Wednesday, May 27, 2015

St. Moses the Black on Our National Sport

This story has been handed down from the 5th century.

 In a famous skete, a monk committed a sin.  The Abbots came together to judge him.  They also invited Abbot Moses the Ethiopian.  He didn't want to come.  The presiding Abbot invited him, saying, "Please come.  All the Abbots are waiting for you."

Abbot Moses filled up a leaking straw bag with sand, placed it on his shoulder and went on his way to the meeting.

The Abbots had great respect for Abbot Moses.  As soon as they were informed of his arrival, they rushed to welcome him.  But when they saw Abbot Moses carrying that strange load, they asked him in surprise, "What is this, father?"

Abbot Moses replied, "These are my sins.  I can't see them, because they slide behind me.  Even though I carry this load, I come here to judge other's sins."

The Abbots, hearing these words, understood their meaning.  They forgave the monk without judging him.

I came across this story in the small volume compiled by George Kalpouzos, How They Faced the Temptations of the Flesh (Fotodotes: Athens, GR, nd).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

To See or Not to See? - That Is the Question

I learned something new and remarkable today.  Evidently, our organs of seeing are nothing short of miraculous when it comes to how our eyes partner with our brains to turn light into sight.  According to Ophthalmologist Dr. Robert Reiser, light bouncing off the objects in front of us enters our eyes in straight lines, which are then bent or refracted by our corneas (which are the outermost layer of our pupils).  The light then passes through the front of our eye through our adjustable pupil (adjustable in terms of diameter).  Then these light waves are bent a bit more by another adjustable lens, then through the back chamber of the eye, finally striking our retina, where our light sensors are located.  (see Dr. Reiser’s column, ‘Crozet Annals of Medicine: Blindsight’ in the Crozet Gazette:  All basic stuff for the medically minded among us, I know.

The bit that’s new to me is that, unexpectedly, the retina’s blood supply, that network of arteries and veins that keeps everything going, isn’t found behind the retina where one might expect it to lie helpfully out of the way.  Instead that web of blood vessels is in front of it.  That means these arteries and veins constantly create shadows on our retinas.  But even though these vessels are literally right in front of our eyes, or at least our retinas, we never see their shadows.  Our brains filter the image and extrapolate enough information to fill in the part where these vessels crisscross our field of vision.  The implications of this are rather stunning.  We see what our brains tell us to see, not what is actually there.

There are, of course, a significant number of people who are blind.  Some have been blind from birth, some become blind by accident.  Some people gradually lose their sight through illnesses such as glaucoma.  But even before I read the article by Dr. Reiser, I had become increasingly aware of how people who think they see perfectly well can in fact be blind.  Sometimes we are blind because we see only what we expect to see and pay no attention to something else that may be going on. Camouflage in nature and on army trucks exploits this tendency.  We overlook the moth on the tree because we don’t expect a moth to look like bark.  We overlook the fawn curled up in the grass because when we look we assume grass and not fawns.  But think of how many ants we pass by every day, on the sidewalk, on the road, on the path – hundreds, thousands of them, and we don’t see them.  They just don’t register.  The same with people.  How many people do we ‘lay eyes on’ in a given day but then never ‘see’?  Instead, we see what we want to see, and we see who we want to see.

We often use words of sight to describe what’s going on in our hearts.  And we see some of the same dynamics at work there.  In terms of our awareness, we also ‘see’ what we want to ‘see’, and don’t ‘see’ those things that we don’t want to ‘see’.  For example, men often times have a very difficult time admitting that they are depressed or that they may need help.  We refuse to ‘see’ it, and for any number of reasons.  It’s called denial.  We suppress the symptoms, double down on doing our job or what needs to be done at home, all the while refusing to acknowledge that our productivity and our relationships are being increasingly affected by our downward spiral into depression.

In my own case, I see now that challenging experiences I had when I was a teenager had a profound effect on my ability to deal with conflict or trauma, as well as my own struggle with sexual temptation.  For decades I refused to acknowledge the depths of the damage; I suppressed any acknowledgement that I needed help or that anything might be wrong.  Thirty years later, when I finally had the courage to work through what happened to me and survey the damage my blindness to my reality had done to me and my relationships, I was nearly undone by what my inability to see and perceive and understand had wrought.

