Monday, February 26, 2007

Awesome book review

This book review on Amazon rules. Kudos to whoever wrote it. (note: I'm not giving the book title in question since I rather liked it, hehe).

This book reminds me of a guy I knew in college. An "angry intellectural loner"
type who carried around a copy of "The Communist Manifesto" and had only a
passing acquaintance with personal hygiene. He usually kept to himself but once
in a while someone would feel sorry for him and invite him to a party. He
generally managed to alienate everyone around him by twisting everything they
said into something negative, by his attempts to impress them with his
intellectual superiority, and by pointing out how shallow and bourgois they all
are. By the end of the party, this guy was always alone with his angst and his
vodka. This book was like the literary version of that guy. Angry, dreary, and

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Bat Demon did it!

Nocturnal clandestine rapists fear no more. You are no longer in danger with the police because everyone knows that the Bat Demon did it.

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other...

"Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other."

-Psalm 85.10

I've heard this twice in recent days. It brings to mind the way Christians are divided. It seems that one simply cannot be a holistic Christian. There are two sides that you're expected to pick between: the caricature of the leftist social-justice Christians who doesn't give a damn about anything except Human Rights, War/peace, and physical harms, or on the other side the bible fundi who sees Christianity as an effort in personal piety and striving towards living under a sort of Christian law.

If the psalmist is to be believed, Jesus would have us live both ways. I think we'll make great strides when we can see the social justice implications of living out a lifestyle of personal piety while always keeping an eye on the larger picture. Pacifism and moral rectitude don't have to be at odds, nor does either have to exclude fun and even joy. Righteousness and peace can still kiss.

Old Testament peace in the light of Christ

A very interesting note on the reading for today. Isaiah 2.3(b)-11. This is clearly being understood as a Christological exegesis and might help illuminate the issue of Old Testament violence in light of early Christian pacifism. Look especially at the bold print, which I have added. This appears to be a result of the Word of the Lord (always understood by the PAtristic authors as Christ) going forth from Jerusalem:

Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, And rebuke many people; They shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob, come and let us walk In the light of the Lord.
For You have forsaken Your people, the house of Jacob, Because they are filled with eastern ways; They are soothsayers like the Philistines, And they are pleased with the children of foreigners.
Their land is also full of silver and gold, And there is no end to their treasures; Their land is also full of horses, And there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is also full of idols; They worship the work of their own hands, That which their own fingers have made.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sermons, Feb. 19th, The Sunday Before Lent, delivered at Virgin Mary Church

The readings: Romans 13.11-14.4 and Matthew 6:14-21

The Sermon

Discipline in Christ is possibly the single most important part of being a Christian. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul:

Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Of course we had two readings today. So, we’re not only told not to be debaucherous, licentious, jealous and drunken, but also we’re ordered to forgive, to accept forgiveness, to not misplace our treasure or heart, to live in the light, to fast, but not just any old fasting - fasting with a smile.

It’s a lot to take in. The Lenten season is upon us, and for most of us nothing says “lent” quite like a long list of rules. It’s all about more time in church, hurting feet, emphasis on Confession, and bad food.

But although there are a lot of rules, we usually make the mistake of seeing them as a list of rules for the sake of rules. What’s easy to miss is the tie that binds them – Discipline in Christ.

By discipline I mean of course behavior, especially behaviors when we do which we would rather not do.

Discipline may seem like an annoying part of the faith, but it’s extremely important. In fact, it could be said that Discipline in Christ is a kind of first principle for Orthodox Christians. Discipline in Christ is a way to show Christ’s living power in the world today.

St. Athanasius, the great father of the first Council, once wrote a refutation of the Greek and Jewish critics of Christianity. When asked about how a dead man could still have power, St. Athanasius appealed to the example of disciplined Christian believers:

Anyone who likes may see the proof of [Christ’s] glory in the virgins of Christ, and in the young men who practice chastity as part of their religion and the assurance of immortality in so great and glad a company of martyrs.

