia was obliterated and millions, yes millions of Christians exterminated because of their perceived threat to Marxist ideology) or from the Right (truth was the first victim in the rise of the National Socialists in Germany). 

So this is not just a political game played up by media outlets for ratings and advertising money.  This episode is evidence of something more serious, more sinister going on in our society, in our nation.  And most people are so consumed by pursuing short term ideological victories, they can’t see the bigger picture.  But we are not invulnerable to the same mistakes made in earlier times by earlier societies.  We are not ourselves far from the slippery slope.  It’s possible to walk all this back.  But from my vantage point I don’t see anyone in entrenched political or cultural power on either side wanting to do so, or anyone who even cares, for that matter.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Boats, Fish, and the Call

The little Kisumu, Kenya parish of St. Moses of Africa continues to grow bit by bit.  When we started on Palm Sunday earlier this year there were three, maybe four of us.  On one of those early Sundays, there was just me, leading a Readers Service for the angels.  But person by person, God is building His Church.  And today we had fourteen of us.  And that was not including one of our mothers and two children who have been coming since June.  Of the seventeen that could now be considered our circle, several are students attending local universities, several are Orthodox young adults who work in Kisumu, several travel from other parishes to help us with the chanting and singing, several who are Orthodox but are not from Kenya (like me), and we have six who are not Orthodox but who God seems to be drawing to Himself and to us.

I was the preacher today. The Gospel reading, on which I based my sermon, was Luke 5:1-11.

Let’s talk about boats.  How many of you have ever been in a boat?  How many have ever gone fishing in a boat?  Boats are a big deal in the New Testament.  Boats are mentioned in the gospels more than 50 times.  Jesus traveled by boat across the lake of Gennesaret a number of times.  At least four of his disciples had boats and were fishermen.  
Did you know that the remains of a fishing boat were discovered along the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret in 1986 during a time of drought when the water was low?  They were able to extract it from the mud and preserve it.  It turns out this boat dates from the first half of the first century AD.  You can see it in a special museum they built for it.  It was likely being used when Peter and Andrew and James and John were making a living in their boats as fishermen.  It could have been one of the boats on the lake when Jesus was there.  Anyway, it’s about 27 feet long and 7.5 feet wide and about 4.5 feet deep, with a flat bottom so they could fish close to shore.  But it also has a place for a mast, so the owners could sail across the lake if they wanted to.

27 feet is precisely the length of my living room/dining room where St. Moses parish meets

