Sunday, November 8, 2020
Friday, October 23, 2020
Monday, August 17, 2020
"Big In Heaven" review: At St. Alexander the Whirling Dervish Orthodox Church, saints have dirty faces
Growing up poor in a Protestant Evangelical Pentecostal preacher's family, I learned at an early age the meaning of "hypocrisy" long before I knew how to spell the word itself.
I found it in the hard eyes of those self-styled super spiritual guides populating the church board, who would weekly dissect the doctrinal nuances of Dad's sermons, and Dad himself if they could, even as they insisted his paltry salary should be enough to live on.
That he drove a school bus part-time while Mom worked as a waitress or in sales at J.C. Penney was a scandal! After all, the drafty old parsonage with a coal furnace that tended to cough up black smoke through the vents in the heart of winter may not be perfect, but it was free.
The nerve! After all, with a crippled and retarded daughter in his family, the pastor was indeed blessed to get the pulpit in any church teaching faith healing! Girl's not healed, after all. Pastor's faith must be lacking.
So, I was surprised to find some painful, yet oddly inspiring similarities in the short stories penned by Fr. Stephen Sinari in his book "Big In Heaven." The tales of Fr. Naum and the all-too-human, sometimes saintly diamonds in the rough who comprise St. Alexander the Whirling Dervish Orthodox Church and the ethnic Philadelphia neighborhood it serves, are fictional. They are also true.
In the four years since I was baptized into the Eastern Orthodox faith, I've learned our Truth is not limited to history and dogma but shines forth in parables, allegories and the stylized stories that buoy the holiness and sacrifices of our those saints and martyrs populating our icon walls and temples. The same is true for the characters Fr. Stephen shares.
Still, I suspect that much in "Big In Heaven" borders on the autobiographical. After all, the author is an OCA priest whose nearly 40 years of ministry have spanned inner-city parish pastoral callings as well as extensive work on the streets serving the homeless, and at-risk and trafficked teens.
"Big In Heaven" makes anyone with faith, and particularly those raised in or converted into Orthodoxy, consider anew the unfathomable depths of God's mercy and grace to his soiled children, staggering toward personal Golgothas and the hope of salvation and theosis.
It was early in the book, where Fr. Stephen introduces Curtis, "an altar server who new the Liturgy in a way not even [Fr.] Naum could understand." Curtis "knew when to have the censer ready, how to cut the bread for the nafora, when to light the candles, how to ready the boys for the processions, when to boil the water for the chalice, even the best way to hold the cloth at Communion time."
Curtis, Naum's bishop had once remarked, was the best server he had ever seen. This same Curtis, a 35-year-old born with Down syndrome deemed unworthy of believer's baptism at a local Protestant church due to his handicaps, but welcomed into Orthodoxy.
Fr. Stephen's writes of a parishioner, seeing Curtis donning a hand-me-down cassock to enter the altar and serve, declaring: "Curtis is a genius over there, in heaven."
That declaration brought tears to my eyes, and I remembered the childlike, halting voice of my now 70-year-old sister, rocking and holding a doll while singing "Jesus loves me, this I know . . . ."
I highly recommend this book with one minor caveat: In future reprintings, how about some additiional parenthetical or by footnote definitions or context for the "inside Orthodoxy" and liturgical terms used from Greek or Slavonic languages?
Monday, June 29, 2020
The phrase and its intent to draw focus to the plague of racism, is not debatable. It's even honorable.
But BlackLivesMatter Foundation, the organization, goes way beyond that. It's stated foundational and core values embrace a whole lot more than laudatory racial justice.
|I wept when he was martyred. His message of peace endures|
Indeed, it is not too much to argue that its online mission statement, on display in the organization's "About" section (https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/) seems to suggest abandoning the traditional family unit in favor of some sort of "village/utopian nursery; a sort of "woke" bigotry when it comes to law enforcement, the justice and economic systems; and a communal mindset that reminds this student of history (and child of the Sixties) of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution.
And, as recent statements from BLM leadership has indicated, there is no room for orthodox Christianity in this new global village, unless it is a faith devoid of moral pillars in areas of abortion, marriage, family, and by extension, sacramental standards. (https://www.gotquestions.org/black-lives-matter.html)
It is part of a trend, a social and cultural devolution that has accelerated over the past decade as materialism, situational ethics, and other "progressive" tenets have captured and enslaved the Western souls of many.
It is no longer a matter of loving individuals, even as you do not sign on to their choices in matters of political, religious, or sexual attraction. Now, you must, to be on the "right side of history," ignore the millennia of human history and culture that has preceded us on what was generally known to be Natural Law and Nature's God.
You no longer are allowed to "agree to disagree." Differences of opinion are "hate speech," and what defines "free speech" has become an Orwellian conundrum. Biology? Na. It is not your genitalia that determine your sexual identity, in the biological sense . . . that, despite our living in an age of "scientific truth," is an exception.
You are what you feel.
You may smile, shrug, and say you while you don't share that illusion, you still value such individuals as friends and co-workers. Not good enough today. No room for disagreement, that's "hate speech". You are bullied online, and occasionally in the physical world, too, to buy into altered reality, or you are a "transphobic" bigot, and should be "canceled."
