Friday, July 31, 2015

The Joy and the Grief

In so much of life, especially as one gets older, the joy is entwined with the grief, happiness with pain, contentment with sadness.  It’s all there, with circumstances, memories, thoughts, places, even smells, calling forth one wave of the heart’s unvoiced cry after another, like an unruly sea.

Today is such a day.  It’s my Nameday, the feastday of the saint for whom I was named at my baptism.  I am named after St. Joseph of Arimathea, whom John the Apostle calls a ‘hidden disciple’.  He was a member of the Jewish council.  At some point he heard of Jesus.  At some point he went himself to hear Jesus.  At some point he may have even met Jesus and talked with him.  The record is spare.  What we do know is that on the day that the Romans crucified our Lord, Joseph was there.  He watched our Lord on the cross.  And when Jesus breathed his last and died, Joseph went to the Roman governor Pilate and asked for the body.  It was Joseph who oversaw bringing our Lord down from the cross, removing the nails, washing his body, and wrapping our Lord’s body in a shroud.  It was Joseph who gave for our Lord’s final resting place a tomb that he had bought for his own use.  There are several hymns we sing about Joseph during Holy Week and Great and Holy Friday and Saturday.  Joseph is significant to me because at great personal risk, once he understood who Jesus was, he gave himself to serving his Lord.  Even when it meant presiding over Jesus’ funeral.  Even when it meant doing so in full view of his colleagues and the governing authorities.

I am grateful for my Presbyterian upbringing and for the fathers, mothers and friends who introduced me to Christ and helped me early on walk the path into Christian life and ministry, but I was for fourteen years also a hidden disciple of the Orthodox Church.  Compelled by what I was learning about ancient Christianity and afraid of what it would cost if I followed through on my heart’s desire and converted, I lived in a kind of spiritual halfway house until it was made clear to me that I was being called into the Church, and that yes, it would be costly, but that following Christ regardless of the cost was the essence of one’s response to the Gospel.  I have no regrets, with respect to becoming Orthodox, that is.  I have plenty of regrets when it comes to my not recognizing soon enough the damage my self-centeredness was inflicting on those around me.  I made choices to handle my besetting sins in a way that hindsight reveals as wrong.  All these I wish I could undo, but in reality I can now only ask for mercy and for forgiveness.  After years of internal conflict and brokenness and increasing relational confusion, and of being in a religious context that seemed to me to provide no good way out, I have found in the Church a safe place where my soul can begin to heal.  The deeper I go, the further I walk, the more profound my need for healing is becoming to me.  It’s a journey, a process.  And I feel I have only begun.  I’m grateful to St. Joseph for the glimpse he gives of the power of Christ at work in one’s heart.  He meets me and you precisely where we are, without conditions.  And as we choose to walk with him, he undertakes to change us.  That is, after all, what I, for one, desperately need.

But entwined with the joy of the feast is the grief over what is lost, especially on this day.  This day is also the 33rd anniversary of the day my wife and I exchanged vows in front of our family and friends and were married.  I certainly didn’t intend for our relationship to shipwreck, and I could scarcely take in as it was happening that we were in trouble, much less that our relationship had died.  Accommodator that I am, I kept trying to fix and change me and thereby somehow make things right.  And yet the remedy was and remains beyond anything I could ever effect.  But regardless of the cause, the result has been a bereavement so sharp I thought I might not ever breathe again.  Many people lose their homes, we all will lose loved ones, and families that seem so permanent can evaporate for many reasons.  But to lose a spouse under these circumstances is to lose one’s life even though one remains alive.  It’s as if two plywood boards bonded by some powerful glue are then ripped impossibly apart, the violence of which leaves great shards of me torn out and still attached to the other, and visa versa I presume.  The pain subsides, but the scaring of my heart testifies that something horrific took place here.

