Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

The Hypostatic Nearness of You (A Repost)

May 31, 2009

Originally posted in February 2007. I have updated a few things. It is a piece that is quite relevant as my youngest child graduates high school this week. The fullness only grows.

n1024029530_30231163_7220Sometimes I sit down to write with an idea and I know that I am either getting ready to write something good, or something really bad. That is how I feel about this particular topic. I have good feelings about it because I am writing about something that is close to my heart and which I think about frequently. I have forboding, because such things are notoriously hard to capture.

Some years ago when I was writing academically on the doctrine of the holy icons, I came across a distinction made by St. Theodore the Studite in which he spoke of “hypostatic representation.” In short, he made a distinction between representing the “essence” of something and the “hypostasis” of something – between the “is-ness” of some one or thing and its “personhood.” In short, he said that icons were representations of the hypostasis (the person) and not the essence. There are many theological implications to be drawn from his writings, but I will not do that here (I largely wrote a thesis on the topic).

Instead, I want to contemplate for a moment an idea that I first encountered in Met. John Zizioulas’ writings, in which he recognized a “presence in absence,” that is not unrelated to St. Theodore’s thought. Suppose you are in a restaurant waiting for someone about whom you care a great deal. There may be any number of people who come and go while you wait, but you pay them no attention. In fact, you are so aware of the absence of the one who has not yet come, that the presence of others is no presence at all. Met. John has much to say about this, and if you are totally devoid of reading material and have several months, I suggest you read his book Being as Communion.

But as years slip by, and the “nest” in which I live changes with age, much of my life is filled with the “absence” of others. I have two married daughters and a married son who live away, and many times their absence is “hypostatically real” for me. It is as though I could touch them and converse. These days, everyone works or is in college or school (our youngest graduates high school this week). Thus, most of the time, what I know is known in absence.

The same is also true in the parish. Most of the time, everyone is somewhere else. They are at work, at home, wherever. And so I stand at the altar each day to pray for them and they become present, like so many icons round about the altar, as I remember them before God.

Finally, as someone who has buried around 400 people in his ministry, there is this other hypostatic cloud of witnesses. Never all at one time, it seems, but often, and poignant.

To speak of someone being hypostatically present, is also to speak of them being “personally” present (but in a way that is meant in the Church’s technical sense of “person” and not in popular parlance).

I am slowly learning that these are moments for thanksgiving and prayer and not moments for grief or longing. Though I miss those who are absent from my immediate awareness, I rejoice that I remember them, and that they are present to me. As children grow older, parents have present to them their children at a variety of ages. I remember them all in their growing up and can hear them now. This is not a loss, but a great gain.

I think, too, that God’s eternal remembrance of us, is a remembrance of the fullness of our person which is more, somehow, than who I am at this moment. It is me through time and in my fullness. It is one of the reasons that I have never been happy with the “as a tree falls so it lies” theology taught by some out there with regard to our death and judgment.

Some say that the whole of our eternity depends on the final state of our soul. Hamlet famously refrains from killing his stepfather when he comes across him in prayer, lest he thus dispatch him to heaven. The idea’s been around for a while. But we are so much more than this moment. This moment is not even the sum total of all other moments in your life. None of us seem to live with such fullness.

But God remembers such fullness and intends that for us. I hold that in my heart for my children, and I cannot separate them from the fullness of who they are and who they have been. Thus I hold their triumphs (even when they are small) in great esteem if I see that triumph in the context of their true personhood.) Surely God does this and more.

May God bless all who touch my day, from the past, the present and the future. Those present, and those absent (who are not truly absent).

May we come to know each other in a way that knows no absence.

Blue Highways

May 24, 2009

Miami 373A few years back there was an American travel book called Blue Highways. The title referred to American maps on which the smaller roads are printed in blue, while the major arteries, the Interstate System, are printed in red. The book was about a trip across America on the “blue” highways. It was almost time-travel since America prior to the 1960’s was largely without an Interstate system. Blue highways are the land of my childhood.

My wife and I, along with my son and his wife, took a “blue highway” adventure this afternoon, traveling some backroads onto the Cumberland Plateau and spending time at “Great Falls,” one of the many waterfalls along the rivers in that part of Tennessee. The trip was accompanied by a picnic worthy of the 1950’s.

As we traveled back home we continued the blue highway route and enjoyed the scenes of back-road Tennessee life on a Sunday afternoon. 

