Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Boat

The economic situation has made for a crowded boat.

I've basically known I was in the boat, but the other night I realized I am actually on the cruise ship with a lot of other people. We had our electricity shut off a while back and when that happens they put you on a "debit card system". There's a box hooked to your meter and they give you a card. You take the card to a local "filling station" (ours is in a Safeway grocery store parked right inside the main entrance for all the world to see who's an electric company deadbeat). You put cash in and it credits your card, then you take the card home and put it in the cardreader. The kicker is if you're on the program because of past due bills they take half of what you put in until your balance is paid off. It was a brutal "ding" in the middle of summer here in Phoenix when your air conditioning bills even with the thermostat set at 82 can run almost 400.00.

I got paid on a job ran to the bank and then to Safeway to charge up the card because we had about two hour's worth of electricity left in the box. It was payday, a Friday evening, and when I walked in there was a line of about 15 people at the station. There were people from the surrounding trailer parks, seedy apartment complexes and barrios. There were people still in their work uniforms with their names above the pocket, blue shirted maintenance men, stained-white shirted fast food counter help, cashiers with their name tags still dangling. There were people with dirty kids who looked like they just sold someone a load of meth. There were a couple of clean cut uncomfortable folks who looked like they wanted to tell passers-by who looked up and down the line, "I'm not really one of "them"!" I was in my painter's pants and tattered work shirt so I fit right in. I chatted with the Mexican landscape guy and his Indian (casino Indian, not tech support Indian) girlfriend. We were in the same boat. I "own" my house, he rents his (actually I rent mine from the bank...) but we both need electricity and neither of us has enough work to cover all the bills, but both of us will leave the store with beer. But cheaper beer than when we have work.

But the boat isn't just full of minimum wage people. Friends on the blogosphere have lost jobs, members of our Church are facing bankruptcy and working minimum wage jobs just to buy food, I know people who haven't paid their house payments for almost a year and are waiting for the axe to fall, some have been unemployed in their fields for over a year and are looking at losing their houses. I have people ask me all the time if I need help. As much as I'd love to help them out, every hour they work for me is an hour I don't get to work. Its hard to split ten hours a week with someone else and make ends meet for my own family.

I've been self employed for over 27 years in construction in Phoenix and have worked through two major recessions and the rollercoaster economy of a sunbelt city. I've never advertised and have always had an unlisted phone number. My referral network is literally thousands of clients so I have never lacked a day of work... until this past year. I've had weeks that I've had ten hours, or less. We've had our electricity shut off, negotiated with the city to keep our water turned on, paid minimum past due balances on just about everything that we have to have (like my work cell phone number and my work truck payment), we dumped TV completely last year, and sometimes we just don't pay whatever isn't critical path for the month even if it means a penalty down the line.

Its a tough spot for me. I'd get a "real job" but there just aren't any in my field. Even if I could get an hourly job at a restaurant (my last "experience" 35 years ago) that pays 8-10.00 and hour, it makes me unavailable for my business. My work calls are always short notice and range from an hour's work to 4-5 day projects. When I get work, I can charge anywhere from 35-55.00 an hour. I realize I am in an enviable situation that I can make more in two hours than someone else makes in a whole day. The reality is, even with my business dropped in half, I make more half-time than I would working two full time jobs at a retail or restaurant job. But the reality is still, neither scenario pays our bills. And our lifestyle isn't extravagant by a long shot (but yes, still good enough for latent "evangelical liberal guilt" for being relatively rich compared to 85% of the world, OK, there, I said it).

We've thought about downsizing. It would have made sense three years ago when our house was worth almost twice what it is now. But our house payment is literally the same as a cheap crap three bedroom apartment (or a decent two bedroom). We owe about what the house is worth right now so there's no profit to be had by selling it. If we moved to an apartment, I'd have to rent a large storage room for all my construction equipment, which would amount to more than the difference in utilities. If we move to a rental house with a garage, we'd be paying more for rent than we are for our house payment. We could dump a car and a payment, but then my wife would have to quit her job to get our teenager to and from her two schools she attends (the bus won't work, not enough time to get to classes between campuses) and we lose our health insurance (which we have for the first time and need it for a lot of family health issues right now), and what is left over after they take out the insurance premiums almost pays the extra car payment.