So this day, the 31st of July, marks two of the deepest, strongest currents in my life and where they cross at the point of my living this day.  The sea has no storm disturbing its surface.  But underneath, mighty waters roil and churn, as the currents of this heart deep beyond language work to find some way through.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Farewell to St. Nicholas Parish

St. Nicholas Icon from 1500

Romans 15:1-7
1We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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

‘Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,’ writes St. Paul.  Or another way to say it is, ‘Accept one another, as Christ has accepted you.’ Or, ‘Appreciate one another, as Christ has appreciated you.’ Or ‘Embrace one another, as Christ has embraced you.’ Or, ‘Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you.’  Or as Jesus Himself says, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’

However you want to say it, this is what the gospel does.  This is what happens in a community when ‘Christ is in our midst.’ This is what Christians look like when they are being the Body of Christ.  This is what I found when I came to St. Nicholas more than two years ago.

Now before we get a big head and get all complacent, I’m not saying that we are perfect.  Um, I’ve been here long enough to know that we all have plenty of room to grow, individually, and we together have a lot to learn about what it means to be Jesus in this place.  I didn’t know what I would find when I walked in through that door in May of 2013, but it didn’t take too long before I realized that Jesus is here.  And where Jesus is, it doesn’t matter if the place is a beautiful cathedral with floor to dome icons, or a mud-walled hut, it doesn’t matter if you have a brightly colored flock of clergy bustling about or a lone reader chanting a service, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a ton of programs for every demographic or if you are struggling to find somebody, anybody to teach Sunday School to the children.  Because where Jesus is, where Jesus shows up, love happens.  And where love happens, healing happens.  And where healing happens, lives are changed.  And where lives are changed you find people looking and behaving more and more like Jesus.  And when that happens, we’ve become a beachhead of the Kingdom of God in this place.

When I came here 26 months ago, I was, as we say in South Carolina where I’m from, a hurtin’ puppy.  My marriage was falling apart.  I’m a pathological accommodator, among other things, and after years of trying to make it work, it wasn’t working.  We were long time missionaries in Ethiopia and Kenya and came back home for furlough hoping that some marriage counseling might help us get back to our lives and what we loved to do in Kenya.  The fact that I am still here is a clue that things did not go very well.  When I started attending here, I was in pain.  I was disoriented, I was ashamed, I was trying everything I knew to keep my life as I knew it from falling apart.
The months went by and it became painfully obvious that we were not going back to Kenya.  Even worse, it became painfully obvious that I no longer had a marriage.  And then I no longer had a home.  Or a family.  And then it looked like my calling as a missionary educator was history, too.  This all happened in slow motion.  I went from being a university professor to losing my family, my home, my job and my calling, living in a small room provided by a kind old man in a little town in central Virginia of all places.

But as this small tragedy was unfolding in my small life, I was coming here week by week.  I got to know Fr. Robert.  Several of you decided to take a risk and sit next to the new guy during our fellowship hour.  And I decided to take a risk and let some of you know what was really happening.  I’ve been in many contexts before where the sort of things I had to share would result in being removed from positions or ostracized from the community I was a part of.  But instead of being shunned or punished, you listened to me, and you loved me.  In those moments, in those dark days, you were the very love of Jesus, listening to me, encouraging me, giving me a hug.  I will forever be grateful.

The rest of my time here is like a dream.  Out of the wreckage of my old life, at my lowest place, when I was back in Nairobi in February of 2014 to sell all our furniture and things and draw a line under my life in Africa and my career as a missionary – it’s at that point that God opened His door.  Two days before I was to come back to the States, Fr. Evangelos, a friend of mine who was now vice rector of the Orthodox seminary in Nairobi, asked me, ‘Now tell me again why are you leaving us?’  And I said, because marriage is likely ending in divorce.  I think I’ve pretty much disqualified myself from being of any further use in Christian ministry.  To which he said, ‘You know, this is precisely why Jesus came, so that our sins might be forgiven.  And not only that our sins might be forgiven, but that we might be given a second chance.  Joseph, we really need you here, we really want you here.  In fact, His Eminence Makarios, the Archbishop of Kenya wants you to come and teach at the seminary there.’  I was stunned.  I had actually come to his office to sign over my car to the Archdiocese, because I was donating it for their use.  But Fr. Evangelos took the papers that I had just signed and said, ‘I’m not going to take these papers to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Instead, I’m going to put them in this folder, and put them in this drawer and keep them right here.  Because when you come back, you are going to need a car.’