I suspect that our modern age (particularly in America) is an “Interstate” experience. Speed and efficiency are hallmarks of the work place. Commuting by car (as many do) is generally an experience bereft of sight-seeing. We go from place to place and from task to task, spending great portions of our time in something other than full human mode.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world – or all of America. I can only reflect on suburban life as I know it. I have traveled across England’s version of “blue highways” and was stunned by the beauty of its rural character. I have also traveled in the Holy Land and can only say that large portions of that land continue as desert – probably unchanged for centuries.

I believe there is such a thing as a “human” pace to life – a way of living that is rightly suited to who we are. The myth of the malleability of the human has created undreamt of forms of misery – from mechanized boredom to the insanity of “multi-tasking.” 

Prayer, when rightly attended to, is a “blue highway” experience. There is a reason for the length and pace of the traditional Orthodox service. It is a cultural memory of the speed proper to human beings and the attention properly given to God. Modernized services whose agenda is to hold the attention of “worshippers” with the pace of a television show, are not being “culturally relevant,” but culturally destructive – just as certain aspects of our culture deform our humanity and seek to make us into something we are not intended to be.

I am not anti-modern in the sense of being opposed to machines or automobiles or the like. But I am opposed to things that push us in the direction losing our proper humanity. God did not create us for efficiency – nor is His likeness to be revealed in productivity. Speed of travel is meaningless when we are going nowhere. May God grant our daily lives more “blue highways,” and the good sense to take our time when we are there.

Letter from Butyrskaya Prison – Pascha 1928

April 18, 2009

sergeschmemannSerge Schmemann, son of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his wonderful little book, Echoes of a Native Land, records a letter written from one of his family members of an earlier generation, who spent several years in the prisons of the Soviets and died there. The letter, written on the night of Pascha in 1928 is to a family member, “Uncle Grishanchik” (This was Grigory Trubetskoi who had managed to emigrate to Paris). This letter should become a classic of Orthodox writing and witness to the faith that sustained so many and is today being resurrected in so many places. The triumph of the Resurrection so transcends his prison cell it’s a wonder that the walls remained. The entire book is a wonderful read. I recommend it without reservation.

30 March/ 12 April 1928

Dear Uncle Grishanchik, I greet you and Aunt Masha with the impending Holy Day, and I wish you all the very best. For a long, long time I have wanted to write to you, dear Uncle Grishanchik; you always showed such concern for me, you helped me so generously in a difficult moment of my life, and, mainly, your entire image is so inseparably linked for each of us, your nephews, with such wonderful memories; you always are, were, and will be our dearest, most beloved uncle.

I am approaching the fourth Easter that I will spend behind these walls, separated from my family, but the feelings for these holy days which were infused in me from earliest childhood do not fail me now; from the beginning of Holy Week I have felt the approach of the Feast, I follow the life of the Church, I repeat to myself the hymns of the Holy Week services, and in my soul there arise those feelings of tender reverence that I used to feel as a child going to confession or communion. At 35 those feelings are as strong and as deep as in those childhood years.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, going over past Easters in my memory, I remember our last Easter at Sergiyevskoye, which we spent with you and Aunt Masha, and I felt the immediate need to write you. If you have not forgotten, Easter in 1918 was rather late, and spring was early and very warm, so when in the last weeks of Lent I had to take Aunt Masha to Ferzikovo, the roads were impassable. I remember that trip as now; it was a warm, heavy, and humid day, which consumed the last snow in the forests and gullies faster than the hottest sun; wherever you looked, water, water, and more water, and all the sounds seemed to rise from it, from the burbling and rushing of the streams on all sides to the ceaseless ring of countless larks. We had to go by sleigh – not on the road, which wound through the half-naked fields in a single muddy ridge, but alongside, carefully choosing the route. Each hoofprint, each track left by the runners, immediately turned into a small muddy stream, busily rushing off somewhere. We drove forever, exhausting the poor horse, and, finally, after successfully eluding the Polivanovo field, one of the most difficult places, I became too bold and got Aunt Masha so mired that I nearly drowned the horse and the sleigh; we had to unharness to pull it out and got wet to the eyebrows; in a word, total “local color.”