For Athanasius, the surest way of seeing Christ in the world was to look at the disciplined example of his followers. The way that the best of the Christians practiced the virtue of discipline in their sexual lives and finally their courage in the face of death was, for Athanasius, proof enough of the continuing presence of Christ. Can the power of a man be denied when his followers are so sure of their resurrection that you cannot even coerce them with death? Can we not all see the awesome domain of a presence so persuasive that people don’t feel the need to have a family if they are in the service of this man?

In our Church in particular, the Orthodox Church, discipline in Christ is a particularly strong teaching. The Orthodox Church is built on the notion of discipline in Christ. I know that many of you were born into the Orthodox Church and probably cannot see it from the outside in, but as one who was not born into it, let me tell you, there aren’t many Christian groups who would ask of you what the Orthodox Church asks of you: We’re the only major Christian group that still asks our members to fast on a regular basis, sets strict rules for vocations, stands during most services, and emphasizes regular sacramental Confession. In fact, to be real honest, there are plenty of “Christian” groups today that would not really think of sexual fidelity in the single life, fidelity to one partner in the married life, or the willingness to die for one’s belief in Christ to be virtues at all. In other words, there are plenty of groups out on the market who go by the name ‘Christian’ who not only don’t care about discipline in Christ, but would openly deny those very things that St. Athanasius once told the pagans most clearly showed Christ’s power to the world.

We don’t live in a world where discipline in Christ is a popular concept.

Now that’s not to say that the world doesn’t value discipline – that’s not true. If you look through any kind of popular media you will find countless praises lavished on self-discipline. There’s no shortage of emphasis on self-help, self-esteem, self-consciousness, self-accomplishment, self-meaning, and self-care, or in short: self-importance.

So that leads us to look at the other half of my first statement, Discipline in Christ.

Many people “behave”, and there are many reasons to behave. Many of us sacrifice in order to earn more money, gain more power, or better our physique. I know that many of you go to the same gym that I do. And it’s nice to see you there! One of my weight lifting partners there is the greatest examples of raw discipline. The man does all kinds of taxing workouts to get his body in perfect tone. He eats a precise diet, tans a certain amount, runs, and builds muscle. And of course, he can’t wait to tell me all about it. And yes, it’s an impressive feat how well-honed a human body can be, but it’s all for his glory. The man sacrifices all on the altar of his ideal body, and I respect the effort, but it’s not for Christ. It’s not for the betterment of his spirit. I don’t really admire his efforts all that much.

Any time we are truly committed to something we need to ask for whom we’re doing it. As the early Latin writer Tertullian reminds us “the demons also have their virgins and ascetics.” And he’s right.

People have spent all kinds of effort serving false gods, demons, and the Devil himself. People have dedicated their lives and the lives of their children to all kinds of demonic powers and ideologies. My godparents live in a small town in southern Germany. In the middle of the town is a chapel up on a hill that has a war memorial for the soldiers from the town who died in the world wars. In a town of only 3,000 people, 300 names are on that list. Three hundred brave young men gave their lives in the service of a cause who’s main purpose was the extermination of people they did not consider human beings. Three hundred people - talented, educated youths in the prime of their life - slaughtered on the altar of a demon they didn’t even understand.

Plus, we all know persons of different faiths who are hardcore. We fast, but so do Muslims. We pray to the God of Abraham, but so do Jews. We meditate, but so do Hindus. But the difference is that we fast, and pray, and meditate in the spirit of Christ. Our discipline is only there to strengthen our bond with the one thing needful, our bond with Jesus Christ.

So listen again to the words of Paul:

Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

So we see here that Paul has already said that which I elaborated on. It’s not firstly the denial of our fleshly desires that we’re trying to accomplish, but rather we strive first to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We put him on as the virgins, ascetics, and martyrs always have. We put him on in order to make his power visible to the world around us. We put him on so that we might, like St. Athanasius, refer to one another as examples of Christ’s living power in the world.

Now as this Lent approaches, we shall not fixate on the rules and demands. Yes those rules and demands will be made. You will be asked to fast, to go to Confession, and to attend more church than you’re accustomed. But remember that it’s all training in discipline… it’s all training in righteousness.

