...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Icons as narrative: What story do we tell ourselves?

Earlier this week, I received a call from our parish priest. Since we had been out of town, he had not had a chance to ask us about our status relative to joining this Pascha. I told him I was pretty close to being ready - I still struggle with some things but am willing to submit and trust that God will work them out for me as things progress - but that the wife was not; her questions and doubts are still just too big. [Which, incidentally is both fine with me and quite frightening; I respect her need to take things slowly and to really mull them over. I don't want to push her or force her into a decision she will later regret. But I'm also worried that she may never "come around" and what that will mean for the rest of my church-going life and the stresses that will introduce in our marriage. But I digress.] Our priest, being the good man and leader that he is, offered to meet with us and did not put any pressure on us to hurry up and decide. We talked for several minutes and he asked about my experience in youth ministry and wanted to know if, when/if we decided to join, I'd be interested in helping out with the kids. I told him I was definitely interested and we talked about that briefly before moving on.

But that got me thinking. I was, first, flattered that our priest wanted to get me involved in that way. Even though I'd be volunteering under someone else's supervision, that is still a leadership position and I'm grateful that he considered me for it. But it also got me thinking about what youth ministry in the Orthodox context might look like and how I would approach teaching the kids and talking to parents. One of my biggest focuses in working with youth is getting them to critically evaluate our culture; what does it contain? how does it affect us? and is that good or bad? Clearly there are good things in our culture, but there are also many corrosive, even satanic, principles that infiltrate us everyday. Particularly kids and most particularly in the media aimed at them. So how would I get kids to think about what they're watching and what it is doing to them? And I immediately thought of icons. Actually, I thought of one icon, that of St John the Forerunner, as it appears on the iconostasis at St. Nick's.

St John is pictured, one hand raised pointing upwards, the other clutching a scroll, dark robe, unkempt hair & beard, exposed legs & sandaled feet, and his severed head situtated in the lower corner. If you take the time to contemplate this image, it is striking how many narrative details spring immediately to mind. His upraised hand is indicative of his role as the herald of Christ, the scroll his prophetic fulfillment. His untidy appearance, coarse robe and exposed legs show his humility and ascetical life in the wilderness; "hair shirt" and "locusts and honey" echo in your mind. And his "extra" head in the lower corner reminds us how he died, like the Christ he was sent to proclaim, at the hands of unjust despot. If we take a moment to really see what is in front of us, the story of St John's life and role in salvation history is unconsciously reinforced. We reflexively tell it to ourselves again every time we see that icon, and in so doing, it takes deeper root in who we are, how we think and what we believe.

In the same way, the media we imbibe, particularly visual media with its rich weaving of both color and sound, unconsciously takes root in us. But what is the story it tells us, or rather, what is the story we tell ourselves when we engage this media? What are we reinforcing in our own minds and spirits when we get hooked into a show or series? Most of the shows aimed at teens focus on relationship drama and the closely related cause & effect of promiscuity, drugs and violence. These tell kids not just that pre-marital sex is perfectly fine, parents are stupid, materialism is the way to go and that drugs & alcohol are required to have fun, but also that relationships are inherently unstable and commitment but a fairytale. To see people constantly break-up, get back together, cheat, lie and hurt each other only reinforces that such is normal, which it most certainly is not. This, I think, is perhaps the greatest danger of these stories; at best they promote serial monogamy, at worst a state of chronic debauchery and pointless self-indulgence. It would take a great deal of study to determine if this mode of living is a result of these kinds of stories or vice-versa. Either way, with the age of first sexual experience seeming to spiral ever lower, I believe it is clear that this generation is going to grow up emotionally scarred from so many lost loves, abuses and betrayals. The potential for negative effects on their children and our society are obvious; a generation that cannot find the discipline and self-denial necessary to maintain relational commitment cannot model that to the next in any context. Not in the home, work, school, to our fellow countrymen and neighbors. Nor, most importantly, to God.


Long story short...

