Thursday, March 29, 2012

Unfortunately, There Will Be No Icons of This Man....

(I think I've reposted someone else's stuff once in 800+ posts.  This is the second time.

This is a story retold with permission from a friend, slightly edited to protect identities. His Dad is a retired minister who sometimes does weddings for people on the fringes of society.)

My Dad drove into this apartment complex that he said looked very run down.  The people, mostly white (which in the poor part of our town essentially means a meth problem instead of a crack one), looked rough.  He gets to the apartment where the wedding is to take place and nobody is parked out front and there is no activity there.  He calls the mother of the bride several times and there is no answer.  He decides to wait until 15 minutes after the wedding was supposed to have started.

About 5 minutes after the wedding should have been going, the mother of the bride shows up.  She is drunk.  She lets him in the apartment.  The place is a dump and not decorated for a wedding.  Some neighbors start bringing over folding chairs.  In about 20 minutes time there are maybe a dozen people there.  The groom shows up and is introduced to my dad.  He's in his early 50s and very quiet and somber.  

Eventually the bride comes downstairs into the living room and dad said that she looked like death - extremely pale, skinny, just like a meth head, and appearing very nervous, in a wrinkled dress, and perhaps in her late 20s.  

Dad didn't know what to think.  She had a three year old daughter who was the only person there remotely dressed for a wedding, in a flower dress.  The child ran around the living room, around her mother, around my dad, taking toys to show him and being generally interruptive throughout the ceremony. Dad goes through the usual no bells and whistles ritual and notices that groom and bride both look awkward and uncomfortable around each other. 

When it comes time for the bride and groom to kiss, they don't.  Dad prods them several times, and finally the groom quickly kisses the very awkward bride on the cheek.  At this point dad is getting a little nervous.  He is not sure, perhaps there is something nefarious going on here.

After the wedding was over and the paperwork was signed, the groom walks out the door and goes into another apartment a few doors down.  Dad doesn't see him again.  In a few minutes there are only 4 or 5 people left, all family of the bride.  They hand dad a tip in addition to his normal $150.00 wedding fee, which is notable in itself because more than half of the weddings dad does are for the elite in extravagant settings. The few times dad has ever been offered a tip it has been after doing a wedding for the other half.

The small cohort that remains begins drinking and dad chats up the grandmother of the bride.  She, a world weary early 60s-ish lady who tells dad that she owns her own laundromat, has a long cigarette hanging from her lips and is more than a few drinks into the day herself.  Long-cig Grandma gives dad a careful looking over and then tells him what it was all about.  

The bride has stage four non-hodgkin's lymphoma.  She has no insurance.  The apartment complex did a little BBQ fundraiser for her and it only raised a few hundred dollars.  The 50 something neighbor, a loner who doesn't talk much, was at that event.  Afterwards, when they were cleaning up the paper plates and empty beer cans, the man approached the mother and grandmother of the sick girl.  He works at the railroad and has excellent insurance.  He says that he knows that he will never marry again, meaning not under normal circumstances.  He offers to get legally married to the girl so that she gets insurance - no questions asked, no expectations, he said any bills sent to him wouldn't be much and he would take care of them - no relationship or sex or money or anything else in return. 

Long-cig grandma says that upon hearing this they thought it was too good to be true, surely he is after something, and if not he is crazy to take the risk (as dad put it "in her world this act was not only unfamiliar, but insane" - no one gives without expecting something in return), but the family checks him out, verifies that all that he said was indeed the case, gets the sense that he is not crazy and that he is telling the truth, and approves the marriage.  Long-cig grandma finishes telling this to dad with a chuckle to the craziness of life, and perhaps realizing that "telling" was not on the program for the day, she asks dad if he has a problem with that.  Dad responds "Ma'am, you got the right pastor today."  He hands back the envelope with the tip, saying that he can't take it.

This town is such a bitch and a whore most of the time.  But this reminds me of the line from the old Buddy & Julie Miller song,  "Letters to Emily" –

 Well, I've gone wrong, but still I know sometimes God serves the best wine up right from a paper cup. 

May that man's love toward that woman be rewarded at the table where Abraham sits.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Somewhere Over the Rainbow Redux, The Sunday of the Cross

There is something enduring and mystical about "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".  Perhaps it is "merely" the human innate sensibility of immortality that transcends the troubled existences we endure. Perhaps after The Flood God has infused in our DNA the Promise of the Rainbow. 
A couple years ago I posted this video of  Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole 

And the "Piano Guys" do a beautiful tribute to Iz and nice rendition of the tune. 