I remember the feeling I had that spring of growing strength, but that entire happy springtime din, for all the beauty and joy of awakening nature, could not muffle the sense of alarm that squeezed the heart in each of us. Either some hand rose in senseless fury to profane our Sergiyevskoye, or there was the troubling sense that our loving and closely welded family was being broken up: Sonia far off somewhere with a pile of kids, alone, separated from her husband; Seryozha, just married, we don’t know where or how, and you, my dear Uncle Grisha and Auht Masha, separated from your young ones, in constant worry over them. It was a hard and difficult time. But I believe that beyond these specific problems, this spiritual fog had a deeper common source: we all, old and young, stood then at a critical turning point: unaware of it, we were bidding farewell to a past filled with beloved memories, while ahead there loomed some hostile utterly unknown future.

And in the midst of all this came Holy Week. the spring was in that stage when nature, after a big shove to cast off winter’s shackles, suddenly grows quiet, as if resting from the first victory. But below this apparent calm there is always the sense of a complex, hidden process taking place somewhere deep in the earth, which is preparing to open up in all its force, in all the beauty  of growth and flowering. Plowing and seeding the earth rasied rich scents, and, following the plow on the sweaty, softly turning furrow, you were enveloped in the marvelous smell of moist earth. I always became intoxicated by that smell, because in it one senses the limitless creative power of nature.

I don’t know how you all felt at the time, because I lived a totally separate life and worked from morning to night in the fields, not seeing, and, yes, not wanting to see, anything else. It was too painful to think, and only total physical exhaustion gave one a chance, if not to forget, then at least to forget oneself. But with Holy Week began the services in church and at home, I had to lead the choir in rehearsal and in church; on Holy Wednesday I finished the sowing of oats and, putting away the plow and harrow, gave myself entirely over to the tuning fork. And here began that which I will never forget!

Dear Uncle Grishanchik! Do you remember the service of the Twelve Gospels in our Sergiyevskoye church? Do you remember that marvelous, inimitable manner of our little parson? This spring will be nine years that he passed away during the midnight Easter service, but even now, when I hear certain litanies or certain Gospel readings, I can hear the exhilarated voice of our kind parson, his intonations piercing to the very soul. I remember that you were taken by this service, that it had a large impact on you. I see now the huge crucifix rising in the midst of the church, with figures of the Mother of God on one side and the Apostle John on the other, framed by multicolored votive lights, the waving flame of many candles, and, among the thoroughly familiar throng of Sergiyevskoye peasants, your figure by the right wall in front of the candle counter, with a contemplative expression on your face. If you only knew what was happening in my soul at that time! It was an entire turnover, some huge, healing revelation!

Don’t be surprised that I’m writing this way; I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything, it’s just that I feel great emotion remembering all these things, because I am continuously breaking off to go to the window and listen. A quiet, starry night hangs over Moscow, and I can hear first one, then another church mark the successive Gospels with slow, measured strikes of the bell. I think of my Lina and our Marinochka, of Papa, Mama, my sisters, brothers, of all of you, feeling the sadness of expatriation in these days, all so dear and close. However painful, especially at this time, the awareness of our separation, I firmly, unshakably believe all the same that the hour will come when we will all gather together, just as you are all gathered now in my thoughts.

1/14 April – They’ve allowed me to finish writing letters, and I deliberately sat down to finish it this night. Any minute now the Easter matins will start; in our cell everything is clean, and on our large common table standkulichi and paskha, a huge “X.B.” [Christos Voskrese “Christ is risen”] from fresh watercress is beautifully arranged on a white table cloth with brightly colored eggs all around. It’s unusually quiet in the cell; in order not to arouse the guards, we all lay down on lowered cots (there are 24 of us) in anticipation of the bells, and I sat down to write to you again.

I remember I walked out of the Sergiyevskoye church at that time overwhelmed by a mass of feelings and sensations, and my earlier spiritual fog seemed a trifle, deserving of no attention. In the great images of the Holy Week services, the horror of man’s sin and the suffering of the Creator leading to the great triumph of the resurrection, I suddenly discovered that eternal, indestructible beginning, which was also in that temporarily quiet spring, hiding in itself the seed of a total renewal of all that lives. The services continued in their stern, rich order; images replaced images, and when, on Holy Saturday, after the singing of “Arise, O Lord,” the deacon, having changed into a white robe, walked into the center of the church to the burial cloth to read the gospel about the resurrection, it seemed to me that we are all equally shaken, that we all feel and pray as one.