I could tell more stories.  But it’s enough to say that somehow, God then opened the door for OCMC to take me on as one of their missionaries.  And somehow, with the astonishing help of this parish and many of you, I was able to raise two years of what it takes to keep a missionary on the field.  And that brings us to right here right now.

Tomorrow, I’ll be getting on an airplane that will take me first to Paris and another one on to Nairobi, and then I will get settled in my new home at the seminary and start teaching courses at the University.  I actually start teaching on August 10th, and they’ve assigned me a church history course to teach, ‘The History of Monasticism’!  But being a missionary is not about going overseas and being a university professor and teaching courses, even Christian courses.  Instead, that’s just a front.  I could be a gardener, or an auto mechanic, or a sales person, or a stay-at-home mom or dad, or the front desk guy at the YMCA.  Because the real thing that a missionary does is reach out to the people God brings to me, in this case my students and my colleagues, and love them as Jesus has loved me.  Any spiritual transformation that takes place will not happen through the readings I assign or the assignments I give (though God can certainly use them).  But His ordinary way of touching the lives of people with His transforming power is through relationships.  My mission is to make disciples, and that happens conversation by conversation, relationship by relationship, through serving, giving, listening, welcoming.

I’m going to Kenya.  OK, that’s pretty exotic.  And I’ve been given the label ‘missionary’, and that’s really exotic.  Sometimes the presence of people like us missionaries and us clergy give people the impression that we pay those people to do the ‘ministry’ so that we can live our ordinary lives and then come by every week or so and benefit from the good things they do.  That’s a common attitude in the churches and amongst Christians of all stripes.  But that’s not what we find in the NT.  That’s not an attitude that’s shared by the Apostle Paul.  It’s what one might call missing the point when it comes to what Jesus is doing when He calls us to Himself.

It’s really pretty simple.  Have you been loved by Jesus?  Have you been welcomed by Jesus?  Have you been embraced by Jesus?  Forgiven by Jesus?  Blessed by Jesus?  ‘As I have loved you,’ says the Lord, ‘so you should love one another.’

You see, from Jesus’ perspective, I am not the only missionary in this room right now; I’m not the only called one.  There is a call on your life today.  And there is a call on this parish today.  Many of you have already demonstrated that you get it.  Because when this hurting, confused soul wandered in your door a couple of years ago, you loved him.  And you took him by the hand when the storm got fierce.  And you helped him get to his feet when he was knocked down.  And now you are sending him on his way.

God is going to bring someone else into your lives, into this parish, for you to welcome, for you to love.  And then someone else.  And someone after them.  And as you take risks to love people, you will find that God helps you, He gives you the energy. He gives you the vision.  Resources are provided as if from nowhere. Love is a lot like the muscles of this body of ours.  Use it or lose it, I’ve been told.

But most people don’t just show up here like I did.  Most people have no reason to walk through those doors.  Most people have no idea of the hope that is the center of your life.  What Jesus said to his first disciples He says to you and me right now:  Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.  It’s not just missionaries!  It’s our call as Jesus’ disciples today, as Jesus’ Church today.  We don’t wait for the fish to come to us; instead we go to where the fish are and we throw our nets.