So, what to do? Pray, but beside that, not much, really. If I'm not working, I look for work. I talk to people at Home Depot that look like they might need help. I talk to people in grocery store lines, Circle K, Taco Bell parking lots, hand out business cards to strangers. People ask what I do, I tell them anything that pays money. I do all that and then wait for my phone to ring. Sometimes it does, most of the time it doesn't right now. If it doesn't ring, I do charity work if someone needs it, or play with my turtle.

For some reason I've never really worried about money (sometimes I think it is a spiritual virtue, but it could be a delusion too). In the past 30 years, I've had lots and I've been bankrupt. Aside from the hassles that come with either riches or bankruptcy, I was pretty content. Either way I didn't really flinch. I realized long ago that no matter how much I made I was just squeaking by. But, if I'm squeaking by, I got by. If I fall behind, its really "behind WHAT?" If I can't make a payment, I can't. If they take my stuff, I did without it before. If they call because I'm late, its just a phone call not a beating. If they sue me, stand in line with your hand out. And a bad credit rating isn't a mortal sin, it just means I can't buy stuff on credit that would probably send me to hell faster. In the grand scheme of the universe, its just not all that big of a deal, really.

But even with all that, I haven't lost any weight. Obviously my internet is still on. I can afford lettuce for my turtle. A glass of cheap boxed wine at supper still "makes glad the heart of man who went forth to his work until the evening..." My wife and kids and their friends and ours still gather at our table and eat and laugh together, even if it is around hot dogs or SOS on canned biscuits.

So, life is still good. If I lose everything, it will still be good. "A man's life consists not of the things which he possesses..." I know this because I possess the love of a good family. And just like electricity is electricity in a mansion or a rented trailer, love is love in both places but I think it is a bit sweeter when shared in bitter times and surroundings.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How to Grow Old Together

This couple was in the lobby of a Mayo Clinic. He is 90 and they've been married 62 years, longer than I have been alive.

I watch them and I think of all I have seen and done, things accomplished at too great expense, things I have failed at, all the ways I've fallen and caused grief and pain to those I've loved and fallen out of love with. I think of the unforeseen twists of fate and turns I've taken that took us all down dark paths. I think of the joys mingled with sorrows, the regrets and the grace of happiness unsought and undeserved. I think of the decades of day to day monotonous sacrifices and the secret self indulgences, the unfulfilled goals, the hopes unrealized, the things I've known for over 50 years but know now will never be.

I look at the woman I love who shares my children, my table, my couch, my bed. I think of the deaths and losses we've shared and those we know will come soon, and those that perhaps may come that we cannot imagine. I see the lines of her face in the morning sun, I hold her aging hands, I know her skin, the beauty of her youth lost, the silent frailties now overtaking her bones. The mirror tells me I am closer to death than my birth too. Time has done us both irreparable harm, but I have no desire to hold a hand that has not touched death, nor do I wish to look into glittering, hopeful, shallow eyes that have not seen my world. I have no longing for the false comfort and the old man's lies of an embrace of a smooth body. I want to face the remaining days of my life with the one whose body, soul and spirit have been my faithful companion in all I've reveled in, longed for, ruined, loved and failed at in life.

Who knows what this couple has faced, shared and endured together to get here. But they make it look worth it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What I Did Today

I went to the Prescott Orthodox Church (a couple hours north of Phoenix) and installed their new Platytera icon. A few years ago I travelled up there twice a week to do Reader's services and teach catechism classes to help get the Mission established.

We unpacked the icon and it was VERY cool that it just happened to be just slightly smaller than the four foot stained glass window over the altar area of the former Lutheran Church they now rent. We had to rent a 14 foot ladder to put up the icon and take down a hanging plexiglass and tin cross that hung from the ceiling in front of it. A handful of self tapping screws to drill into the stained glass metal frame, some clips, a couple dabs of adhesive and a nice lunch with Fr. John Peck and VOILA! We also put in a spot light for the altar and the icon and a dimmer switch. (And a new ceiling fan at Fr. John's house...) Fr. John snapped this pic with his Blackberry when we were done.
All in all, a long but good day. It doesn't seem like rocket science to me, but Fr. John says it is to him and a lot of other people. It is just plain cool to be able to do this kind of stuff. I thank God I got fired from my ministry job and had to pick up an learn how to use tools to put food in the fridge 28 years ago.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Capital Punishment, Final

Is it legitimate to understand the death penalty as punishment and "just retribution"? What do the Church Fathers say about eternal punishment, retribution and hell for the evildoer in light of "God is love"? All this and more HERE.

