...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Second Sunday

We headed back to St Nick's again this morning. No baptism today, and we got there early enough to sit on the other side (where we can hear the chanters better) and to grab a couple of liturgy books so we could follow along. We did much better in that regard this morning, but it still seemed like they were skipping some large sections, particularly as the Eucharist approaches. Their liturgy book is published by a monastery, so I'm wondering if St Nick's is actually following an abridged liturgy. The wording the priest & choir used were different, as well. Just translation differences - nothing too big. I had intended to ask the priest if there might be a better book that we could buy for ourselves, but plum forgot. (Or is it "plumb forgot"? Weird expression, anyway you spell it.)

Just as last week, Fr Schmemann's wonderful "For the Life of the World" became immediately relevant to me. We were in the Liturgy and I think I started to ask myself "how much longer is this going to be?" But before I could finish the thought, his lengthy discussion on our perception of time came into my mind. And I had almost a vision of my week - the job search, going to class, studying, and all the rest of my activities - as a big Spanish galleon or a Ship-of-the-Line, crashing into the shoals of this time at church, and foundering. But not to its destruction; it merely stopped and could go no further. Whatever mission it was on, whatever deadlines it felt compelled to keep, made no difference to the mission of those rocks. Their mission, I think is, in large part, to stop those very ships, to keep them in their proper place. Those rocks announce the Kingdom and everything else is diminished to its true size. What is one week in eternity? After that, the service simply flowed - easily, peacefully and without major distraction or discomfort.

We stayed for the coffee hour and had a delightful conversation with a grandmotherly woman. She made sure to tell us several times she hopes she sees us next week. A few minutes later, Fr David came in and when he saw us, immediately came over to talk. We discussed our relative backgrounds a bit - turns out he's a convert. He had about 6 months left on his seminary ecuation at Concordia (a Lutheran school) here in Fort Wayne when he really started reading about & exploring Orthodoxy. He finished his MDiv, but was still unresolved on where he was headed, so went back into another degree program. A few months later, he and his wife decided to convert and they joined St Nick's. He did some time as a deacon before heading out to St Vladimir's for a year's worth of classes to get ordained as a priest. He pastored at a church in Michigan for a bit, but was able to come back to St Nick's a few years ago. It was encouraging to hear that he would know from first-hand experience the kinds of things the wife and I are going through - our questions, our concerns, our problems, as well as our hopes and desires. He even knows what its like to have resistant parents - both his dad and father-in-law are Lutheran clergy. He said he met a lot of resistance from both of their families at first, but things have changed over the last few years. He said they've seen the truth of it lived out in his and his wife's lives. We talked a little more about other stuff - he was in the Army as well, the deacon is from my wife's home-town, the inquirer's class, etc. It was a good conversation, one that made us feel very much at ease.

After church we went out to lunch with some family members - including uncles Bob and Brad from my justice post a couple of weeks ago. Bob, ever the inquisitor, started up with the questions after he heard we'd gone to St Nick's the last 2 weeks. No hostility or anything, but you can tell there's definitely a lack of understanding, both about Orthodoxy and why we would want to go. It'll be interesting to see how things play out with family in the coming months. I don't for one moment think there will be any hint of judgment or condemnation, but I'm certain there are going to be some rather long conversations about it.

The hits just keep on coming

First Robertson's idiotic comments, and now this. Hopefully this won't receive widespread coverage and add more ammo to the anti-Christian crowd.


First week of school

This marks the last day of my first week back to school. I was always pretty sure I'd end up back in school someday, but I generally thought it would be in a master's program - not an associates, and certainly not in nursing. God sometimes takes us on a wild ride. Anyways, I'm back to reading 100 level textbooks and I had forgotten how insipid these works can be. I've only briefly skimmed my chemistry book, but have read the first chapters of both my psych and communications books and, oh my. Surprisingly, the communications book is worse than the psych; much more oddly used relationship words. For instance, they use the word "partner" much more often than "spouse" or "boyfriend/girlfriend." I don't know of many heterosexual couples that refer to each other as "partners", so at this point I'm assuming that most of the communication to which they refer is between a gay couple of one kind or another. The first example of "partners" that uses names refers to 'Paul' and 'Pat,' and we all know - thanks to Saturday Night Live - that the latter is an androgynous name. "Its time for androgyny...its just Pat!" So three cheers for political correctness! Huzzah!