So here’s my parting challenge, both to you and to me.  Who are those individuals that God is bringing into your life right now.  Who is God asking you to welcome, to listen to, to help, to support, to hug, to come alongside of, to be there for?  Now that you are beginning to see, make a plan and do it.  Find ways to love this person.  And then see what happens and learn from your experience.  And then for us as a parish.  Who is God calling us to engage with?  Are these people who we will find coming through our door, or do we need to go where they are, or both?  Do we need to do something intentional with the university community?  Do we need to gird up our loins and pull together some sort of focused, intentional outreach like a bookstore or coffee shop or a school?   The need is there.  The call is there.  What will we do?  Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:14-16)

My prayer for you as I go is that when other people come into your life, or find us as a parish, or those we get to know as we follow Jesus and reach out to those around us – My prayer is that each one of these people that God will bring across our paths will see Jesus and experience His love, just as I have, in this place.  I am so very grateful.

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

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Parish, a year or so before I arrived.  With His Eminence Metropolitan Antony.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Packing Is Like When One Is Going Far Away for Two Years

My Air France ticket allows me three 50lb bags or boxes.  My travel agent informed me that it is considered a ‘humanitarian ticket’.  I don’t know if that’s because they think I’m doing humanitarian things or if I’m the humanitarian case.  But in these days of airlines charging for everything (putting one’s seat back, use of the fold-down tray, trips to the toilet – ok, it’s not that bad yet, but the trajectory is not promising), I’ll take my three bags without pressing anyone for clarification.

However, three bags are, well, three bags; and I’m an American.  And we Americans do stuff better than anyone on the planet.  So even I, who have lived in someone elses furnished upstairs room for two years, have gone cross-eyed the past couple of weeks trying to figure out what to do with all my stuff.  I have made multiple trips to the local Good Will equivalent.  When did I accumulate eleven pairs of shoes?!  I’m now down to six (including two pairs of running shoes).  I had enough t-shirts to clothe a Kenyan high school.  I counted 8 pairs of running shorts. Eight!  Granted, I run a lot, but this sounds pathological.  So in addition to donations, I also sent two stuffed suitcases, a box, a suit bag and (sadly) my viola back to South Carolina with my father and step-mother.  So now the stuff that I have is even colonizing the storage spaces of other innocent people like some invasive species.

Then there are the things I can’t take with me, nor can I store, nor can I fob off on unsuspecting relatives.  Instead I am hoping that today there might be some kind people around here who would like to give some of my stuff a new home, like my printer/scanner, copier, or my preternaturally giant Miracle-Gro-fed Dracaenia, or my speaker system for my computer, or the wingback chair I bought so I could have a place besides my bed to sit, or the table I bought to put beside it, and the lamp I bought to put on top of the table (it is so, so easy to justify getting more stuff!), or the half bottle of American Honey Wild Turkey Bourbon that I can’t get away with drinking right now because I’m preaching tomorrow at church.  So all of these things I am removing from my room and putting in my van and looking for unsuspecting people upon whom to dump them.  And if that is unsuccessful, maybe they can find a new home with someone at my church.  Happily, someone wants to by my minivan, Maxine.  But I can’t deliver Maxine until I have finished delivering all this other stuff that I have discovered that I have.  All of this is preliminary to my actual packing.

So it turns out I have agreed to take with me a lot of books for a Kenyan colleague who is working on a PhD, and other books that are meant for the seminary library at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Theological Seminary.  And then there are some of my books that I would like to take with me.  After winnowing as much as I could stomach (my first effort at a book box was 80lbs), I’ve finally got a box that has books, three pairs of shoes and a pillow, coming in at 54lbs.

And now I’ve got a suitcase in which I am going to try to put almost all of my clothes, and a box in which I will put the rest of my clothes (including jackets, suits, shoes) and then the rest of the stuff I have to take (including the very tacky little Christmas tree given to me by my dear cousin Amy Lou, which actually lights up when you plug it into your laptop’s usb port.  It's an eastern Kentucky thing.  How can I not take that Christmas tree?).  There are a bunch of icons, a camera bag, documents, pictures, a mug, a clock, my Bible, my cds.  This doesn’t include my dying laptop and my new laptop which I hope to turn into my carry-on luggage.  Anyway, the designated box I have for all this stuff reminds me of my old Isuzu pickup truck, which seemed perfectly adequate when I bought it but seemed rather embarrassing when with the size-matters-when-it-comes-to-pickup-trucks-crowd that used to be my parish long ago.  I really think what’s called for here is a shipping container.