Even though the letters were not supposed to come out until the end of this week, through a providential turn of events last night I found out that I was accepted into the nursing program. I am in one of 20 available slots out of a few hundred applicants. The wife and I both agree, quite obviously, that this is good confirmation that here is where God wants us to be right now.

We, thy thankful and unworthy servants, praise and glorify thee, O Lord, for they great benefits which we have received; we bless thee, we thank thee, we sing to thee and we magnify thy great goodness, and in lowliness and love we hymn thee: O Benefactor and Saviour, glory to thee.


Baptism resources

Of late, the wife and I have gotten into several discussions, sometimes heatedly, on the issue of infant baptism in the Orthodox Church. And by extension the practice of communing infants, as well. To me, they are of a set. If the infant has been baptized into the body of Christ, then there seems no logical theological reason to exclude them from the Eucharist. We've kind of been running around in circles but have finally gotten to a point where fruitful discussion is more likely, so I'm hoping that some Orthodoxy-knowledgeable person can point me in the right direction for some good online and book resources that provide theological, biblical and historical support for Orthodoxy's paedo-baptism. Any help is greatly appreciated.


"...growing from the size of a marble...

to a volume larger than all observable space in less than a trillionth-trillionth of a second."

But, you know, this all just sort of happened on its own.



In the "Letters to the Editor" section of this months Atlantic comes this little gem in response to The Year of the Two Popes in the Jan/Feb edition:

"If the Holy See could come down to earth, get over its obsessions with contraception, abortion rights, in vitro fertilization, divorce, homosexuality, and male dominance - obsessions most First World Catholics do not share - and concentrate on the social-justice and ethical teachings of the Nazarene carpenter, it could make enormous contributions toward helping to solve the myriad real problems facing humankind today."

The problems with this kind of thinking are legion. First, casually dismissing some of the most important ethical and moral debates of our time - issues that directly affect the lives (deaths) of some 1 million plus unborn children each year, hundreds of thousands of marriages and the emotional-mental-spiritual health of the members of this generation who actually survived to see their parents split - is not at all in line with Jesus' thinking. That the circumstances of the Church in a secular nation are different from the world in which the first Christians found themselves, and thus requiring different responses, is almost painfully obvious. This sentiment would seem to imply that Christians are required to remain silent precisely because we live in a democracy wherein those collective voices can actually have an impact; apparently it is only under tyrannical regimes that politically powerless Christians may give breath to their views on such matters.

Second, while helping to solve the myriad "real" problems that humankind faces today (though I must admit that I find it hard to believe that anyone would label the above-named "obsessions" as unreal) would indeed be very nice, that is not the Church's mission. The Church is not a humanitarian organization and it is neither a charity nor a philanthropic society; it is the Church sent to proclaim that aforementioned Nazarene carpenter and Him more than just a teacher with strong ethics and a penchant for social-justice. Whatever these "real" problems actually are, I have no doubt that at their root we will find the only problem that matters: sin. And if my recollection serves, I think that carpenter had a few things to say about that.

And finally, there is the vapid premise that these "obsessions" mean little to First World Catholics. Protestors with rainbow sashes are not obstructing the administration of the Eucharist in the Third World, and frankly, in the slums of African no one is very concerned with abortion rights (which is not to say that abortions do not happen, only that the political construction of "abortion rights" isn't really the issue Third World Catholics are obsessing over). I would also be very interested to meet those TWC's who are overly concerned with in vitro fertilization, because while FWC's may show similar disinterest in the moral dimension of IVF it is quite clear that they are the only Catholics who can actually afford such procedures.


Back in the 4-8-0

The wife and I are currently in Arizona visiting family and friends. Yesterday, my mom took a day off from work and the three of us went out to get coffee and spent 3 hours talking a lot about life, faith, Orthodoxy and where we see ourselves going in the next few years. It was an interesting conversation and it reminded me that Orthodoxy is still largely an unknown to a big majority of Americans who confuse it with Catholicism. My mom, who was raised Methodist, seemed to learn a lot and come away from the conversation with a much improved understanding, so that was good. But it was just nice to have 3 uninterrupted hours to sit back and shoot the breeze with her and the wife. I only wish my brother and step-dad could have been there.