Perhaps one day, that term will come to have a darker, deadly meaning. After all, the Nazis spoke of "resettlement" and meant death camps. Soviet, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Communism spoke of "re-education" and killed millions of dissidents in prison camps.
If you prefer to persist with the idea of marriage being between a male and a female, and two-parent families as the preferred norm -- previously a no-brainer for all of recorded history? It's no longer allowed to respectfully disagree; you must now promote and endorse the opposite of your convictions . . . or you are a "homophobic" fascist.
Those too young to remember -- or in the case of a new generation of American youth, those who were never taught about history's dark lessons by those ironically designated "free thinkers" who educated them -- seem doomed to repeat the errors of the past, to unearth failed social schemes from the dust bin of history.
So, back to Black Lives. Who can argue with the pure meaning of the phrase? As a grandfather of four bi-racial grandkids, for whom I would willingly give my own life, of course! I hate the climate where my son-in-law has been repeatedly stopped for jogging or driving "while being black," by police who first seen skin color -- not his U.S. Army Captain's bars, or his advanced medical degrees.
I don't want my grandkids to grow up in a world where they, too, will be judged first by the color of their skin before an authority figure learns of the content of their character.
So, yes, peacefully protest injustice. But if you are thinking of donating to BLM, make sure ALL is stands for -- beyond the phrase itself -- is clear to you. Be informed.
Your choice, of course.
As for myself, I will not give to BLM, the organization. Rather, I will seek out local and specifically focused programs not polluted by a potpourri of socially destructive and anti-democratic, and yes bigoted causes trying to hop aboard.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
June 17, after having called aloud in delight for her own mother, she "reposed," as we Orthodox Christians say. And, a year later, I see that moment of her leaving us as a blessing -- ending the confusion and haze of final-stage Alzheimer's disease, the physical pain of one unable to speak or understand speech, walk, or care for herself in the most basic manner.
As dawn turned the sky silver over the Jordan River this morning -- candles lit, a ribbon of burning incense drifting up toward a small photo of her nestled amid icons of Christ, His Mother, and an assortment of saints in my home prayer corner -- I recited the ancient Akathist to Jesus for Those Who Have Fallen Asleep.
I had offered this same prayer for 40 days following her death last year, as I had for my father when he had passed away six months before. And as I had done for my father, Robert Sr., on the one year anniversary of his repose, I prayed for Katherine.
There were, again, some tears for me. There also was peace and hope.
Friday, June 5, 2020
My daughter's faith and core human decency makes me feel proud, and humble. A bitter irony exposed here is that racism, hatred and misunderstanding seem to plague all human beings -- white, black, brown, almond, whatever. We fear the "Other."
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Friday, May 29, 2020
Friday, May 1, 2020
It just seemed right to present that flower, that fragile discovery of beauty, to the most loving and most beautiful person I had known in my then short life. (That an Orb-weaver spider dangled from it's stem was a development Mom handled with aplomb, and a quick shake of mycgft outside the back door).
Throughout my ensuing years as a child, teen and young man, I courted beauty and wonder by playing and later backpacking amid the creeks, brooks and rivers of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho's mountain meadows, forests, and wilderness expanses.
The vibrant cycles of life in nature -- its unfathomable (to me, anyway) variety in living art, form, purpose and even the very fact of such intricate existence -- filled me with peace and a sense of belonging to something inconceivably bigger than me.
Now, six weeks out from my 67th ride on Earth's circuit of Old Sol, I'm finally learning that every day spent in beauty -- where sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste cascade in sum to inform and overwhelms a sixth sense of wonder -- brings contemplation, meditation, prayer and grateful worship of the Creator of it, and us all.
This is my purpose in life. Maybe yours, too?
As an Orthodox Christian, I celebrate finding such observations are many in my faith's two millennia of saintly sages' visionary revelations, hymns and prayers. These works of theirs still echo those sentiments of wonder and gratitude today, with wisdom, awe, and love deeper and purer as both personal, and metaphysical prose and poetry that I cannot approach.
Still, to taste and express even something of the same epiphanies? And to share them? Personally priceless.
This is the time of Covid-19 and self-isolation, but if we will accept it, also the opportunity for stretching perception to discover the universe contained in a flower, bird, insect, or the way water falls over a mountain stream's rocks -- or on the face of a child, parent, a passing stranger, and yes, even in the heart belonging to that person in the mirror.
I know that beauty in nature, the cosmos, and the potential for growing it within as we see it cultivated and present in others, is a Truth that finds expression beyond Orthodox Christianity. Indeed, to varying degrees, it reverberates in myriad other religions and philosophies that seemingly draw on a primordial concept of humankind.
One of many such examples: "Beauty in front of me, Beauty behind me, Beauty above me, Beauty below me, Beauty all around me, I walk in Beauty," the Diné (Navajo) elders have prayed from pre-historic times.
While appreciating and treasuring such universal expression of seminal truths, personally, I find them most fully and clearly conveyed within my own faith.
"In Him we live, and breathe, and have our being," St. Paul wrote (Acts 17:28). "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and fillest all things," Orthodox Christians intone, echoing the apostle in the daily Trisagion prayers.
But wherever you are in matters of faith, refocusing your gaze from our failed, manufactured "reality" of ego, entertainment, work, etc., to what exists independently of all that -- both around us, and within us -- is what our current crisis offers each of us.
And that is too good to pass up.