I’ve been in this position before.  It always seems like it’s an impossibility, this cramming of one’s life into this much volume and this much weight.  It always causes restless tossing and turning in the middle of the night for weeks before one travels.  And there’s always the moment of hysterical panic when one discovers an entire closet of stuff one totally forgot about.  And then, I remember what I pray every morning:  ‘God, grant that I may meet the coming day with spiritual tranquility….’  And I remember that every other time I’ve been at this point, whether responsible for just me or for my family of four, somehow, it has all worked out.  It’s just it’s a challenge when one is still on this side of it all, still figuring out how to make it all fit, what to take, and what to leave behind.

And then there comes the point when I realize that there isn’t anything I really need.  The most valuable things I have can’t be boxed up or weighed.  Airlines can’t charge a fee for them (yet).  The most valuable thing I have is my relationships, both on this continent, and the one to which I am going.  I could get on my plane without any of this stuff (including phone and computers), and I would be just fine.  Ok, maybe for everyone else's sake, I should take my toothbrush.  So all this internal anxiety and pressure I feel, it must be some sort of trick.  I still have some packing to do.  But it will get done, and everything will end up where it’s supposed to be.

Well, now that I have achieved some sort of resolution, I think I’ll celebrate by finding some of that American Honey…

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Going, Going,

Christ is in our midst!

On Monday afternoon, July 20, I will board an Air France plane that will take me across the Atlantic and will land in Paris the next morning.  After a short layover, I’ll board another plane and fly over the Alps and the Mediterranean and across the Sahara, following the course of the Nile, until the huge volcanic peak of Mt. Kenya poking through the clouds on the left announces that we are somewhere over the Great Rift Valley.  We will land late on Tuesday night at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport outside Nairobi.  I will patiently wait through customs, collect my bags, and exit the arrivals’ door and into the scrum of drivers, friends, family, colleagues, all waiting for someone to walk through that same door.  I’ll probably be met by John, my friend and His Eminence Makarios’s driver and all-purpose mechanic.  We’ll wrestle my bag and boxes into the little truck and drive off into the Nairobi night, across the sprawling city, past glittering shopping malls, winding through the teeming slum of Kawangware, up the wretched road through Riruta Satellite, left onto the one lane dirt track, and through the gates of Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary.  I’ll step out of the truck, grab my bag and two boxes, and make my way towards the little building where my room, my home for the next two years will be.  Thus shall many of the former things come to an end.  Thus shall many new things begin.

My unexpected little Virginia hometown

The street on which I live

As I write this, I am sitting in my ‘office’ which also passes as the local cafĂ©.  I never would have dreamed that I would have spent more than two years of my life in the little Virginia town of Crozet.  They have been probably the hardest two years of my life.  And they also rank as among the best two years of my life, too.  In the midst of great relational pain and disorientation, I experienced great comfort and healing, as a number of individuals became God’s love and solace and mercy to me.  My parish, St. Nicholas Church, took me in when I washed up on their shore two years ago, and their fellowship became God’s anchor for me when the storms grew fierce.  When I found myself homeless in 2013, a recently widowed man to whom I was a stranger opened his home to me.  The little upstairs room where I and my few things stay has been God’s provision for me.  I will be forever grateful to Jim for taking me in and giving me a place to be these many months.

With my students on a trip to experience the Divine Liturgy and visit the seminary. 

His Eminence Makarios engaging with my students after welcoming us to share breakfast with him

When things were at their darkest, when I had to return to Nairobi in February of 2014 and sell off what had been my life in Ethiopia and Kenya, when I thought that the doors had closed for me to ever come back to Kenya, to ever be a missionary again, to ever be in Christian ministry again – at that nadir, Fr. Evangelos Thiani, Vice-Rector of the Seminary, reminded me of God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ and that our God is the God of second chances.  And then he told me that His Eminence wanted me to come back and teach and live there at the seminary.  And when I heard the same thing from the Vice Chancellor of St. Paul’s University, Prof. Joseph Galgalo, what I had thought was the end was suddenly the beginning.

