Friday, July 30, 2010

The Sin of Discontentment

Andrew posted a comment on "Work and Priesthood" that was particularly pointed:
"Out of curiosity, do all the positive responses to your blog also swell your ego? Not to be an arse or anything but it seems disingenuous to post a confession that you know will result in praise. To me, this "confession" has the aura of bragging about it." 

I don't know if Andrew is new to the blog (coming up on six years and over 600 posts old) but one of the things that I think is clear to my long time readers is that I'm no stranger to my own ego and the manifold and subtle ways pride and vainglory can be passed off as humility and piety. If it can be done, I've done it (he proudly claimed...). But his question is a legitimate one that gets to the heart of the human condition: rarely is something pure or a motive is without a tinge of hypocrisy or self-serving. But we live in the condition unaware that our existence is being rotted away at its core by such a tiny cancer.

One of the things that was integral to my struggle with ordination was the realization that I've spent most of my life being discontent with one thing or another regarding my life's circumstances. One of the things that kept me from Orthodoxy was the prospect of being a "talented layman" in the context of a clerical structure where a robe (or collar) gave instant "cred" to some (in my estimation) pretty sketchy people. At that time my perception was that, as a layman with little prospect for ordination, I would have to give up teaching and writing and sit in the back pew and shut up for the rest of my life.  I knew I had a gift for teaching, but I knew (at least my perception was) that if you didn't have a robe no one would regard you as a "real" teacher. I converted anyway with a mixed bag of humility and false expectations (like most of us do I've come to realize).  I was partly ready to sit quietly, but ordination was still a remote possibility though not a promise. In the back of my mind I would be the one that would get the "economia", the bending of the canons because... well, because I was special, of course. Over the years I got plenty of recommendations, attempts, Synodical votes, and when those didn't pan out I got lots of advice from clergy, laity and monastics about where to go and who to schmooze to get ordained. I've been enough of an "screw authority anarchist" throughout my life that I refused to play the "schmooze or lose game" even with the Church, so I never followed up on any of the advice. But that's not the point.

In the first year of my Orthodox life I began my stint as an "Orthodox radio show personality". The short story is, I and my friend Allan were invited as "new convert guests" on a local live Orthodox radio program.  Fr. Andrew (Barakos) essentially turned it over to us the next week. For the next ten years I did a weekly radio show that eventually became "Our Life in Christ" with Bill Gould and was for a season the most popular Orthodox internet radio broadcast on earth via Ancient Faith Radio. Bill and I ran out of things to say about a year and a half ago, and I started the solo podcast "Steve the Builder".  In the meantime I blogged, I started Mission parishes and I built monasteries. Yeah, I know this looks a lot like more vainglorious self promotion in the guise of confessional literature. But its just a rehash of stuff already on the blog.

But the point is I came into the Church with an ego and an agenda based on my ego. Ego and vainglory are what Mp. Jonah calls "the false self". Ego constructs a facade, a mask, a projection, it creates an idol within yourself, a false god of "you" that you bow down to and serve. Part of the problem is that the false self is partly constructed of the real self's attributes.  One's true talents and even God given gifts are aspects of the idol, just as most idols are partly human, partly God and partly something other than human or God.

And therein lies the ultimate sin of ego: it is discontent. The ego can know no contentment in the life in the fullness of the one true God.  I look back on all the stuff I've done and Andrew's question would be the obvious one:  Doesn't your ego get inflated when you get praise for doing all that stuff?  Well, no. My ego was already inflated.  I was already serving my self constructed idol "Fr. Wannabesoon". While I know I was legitimately using my talents for good purposes and objectively I did a lot of good things for a lot of people, I was not content.  I was not what I desired to be. I could only pay lip service to being grateful and humbled by what had been given to me to do... as a layman.  I was a layman, and thus could not "find contentment in whatever state I was in" (Phil. 4:11). Everything was subservient to the desire for the priesthood.  I could not enjoy the "present moment" in God. I lived in the past, my sins (ahem, "impediments"), the future, my illusions, my delusions, my dreams, my image, my orchestrations and manipulations, anywhere else but the present moment in God.  And so, I was discontent. Like the Israelites in the wilderness with manna to spare, I wanted the Egypt of my past, I wanted more than what I found in the morning, I wanted what was not given... yet, or perhaps ever.