On the Sunday of the Cross the promise of the Rainbow of God is fulfilled.  He is not our Destroyer, He is not our death.  

The Light hung on the Cross in darkness and fulfilled the promise of the Rainbow.

The Life of the world died and killed death.  The Life was bound to all that is earthly to offer a hope beyond the curse of returning to the dust of the ground.

God is the hope of the "somewhere" over the Rainbow.  

Perhaps He is the Unbearable Light that we can only bear shattered and refracted by creation, broken into smaller comprehendable parts. The Rainbow is The Light, anchored to the dust of the ground by the Cross, stretching to heaven at Its peak then returning to the earth in Hope. 

The Rainbow is all we can see through earth-bound eyes because our hearts cannot bear the Uncreated Light. But the Rainbow touches our hearts because we hope for something beyond what we can see.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Two Hot Dogs and Faith Can Do...

I can't remember if it was two or three years ago, but I do remember I had a LOT of time off because construction died, so I built a church for our Mission. This picture was our first Pascha in our completed building.  It seemed the hand of God was blessing us.  Of course He would bless us. We were stepping out on faith. We gave sacrificially and then some. We endured all manners of setbacks and speedbumps and didn't give up. In the end we had built an Orthodox temple and had a solid core of faithful families. The whole story is HERE

I used to read the last line of that post now with a bit of ironic bitterness.  About two years after we built the Church the owner sold the property out from under us.  It would be easy to blame the owner (and we did for a while), but looking back, the reality is it was a harmonic convergence of bad decisions and gross negligence and just plain human failures by our Bishop, Dean of Missions, Priest, Parish Council and members at large (of which I was an integral part).  QT (a gas station/convenience market chain) had bought the property and we were forced to vacate.

This was the fate of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours of volunteer labor, all given "to the glory of God". 

The fate of St. John's building is a metaphor for life, of course.  "Why does God not seem to honor the sacrifices that people make for Him?"  WE think we're building a legacy to the glory of God then that same "God" permits it to be bulldozed and buried so the future generations we were hoping to bless cannot even recognize it nor remember it.

And of course the answer to that  question is, "Who knows?"  Our call is to be faithful, not prognosticators or soothsayers interpreting and discerning the will of God.

So today (Sunday) I finished my weekend construction job about one o'clock. I went to the new commercial office space our Mission just rented and decided I'd get a jump start on the remodeling.

I "kept the fast" even though I didn't go to Church because I had to finish the job this weekend.  By noon I was shaky. (I'm standing on the blog streetcorner, yes...) There was no way I was going to do demolition for the rest of the day on a "BLT without the B".  I stopped and ate two hot dogs at Circle K and went to the new office space St. John's rented.  There's a few walls that have to be removed to open it up for a sanctuary.  These were the first two that had to go.

It is office space, nothing fancy. There will be no dome, no arches, no park-like grounds for picnics and barbeques, just an asphalt parking lot in a non-descript office building on a main street.  But St. John's Mission will be there, just like we were in someone's living room, the funeral home chapel, the strip center behind the bar, the beautiful temple and the rented Coptic Church Chapel we've been in for the last year. 

The Mission has survived seven years of clerical delusion, neglect, abuse, and lay and clerical dysfunctional leadership.  But it still exists in spite of all of the issues and problems.  In the end there was no schism, everyone who left has returned and is looking forward.  That in itself is a miracle.

Moving to a commercial office space from a "real church building" may be a step backward by all measures of "progress", but a step forward by all measures of "faithfulness in the small things" by a community of people that love each other enough to wander in the wilderness together and endure the humanity of the Church and the severity of the hand of God that is preparing us for something we do not understand and cannot comprehend.

And yes, it has occurred to me that even the last line of this post will probably come back and bite me too.  Oh well. What else is new.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Lent and Life

This coming Lazarus Saturday I will celebrate my 14th year being "Orthodox".

Fifteen years ago I prepared to enter the Orthodox Church by fasting "strictly". No meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil for over 40 days. I was on a "Mission from God".