Like Trees Walking

In another relationship, I had sensed from almost the beginning that something was not right.  And from time to time I would try to talk about what I was feeling.  But because the reaction was so negative I chose to believe what I was told, namely that these problems were actually my doing and thus my fault and that I was the one who needed to change.  I believed these messages, which were constant and consistent over decades.  And thus I suppressed the accumulating evidence to the contrary.  I would experience something painful and negative, but then, against what I ‘saw’ and experienced, I would believe what I was told again and again, that the real problem was me.  With the help of counseling, I began to ‘see’ what was really happening.  I took steps to act on what I saw and experienced.  But it was very difficult.  I had acquiesced for so long, it was easy to simply fall back into that posture.  But my newfound sight enabled me to call attention to the real source of the dysfunction and I was increasingly able to draw healthy boundaries beyond which I would no longer allow myself to be pushed.  This story ended badly.  But it serves me as a signal example of how, for many and complex reasons, we often won’t see what we don’t want to see.

or maybe, just start seeing.

Finally, sometimes our brains fill in the shadows with their own assumptions.  As with the network of veins and arteries in front of our retinas and our counter-intuitive seamless vision, our minds also fill in an amazing amount of misleading information about the people in front of us with whom we have to do.  I come from a culture that sees a person of color and already our minds are busy imputing all sorts of character traits just because they come from this or that ethnic group, and we don’t even know them!  Or say this group of gay friends hears that their new neighbor is an Evangelical (or was that Orthodox) Christian and they immediately are busy imputing all sorts of character traits just because they come from this or that religious group, and they don’t even know him!  We claim to see, but we don’t.  Or there was a friendship that was shattered because she heard something that made her presume that he was doing this and that when that was not the case at all.  But his story didn’t fit into her narrative and he was driven away and all that they had shared for so long was lost.  Sometimes our prejudices or fears fill in information that simply isn’t true, and when we then act on what we ‘see’, it can be very hurtful and destructive.

Silly me.  I thought people who see can see.  And people who are blind can’t. But now I think I can ‘see’ better what Jesus is getting at in the conversation he has in John’s gospel after He heals the man born blind:

‘Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind, too, are we?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see," your sin remains.’”  John 8:40-41

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hell Is Relational

Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgement
I have written previously that salvation is societal.  Turns out that damnation is relational as well.

In the West, Christians of both Protestant and Catholic persuasion have long understood salvation as juridical at core, namely, that Jesus stands in for us guilty, law-breaking sinners, bears the just punishment that is ours on the cross and gives us His own righteousness, so that we stand before the Father not sinners with a rap sheet a mile long, but as if we had never sinned, just as His own Son.  Salvation thus is popularly preached and popularly understood as a change of status, from hell-bound to now having Jesus-bought tickets to heaven.

But for the Orthodox, salvation is not understood in primarily legal terms.  Brokenness is not something experienced in abstract legal categories.  But just as our relationships are the primary field where our sin plays havoc, so our relationships become the context for our salvation.  The Eastern story of salvation starts with the Trinity.  Again, unlike in the West where the Trinity is often reduced to a debating point among theologians and philosophers, the Trinity is understood in the East in predominantly relational terms.  St. John the Apostle says that ‘God is love’ which is born out as the Three are One and themselves define love in their mutual self-giving.  The Trinity is in fact the model for humanity, as we are created ‘in the image of God’, and not as a individualistic monad but as a couple, and by extension, a family, male and female together reflecting relationally what it means to be created in the image of God.  And we reflect that image as we human beings choose to love the other.  Just as the choice not to love mars the image and turns us away from what God intended for us and bears fruit in all sorts of collateral damage done to our hearts and minds and bodies, as well as our other relationships.