In the meantime, spring went on the offensive. When we walked to the Easter matins, the night was humid, heavy clouds covered the sky, and walking through the dark alleys of the linden park, I imagined a motion in the ground, as if innumerable invisible plants were pushing through the earth toward air and light.

I don’t know if our midnight Easter matins made any impression on you then. For me there never was, and never will be, anything better than Easter at Seriyevskoye. We are all too organically tied to Sergiyevskoye for anything to transcend it, to evoke so much good. This is not blind patriotism, because for all of us Seriyevskoye was that spiritual cradle in which everything by which each of us lives and breathes was born and raised.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, as I’ve been writing to you the scattered ringing around Moscow has become a mighty festive peal. Processions have begun, the sounds of firecrackers reach us, one church after another joins the growing din of bells. The wave of sound swells. There! Somewhere entirely nearby, a small church breaks brightly through the common chord with such a joyous, exultant little voice. Sometimes it seems that the tumult has begun to wane, and suddenly a new wave rushes in with unexpected strength, a grand hymn between heaven and earth.

I cannot write any more! That which I now hear is too overwhelming, too good, to try to convey in words. The incontrovertible sermon of the Resurrection seems to rise from this mighty peal of praise. My dear uncle Grishanchik, it is so good in my soul that the only way I can express my spirit is to say to you once again, Christ is Risen!


Turning Points

February 12, 2009


On February 15, 1998, on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation, bringing both the end to a very long pilgrimage, and the beginning to one far longer. It is significant to myself and my family, that this year the calendar has come back around to where it was 11 years ago. Thus this Sunday, February 15, will be exactly eleven years since we were received and the Sunday and the readings are the same. Sometimes it takes a while for such things to come back around, the calendar being such as it is.

But it is a very significant time in my family’s life – a time to realize that eleven years can mean nearly a lifetime, depending upon how it is lived. To my family’s credit, they have lived these eleven years almost as though they were all we were to be given.

My wife has grown in a wise Matushka – having always been a wise woman. Her prayers and support are a pillar of our parish and my life.

My eldest daughter, who had yet to begin college when we converted, now holds a Master’s Degree, her schooling having included a year in Siberia where she gained some fluency in the Russian language. She is today married to Fr. Hermogen Holste, Rector of Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Menlo Park California (a Russian language parish of the OCA). They have a child, Peter Alexis Holste, the joy of his grandparents lives.

My second daughter, who was but 15 when we converted, found the grace of God present with her from the outset of her Chrismation. A faithful child of the Church, she became very active in OCF (college ministry), served on its national board, made mission trips to both Guatemala and Mexico while in college. She is married to Fr. Philip Rogers of the Antiochian Archdiocese, Rector of St. Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. His father is an Orthodox priest, his brother a Deacon. She continues to work on her nursing degree and in every respect is a help and support to her husband’s ministry and always the joy of my heart.

My son, who is now 21, was only 10 when we converted. On Sundays during those first few years, he accompanied alone to be at Church an hour or more before everyone arrived as we set things up, lit candles and prepared for services. He was my first altar server. Those were invaluable hours for me as I leaned on his love and utter faithfulness to support me during a lonely transition in my life. Today he is finishing college, is married to a wonderful Orthodox woman, Anna, and is a tonsured Reader in the Church. His major is in computers and internet technology, and he is as loving and supportive, and even admiring as he was as a 10 year old boy. I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the man he has become.

My youngest daughter, now 18, was but a child when we were received. When she read the oath, “This true faith of the Orthodox Church, I do now humbly confess…” at her Chrismation – in clear and unwavering tones – the entire church wept as we heard the innocent one finds in the child-martyrs. “Til my dying breath…” one of the phrases that ends the oath brought us all to tears of thankfulness to God. She graduates high school this year having been as active in the Church and Camps as one could ask of a young woman her age. Last year she was the Audio-Visual Person for the Orthodox Summer Camp she attended, keeping a video-log of the camp and producing a wonderful DVD at its conclusion. I can hardly believe that this autumn will see her begin her college years and begin the “empty nest” phase of my home life.

I can remember, before our conversion, praying, “O God, give me my wife and my children before your heavenly throne – united in one faith and one confession.” Any parent who has converted knows the agony of that prayer – particularly if the prayer concerns those who are already in their teens. God heard my prayer and accomplished in my family abundantly above anything I could ask or think. I credit His mercy, the intercession of the Theotokos and the unfailing prayers of my wife.