Indestructible Drunk

This guy is going to be really sore when he sobers up...

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Incredibility of Nothingness

These are but two infinitesimal black dots explored in the vastness of the sky. The narrator eloquently describes the incomprehensibility of the universe then finally says, "We cannot help but be changed by this." But of all the over million people who have watched this video (and the other versions of it), has anyone changed, really?

What is the "altar call" of the universe? What demand does the cosmos make on someone? What commitment do undiscovered galaxies require? From what will you turn, and unto what? Humility before mind boggling vastness of numbers and distances is far different than humility before a far more incomprehensible Creator of it all. There is light years of difference between "Wow" and "Lord have mercy".

"...the intelligence which is full of babbling and which investigates the measurements and distances of sky and earth, and the size of the sun and the stars, characterizes a man who labours in vain. Fruitlessly vaunting himself, he pursues what is without profit, as if wishing to draw water with a sieve; for no man can resolve these matters."
St. Antony the Great.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sorry, Honey...I Missed Our Anniversary

Grace posted her 5th Anniversary of her blog today. (Many posts!)
It got me thinking, I've been around for a while too...I wonder......
Sure enough, I missed it. July 16 would have been my 5th year blogging. This is my 327th post.
The first one went like this:

What if ... everyone read everyone else's blogs in the world. Would we fill the universe with intimacy?

I suspect in The Resurrection everyone will know everyone else like everyone wanted to be known by writing blogs. But we couldn't wait for that to happen. Since we can't delay our gratification until this afternoon, much less until death, we go for the anonymous screen dump of our "self" and hope someone out there really cares what we think about artichoke dip, the Middle East, J-Lo, our "personal journey", or even more mundanely, how our day went.

So, I join the blog. I guess it goes like this: I'll post a thought then check anxiously to see if anyone acknowledges my digital presence. How many times a day I check is inversely proportional to either my narcissism or loneliness, yes?

Fishing for existence. Facelessly shedding anonymity. Baring what little soul I have, hoping that with the addition of another bit of someone else's fragile soul I, we, might become slightly more of a human being. Even if its only zeros and ones and pixels in a darkened room, it has meaning because it came from flesh, dirty fingernails, (or maybe manicured), tapping out the sum of an existence. Who is capable of grasping, much less embracing, even a paragraph of another human being?

I'll think about that while I'm fixing dinner.

Thanks to all who read my stuff and whose blogs I frequent. My life is a bit richer for even the digital moments we share. And now... I need to go fix dinner before my wife gets home from choir practice.

Capital Punishment, Part 7

Is the death penalty really a deterrent? Is there a need to kill evildoers if we can keep society safe through the prison systems? Is punishment a primitive concept not fit for modern enlightened society? All this and more... HERE.

A New "Moo Sighting"

The backyard papparazi caught him again...
Moo the Turtle

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Secret Life of Men in Black

If you read my blog regularly you know I'm one of the few "Orthodox bloggers" who don't do much "Orthodox stuff" my blog. But I read a lot of other people's blogs and there's plenty of Orthodoxy on the web that is better than I can do or would have time to do, so I decided I'm not going to try to replicate other stuff done better. The other thing is, my blog is about the only place I get to NOT talk about "Orthodoxy" but just about life, hopefully informed in a few nooks and crannies by the orthodox faith...even when I'm dressing up a tortoise in my back yard.

So, Christopher Orr has an "Orthodox blog" that I envy. He has a lot of great quotes and excerpts, but more than that, for a relative newbie to Orthodoxy he always has some very astute personal posts about the inner life of the convert and the issues we all face with newbie zeal, vainglory and disillusionment etc. In a recent post about "name days" he mentioned as an aside the "curse of the Reader" which generated a great response thread about being a new convert, zeal, egos, and some of the dynamics of how people come to "get to wear the black dress" and what that means to we who wear one. It is a path strewn with landmines and he talks eloquently and compassionately about them. I've cut and pasted some of the relevant comments here.