Of course, that's not the worst of it. I've always enjoyed being talked down to, but I reeeeaaaaallllllly like it when its assumed I have next to no intelligence whatsoever. At least I can look forward to a relatively easy slate of tests & assignments, though I'm already embroiled in a debate with my psych prof about a quiz question. Its almost a Zen koan - if none of the possible answers is ever discussed in the text, can any of them be right?


No School Left Unfunded

From the CS Monitor, an article about the growing discontent with Bush's No Child Left Behind act. From the article:

In a separate survey, teachers cite compliance with new federal testing requirements as the most serious problem they face - more serious than lack of resources, incompetent administrators, student discipline, and personal safety issues.

"If they do not change that law, it's not if every urban school in Indiana will fail, it's when they'll fail," says Dr. Rose, who is also a consultant to the Indiana Urban Schools Association.

Eight-one [sic] percent of teachers surveyed say that compliance with NCLB is the most serious problem facing them....They also strongly oppose using academic progress of students as measured by test scores to determine whether a teacher is qualified to teach.

My mom has been an elementary school teacher for 25 years and, just this summer, decided to move up to teach 7th grade due to incredibly poor leadership at her old school. From her, I've learned about the impact NCLB has had on her and her classroom, so nothing in this article surprises me. I would highly suggest that if you have young children in public school, or if you know a teacher, ask them what they think of NCLB. Ask them what they think of an unfunded mandate that is costing local schools millions of dollars they don't have in order to meet goals that, in many cases, are all but impossible.

To highlight a point from the last quote: Many of my mom's students in her old school were from what used to be (and likely is still very close to the bottom of the list if not), literally, the poorest community in the US. Many of her students had one parent (or both) and an older sibling(s) in jail, had witnessed violent crime, had parents or guardians that never graduated high school and were involved in minor crime. My mom is a great teacher and she helped a lot of these kis improve, but by the time they reach her in the 5th grade, they've already had 5 years to fall behind their peers in the state and the rest of the nation. It matters little in the eyes of NLCB if she moved them from a 1st grade reading level up to a 3rd grade level in the year she has them. Or, in the case of one kid in the recent past, that she provides the necessary structure and discipline to normalize a kid who the 4th grade teachers described as "the next Jeffrey Dahmer." Based on NCLB, the 45 hours she has past her masters are worthless. Her skill and dedication are worthless. Its all about the points, but frankly, the points don't reflect her ability, or the abilities of many thousands of teachers working in impoverished areas. NCLB needs to be repealed, and a realistic, funded piece of education reform needs to be implemented.


First Sunday back...

Yesterday morning, the wife and I went back to an Orthodox church for the first time in probably about 2 years. I was actually somewhat surprised that we did it. The wife's brother and his new girlfriend were staying here for the weekend, and after church, we were all going to meet up with an aunt & uncle for lunch. But we decided, at around midnight, to get up earlier and go to St Nicholas'. So, arising earlier than the rest of the house, we went and managed to get there a little early. We drove around the block so as to arrive fashionably late, and to not betray our lack of knowledge by not having mobs of people realize that we weren't crossing ourselves, lighting candles, kissing the icons and such. We made it in, scooted off to the side and grabbed a seat.

The church is pretty big. Not quite as big as the church we attended in Phoenix, but its laid out differently so its actually a little hard to judge. Its basically square, with two rows of pews running down a central aisle and stained glass on the side walls. The iconostasis was quite tall and ran all the way across the front (different than St George's in Phoenix, which had its altar area kind of recessed into the east wall with the iconostasis running only a little wider than the recess). The ceiling and most of the walls were sky blue, and the dome was right over the doors into the altar and was apparently punctured by several large sky-lights given the sunlight that was streaming in. We were too far back for me to see the icon in it. There was a choir loft, but the choir was up front on the left on Sunday and the chanters were across from them in an alcove. This made them a bit hard to hear at times from our seats. The congregation was large - probably in the 150 to 200 range and well mixed - young and old, male and female. It was largely white, but there were a fair number of non-whites - mostly black, with a few people of possibly Arabic or Egyptian descent.

It is harder to describe my impressions of the morning. In some ways, it was disappointing - but only because we have St George's to compare it with. That was a beautiful church with an amazing choir. The building was wonderfully acoustic, which allowed the music and the chanting to just wash over you, permeating the entire space. Probably due to where the choir was, and I suspect its there because of a lighter summer schedule for choir members, the music didn't reach that same quality. St George's was also built on something of a slant, which gave everyone a nice, clear view of the iconostasis, altar and what was happening down front. St Nick's is flat, and because there wasn't a liturgy book anywhere handy (and because it started with a baptism of a beautiful little baby girl instead of matins), it made things little hard to follow. So in terms of those purely aesthetic things, and only in comparison to St George's, it wasn't quite what we were expecting.