At the time I thought it quite appropriate that we should enter the Church on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. It still seems fitting. I had wandered “far in a land that is waste.” And though for years I knew (on some level) the abundance that lay waiting in the Orthodox Church – like the Prodigal, I postponed returning to my Father’s House until I could no longer bear the famine that surrounded me. Much of my conversion was wrought in my heart by the thought of what I was doing to my family by raising them anywhere other than the Father’s House. His mercy since our reception in the Church has confirmed that instinct and has not punished me for my hesitance and procrastination.

The small accomplishments that have marked my ministry as an Orthodox priest have come to me as deeply underserved kindnesses. I now have a family (as I think of many of my readers) that stretches across the globe. I could never have imagined such a ministry. If all who were touched by my ministry were aware of how greatly enfeebled that I am by my sin and my many weaknesses – they would either despise me or pray ever harder for such as myself.

I cannot understand the Goodness of God – but I have seen it in my own lifetime. Were I to perish from the earth tomorrow I could offer no word of complaint. Were I to live another 55 years – I could ask for no more than I have already received.

Today, I pray mostly for the family of parishioners that accompany me from week to week in our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God. I pray for the Deanery which must suffer through my leadership and ask for blessings beyond our present state. The brother priests I serve with there are my daily hope.

I pray always for my beloved Archbishop DMITRI, my father in God, who indeed welcomed me home eleven years ago and became for me the Spiritual Father I had never known.

Do not take time for granted. The good God who loves mankind can accomplish so much in so little time. We must always be filled with prayer and thanksgiving.

Prayers By the Lake XCV – Children and Saints

September 1, 2008




Children and saints cling to You, O Lord, the rest rebel against You.

Children and saints are the boundary between the Kingdom of existence and the shadow of nonexistence.1


Guardians call themselves parents and cast Your children off crags into chasms.


Guardians presume that they are parents, and so they direct Your children as though they were their own property. Truly, they are directing nothing but aberrations and disruptions.


The children, whom you guardians have abducted, belong to another, and you will answer for theft and banditry.


You own neither the life that is in you, nor the life for which you served as a channel.  Everything belongs to another, except for the wickedness within you, and you will answer for theft and banditry.


You will answer for theft, because you have been calling those who belong to another, your own; and you will answer for banditry, because you have mutilated and butchered those who belong to another.


On earth there are only guardians; and this is a very great honor.

You have been entrusted with the guardianship of the most precious treasure that God has. And this is a very great honor.


One, who was never even born and was never entrusted with the guardianship of anything, will be more blessed than you, if your guardianship is an abomination and a mortification of souls.2


Why do you rejoice in children, unless you intend to keep watch over them as though they were angels from heaven? Why do you grieve for them, when they leave you early and flee to the angels in heaven? You were rejoicing in what belongs to another, and you are grieving for what belongs to another.


Do not care only about keeping the bodies of your children safe, for even foxes do the same for their foxlings. Hut care about God in your children. Once God is cared for He will take care of all the rest. And what you have been ac­cumulating for your children so strenuously, He will effortlessly gather for them quickly and easily.3


Do not drive God out of your children, for you will deprive them of their peace, their happiness, their health, and their prosperity.


Even if you leave the entire world to those whom God has left, you will have left it to starving people, who will devour it all and still die of hunger.


Do not ensure a piece of bread for your children, but a piece of the soul and the conscience. Your children will be ensured and you will be blessed in two worlds.


Care for this property of another better than your own, and your reward will be immense.


Royal children have been entrusted to your guardianship. Truly, the King will give no small reward to those who guard His princely progeny, and have not erased the Father’s name from those children’s memory.


Through children the King is looking at you with amazement, and is awaiting your responses. If your responses are deathful, you will be taking care of corpses.


Children and saints cling to You, my Lord, the rest rebel against You. Children and saints are Your way of testing the world.


Be careful, my soul, be careful and make no mistake.



1.         Cf. Matt. 18:2-5.

2.                                                                           Cf. Matt. 18:6.

3.                                                                           Cf. Matt. 6:33.


Prayers by the Lake were written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich.


A Dowry Much Finer Than Gold

May 10, 2008

I have wrtten before of my Father-in-law. Regular readers of this blog will know that he was a man of great faith whom I never knew to be less than thankful to God. The goodness of God was doubtless his greatest joy and favorite topic of conversation. He was also a man of great prayer.