Salvation reconnects us with God the Trinity who loves us and reorients our hearts aright so that one by one we can bring love back into each one of our relationships.  Salvation also brings healing to bear on all of that damage that our choices not to love (and the choices of all those other people around us not to love) have done in our hearts and minds.  From the beginning and the very first choices not to love made by our first parents, the result has ultimately and always been death.  So it should not surprise anyone that salvation should involve God breaking the power of death, specifically as Jesus experiences death and burial as both a human person and as God the Son, and then breaks death’s power by rising again from the dead – ‘trampling down death by death’ as the Orthodox Easter hymn proclaims – so that all of the consequences of sin might be undone and all of those who respond to God’s call in the gospel might be freed from sin and death and restored to a life defined by loving God and loving neighbor and all creation.

'Ipswich [MA] Cemetery' by Calvin Steward

But hell is just as relational.   Just as our salvation is experienced in the context of our relationships, so is our damnation.  I’ve already mentioned that the heart of human rebellion is the choice not to love.  People may come up with a thousand reasons why they chose to behave this way or that way, but ultimately a choice was made not to listen, not to give, not to forgive, not to love, as well as a whole boatload of choices made to harm another in thought, word and or deed.  When we choose not to love, we turn our back on God just as we turn our back on one another.  Distance between us and God grows.  Not that God goes anywhere.  The distance is our doing, our perception, our desire.  God remains ready to hear us, ready to receive us, ready to love us, and in fact has not stopped doing so.  It’s just with our backs turned we no longer see, nor do we hear very well, nor can we embrace and be embraced in love.  We go our separate way, alone.  And we experience the damage that occurs when other people’s choices not to love score a direct hit on our hearts.  So we live our lives navigating a relational battlefield, and often we find ourselves caught up in the carnage, either inflicting it or being struck down ourselves or both.

Hell is that estrangement, from each other, from God.  Our choices not to love dig a hole which turns out to be the abyss into which we fall.  We try to cope by saying to ourselves, ‘This is the best I can expect, so make the most of it.’  Or we deny that anything is wrong and become like Monty Python’s Black Knight who impedes the White Knight in the quest for the Holy Grail, and when they engage, he promptly has his arm cut off.  To which  he bravely asserts, ‘It’s just a flesh wound.’  Or we blame our problems on the other.  Or we cover up our reality by becoming a somebody or buying more stuff or choosing narcotics or alcohol or sex to deaden the gnawing emptiness.  Hell is not something that God does to us.  We are not sent to hell.  Rather we do hell to ourselves.  Like our first parents, like every person who has gone before us, we choose not to love, and are left with the consequences.

Hell is popularly imagined as a dark cave with flaming brimstone populated by sadistic devils poking unfortunate sinners with their pitch forks.  Or their equivalent...

Gary Larson's 'Aerobics in Hell' (The Far Side)

But the Bible uses only metaphor to describe hell.  The reality is evidently beyond description.  As far as Scripture goes, hell is not so much a place as it is an absence.  Or a direction, a persistence in the wrong direction.  Hell is the absence of love.  Hell is our facing away from God.  Hell is embroidered into all of our relationships when we choose not to love.  It is what we are left with when we are allowed to have it our way.  It may seem attractive to some to end up as number one, to have it all and push everyone else aside.  But since we were created by love, created for love, we become less than human when we are not defined by love. The image of God all but disappears.

The tree is known by its fruit.
Hell will not be a surprise to anyone, nor will heaven, for that matter.  The goats are already behaving like goats, just as the sheep are already behaving like sheep.  Our choices today are already defining our reality.  And were it up to us, there would be no way out, so strong is the maelstrom pull in our hearts not to love.  Which is why the gospel is such good news.  The incarnation is God's intervention into our story, His invitation for us to become His story.  Once we see Jesus, once we listen to what he says, once we put our lives up to His life and begin to fathom what’s gone wrong and understand what His solution, His salvation is all about, it’s simply incredible.  Because I think we all know that we don’t just need forgiveness.  We don’t just need a change in status.  We need new hearts, hearts that respond to God’s love, hearts that forgive just as I’ve been forgiven, hearts that reach out to the other with compassion, hearts that choose to love.

