Monday, November 30, 2009

Faceless Book, Part 2

Fr. Jonathan Tobias usually posts things way above my pay grade. His recent post about Facebook is one I think I understand. If not, at least I find it convicting on a deeper level even though I continue to resist Facebook. It's a pithier critique of what Facebook and other social network stuff perhaps represents about our lives and potentially does to our souls.

Fr. Jonathan's post "Mimeograph" is worth a read and a few minutes of reflection. You might even want to post it on your Facebook page and Tweet it to your followers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

How to Learn Love

Gary is back in the hospital. He had a coughing fit at the nursing home and the pain in his chest became unbearable. They transported him to the emergency room. I arrived shortly after they checked him in. Joe and I sat with him while they ran tests and waited hours in between them for results to come back.

Joe is in charge of the house at the Rehab. Gary picked him up off the street two years ago. For 30 years from age fourteen Joe lived in refrigerators, behind dumpsters, on the street and in the bottom of a bottle. No home was his home. He had the social skills and cynical savvy of a loner street person. "Pastor Gary", or more exactly they would say, Jesus Christ has transformed Joe into a human being.

Joe is fiercely protective of Gary. One morning two weeks ago in the former hospital, Gary didn't get his breakfast tray. Joe tracked down one of the orderlies. The orderly came to the room and said Gary got his breakfast. Gary said, "No, I didn't". The orderly said, "Yeah, you did," and walked out. Joe walked out right behind him, got in front of him and instead of slamming his head into the wall, just said, "I never want to have to come out here again and tell you to not call my Pastor a liar. If he said he got no breakfast, he didn't get you understand?" Gary got his breakfast and the orderly didn't have to go to the emergency room.

Gary lay in the emergency room gurney wracked with pain. Until they knew its source they wouldn't prescribe anything. Joe looked on his Pastor going in and out of conciousness and crying out in agony. His prematurely old eyes that have seen decades of indescribable human suffering in the streets, glistened with helplessness.

"This is probably a new experience for you, isn't it? Its hard to just sit and watch and know there's nothing you can do," I said.


"You probably never thought you'd be taking care of your Pastor like this."


"You know, this is probably how he saw you spiritually when he found you. He took care of you, now you are returning the grace."


As the night wore on, I told the attending physician the neglect and lack of attention to Gary's real symptoms at the former hospital and at the nursing home. They ran the typical emergency room tests and again ruled out a heart attack, and again the source of the crippling pain was a mystery. I convinced him to admit him to the hospital to do more tests. After eight hours of vigil they finally arranged to move him. Joe and I followed him to his room, we talked to the head nurse about his bed sores that no one has treated, how to move him because of his torn shoulder, then we left. It was midnight and it was raining.

In the parking lot Joe asked, "Will you be here in the morning?"

"Yeah, I'll be here by 5:30. I want to be here when the attending doctor makes his rounds to be sure he knows what is going on."

"Cool. I have to make sure the guys get to Church in the morning. Pastor Gary will kick my ass if I don't take them. I'll be here after Church."

"No problem, Joe. I'll tell Pastor Gary you took the men to Church. You guys pray, I'll come sit."


Love does not need a lot of words. Sometimes love just sits in helpless pain and prays. If we are capable of learning to do that, we are capable of salvation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ain't I Great?

We got Gary moved out of the hospital into a nursing home a couple days ago. He was drugged into derilium at the hospital and since being at the nursing home and off the morphine and dilantin he has been able to talk and is aware of who is visiting and what is going on. I stopped by to visit Gary on my way home from work today as usual.

Gary has led quite a, ahem... colorful life but has spent the last 13 of his 64 years in Christian ministry. A lot of his dreams and goals are almost coming true. His Christmas "homeless and shut in dinner" will feed over 6000 this year if all goes as planned. His shelter and rehab has gotten some attention and interest from a couple localities to open similar programs in their cities. We were talking today and he said, "In one way if I die I know I am "God ready" and I look forward to being with Christ. But in another way I think, WHY God? ... I'm at the verge of seeing all my ministry dreams come true and You're calling me home before everything great happens. If I could live seven more months I could accomplish SO much more."

I asked Gary to name me one person in Scripture that died thinking they had accomplished EVERYTHING God wanted them to do. I asked him to name one person who, if they had lived another month or year, would not have done even greater things for Christ. I told him that perhaps his one true purpose was to turn one particular person from the street to Christ and THAT one person will be his link to even greater things than he even imagined. I told him the geneology of Christ was full of no-name, obscure people who accomplished nothing more than getting a mention in Matthew's Gospel, but through them salvation came into the world. I told him greatness is not in accomplishment but in faithfulness, and according to the biblical record, "faithfulness" is often not very pretty or laudable in polite and "spiritual Church society".