Now that you have an idea of the kind of space that we’re dealing with when it comes to boats, I want you to think about fish.  Lots of fish.  Jesus just asked Simon to go out a bit into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch.  And Simon very politely (because he is a fisherman and knows what he is doing) explained that there aren’t any fish here right now because they just spent the whole night doing just that.  But he humors Jesus and puts his net down anyway.  And all hell breaks loose.
The net is full.  Fish are spilling into the boat.  More and more fish flopping out of the net, filling the floor with fish.  Simon yells to James and John and they row their boat out to help.  And now fish are flopping out of nets filling both boats.  More and more fish.  Simon and Andrew are up to their knees in fish and the boat is riding low with fish and about to take on water.
So there is Jesus, sitting in the front of the boat, surrounded by fish.  And Simon looks at Jesus and it suddenly connects what’s going on.  He realizes that there is way more to Jesus than he can comprehend.  ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’
You see, this isn’t the first time they encountered Jesus.  Jesus moved to Capernaum from Nazareth not so long ago, and he has been teaching and preaching in all the local synagogues.  He’s been doing miraculous healings and casting out demons.  Simon, Andrew, James and John had been very much taken with John the Baptist, and John had introduced them to Jesus.  So they have all likely already heard Jesus; they have likely witnessed healings and exorcisms.  And now they are in their boats with Jesus and with more fish than they have ever brought to shore before.  And Jesus says to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is more explicit:  ‘Come follow me, and I will make you catch people instead.’ (Mark 1:17)
And Luke says, ‘When they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Him.’ (Luke 5:11)
So I’ve said something about boats.  And I’ve said something about fishing.  I want to end by saying something about following Jesus, about discipleship.  First I want to say what discipleship is not.  Discipleship is not about being a church member.  Discipleship is not about growing up in a Christian family.  Discipleship is not about belonging to a particular ethnic group.  Discipleship isn’t about attending services, or even being a choir member or a chanter or serving at the altar, or even being a deacon or a priest.  Discipleship isn’t knowing a lot about Christianity, or Orthodoxy, or Jesus.  Now understand, I’m not saying that these things are not important.  I am saying that none of these things is what being a follower of Jesus is about.
We understand what being a disciple is all about by observing the first disciples.  Jesus called them.  They responded.  That’s discipleship. Jesus calls, you follow.  They left their fishing business, their boats, their homes, their extended families.  And they followed Jesus as he went from there through Galilee and Samaria and Judea and eventually to Jerusalem.  There they saw their Lord crucified and buried.  There they met Him risen from the dead.  There they saw him ascended to heaven.  There they were filled with the Spirit and began proclaiming the good news of the risen Lord.  And now that good news has come to us, right here, this morning.
Jesus’ presence changes everything.  And Jesus’ call for you to follow Him will mean your life will never be the same.  And we can either pay no attention and continue to live our lives the way we have always lived them as if nothing has happened, as if nothing is different, as if nothing has changed, as if Jesus is not who He says He is.  We can pretend that we can be a ‘Christian’ and keep on living our lives without repentance, without changing, or…
Or we can hear His call, and respond, and leave our old life behind, and choose instead to follow him.  Something astonishing has to happen in a person’s heart to be willing to do this.  We have to become like Simon Peter up to our knees in fish – we have to see Jesus for who He is.  And once we see Jesus for who He is, we have to see ourselves for who we really are.  At some point, our eyes are opened, we see, we understand, and we too are willing to leave everything to follow Him.
Jesus calls us, not to a religion, but to a relationship with Him.  But he also calls us to surrender our lives, to surrender our agenda and everything we have and are over to him.  Jesus buys you out of your slavery to the darkness, to the devil, to the world.  And now you and I are His, we belong to Him.  We do not belong to ourselves.  We now understand that who we are, we understand that what we do, we understand that what we have and what time is ours now belongs to Jesus for Him to use as He desires.  As the Apostle Paul says, ‘He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him who died and was raised for them.’ (2 Corinthians 5:15) 
So who are you this morning?  To whom do you belong?  Are you still living the world’s life, the devil’s life?  Are you trying to keep one foot in the Church while the other is in the world?  Are you someone with the name of Christian only? Or have you responded to Jesus’ call to you that you come and follow him, that you become his disciple?  Are you a Christian because your family is a Christian? Or do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior and your Lord? Are you growing in your relationship with Him?  Could anybody looking at your life right now find any evidence that you are actually a follower of Jesus?  Or does your life look pretty much like everybody else around you?
If you have never responded to Jesus’ call, you can do so right here and right now.  I don’t know what the equivalent of a boat-full of fish is for you.  But Jesus’ hand is extended to you.  ‘Come follow me,’ he says.  ‘All the things you have built your life on are based on empty promises that will never satisfy and will take you further and further away from the only One who can satisfy and save and change and transform you heart and your life.‘ We don’t to altar calls here, at least like they do at other churches.  But that shouldn’t stop me or any one of us from saying, ‘Yes, Jesus, I want to know you.  I want to follow you.  Please forgive me for my selfish life.  Save me from the world and its soul-destroying systems, from living for my passions, from the devil who is working hard to destroy me.  Please make me your disciple.  Please change my heart.  Make me like you.’  The Christian life is a relationship, a journey, and a process.  But just like with Simon and Andrew, just like with James and John, it has to start someplace.  When they got to shore, they took the first step.  Do you remember when you took your first step?  And if you haven’t yet, what is keeping you from doing so now?

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

[This is a modified version of a sermon I preached on the same passage when I was in Nairobi in September 2015.]