Even so, even in hell itself we will be surrounded by the love of God.  Hell is not the absence of God's love, but, rather the absence of our love.  There will be no one in hell who was sent there.  All were on their way long before they died.  All entered by their own free will.  All stay because they refuse to turn and be transformed by the love of God. (Whether they would cannot be answered, by us at least.  The demons seem confirmed in the choices they’ve made.)

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

There are mysteries aplenty in Christianity.  But for me perhaps the biggest is not how God could be Trinity or how Jesus could be man and God.  But the biggest mystery to me, as I survey the current human scene and think over our long sad history (and mine, too), is why would anyone ever want more of the same when one can have love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, and healing, and a second chance?

Now I do know that I’m prone to tunnel vision when I write some of these posts. So if you have caught me out or have a better angle on this, I’m happy to hear from you!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Tales from the Strange Land of In-Between: The Archbishop’s Vestment Closet

Fifteen months ago, my world as I knew it was coming to an end.  I had made a special trip back to Nairobi to sell or disperse all the things that had defined the contours of my life – my car, my books, my furniture, the beautiful four-posted bed I had bought when we first moved there, the not-as-successful bathroom cabinets I had a local fundi make, my desk, our dishes and pots and pans I used every day, our stove and refrigerator, all the flowers and potted plants, and my two eccentric shelter dogs, Cinnamon and Omega.  It was a time of endings.  Relationships were ending, my ministry was ending, and the career that I had worked so hard to undertake was ending.  I felt utterly desolate.

Our living room in Nairobi.  Scene of so much happiness, and sadness, too.

I had allowed nine days for wrapping up 7 years of life and ministry in Kenya.  I was staying at the Orthodox Seminary about 10 miles from my former home.  His Eminence, the Archbishop of Kenya, was traveling out of the country.  My friend who was then serving as the seminary administrator had been very busy all week long and, between his busyness and my busyness, we hadn’t been able to connect.  Finally, I was able to have a moment to meet with him in his office.  My purpose for the meeting was to sign over ownership of my car – I was donating it to the Archdiocese.  My friend asked me to explain again why I had to leave.  And so I told him.  I told him of my brokenness and my desolation.  And when I was done, he said to me, ‘You know, it is for this very reason that Jesus came.  He came that our sins might be forgiven, that our brokenness might be healed, He came that your dead end might be transformed into a second chance.’  God knew this is what I needed to hear.  But what he said next stunned me.  ‘We want you to come back,’ he said.  ‘We would like for you to come here and teach on our faculty.  And we want you to come here and live in our community.’  By ‘we’ he meant His Eminence.  And then he said that His Eminence was cutting short his trip to return to Kenya so he could see me before I left in two days.  I could hardly take in what my friend was saying.  And finally, he took the papers that I had signed for the car and said, ‘Rather than take these to the government office and process them, I’m going to put them in this cabinet behind me and keep them here.  Because when you come back, you are going to need a car.’  Words fled then, as they do now.  I could only manage a ‘Thank you’ along with my tears.

My Kenya car, a 1996 Toyota Rav 4.  Yes, it's purple.  For Lent.

His Eminence did come back, and he repeated everything my friend had said.  It was like a dream.  In the meantime I had gathered up the few things I could afford to take back to the US with me, 5 boxes in all.  Special books, the footstool I loved from my childhood that I had kept from my mom’s home after she died two years before, the manuscripts of my 450 sermons preached from Pilot Mountain, NC to Reading, PA to Cambridge, UK to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and to Nairobi, special keepsakes, my diplomas from Cambridge, Gordon-Conwell and Duke, pictures of my girls, and my clothes.  At $170/50lb box, I could only afford checking three boxes beyond my 3 bag-allowance.  When His Eminence saw my boxes--all that remained from my life in Kenya and Ethiopia--he said to me, ‘Why don’t you leave them here?  I have just the space for them.  I will put them in the storage room where I keep all the vestments.’  Now, with only two hours before leaving for the airport to catch my flight back to the US, I had a choice to make.  Did I really believe that God could bring me back to Kenya?  Or, was this just a nice gesture by some kind people?  