I found out early in my married life just how great his prayers were. In the course of a conversation when I questioned how easily he accepted me into the family (I would have been far more hesitant had I been him), he stated very matter-of-factly, “Well, when Beth (my wife) was first born, we began praying for her future spouse. When she brought you home, we trusted God that He knew what He was doing.”

That was that. My presence was accepted as a matter of faith. It also meant, I have come to realize, that my marriage carried a treasure that was beyond comprehension: twenty years of the prayers of a righteous couple for a man (and a boy) whom they would only someday meet. It was a dowry (if you will) much finer than much gold (to use a Biblical expression).

I have come to understand enough about prayer to know that my life had a hand upon it that I would never know until I was blessed enough to marry a young woman whom I met in a prayer group.

I have learned over the years that the dowry was more than 20 years of prayers: it was an on-going gift of prayer and compassion that was my wife’s own gift to our family. Thus it is that 32 years into this life has given us four children that are not only the joy of our life, but who themselves are clearly the beneficiaries of much prayer.

I cannot, on this Mother’s Day, do more than say, “Glory to God for All Things! Glory to God Who blesses beyond our capacity to understand or to comprehend! Glory to God for His goodness!”

Happy Mother’s Day, my dearest.

Psalm 124:6-8 – Good News for the Day

March 26, 2008


Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

May God keep us all this day without sin – may we not be devoured – may we forgive everyone and everything by the resurrection!

Giving Thanks Beyond Measure

February 15, 2008


I have frequently had reason to ask: who’s keeping whom? When I was received into the Orthodox faith, I and the rest of my family, stood one by one before the Gospel and a hand-cross to make a solemn promise:

This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen (from the OCA service for the Reception of Converts)

My experience, with regard to the Orthodox faith, has been not so much my keeping the faith – but the faith keeping me. I recall reading, in my late teen years, C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. It is clear that when Lewis relates his conversion to the Christian faith, he no longer asked the question: “What do I believe?” but rather asked the question: “What is a Christian to believe?” Thus, he turned his attention to Scripture and to the Fathers of the Church. The universal quality of his Christian writing is that he simply speaks from the depths of the Christian faith rather than from the depths of his own delusions and imagination. Becoming a Christian means learning what it is to be kept by the faith rather than simply joining an organization and then setting about picking and choosing one’s personal doctrines.

This aspect of the faith was clear to me in coming to the Orthodox Church. It was set before me as an oath, confirmed by a kiss of the Gospel and the Cross, and sealed by the gift of the Holy Spirit in anointing with the all-holy Chrism.

I offer thanks today – beyond measure. My family and I mark the 10th anniversary of that Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 15, 1998), when we stood together in Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Columbia, S.C., and offered ourselves to God and were received into the Holy Orthodox Faith.

In the years since – the blessings and struggles we have shared have always been supported by the faith which keeps us, when we could not possibly keep ourselves. May God grant His continued blessing to my family – to their ministries and their homes. May He keep them always as His own and give us hearts of grateful thanksgiving.

Glory to God for all things!

How Can We Give Thanks?

February 11, 2008


Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic and that there are many things worth saying in a second article. Most specifically I want to write on what seem to me necessary elements in giving thanks to God. If giving thanks to God is difficult these may be places to begin or to which to give attention.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalm tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

A Few Things More

February 1, 2008


It’s very easy in longer postings (such as the previous) to forget the closest things. Church is everything the Scriptures say of it, but we largely encounter Christ in a particular setting, among particular friends and family (sometimes). Thus, just as He gives Himself to us in His consecrated Body and Blood, so too, He gives Himself to us in the flesh and blood, and spirit, of the witnesses with whom we share His presence.

My experience has taught me that it is that particular place that the cross is erected – that these people are the ones to whom I must empty myself and will find it most hard.

Each year, on the Sunday of Forgiveness, some weeks away on the Orthodox calendar, we make our beginning of Lent by asking forgiveness of all in the congregation. I do allright most years until I begin to face the members of my family. There I become overwhelmed with the depths of forgiveness for which I am seeking, and how far short I have fallen in my efforts to bear my cross.

It is for reasons such as these that the task of Christians loving one another, forgiving one another, coming to the common mind of Christ are so existentially daunting. For the Church is not formed on the internet, but within the warm embrace of those whom we likely fail the most.

May God give us all the grace to love and to be loved. To forgive and to be forgiven. To be filled and to be emptied. And in all things to know Christ who gave Himself for all.