But in other ways, it was deeply satisfying and later in the day, I found myself rather subtly ensnared by the experience. The baptism was a beautiful event, although I must admit it was a bit shocking to see a naked baby butt held aloft in church. It was done so lovingly and with such a sweet spirit, though, I couldn't help but be moved by it. The priest gave a short homily after the baptism, talking about the importance of striving to see the spiritual reality behind what we see & experience. He focused on the spiritual reality of baptism, of its participation in Christ's death & resurrection and likened it to the Eucharist. It was a brief sermon, but powerful and passionately delivered. And though it only came to mind later, Fr Schmemmann's words in "For the Life of the World" about how true worship ascends us into heaven, how it transforms our little patch of earth from the mundane into the joyous eternal, seemed rather appropriate. The feeling of peace I left the church with radiated throughout the day for me.

After the Liturgy, my wife and I got in line for the blessed bread - a first for us, actually. I'm not sure why we never did at St George's, but we didn't. I think it was probably because Fr David had emailed me to tell me to make sure to introduce ourselves to him if we came. He was very nice and said he had a meeting to attend, but would make sure that someone came to talk to us. And within a few minutes, someone did, which was nice. Oh, and during the Liturgy, when the others were going up for communion, a woman sitting behind us brought us some of the bread as well. I'm sure it was easy to tell we were visitors and it was a nice gesture - very welcoming. We left soon after that. We both felt we needed to process things a bit and to talk about our experience, so we figured we'd stay for coffee hour next week. So we headed over to Starbuck's to grab a cup of coffee and talk. I think we're pretty much on the same page - we enjoyed it and definitely want to go back, but had a few disappointments. And we still have some major theological issues to work through, but all in all, it was good to be back.



We went to church with my in-laws on Sunday and afterwards we met up with my wife's two uncles and their wives. One of her uncles, "Bob", is a former senior pastor and former president of our former denomination. He and his wife never had children. The other is "Brad", a very humble, soft-spoken man who works in insurance. He and his wife had kids and their son, "Todd", is currently in law school after having already completed a masters in another field before figuring out he really didn't want to work in that field after all. (I know the feeling.) Todd recently emailed both Bob and Brad and posed a question about grace and prison sentences. He said that as he works his way through school, he has become increasingly convinced of the necessity of a sentencing mandate for our courts. Tough, but appropriate, sentencing is a good thing for our society, or so he has come to believe. But, he said, as a Christian, he also believes in grace and realizes that he isn't getting what he deserves because of it. So how should he reconcile these two, apparently conflicting, thoughts? Bob and Brad posed this same question to me.

I had already been thinking about this, to some extent, after reading Joseph Bottum's latest article in First Things; "Christians and the Death Penalty." I think you would be hard pressed to label Bottum's article as either pro- or anti-death penalty. Rather, he calls into question the way we think about it and the underlying assumptions that silently inform our discourse on the matter. I think a good summary of his thesis is this:

Christians would have to engage in national idolatry to suppose that all the acts allowed in ancient Israel are permitted in Connecticut...Without constant pressure from the New Testament's revelation of Christ's death and resurrection, the state always threatens to rise back up as an idol. And one sign of a government's overreaching is its claim of power to balance the books of the universe - to repay blood with blood.

Bottum believes the modern, secular state does not have the power to dispense the ultimate justice of the death penalty. It may dispense it as a punishment or as a deterrent, but it is not justice. It does not restore the lost loved ones to their families. It does not erase their pain or dry their tears. No such justice will exist, or even can exist, on this side of heaven.

So what about grace and tough sentences? Well, grace is about justice. It is about the ultimate reality of the divine (what we call justice here on earth is nothing but a pale and obscure shadow of the real thing). And criminal sentences in our courts, be they tough or minimal, are not. Where is the justice in putting a child molester in jail? How does his jail time restore his victim? How does it heal his or her pain? How does it make things right? Is the molester getting what he deserves, really & truly deserves? No, and he wouldn't be getting it even if he were killed - at least not by our hands. What he faces after death is another story entirely. He would not be getting justice because no punishment we can concoct will ever either match the pain he caused or close the wound he inflicted. So his jail time is not justice - it is punishment, it is protection of society. Perhaps for other crimes, jail, community service, heavy fines, etc, are rehabilitative. Even if they are, though, they still aren't justice. So grace and criminal sentencing exist on two entirely different spheres.