Any weight lifting exercise seems kind of silly by itself, but it’s all part of shaping the body. Everything we learn as students seems individually insignificant, but everything adds up into a lifetime of learning, and so also the demands of the Church might seem a little arbitrary if taken in isolation, but taken together they are the discipline in Christ which we seek. They form us into the disciples of Christ who we want to be.

So we will look at the demands of Lent not as rules, but as a collection of exercises leading us deeper into our Christian vocation – Discipline in Christ.

God returns ten fold

We're often told that whatever you give to God will be rendered back to you ten fold. Normally I metaphorize this idea, but sometimes it becomes tangible. Today after church the teens had a bake sale. I had agreed to buy a blueberry muffin that one of the girls had baked. 1$, no big deal. So I paid my buck and wolfed the muffin really quickly then went outside to talk to a couple of parishioners.

After a while I walked back in to get my stuff and the teens gave me the leftovers from the bake sale, which probably amounted to a total of about 30 assorted baked goods. They instructed me to set them out at the seminary for the other seminarians returning from their parish assignments.

When I went outside there was a hispanic lady getting her three kids out of the car and giving them this and that instruction. They had parked right behind me in the ice. I felt so happy from receiving the baked goods that I had to walk up to her and ask if she and her kids wanted one. She looked at me puzzled. I told her "from the church" and pointed. I guess the fact that I was still in my cassock convinced her that I wasn't lying, so they each got one and I still had tons to put out at the seminary.

Well nothing deep here, but just an example of how good will begets good well, and affection begets affection.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Civilization 6,000 years ago in the Americas

Turns out that real civilization was up and running 6,000 years ago in the vacinity of present day Ecuador.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

family values eat your heart out

Family values voters eat your hearts out, you're now officially a minority.

Chapel sermon Joel 2.12-26

The Reading for the Day: Joel 2.12-26
Now, therefore, says the Lord, Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.
So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him-- A grain offering and a drink offering For the Lord your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly;
Gather the people, Sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and nursing babes; Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, And the bride from her dressing room.
Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, Weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say, "Spare Your people, O Lord, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?' "
Then the Lord will be zealous for His land, And pity His people.
The Lord will answer and say to His people, "Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil, And you will be satisfied by them; I will no longer make you a reproach among the nations.
But I will remove far from you the northern army, And will drive him away into a barren and desolate land, With his face toward the eastern sea And his back toward the western sea; His stench will come up, And his foul odor will rise, Because he has done monstrous things.
Fear not, O land; Be glad and rejoice, For the Lord has done marvelous things!
Do not be afraid, you beasts of the field; For the open pastures are springing up, And the tree bears its fruit; The fig tree and the vine yield their strength.
Be glad then, you children of Zion, And rejoice in the Lord your God; For He has given you the former rain faithfully, And He will cause the rain to come down for you-- The former rain, And the latter rain in the first month.
The threshing floors shall be full of wheat, And the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil.
So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, The crawling locust, The consuming locust, And the chewing locust, My great army which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, And praise the name of the Lord your God, Who has dealt wondrously with you; And My people shall never be put to shame. Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: I am the Lord your God And there is no other. My people shall never be put to shame. And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, And praise the name of the Lord your God, Who has dealt wondrously with you; And My people shall never be put to shame.

The Sermon:

Obviously today’s reading has a strong connection to the Lenten season. It’s no coincidence that the music switches to Lenten tones, the readings change to the Old Testament, and the first line we read is “Even now repents and turn to the Lord… rending your heart and not your garments.”

This is an obvious reading of what would be important to say given the liturgical sensibilities of today, but perhaps Joel has something else to tell us. For this other point I ask you to turn your attention to the next to last verse:

“I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.”

This verse is interesting on a number of levels, but perhaps the most interesting of all is the way the prophet Joel attributes to God a great deal of pride in summoning a swarm of locusts against the land of his people.

Now a swarm of locusts is no special thing. It’s a harsh thing, but also a natural phenomenon. It’s just bad luck. The crops were planted, and now the land is getting hit. Didn’t have to – the locusts, scientifically speaking, could just as easily have slammed down on the Hittites or the Babylonians, but they picked a name out of a hat and hit Israel.