Orr wrote:
...the real 'curse of the Reader': being too involved in the Church for one's spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is different than spiritual maturity in another Christian denomination or religion, it is also different than one's everyday life maturity, personal or professional. Readers tend to be very involved; thus Orthodoxy can very easily become conversation and opinions and revelations of the 'inside baseball' side of Orthodoxy. This can be offensive, disconcerting, confusing as well as interesting, rewarding, and humbling (in a good way). It's sort of a crucible.

I have likened the various stages in Church life to ever growing targets placed on one's back. Inquirers get little targets, but catechumens trade them in for more permanent, bigger ones. Chrismation/Baptism give you a bigger, brighter one. I experience the same with tonsure as a reader. I would assume the same happens with the subdiaconate, diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy - not to mention monastic tonsure of the various degrees and responsibilities. I am not eager to find out. The 'curse of the Reader' experientially taught me to help the clergy and monastics, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to cut them some slack. They are being attacked more; they have bigger targets on their backs. In some ways, they are diversions letting us get by safely. Perhaps they should have done this or that differently, perhaps they could be nicer, but they take one for the team and grizzled vets that they are point us away from the fray. Becoming a vet necessarily involves grizzling, which means these guys aren't always cuddly - you wouldn't be either with your head up out of the foxhole, to mix metaphors.

I don't know what's happened to the two men tonsured reader with me. Well, I sort of know what's happened with one but try not to think about it - he succumbed to the curse. The other, I have no idea but like to assume he didn't succumb. The Readers before me all succumbed, except for the couple that were ordained. (So) I am firmly against short catechumenates and quick tonsures. 3 years for the first, another 5 for the latter. Though, of course, obedience is life, so... (Incidentally, seminary or serious consideration of monasticism should wait 10 years from one's baptism/chrismation into Orthodoxy and never in the manner of St. Alexey the Man of God. I might be willing to approve of a beard 3 years after reception into Orthodoxy, if one did not already have a beard when serious inquiry into Orthodoxy began; long hair tied into a knot like monastics has to wait until ordination or monasticism, unless you are in a band or previously limited your footwear to Birkenstocks). (s-p: Amen!)

...For the record, my official catechumenate was just over four months, though my unoffical catechumenate (when I was seriously studying and worshiping rather than on and off again peeking at Orthodoxy) was 15-16 months. I was tonsured two years and almost eight months later. So, this is do what I say, not as a do. My times were half my recommendations - but that's because I'm serious when I say obedience is life in such things; it wasn't up to me. This is more of a recommendation to any priests out there responsible for weirdo converts joining the Church....

The only known remedy for the curse of the reader is repentance, confession and trying to shut up as much as possible while remaining an engaged (though perhaps less 'active') Orthodox Christian in a local, not particularly spectacular parish (no monasteries, no Gerondas and Startsy, just a parish) that you chose and stay with without looking elsewhere.

I think it's Fr. Stephen Freeman who says that 95% of Orthodoxy is just showing up. Most of the rest is staying put when you want to run away screaming and crying and swearing. I found I couldn't stop fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the Apostles Fast that terrible year - fasting kept me Orthodox. That, and my Sunday School kids. I couldn't do anything else, couldn't pray, couldn't even stand in church for very long. I could cry during the prayers before communion at a church where no one knew me.

I should note that I am 'doing just fine' and am still a Reader. The whole curse thing is tongue in cheek; it's just a warning of some potential dangers. 'Minor Orders' are not things to be trifled with, neither is conversion. I think priests often want to 'reward' zeal and to give positive encouragement - I don't think quickie conversions and tonsuring are appropriate for that. Similarly, new converts shouldn't be expected to step into the choir director role, join the parish council, lead sunday school, etc. Slow and steady wins the race.