What I didn't realize was I had imported my "I Corinthians 10 self" into the Orthodox Church.  As a Protestant, I was an egotistical self-worshipper, an idolater. Not far behind the narcissism of self-idolatry is immorality. I tried the Lord, I grumbled because I was only given bland manna, not the meat I desired. I thought I was standing and I fell.  When I entered the Orthodox Church, I renounced my former delusions, but I was so deluded I didn't know reality from illusion. Or more precisely, I knew it (perhaps not its true depths), but was not willing to crucify it. My idol was still my self-perception.  I was still ruled by my passions even though I could fast and pray in public quite admirably.  I continued to test God, to make deals, to look for signs, to throw out the fleece and check it in the morning.  I was in the wilderness between the Egypt of the surety of ordination in a former Church and the hope of a Promised Land. My grumbling was against His mercies and provisions and providences in my wilderness.  Rather than seeing the radio programs and building and teaching opportunities as true blessings (and yes, I truly had a sense of gratitude for them all... I'm not totally depraved, and did them with a mixed bag of ego, zeal and humility, and yes Andrew, I delighted in the praises), I still regarded them as scraps from the Master's table... I was being thrown a bone by God, given a consolation prize for finishing last in the "priest race".

So, I was not content. In the final analysis, I was ungrateful.  And this was the same sin that led me to my former downfall.  And as St. Paul says in the Corinthian verses regarding idolatrous, ungrateful, immoral Israel, "With most of them God was not well pleased..."  This is probably why I am a blogger, a cartoonist, and a podcaster and not a priest.  But, just as God continued to feed Israel, and even gave them the quail they grumbled for "until it came out their noses"... God continues to feed me and even give me some of the things I grumbled for before I came to the Church and since, because He is merciful to the idolater, the immoral, the grumbler, the proud.

So I've learned the hard way, even though the Scriptures told me clearly, discontentment is a flashing red light, a warning sign that something deep within the soul is in desperate need of fixing.  There is a fine line between having an aspiration and being discontented with the present moment in God, even if we think it is a wilderness. If we are not content where we are, as the Fathers say, "Look to yourself" rather than at your circumstances. It is when we can delight in the ordinariness of life, of mysterious manna given only day by day, and follow God closely only as far as He moves and no further is when we find our true self and the Promised Land He is leading us to.  In the end, this is the will of God for your life.

The Adventures of Curmudgeophan #4

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Salt and Salvation

Owen (The Ochlophobist) has posted, deleted, re-posted and deleted an amazing post about Lot's Wife, Marah, who you may recall was turned into a pillar of salt when she turned and looked back to Sodom when she, her husband and children fled the wrath of God poured out upon it.  This excerpt from Orthodox poet Scott Cairns is part of the original post: 

Unlike her husband - coward and sycophant - the woman remained faithful unto death. For even as the man fled the horrors of a city's conflagration, outrunning Marah and both girls as they all rushed into the desert, the woman stopped. She looked ahead briefly to the flat expanse, seeing her tall daughters, whose strong legs and churning arms were taking them safely to the hills; she saw, farther ahead, the old man whom she had served and comforted for twenty years. In the impossible interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.

I loved Scott's words. Ever since I can remember, I have always believed that, it I were running from Sodom, I too would be a pillar of salt by virtue of my disobedience. I am too easily compassionate, too soft hearted to turn away from even well deserved suffering, too willing to question God's judgment in light of what I know of human frailty and the sheer injustices of merely existing. I would have looked back, perhaps not longingly, perhaps to see if anyone else was following, but at least for sorrow's sake. Perhaps God forbade them to look back because His wrath should not be told by firsthand witnesses.  Perhaps His wrath is much like His third heaven that the Apostle Paul could not speak of after his taking up and return to earth.  But even if he could not speak of it, the Apostle became salt.