The reality is, we who aspire to serve the Church in some "significant way" usually self assess according to our self referenced accomplishments and goals. But as James the Thickheaded said in a recent blog post:

"Do we really do ourselves any good by our ambitions to be a “somebody” in the Church? Moreover, do we do the Church any good, or those around us? I’m not convinced. And I’m certainly not convinced that ambitions of this sort – if we are candid with ourselves – necessarily amount to more than adopting a posture unconducive to our professed aspirations. Sainthood as an aspiration for ascension could perhaps be more clearly understood as a path of descent… not into nothingness, but from the sinful false images we erect of ourselves and toward real personhood."

Indeed, there is a temptation to what amounts to a desire for a place at the head of the table disguised as "service at the table". Subtle ego fulfillment is a leech on our "aspirations" that is contrary to the true path to "ascension". It is too easy to adopt the "posture of humility" with the agenda to be elevated to a higher place in the future rather than learn to serve with true humility in the place we've been called to in the present moment. The shiny cross worn around the neck is a glittering temptation, a distraction from ascending the true cross of accepting all God gives us, including dashed hopes, thwarted dreams, unrealized aspirations and even humiliating failure. God does not "need" our ministries and false humility, nor even our greatness. He works best through the horror of the Cross, and in the lives of those who willingly or even grudgingly accept the death it offers to each of us. He needs human beings to die to themselves and the world in Christ and thus to live as a witness to the resurrection of true personhood, and to be willing to be an obscure, no-name person in someone's distant past who, because of a glimmer of faith, did one small thing in the name of God that, generations later, saved the very cosmos.

No... I ain't so great.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pictures of Our Bishop's Visit

Our Bishop Benjamin (OCA) paid his first "dedicated visit" to our Mission this past weekend. Before this he would spend Vespers with us and we would close our Mission and join him at Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Phoenix for liturgy on Sunday. This was the first time since I was ordained a sub-deacon that I was somewhat responsible for attending to the Bishop. Since I've never actually been the "proto sub deacon" at a heirarchical liturgy, Bp. Benjamin brought Sdn. Johann from the cathedral with him to "assist" us...which means he taught us how to do it. This is the final "huddle"with all the altar servers on Sunday morning before Bp. Benjamin arrived. (Sdn. Johann is the second from the left).
This is me and Sdn. Matthew from the local Antiochian Church preparing the Bishop's vestments. They are folded in a certain way so when we vest the Bishop they go on in the right order and easily.
This is the beginning of the service and vesting of the Bishop. This is what Metropolitan Jonah refers to when he says, "Its no wonder Bishops have big heads...when they enter a Church people dress them like a Byzantine emperor and sing to them that they hope they live forever..." One of the things you don't want to do is get nervous and get started on the wrong button, like I did last year when I assisted at Sts. Peter and Paul.

Sdn. Johann and I finish the vesting without any glitches.
The Bishop is vested and gives his blessing...he also blessed our new building this morning. (Yes, that is me...without the candles.)
And blessings...
One of the hardest things to learn as a sub-deacon is which candles go in which hand and when. I know the three branched always goes to his right hand. Depending on the part of the liturgy we either hand the two and three branched candles to the Bishop facing the altar or the congregation, so they are placed on the altar accordingly (and depending on where we are in the liturgy they are either lit or not. ) Sdn. Matthew and I got this one right.
The Bishop consecrates and serves communion when he visits. The parish priests are his "hands", so when the Bishop is present the priests are wallflowers and the deacons and subdeacons do most of the liturgical work with the Bishop.
And he gives the final blessings.

For the full pictorial go HERE. Thanks to Paul aka. Bagwhan Dos for his fine photo journalism.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bishop Humor

Bishop Benjamin (OCA) visited our Mission this past weekend. He is a wonderful Pastor and always has great stories (as well as pastoral teaching and advice).

During the liturgy when the Bishop is finishing the preparation of the Eucharistic gifts before the Great Entrance, each person serving at the altar comes up to him and kisses his shoulder and says his name so that he can commemorate them, then they take their place in the line for the procession. One of our altar servers was our priest's five year old grandson.

At lunch Bp. Benjamin told us that when he was a deacon serving at a heirarchical liturgy, each person went to the Bishop and kissed his shoulder, but there was a young boy about six years old serving who could not reach his shoulder, so he kissed the Bishop on his backside then took his place in line. The Bishop looked at Deacon Benjamin and winked and said, "That boy will go far..."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gary Update

It has been a week since Gary was admitted into the hospital. His condition plummeted each day. He had a seizure and they added dilantin to his morphine. Every day they raise his morphine dosage. I visit him every morning and evening and if I have no work I sit with him in the afternoons. He is in and out of conciousness and picks up on conversations from hours or days before. He isn't lucid long enough to get through the living will in one sitting. He's concerned about his homeless and rehab ministry being carried on and he has ordained me to take it over in the event of his death. It is an honor that he has given me that charge.