A group of us sat in a living room with an Orthodox priest who was asking us about what we had studied and what we were doing as former Episcopalians that was preparing us to become Orthodox.  Of course among our group we all had discussed our fasting and prayer rules with each other.  Someone said to the priest, "Some of us are abstaining from meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil."  The priest commented, "Wow... that is strict!"

I still remember ever so slightly smiling when he said that (even though I had no clue WHY he said that back then). Even then I had a clue that I smiled because of pride and that "someone who would know" affirmed my strictness and spiritual effort.  My first Lent was a failure right out of the gate.

Over the past fourteen years I've kept Lent pretty strictly, somewhat strictly, and on and off pretty poorly. I remember one year I broke out with huge red, itchy blotches all over my body all during Lent that I think might have been a seafood allergy, but I kept the fast anyway. Eating jumbo shrimp and crab for Jesus for 50+ itchy days is a tough spiritual discipline.  But over the years there have been the secret Burger King and Taco Bell lunches when I worked alone and the blatant "tofu-be-damned" meat-fests even on a Friday.

Of course one of the primary lessons of Lent is that you fail, if not in food then in relationships, attitude, and spirit which are actually the REAL issues, not food.  Intellectually I knew that Lent is supposed to be humbling and if you finished with a sense of accomplishment you did it wrong. But there is always the temptation to pride for "doing it right"... at least the food part of it.

The longer I'm Orthodox it seems the "pretty poorly" number of meals and days have grown.  The longer I was Orthodox the more elegant my rationalizations became (for instance, I know at the monasteries monks who work manual labor aren't required to keep the fasts strictly... I did manual labor, therefore....).  But I didn't have to read "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" to recognize they were just rationalizations for the weakness of my flesh.  Over the years I've also recognized I feel less guilt for not keeping the fasts strictly. 

I think "lack of guilt" about food may be a sign I am finally becoming a real "Orthodox Christian", the kind of normal Orthodox Christian Fr. Michael was comparing me to fourteen years ago who freely and guiltlessly "break the fasts". I've known that fasting is not ultimately about rules about food but about being a Christian. But I've often found I was more concerned about what other people might think about me eating a Big Mac than being an ass during Lent. The past couple years I've swung the other way (of course probably off balance again).  I've slowly become more concerned about being an "orthodox CHRISTIAN" than an "ORTHODOX Christian". Some day I may get both in the same font.

So with all of this personal spiritual restructuring going on, this year's Lent is a total ummmm...., shall I say, fastulation dysfunction.

It's not just about struggling with fasting particularly.  I've realized it is about coming to terms with fourteen years of "goofodoxy" I've personally participated in, endured, wrestled with and been beaten down by.  For the last few months I've been taking a break from a lot of "hyper-involvement" in things "Church", my ego and pride about things spiritual, from talking about spiritual stuff and doing spiritual things in public venues, and fasting is one of them.

So this Lent my shiny "new toy" of fasting which I've played with less and less has finally been put on the top shelf of the closet in a plain cardboard box. At 14 years old I'm finally an adolescent putting away my childhood toys and trying to figure out how to be a grown up.  It is hard to give up childhood fantasies and illusions and pretend games.  Even if the "toys" were Daddy's real tools, I wasn't using them like Daddy did.  He fixed cars with them while I banged on the board on the driveway floor with them.

But I haven't thrown all my toys away. Spiritual disciplines still hold a nostalgic pull and call to me to take them out of the box and play with them again. I know that some day I will, but as an adult with a different understanding of their meaning and value. It doesn't mean I didn't have fun with them as a child, nor that their meaning and presence in my life were pointless or meaningless.  It just means I was a child once.  As I grow up I will return to the same toys some day with a different perspective, a different attitude. 

And then, like all toys we kept from our childhood and rediscover as adults, I know some day I'll find a new joy, a new appreciation for their meaning and will have a great love and awe for their former place and handle them with more care.  I don't know when that will be right now.

So yes, this Lent, as the joke goes, I'm fasting from Lent.  Unless I don't.  I still might keep it, I don't know, probably more likely in front of certain other Orthodox people than when alone. I haven't decided if that is hypocrisy or discernment. Either way, I'm not making myself or God any promises about food for now.  I'll try to keep the promise I made years ago to be like Christ, and I'll fail at that too for sure.  I can only pray that I will know when I need to repent.

It's tough growing up.