The simple and plain version of Marah is "she disobeyed God, she was killed by God in a strange way for it; therefore, do not disobey."  The more difficult version is, "You are the salt of the earth..."

Who is the "salt of the earth"?  Is it not sinners who have been incomprehensibly loved by a God who could not look away from the utter ungodliness of His own city?  The unsalted blandness of the bread of religious righteousness does not fill the hunger for God.  Self preserving flight does not quench the thirst for Love that risks all for the sake of the beloved.

How does one become salt? We are believers and followers of a God who could only run so far from the sins of Sodom. He ran no farther than the Cross upon which He was lifted up so He could see all clearly, and so all could see Him.  We are followers of a God who looked back. We follow a God who runs not away from, but to the Prodigals. We follow a God who came to us, and became our flesh assaulted by passions and desires and futility because He looked back on us and we were not following. Our God is not foreshadowed by the Righteous Lot.

Perhaps Marah stands between the Sinners and the Righteous Lot as an evangelist to both. She is salt to both Sodom and Lot.  She is the foreshadowing of The Evangelist, who is both God and Man, who looked, and then died for the both the righteous and the unrighteous. This is the Gospel. Do we dare to look?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Work and Priesthood

It is no secret to those who know me that I aspired to the priesthood for about 50 years of my life. For 30 of those years since I got fired from my one "full time ministry job" I've been a construction worker to put a lot of food on a large table under a large roof for a large family.  Since I became Orthodox almost a dozen years ago, I've been "THIS close" to being ordained a few times, but by God's grace it hasn't happened. Now I know... well, actually it's more like "now I can admit"... why.

You see, even in grade school I wanted to be a priest so I would be seen and regarded as "a priest".  For nearly 50 years the priesthood was a goal that would fulfill my self-perception.  I "knew" I was called to the priesthood at age six, and I continued to "know" it for the next 50 years. It didn't happen in the Catholic Church. I did a stint in ministry in a protestant church. But as sure as I knew I was "called", I also knew I wanted other people to know I was called.  Someone once asked, "How do I know if the fire I have inside is from God?"  It is whether you want other people to notice the fire.  I know this because I confess that I wanted people to notice the fire. And a lot of people did. And it both confirmed my "knowing" and convicted me of my falsehood.

Since becoming Orthodox, over the years laypeople, monks, abbotts and abbesses, priests and even bishops fed my delusion by trying to get me ordained. But I knew with a knowing deeper than my private lies to myself that it was my ego calling me, not God. In a dark place I knew that those who wished me the priesthood were responding to a well crafted facade, an illusion of piety, a chameleon-competence in putting on appearances and role playing. They only knew me for minutes at a time, perhaps a few hours now and then. Construction work paid well, it is honorable labor, but the priesthood would give me a true identity, the robe would affirm to others my self perception as a "spiritual person" better than paint crusted jeans and a stained T-shirt. I would be at the altar, I would be talking up in the front.

But the Scriptures tell me that I AM a priest.  By virtue of my baptism, I have a royal priesthood.  By virtue of marriage and family, I am the Father of my household.  I knew that even as a Protestant. But in my younger days that was not good enough for me. Being the priest of a wife and two kids at Sierra Vista Street was not fulfilling enough. I needed to be admired, listened to and the leader of dozens, not three. My then-wife didn't want me to be a "priest" of a church. I did. It became partial fodder and an occasional topic during several years of marriage counseling. She knew before we got married I wanted to be a minister. She didn't want to be a minister's wife and married me anyway because she didn't think it could ever happen, I was too "radical". But it did for 3 years, and it was still on my agenda when I got fired for being too radical. I know now that the bottom line was, my self-perception was more important to me than she was. I was not willing to lay down my "real life as I perceived it" for her sake. I resented that she was a roadblock to me being what I thought I was supposed to be, even though she would have reluctantly followed.  Reluctance was not good enough, I wanted a cheerleader. But she would not cheer, but only wear a martyr's smile. After 35 years, I now know she was right and all the bishops, monks, priests and elders since her were wrong.  I am not fit for the priesthood.  My intimate community knew what those who have "authority" didn't.  But I didn't want to hear my community, I wanted to hear what I wanted to hear, even if I knew it was false and coming from people I knew I had deceived.