I decided that this must be a God-thing, so I accepted his offer.  His Eminence then became as animated as I’ve seen him, getting a couple of students to help carry my boxes, sending someone else for the keys, bustling about as he led this small delegation to the vestments closet, which turned out to be several rooms of vestments.  And there, in the back, behind a corner, my life as I had known it was tucked away, to await my return.

Yours truly in front of OCMC Headquarters in St. Augustine, FL

The past year has seen one astonishment after another.  OCMC took up my application again and, after careful deliberation, accepted me to become an Orthodox missionary back to Kenya.  And since Thanksgiving, I have been working hard to raise up the support team I need to make my return possible.  It always amazes me who God motivates to become a partner with me.  There are some old friends who have walked with me over many years through many things, and there are people who don’t know me from Adam’s housecat who have felt moved to offer help and prayers.

'Crozet YMCA--Good morning, this is Bill.  How can I help?'  Not a classroom of students, but it pays the bills.

That being said, it is a strange place, this land of in-between.  Who could have ever guessed that this would be my life right now?  I work at the local YMCA to help pay my bills.  I have great colleagues and I’ve met many people in our little town.  Some of them have taken the time to hear my story, and seem genuinely surprised upon discovering how missions really works. “You mean you have to raise your own salary, and your own expenses?”  And then there is the awkward lag time between when one is accepted to go back to Kenya and when one ultimately deploys. People were asking me back in January how fundraising was going.  “I’m at 50%, God be praised.”  In March, when asked, “‘I’m at 70%, thanks be to God!”  And this week, “I can account for 91% - God is good!”  Sometimes people say, “I thought you were going back to Africa?”, which is better, I suppose, than, “You’re still here!?”  I certainly wish there was an element of instantaneous about this missionary support raising, but I also have come to realize that God has his purposes for me being here right now, and when the time is right, it will all come in, and then I will return to Africa.

My home away from home.  I live in the upstairs room on the left.

So what does life look like for someone who is preparing to be a missionary in Kenya?  In my case, it’s a life pared down to necessities.  I am grateful to have such a gracious friend who has allowed me to stay in his home for all these months.  I am grateful to have an old but well-maintained car that friends let me buy for blue book cost.  And, I am grateful to have a three-quarters time job that gives me the flexibility I need to travel but also helps me pay my bills.  Most of all I’m grateful for my parish, who took me in when I washed up on their shore two years ago, and who stood with me through the hardest months of my life and who have been the love of Jesus to me.

My parish, St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church - some of the planet's most wonderful people!

I also have experienced the love of Jesus in meeting a lot of new people as I visit parishes from Pennsylvania to Georgia and points in-between, where I offer presentations and invite them to support my work in Africa through prayer and finances..  It is so energizing to be with groups of people who are interested in and engaged with what God is doing through His people in Kenya and the rest of the world.  And the time is coming when enough people will want to respond to God’s call on their own life to become financial and prayer partners with me in the work.  Then the day will come when OCMC will say, “You have what you need – it’s time to go!” 

Many people have already given sacrificially to help make my return to Kenya and my ministry there possible.

Some of you reading this have already helped, and I am very grateful.  Others of you may be the ones God is going to use to put me over the top.  You can become a monthly supporter of my ministry by going to the OCMC website and clicking on the ‘Support’ button on the page that talks about my ministry .  You can shorten this in-between time by doing so, and I, for one, would be grateful.

His Eminence Makarios, Archbishop of Kenya, speaking with a student.

The day is coming when I will walk with His Eminence Makarios back to the vestment closet, and we will carry 5 boxes back to the little room that will be my home in Nairobi.  And I will open up those boxes one by one and take out all of the things I so carefully packed in those desolate days of my former life.  And I will remember the times that I had and the people who were so important to me then.  And I will think about how I never thought this day might come, when I could come back to Kenya, both to pick up where I left off and to start all over again.  It seemed like a dream then, and it still seems like one now.  But those boxes are still there, in the Archbishop’s vestment closet, waiting for me, to come home.

Nairobi skyline
Nairobi's skyline from the neighboring game park.