My comments:
Good words, Orr. I completely agree that tonsures (or responsibilities) should not be handed out as a reward for newbie convert zeal. I read services for 7 years and then I was tonsured a reader in another jurisdiction, and that was against my wishes, but the priest insisted (it was a Russian thing). Two years later he talked the Bishop into tonsuring me a subdeacon, again against my desires, I tried pushing it on every other male in the Mission. By the time they both happened I saw it as an obedience, not a "promotion". There was a time I thought I wanted to be a priest. It took me about 8 years to figure out I didn't. A ten year wait before ordination of a convert would be a good rule of thumb in my opinion too. The curse of the reader is real, but it is because those usually tonsured have had hands laid on them too quickly...the Bishops and priests share in their falling for giving them a "badge" beyond their capacity to wear without vainglory and all its manifestations....In one sense a parish doesn't "need" a tonsured Reader. In my first Mission we read services for 7 years without a tonsured Reader, and I believe they still don't have one. The issue I have observed with men coming into Orthodoxy is many of them want to be ordained to something. While attending ALL the services is not done in order to GET tonsured or ordained, usually men do get tonsured because the priest needs someone who is at all the services to read them. So, his pool of potential tonsures is loaded with spiritually immature men who are adept at practicing false humility in public and are looking for a cassock-as-a-badge. No matter how you cut it, and even if you accept tonsure as an obedience with some time under your cincture and you genuinely see it as a ministry etc., there is still something wellll... "cool" about getting to wear the black dress (except in Phoenix in 115). And as Orr said, you are now a "member of the club" and the dirt flows your way now. There's something about showing off to people that you've been rolling in the dirt that is an ego trip that goes along with the "badge" mentality. I generally avoid anyone in black whose conversation is laden with the latest controversies, issues, dirt, insider info and has a plan or vision for the "future of Orthodoxy in America". Ordination to anything is a great temptation to a lot of things. As St. John said in "On the Priesthood", ordination magnifies a man's shortcomings, and his true "craziness" of character will be revealed by the cassock.

Orr's Reply:
Well said. There is a honeymoon to Orthodoxy that can last some time. This is a great blessing. Salvation is not easy. I'm reminded of the little story of CS Lewis where the tin soldier slowly, painfully, frightfully becomes flesh. It's dangerous to advance within the Church while in this honeymoon phase. One hasn't yet been tested; the training wheels have not yet come off.

It's been my experience and observation that simply living an Orthodox life as a layperson is very difficult. Once a person has received a little seasoning, a little experience of falling down and getting back up, of forgiving others, of being offended - all of which is more hurtful as the heart is softened by the Holy Spirit - then is one ready to humbly and fearfully accept responsibility in the Church.

It may be that the Church needs a person's talent sooner than that. That is OK. In some ways, being assigned to the kliros as soon as I was a catechumen was a good thing. It kept me safe from a different set of problems in the nave and narthex. But, if a newbie is put in that position, the priest has to be extra careful to rein them in, to keep them from taking on too much, from being too involved - you want to be in shallow water when you get a cramp, not out at sea. I think there is a tendency to want to see results in one's priesthood, mission, parish, etc. mixed in with the healthy desire to be with, mentor and advance those that love the Church as much as you do. This can lead to giving too much too soon; except for absolute necessities in the Church, it is better to without and with less for a little while to let them newbies cure, season and mature - the priest, the parish, the Church and the newbies themselves will give/get more in the long run if they get just a little less up front. Such has been my experience.

As to whether the person would have freaked out anyway, I don't think that's always the case. Sure, there are actual nuts that can't handle much of anything in life and ordination would just be one more thing, but there are differences - and they aren't differences most people (especially converts) really have experience with. Use St. Paul's metaphor regarding milk and adult food; I also like the idea of a circuit rated for only a certain voltage - run current through it at a higher voltage and it will blow.

The good news is that if you get past the difficult patches, you are stronger and better on the other side (most of the time). That's why it's true that 95% of Orthodoxy is just showing up - and refusing to leave no matter what. (That often takes hunkering down, battening down the hatches, praying more, speaking less, chumming around at church less, giving more, harboring less opinions - at least for a time).

Very true about wearing the dress and being in the know regarding the dirt. I am sorry to say you may have to "generally avoid" me if and when we meet. I'll work on it between now and then, though.

My Reply:
Amen, Orr. Most priests are ecstatic to find someone who WANTS to do stuff and indeed feed "the beast" by adding too much too soon. I was reading about raising a tortoise from birth and if you give it too much of the stuff it likes while it is growing up, it will end up deformed as an adult. hmmmm... and I wouldn't avoid you, I'd just change the subject. Especially if the beer was good. :)

Of course as with all things that make broad brushed observations about motives, people's inner spiritual lives and dynamics of relationships, your mileage may vary, if the shoe fits, and etcetera etcetera etcetera.