But those spheres do touch & overlap, so grace must inform a Christian's thinking about such things. So one could argue against mandatory minimum sentences, believing that the judge should be able to offer mercy in those instances when it is warranted and could offer a benefit to society. But what if the judge is not Christian? That is an important question, because it is precisely Christian thought that keeps us from seeing any punishment meted out by our courts as justice. We as Christians know where justice resides, and brother, it ain't living on the bench. And if our courts are not dispensing justice, then our thinking about our entire legal system should change. A crime damages society. Regardless of the victim or what was done to them, it is a crime against society, against a community, and should be punished as such without being confused with justice.


The power of music

(I wrote this Monday night, but couldn't get blogger to load to post it.)

Sometimes I struggle, as I’m sure many people do, with getting frustrated that things don’t work out more easily. That sometimes the challenges that present themselves seem almost insurmountable based solely on the circumstances I find myself in. What’s bringing this on right now is that I just got back from an information session about the nursing program I’m trying to get into. Admission is based solely on combined points of your general education classes (science & math classes count for more), stuff like anatomy and psych, and a skills test, which is worth 100 points. An ‘A’ is worth between 12 and 32 points, depending on the class and with total possible score of 188. Between the two, they said you’d need approximately 200 points to be competitive and the cutoff is the end of this semester. Don’t make the cut and you have to wait another year to try again. As my schedule & transfer credits stand right now, I’m at about 170, assuming I get all A’s and do very well on the test. That ain’t cutting it, obviously. So I’m left with having to add another science class (24 points possible), which bumps be up into the 190’s. Or, I can drop my psych class (12 points possible) and add 2 science classes, which would jump me up over 200. I’m not real keen on doing that, particularly since I’d be taking Anatomy & Physiology 101 & 102 at the same time, as well as either Microbiology or Chemistry on Saturday mornings. If I was really masochistic (or God opted to bail us out with a miracle of some kind so I didn’t have to work full time as well), I’d add the 2 science classes and keep the psych, which is an online class. That could make my total possible points 220 and would give me a very good chance of getting into the program for next fall.

So I get frustrated, pessimistic and a little angry. But then I remember – God has been good to us. My wife has already found a job that pays better than any other job she’s had in the past and has benefits. Our house just sold last night, right in the range we were hoping for so we’re actually coming out ahead on it. And since we’ve been in it less than year, that in and of itself is something of a minor miracle. We’ve also got free lodging for the immediate future at my in-laws and enough savings to last us several months – so what am I complaining about? Nothing. My mind keeps returning to this song on a CD of Orthodox chant I picked up last week – “First Fruits” by the Byzantine Choir of Boston – Psalm 33:10 of the Artoclasia Service of the Five Loaves:

“Rich men have turned poor and gone hungry,
But they that seek the Lord
Shall not be deprived of any good thing.” (thrice)

It is amazing to me how the simple refrain of a short song can be used by the Lord to encourage me in a time like this. A simple melody sung in a rich, human voice can give hope and sustain my soul.

Lord have mercy.


Vanity Fair contest

My wife was flipping through a Vanity Fair the other day and came across an ad for a writing contest the magazine is sponsoring to answer the question "what is on the mind of America's youth today?" The ad juxtaposed a picture of college-aged Vietnam war protestors with one of a host of swimsuit clad spring-breakers on a beach, and asked why the youth of the last generation became passionately involved in their society while today's youth seem to be perfectly happy to sit on the side lines. Its a reasonable question, even allowing that the editors may be overestimating the involvement of America's youth in the civil rights and anti-war movements of their day. Today's youth are definitely less involved, less politically and socially aware and less likely to have thought deeply on any of the major issues facing our society & nation today. My wife suggested that I submit an essay to the contest, given that I just came off a job that had me intimately involved with youth and because I'm clearly passionate on the issue. The deadline is September 30th and I think I'm going to submit something, so over the next few weeks I might be working out some of my thoughts here - please comment and critique on what I write. If what I'm writing stinks or doesn't make sense, by all means, tell me; I certainly don't want to embarass myself! These may be considered rough drafts, or perhaps merely a mental sorting before starting a rough draft, but your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

So what do I think is on the minds of America's youth? The same things that's on everyone elses mind, past & present - joy. But I mean that in the Christian sense of the word; a deep, abiding feeling of security, fulfillment, belonging, of rightness with the world, trust, justice, love...and it goes on. I mean it in a sense that is infinitely deeper than our modern usage - a meaning rippling with subtle nuance and lingering impressions. I use joy in its eternal, active tense - not the pale noun we use to up-sell mere, fleeting "happiness."