Bishop Benjamin went with me and Fr. Damian (our priest whom Gary loves) and Bill Gould to visit Gary on Saturday during our heirarchical parish picnic. We took Gary a cheeseburger and some brisket.

Of course, as soon as something like this happens I pick up a lot of work, so I'm juggling visiting Gary and keeping three projects going. Yesterday Fr. Damian spent most of the day with him. We've joked with Gary for a couple years about baptizing him and getting him into a "black dress". He hand wrote a sign for his hospital room: "No men in black dresses carrying water will be allowed in this room." He told me he wished he could live longer to talk to me more about Orthodoxy since we both came from the same protestant tradition. Fr. Damian called me and told me that Gary wishes to be chrismated. If he dies, we will bury him at St. Paisius Monastery where my father in law is buried (and I will be buried, but after I'm dead...)

The medical update is a mixed bag. The lump in his lung is pre-cancerous. They don't know if he has cancer anywhere else, or what is causing the excruciating pain. He has an anuerism at the base of his brain. His kidneys have ceased functioning. They don't know the condition of his heart yet because his health is so bad he can't do a stress test, and he is allergic to the nuclear iodine dye and is too big to fit into a full body MRI machine.

He wanted me to be the person to make his "end of life decisions" on his living will, but because he wants to will his ministry and its assets to me I cannot do that (no one who stands to "financially benefit" from someone's death can make end of life decisions...makes sense.) We've found another friend of his that is willing to do that for him.

The hospital doctor said they are pretty much at the end of their resources. He might be discharged in a few days and will have to go to a nursing home and be treated on an outpatient basis for each individual issue, heart, kidney, cancer, brain and unknown pain. The hospital he is in is an abomination. I won't even try to tell all the neglect and carelessness I've seen in the last week. Unfortunately the only way to get moved is for Gary to request it, but he is too drugged up. We will be trying to get him moved to a better hospital tomorrow one way or another.

If you pray, please do so for us all.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Malcolm Muggeridge Quote

The final paragraph of Malcolm Muggeridge’s essay ‘The Great Liberal Death Wish" on life at the end of the 20th century:

"As the astronauts soar into the vast eternities of space on earth the garbage piles higher, as the groves of academe extend their domain, their alumni’s arms reach lower, as the phallic cult spreads, so does impotence. In great wealth, great poverty; in health, sickness, in numbers, deception. Gorging, left hungry; sedated, left restless; telling all, hiding all; in flesh united, forever separate. So we press on through the valley of abundance that leads to the wasteland of satiety, passing through the gardens of fantasy; seeking happiness ever more ardently, and finding despair ever more surely."

H/T to Fr. John Chagnon

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Facing Mortality, Yet Again

Gary runs a non denominational Christian drug and alcohol rehab shelter. His men helped us build our Church. Ironically Gary was a minister at the church of Christ that I got "disfellowshipped" from 6 years before he came on board. We met him at a city interfaith event. We've done Vespers at the shelter, his men come to our Mission for Bible study and services once in a while. Gary says of all the Churches they visit they like ours the most.

Gary and his men have been helping us get our property ready for our first Bishop's visit this weekend. I saw one of his men Wednesday afternoon and he said Gary was having some chest pains. I asked him if he called 911. He said, no...Gary went home to rest and was coming back later to finish moving their stuff to the back lot. I called Gary's cell and no answer. Not a good sign. I went to his house, no one home...maybe a better sign, at least I didn't have to break the door down. I found Gary at 7:30pm in our Church parking lot sitting in his van. He was trying to move a trailer out of sight to the back lot. He looked like hell. I told him, "You're going to the hospital, right now...moving a pile of trash for our Bishop is not worth your life." He looked at me and said, "You're not going to let me out of this are you?" I said, "No. I'll drag you out of this van and carry you there if I have to." (He weighs 350 pounds). "Thanks," he said. And we went to the emergency room.

I sat with Gary tonight for a couple hours. He's in a lot of pain and they are still running tests. At 64 he's facing his mortality. We talked about DNR's, living wills, worst case what will become of the men in his program, who will make the final decisions about pulling the plug on him if it comes to that, his childhood in the Ozarks of Arkansas, running a hot dog stand, his former marriage, traffic tickets, getting shot with rock salt stealing watermelons and life's regrets and satisfactions and delusions. Though there are no specific diagnoses or prognoses by medical professionals, the inescapable one that does not take an MD to know is "the flesh is corruptible and death is inevitable".