But Joel doesn’t see it that way. Joel sees an intention behind this seemingly normal phenomenon, he sees the pedagogical action of God. Joel has made a conscious choice to see God in the locusts where others see only a natural disaster; Joel is telling us one main thing: God is there in the pain and the mundane of our lives.

Joel’s perspective is the major difference between the prophets and the people they preach to. Prophets can see, in the calamity and hardship of life, God’s intention. The prophet doesn’t necessarily see anything new or unusual, but they see the spiritual side of the same events. Take Jeremiah. It didn’t take any brains to know that the Babylonians were coming and that they were a formidable threat to the existence of Israel. Nobody would have argued that point with him, but only Jeremiah saw the coming of the Babylonians as a call to return to God through repentance.

And let’s be fair, it’s not a natural reaction. Normally the response to a strong army coming against us is not to repent before God, but rather to go and have the king raise a levy to defend the walls. That’s what we’d rather do! But Jeremiah says no, God will deal with the Babylonians. God will deal with the locusts. In any pain they cause us God is still in control, but we must set ourselves right before God.

This sort of mindset is a natural extension of the conviction that all things are done by God to our salvation, if we’re willing to see God’s providence and power acting through those events.

Ultimately the choice to see this other dimension… the spiritual dimension… in the pain and mundane of our lives will determine whether we rend our hearts or our garments in response.

Rending of garments is an act of anger and sorrow in the Jewish tradition. It’s done especially at funerals to this day. But the rending of the garments is an earthly anger. It’s a wailing and sorrow based on misfortune in the material world. You can see why an attacking army or a locust swarm might cause us to rip our garments.

Rending of the heart is the result of seeing God in our pain. Repentance is what we do when our ultimate goal is to channel our pain towards focusing ever more on God.

This same pattern of thinking continues into the New Testament. When Peter, having just confessed Christ, gets in the way of his cross, he is called Satan. What he’s wanting has the will of Satan behind it, and so for all practical purposes he has become Satan. He has “imaged” Satan, and become his icon.

Take also the group of pilgrims who would become martyrs who wrote of the Roman soldiers ambushing them in the mountains that “the Evil One came upon us.” But it wasn’t the evil one right? It was a troupe of soliders… and yet the martyrs insisted that it was something else as well. It was a test. God had allowed Satan to test their faith with martyrdom. Their capture enabled a witness to the faith.

This ability to discern God in the pain and mundane of life is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to those we minister to and travel with. Christian faith is all about seeing God in the pain and mundane of our lives and the lives of those around us. It’s what allows us to transform the terrible fates that come on all of us from time to time into truly salvific occasions. The Christian faith does not ask us to change what we see, but it does ask us to look at what we see differently.

So now we return to the immediate task before us. This coming Lent we will be asked to fast, to attend more and longer church services, and to keep a “quieter, more somber” demeanor in general. If we choose to see these facts for what they are – bad food, hurt feet, sore voices, and less happiness – then we’re going to resent them. They’ll be nothing more than a collection of annoyances. And in frustration out response will be to rend our garments.

But if we see them as acute pains that are leading us gradually closer and closer to God’s Kingdom, then they can be transformed into saving actions. If we see them as actions of God in the world for our salvation, then they become for us a call to repentance – a chance to rend our heart and focus more clearly on God.

The ability or inability to see God’s action in the pain and mundane of life will always be the primary line of demarcation between a person of faith and a person of the world. Should God be left out of our understanding in any event of our lives, then the garments will be rent and tears of sorry and pity will be said, lamenting our poor fortune. But if we choose to see God in the pain and mundane of life, then the most tragic circumstances, yes even death can be unto our salvation, just as His death was once unto the salvation of us all. The Trumpet still blows in Zion, and we must make our choice: To see or not to see, and so to rend our garments, or our hearts.