But it is precisely this paucity of meaning that makes the lack of joy both so acute and so damnably difficult for us to define against the backdrop of our lives. Our minds are structured by language, shaped by it. We think in language, and if we are thinking in hollow words then we are thinking hollow thoughts. A language bereft of meaning, of poetry, of the eternal, cannot provide us with the tools to grasp the meaning of our lives, the poetry of our existence, the eternal dimension we all share. Thus, we lose the ability to articulate what we want and what we need. We become mute, though maddeningly, we can still hear the siren song of joy, but are now powerless to direct our course there. This generation, however, has gone a step further - they have lost the ability to even determine the general direction from which this haunting melody is coming, leading them to jump to every point of the compass to find it.

Today's youth are addicts through and through. They seem to constantly seek the next hit, the next high - whatever their "drug" of choice. And like an addict, what did it for them last time doesn't offer the same thrill this time, and so they seek after more. This is why there is so much excess and dissolution in today's youth culture. It is why celebrities are worshiped and wealth & fame are considered the highest calling. (Maybe joy is found in money and being loved by countless fans?) It is why sex and debauchery reign supreme. (Maybe joy will be found in sleeping with that hot guy/girl, by being the object of attention, by throwing myself into "love"?) It is why drugs are used so casually and yet so feverishly. (Maybe joy will be found in that high?) It is why the neverending cycle of consumption only spins faster and faster. (Maybe joy will be found in having the latest thing, in having better style than other people, in being the trend-setter?)

Even now, I am hesitant to use the word "joy" for this essay because it has become trite. People will take on look at the word "joy" and dismiss what I'm writing as, perhaps, an emotional appeal. Or worse, as a religious one. Thankfully, though, I think so many of today's youth, and hopefully the editors of Vanity Fair, are so divorced from any real spiritual heritage that they will likely not link "joy" with faith and therefore will not dismiss it as quickly.


Pray tell, what is a "hoosier"?

So we've successfully made it to Fort Wayne and unloaded the van. We've dropped the price on the house $2000 in hopes it will move things along and I got registered for school this morning. Which was an interesting experience. The school is a community college, formerly a "state college" - a distinction that is lost on me, I must say - and offers a pretty wide range of classes, from nursing (which I am pursuing) to business & accounting and a healthy host of industrial programs. I think after having gone to a 4 year school, I have utterly taken for granted the fact that most folks don't go to college and many really aren't cut out for higher education at all. I had to sit through a 30 minute advising orientation and from the near baby-talk level of instruction coming from the front of the room, I had some doubts about my choice of schools. Thankfully, though, my wife was told the nursing program is actually quite competitive while interviewing for an admissions position at another (and apparently rival) school. That school apparently gets a lot of the dropouts from my school - I felt marginally better.

I am hoping to get past this transitional period rather quickly and move into blogging about some actual, real-life stuff; like our first try at an Orthodox church here. I emailed the priests from the 2 churches we're considering - St Nicholas - OCA and St John Chrysostom - Antiochian. I was hoping to try the Antiochian church first, but the email got sent back to me as undeliverable. I tried another address on the site, but haven't heard anything back yet. The priest from the other church, though, immediately sent me a rather lengthy reply answering all of my questions and providing lots of information. Plus, while lost in the freakish thunderstorm we got yesterday, I drove right by St Nick's and it is very close to my school and to my in-law's house (where we're staying for the time being), so St Nick's it is. We still may head over to St John's at some point, though.

The wife and I got into a conversation on the drive out about the way Orthodox views people not yet accepted into the church and it was something I really wan't sure about. How would the Orthodox church view those who had converted, ie, repented, turned to Christ and declared their desire to join the church, but who die while still catechumens? Assume they've come from a pagan/irreligious background and were never baptized - are they in heaven/hell/limbo? And what about those who were baptized but not chrismated - what would their status be?


Template change

Been blogging for over a year and I finally got around to chaning the template! And now that I've found a free image-hosting service (yes, I know they've been around for a very long time - I just never bothered to check into it until now), I might actually post a few pictures now and then.

One word of advice to blogger - move the "clear edits" button to an entirely different location on the template editor screen; heck if I didn't accidentally click that a couple of times, eliciting more than a few grumbled curses.