Me preaching when I was the Senior Pastor of the International Evangelical Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

               Traveling to the ends of the earth (remote even for Ethiopia!) and sharing (actually daring each other to drink!)    the Me'en people's 'coffee'

Then there was the small matter of finding a mission sending organization that would take someone like me.  Since I felt I needed to go back as part of an Orthodox organization, my options were limited. The application process with OCMC was daunting, but I received tremendous encouragement from the missionary director and the staff there.  And when I finally met not only with their approval, but the OCMC board’s approval as well, it was as if God was saying anew, ‘This is My doing, you are in My hands.’  Then it was just the ‘small’ matter of raising two years of mission salary and expenses.  I had my wonderful parish in Virginia, but prior to 2013, my only Orthodox experience had been in Kenya, in Ethiopia and in the UK.  Support-raising requires connections and networking, and I was about as unconnected as they come.  But once again, somehow people like you heard about me and this strategic opportunity to serve the Church in Kenya.  Some old friends who had walked with me for years chose to stay with me in this new opportunity.  And a bunch of new friends who never met me before threw in their support as well.  Together their generosity has enabled me to raise the support needed, and I got the OK from OCMC in June to prepare in earnest to return to Kenya.

Teaching a graduate class on Christology

Teaching children about the difference between my viola and Bekah's violin.

Thank you for coming alongside me through all of this.  Your prayers have opened every door and your financial support is making my return possible.

Everyday was "International Day" at IEC

And now, continue praying for me as I run the last mile of my unexpected Crozet marathon.  I actually have very little of which I need to be divested.  But one big item remains: Maxine, my faithful, reliable 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan minivan with 222000 miles, needs a new home.  I’m willing to sell it for below blue book value, or if you know of a church that needs a vehicle, I would consider donating it.  Pray that someone would come for whom Maxine would be a wonderful solution.

My faithful minivan, Maxine.

Maxine, however, wouldn't stand a chance going 'down country' in Ethiopia or Kenya, where an upgrade to one of these Toyota Landcruisers would be mandatory.

I have a three 50 lb. bags/boxes allowance.  One of the three is taken up with books for a colleague and the seminary.  That means I have two bags for everything else I want to take.  Pray that I make good choices and can fit it all in.

Yes, there's a very large male baboon sitting on my car.  What to do?

I have had some wonderful times with friends and supporters this Spring.  And in these last days, I will spend time with my father visiting Civil War battlefields and I will see one of my daughters and her husband.  My last Sunday at St. Nicholas will be July 19.  Pray that my times with my friends and family will be good.

Leading prayer before giving devotions at my previous mission's council meeting.
Receiving the Holy Mysteries from His Eminence after my baptism and chrismation on January 8, 2011 (I love the bank of photographers!)

And finally, getting established in a new place takes time and energy.  Pray that God would help me find my way in my new home at the Seminary, and as I reconnect with friends and colleagues at St. Paul’s.

With gratitude,


PS. Those of you who have made pledges, please keep giving. Also, there is still plenty of room for additional giving if you would still like to join my support team.  In terms of actual funds received, I still have a ways to go.  You can become a sustaining member of my support team by giving a monthly amount of $100, or $50 or $25.  It’s easy to do.  Just go to my page on the OCMC website here:   
and click on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom, and you will be led through the process of making your gift.

Here are some more pictures:
Greeting an Orthodox priest in Ethiopia by kissing his hand cross.
No-man's land between Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan
Rambo, my 3/4 rot, 1/4 black lab.  Rambo was in charge of security.
My home Church in Nairobi, Sts. Cosmas and Damian (Sts Anargyroi)

Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way, St. Augustine, FL 32086
(877) GO FORTH (463-6784)