So I came into Orthodoxy as a former divorced protestant minister.  It is called a "canonical impediment" that some jurisdictions offer economia for and some don't.  On a "legalistic" level, a Bishop is well within his rights to relax the canon. On a spiritual level, I look at what it means to be the "husband of one wife" and to "rule one's household well" as a qualification for the priesthood and I see the genius of the requirement.  It is simply Ephesians 5: if I am not willing to give up the priesthood for the sake of the love for my wife, then how can I imagine that I will be able to love the Church and my spiritual family with maturity and with integrity and in truth?  In the one case I am posing as a husband, in the other I am posing as a priest. The proving ground of the priesthood of the Church is the priesthood of home and family. If I do not love my wife enough to sacrifice myself for her sake, I am a poser as a husband. If I cannot sacrifice in marriage, I cannot sacrifice myself for the Church. In both situations it is about "ME", not love... and in the end a man will lose both his first church and his second ordination and spiritual family.

There are stories of men who were forcibly dragged to the altar and ordained.  I have been forcibly dragged to my true altar. I now wear the vestments of my true priesthood willingly. These are the vestments of a true priest.  These are the most difficult to wear because they have a hidden glory. And frankly, I don't look often for hidden glory.

If a man will not wear these in peace, with joy, diligence and gratitude and offer himself to put bread on the altar of his family's supper table, he is not fit to wear the gold vestments and offer the bread of the table of the Lord.

(The expanded podcast version of this post can be heard HERE )

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I Prayed for Money...

... and God sent me work. The work is hot, humid and hard, but after almost two years of 15-20 hour work weeks it is nice to have 14 hour days of paying work. I'd rather be cartooning, but BofA won't take a stack of these to keep the house from foreclosure.

Friday, July 16, 2010


What do you get when you combine volleyball, hackysack, soccer and martial arts? A very cool game called Takraw... These two guys are the best in the world. 

A cool video explaining the game and footage of players, strategy etc. is HERE
H/T: Allan

Oh Man.....

Danny Gatton is/was one of the most phenomenal guitar players of all time. He was fluent in rock, boogie, jazz and blues. He committed suicide.  God knows why someone with such talent and loyal fans and admirers does that.  Anyway, one of Bill Gould's teenage sons discovered him and shared this with me last night. Even if you don't care much for the boogie woogie, hang with it until the 4:00 then enjoy the show.

This one is pure Gatton.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Writing in the Desert

Many of you know some of my "back story"... about how a guy with a bunch of degrees who "knew" he was supposed to be a Catholic priest since age 6 ended up doing construction for 30 years after being fired from his protestant ministry job and now draws Orthodox cartoons in a basement. But this isn't about "my story".  It is about everyone's story, and an ex-minister with a blog (go figure!) who just wrote one of the finest posts about "everyone's story" I've ever read.

So, I'm going to introduce you to Ryan.  He and I have similar paths (he's a few years behind me), but I've gotten to know him in a lot of ways lately that I'll reveal later but this isn't about that yet. The point right here, right now is:  If you never click on any other link in my blog ever again, click on THIS ONE. 

Thursday, July 08, 2010

St. Paisius Monastery Visit

It has been a long time since I've been to St. Paisius Monastery.  The last time I was there I framed the side chapels in the new Church.  We visited this week for St. Anastasia's feast day and the Church has been finished (except for the iconography etc.) The service was beautiful and the Sister's voices are as close to the angelic choir as you can get on earth.

It's a Mystery

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Last Minute Plans

I just had to make a cartoon of something Missus Curmudgeophan said this morning...