We're seeing various friends over the next few days, which reminds that the nostalgia I feel for this place is just that and the warm feelings of the past will never be rekindled like they were. Even a couple of years ago, all I would have had to do coming back into town is call one of any number of people and we would have immediately been drawn back into the network of friends. There would have been some group gathering either planned due to our return or already in the works. But that is no longer the case; what was once a relatively tight-knit group of friends has suffered the steady attrition that marriage, work, moving and the struggles of daily life inevitably introduces. It will never be the same and I have to remind myself of that. I'm left with the inescapable conclusion that this is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here.


Necrotizing fasciitis ate my butt...

OR Why the little things matter.

Today I helped do a dressing change on a guy who has a gigantic wound on his butt from the a very bad internal infection that was not detected until they did a little work to clean up a very minor, superficial wound. Once they started they realized that this infection was deep, dangerous and spreading fast, so they did some emergency surgery to clean out the infected tissue. This infection was not going to respond to antibiotics and playing wait-and-see would likely have killed him.
They had to go in aggressively. So he now has a 4" deep crater about the size of a dinner plate a little up and to the side on his rear end. Its a huge wound and one that is going to take a long time to heal. I mean months of being in a hospital, of needing medication and a special diet. While its open he will be at risk for other infections, sepsis and is in for a whole lot of pain - lots and lots of pain. He will be left with a huge scar and will require skin grafts, which themselves will be quite painful and leave scars. For the next several months, his whole life is going to revolve around that wound and his healing progress, or lack thereof depending on his body's ability to heal and good care, will determine the quality of the rest of his life. And possibly its length.

The worst part about all of this, though, is that this all started with a tiny little bed-sore. A little bitty break-down in his skin, probably no bigger than a pencil eraser, that in all likelihood could have been prevented with good skin-care and regular turns. And these are minor things, tiny little jobs that don't take more than a few minutes of a caregiver's time. But either they couldn't be bothered, or he wouldn't let himself be bothered long enough to get these things accomplished. It is a very little thing to turn a patient or apply some protective ointment. It is clear now to him, and to his family and to everyone who has suffered like this, and to me, that these little things matter. They are not dramatic, they generally win little thanks and certainly one is not well-compensated for performing them. But oh, do they matter and perhaps they are not so little, after all.

Now to my real point. In our relationship with God, that seemingly endless movement of ebb and flow, passion and apathy, it is the little things that matter the most. The little things of prayer, of devotion, self-denial - the daily disciplines that sharpen the edges of our faith and make it stronger - are what make the biggest difference for us and those around us. While we are "healthy", when we shrug many temptations off with ease and we feel nearly constantly in the presence of the Spirit, we can tend to get lax in our discipline and overlook those little things; at least I know I do. And in those times, such failures may not be catastrophic and may even be inconsequential in that immediate space of time. But(t) when we are unhealthy, when we are beset by temptation and God feels not just absent but nonexistent, if we have not cultivated those little disciplines, then we are in a for a very rude awakening. In those times of struggle and weakness, the seemingly insignificant wounds produced by ignoring those little things can blossom into deadly infections almost overnight. What starts as a minor annoyance, a small frustration or temptation may end up leaving scars we never thought possible.

I wish I had kept count

Another oddity in the ol' textbooks that I noticed this week - the phrases "spontaneously assemble" and "self-assemble" seem to to pop up quite often in discussions regarding the tiniest building blocks of life. There's no explanation of how these little molecules know how to combine in exactly the right way (and yes, there are frequently other possible configurations), or how they know to get together in the first place. Apparently these things just kind of happen. And I wish I had kept count of each time these phrases appeared so I'd know how often.