Tonight I will download legal forms for a living will for him. Tomorrow we'll have biopsy results and they'll do a cardiac stress test. Tomorrow night our Bishop arrives for the weekend. There will be things around the Church left undone that I didn't do to finish sprucing up for the Bishop's visit. If the paint in the bathroom didn't get touched up and if I'm not there to "sub-deacon" him every moment he's there because I'm at the hospital, I know he'll understand. He's like that.

Please pray for the servant of God, Gary, benefactor to our Mission and to "the least of these".

Monday, November 09, 2009

First Fishing Trip

Many years ago I used to go fishing. Then life got in the way, six kids and the need for lots of money. Then death got in the way. When my best friend died I basically stopped playing guitar and fishing. I sold our fishing gear at a garage sale. Then death loomed again and I started fishing again with my dad. My oldest son and I have been a few times. His friend Tom from Boston was visiting so all of us and my youngest daughter went fishing this weekend. Tom caught a few bluegill.

It was my daughter's first fishing expedition. She cut up worms, baited the hook and eventually learned to kiss the fish.

Kenz's first fish! Jesse shows his sister how to remove the hook without killing the fish. Kind of a girly experience but she got the hang of it. A fun day all in is good.

Moo Takes a Bath

Watch the video HERE

Monday, November 02, 2009

Moo at Daybreak


A Life Well Lived, Or....

...a death well died.

Well, once again the theme of death seems to come to the forefront after my Father's brush with his mortality last weekend.

Today "rightwingprof" who comments here is in the hospital fighting for his life. Inside of a week what was pain in his legs was discovered to be a body riddled with tumors.

Today a client that I've known for years is trying to decide whether or not to finish his last round of chemo-with-no-guarantees. He retired a multi-millionaire and a couple months later found out he had an incurable cancer and 6 months to live. I called him a few weeks ago and asked how he was doing and he said, "Not too bad for a chemistry experiment."

Most of us could multiply such stories and the irony of timing, mystery of circumstances and depth of tragedy. Such is life. Such is death.

Outside of putting one's self purposefully in harms way, how we live seems to have little bearing on what kills us and when. Neither life nor death is fair. Bacon eating smokers and drinkers live to be 100, vegan runners die at 30. The randomness of how people die and from what has no discernible relationship to their relative morality, type of faith or religion, philosophy or "niceness". Trekkies may give you Mr. Spock's Vulcan blessing "Live long and prosper", but in the end it is merely an incantation, much like "Have a nice day", or even "God bless you". In the end well wishes are shorthand for our unarticulated acknowledgement of the fact that people die young and destitute, the days are fraught with evil, and the need for control outside of ourselves of a hostile cosmos that seems to be hell-bent on killing us off in more random, surprising and horrific ways than six sequels of "Saw".

A Christian's life may or may not be as moral or healthy or happy or even "blessed" as the atheist's. Evangelism based on God "one upping" lifestyles that lack irony, tragedy and poverty is doomed to attract only the deluded and desperate and can only end in either deeper delusion and ultimately in despondency. The Christian Gospel requires a life of self restraint, sanctity and love for one's neighbor, but the Gospel does not claim that any of it is a talisman against the cosmic assault on our bodies and souls. The Christian is not called to overcome life, but himself. He is not called to live long and prosper, but to live well and be content in any state. He is not called to have a nice day, but as the Psalmist says, to offer up all days wherein we saw evil to God with thanksgiving. And in the end the Gospel points us to consider the randomness of life and the ultimate injustice: death.

Death is more real than life. Life is like the water the fish swim in. We don't think much about it unless something points us to our frailty, powerlessness and mortality. A split second encounter with death can change an entire 80 years of life. Life can be hypnotic, but death is the snap of the fingers that brings us out of all self made illusions.

In the end, the Gospel is about the overcoming of the power of death so that we may live without the illusion that a "good life" has any correspondence to a "life well lived". A life well lived is one lived without fear, in faith that no matter what life does to us, good or evil, and no matter how or when we die in the end all will be well, all will be well. A death well died is the final witness to whether we lived well or merely lived good.

As I wrote this the theme of death came up on several other blogs:

The Ochlophobist has a pithy blog post on Christian funerals HERE
(also read the link to John's excellent travelogue post on Texas graveyards).

And Sophocles has a reflection on death and the funerals of a nihilist punk rocker and a saint HERE

And today is Dia Del Muerto (The Day of the Dead) in the Mexican culture. I love the art.