Thursday, February 08, 2007


This will make you vomit...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Now this is romance

That's awesome... just wait for the commercial to end. I hope that if I ever have a love story that it can end like this.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Biblical Wisdom of the day

"In much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."-Ecclesiastes 1:18

As they say at the consecration of the gifts: Amen, Amen, amen!

I have a couple of professors that must live in an earthly hell...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The mantric wisdom of Benny

Among my numerous semi-regular routines the one I enjoy most is the gym. After a long, hard day dealing with the parsing of Greek verbs, submitting applications for heaven knows what, working in the city researching the self-inflicted ills of mankind and dwelling on my own sinfulnes it's nice to go out and pump some iron.

A little self-disclosure - I've always been pretty good at weight lifting. That is to say, I've always been disproportionately (and deceptively) strong. Well, not by nature exactly, but I took to lifting quickly. Yet I've always been one of those guys who hasn't consistently had the motivation to realize any bodybuilding potential. Particularly at seminary, it's just too much to handle. Not that I regret not having "gone for it" at some point, especially now that I've getting perceptibly older, if only by a little bit. But I have always had a slight admiration for those guys who just went all out and did some kind of competition, if only once. Perhaps when i'm again on my own schedule - and more importantly more own self-regulated diet - then I can take a solid year and really try my hardest to do a show.

Well anyhow, a guy I lift in and around at my current gym is Benny. Benny does a lifting show every year for several years running. He's about my height or even a little shorter, very broad. He's got some nice muscles..very early 40's, tan on a naturally olive complxion. Now Benny... is not a brain surgeon. Ironically I'm being specific in pointing this out because my longest lasting lifting partner is, now, a brain surgeon (nice work Oz). In spite of his lack of PhD, or even college degree, Benny does have a favorite mantra - "It ain't easy". Usually this is said very matter-of-factly at opportune times, such as when he's worked himself to exaughstion, or more commonly when I've utterly failed to get my last rep and he has to take the heavy bar off of my pulsating chest so that it doesn't produce a somewhat more concave version of my upper torso.

99.9% of the time I just kind of agree with the man and go on. Clearly if he ended up lifting 70% of what was once my weight then it was, by definition, not particularly easy.

So today I'm in the locker room with Benny after a solid day of lifting and cardio and we're getting our gear (and winter clothes) on. Benny gets a little mirror flex in while I'm putting on the jogging pants. He initiates conversation... something about having to start slimming for the show in April by the end of next week. Then he asks who I'm going for in the Super Bowl.

It's weird. I didn't have an answer. Now I love football, although I'm not the biggest pro football fan, but it doesnt matter. I mean every guy picks a Super Bowl favorite right? You pick a favorite even if it's just to harass your friend who's a die hard fan of the other team. But I hadn't so much as thought about the fact of the SB being this Sunday. I'd been so lost in my world of theology, planning for the future, mourning what I can't have, mourning what I'm not yet able to pursue, dealing with personal and inter-personal issues, trying to keep my church service at a minimum while researching and learning German, planning my language aquisitions vis-a-vis when i'll be applying for programs, thinking of missionary work, .........sigh.......

So I say that I have no particular favorite. "That's cool", Benny says while touching his flexing bicep. Then he adds "I'm going for the Bears I guess. Gonna go over to my friends, have a few beers and some pizza...I'll be workin' that off on Monday. Gotta get my butt down another fifteen pounds before I step out there and pose.... It ain't easy."

For some reason it hit me this time. All of this stuff I've been worrying about I forgot the central axiom - if you want something big, it isn't easy. It isn't going to be easy for me to learn languages, it isn't going to be easy to narrow down a proposition for PhD, it isn't going to be easy finding flexible yet viable employment, it isn't going to be easy tending to my soul in these very mobile and in many ways disenchanting years of my life. But hey, it isn't easy for Benny to lose fifteen pounds before his April show either. These things take work, dedication, and a certain fervor in order to really excel. They take prayer, fasting, and striving. They take fear and trembling.

What can ya say? It ain't easy.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

I need a picture for all this fame

I can't believe they don't have a photo. I should submit. It's funny having a site dedicated under a pseudonym in anticipation of my fame to come.