Traveling Alone

Early this morning, our family took Chris to the airport. 

During our July 2018 visit to St Herman’s Monastery, the Abbot told Chris that the next step in exploring his calling to monasticism was a two-week visit to the monastery. Chris decided to wait until he finished his AA degree, which he accomplished this past August. So now, he’s taking a solo trip to the monastery. This is both his first time traveling alone and his first time on a plane.

I am emotionally torn about Chris’ calling. As his dad, I don’t want to lose my youngest. Imagining a life without him is too heart-breaking. Frankly, I’m already struggling with the prospect of two weeks without any contact with him.

But I’m also filled with joy and excitement for him as he learns to follow God into his unique life-calling. As someone who had a similar calling into professional pastoral ministry, I know that joy firsthand. I know what it’s like to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose in this world.

And as one who is no longer pursuing that calling into professional ministry, I also know the inner turmoil, self-doubt, and even depression that accompanies not fulfilling a calling.

I wish I could join Chris on this trip. But this next step, and all the subsequent steps, can only be walked by Chris alone. The monastic life is a solitary life. Chris will not be able to find solace or affirmation from family and friends. He must learn to trust God as his Good Shepherd. Because of this, my role in Chris’ journey has changed since our trip together in 2018.

I’ve done all I can to prepare Chris for this trip. And I will help him with any future trips. And if possible, Debbie and I will one day walk him through the monastery gates and entrust him finally to his abbot.

But now my role is to pray for him continuously and coach from the sidelines when appropriate as my son travels alone.

Visiting St Herman’s

Back in July 2018, Chris, who is my youngest son, and I visited St Herman’s Monastery near Platina, CA. We took this journey together because he feels called to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I wrote the following reflection soon after the trip, but never posted it. I’ve decided to post it now because immediately following this upcoming busy holiday season, Chris will leave for an extended stay at the monastery as the next step of pursuing his calling. I assume I will be posting reflections over the next year as he moves forward in the process. So it seemed like the right time to post this initial reflection from our first trip to St Herman’s.

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It was the final moments of a long trip. I was sitting in the dark on the bus with my youngest son. 

The trip to the monastery was fourteen hours. Then three days of physical, emotional and spiritual intensity. Then fourteen hours back home.

Chris and I visited St Herman’s Monastery on a quest, a pilgrimage. For some time, Chris has felt called to monasticism. In many ways I see a bit of my young self in him. I was in my late teens when I became a Christian. Passionate to follow Jesus, who gave me a new life, I sensed a calling to ministry.

Now my youngest senses a call to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. And where I had no one to help me explore my calling, I have committed to help Chris explore his calling as best as I can.

If monasticism is his vocation, his call is more severe than mine. If he chooses to become a monk, his vows will sever him from our family in order to embrace a lifetime of ascetical hardship and suffering. Chances are I will rarely see him again, maybe never. As his dad, this absolutely crushes me. The thought of him never being present in our family’s life, never seeing his face or seeing him smile or hearing his voice shatters me to the core.

So I don’t want him to make this decision by himself. I will travel this road with him as best and as far as I can to help him determine what God is calling him to do with his life.

My role on this trip was simple — to help him get to the monastery and back, to support him in any way possible, and to pray for him. Most of my trip was spent praying for and talking with him. We discussed various aspects of the monastic calling and what it meant to follow Jesus in any context. I tried to help him understand Scriptures, to answer questions, to process his thoughts and to pray. And pray. And pray.

Chris has such a beautiful heart toward God. He truly wants to give himself fully to God and to be shaped into his fullness. My greatest fear is such a life might be wasted in pursuing the wrong thing. If he’s not called to the monastic life, then he will endure great pain and hardship in isolation when he could have made an impact for God in the marketplace and in our family. But if he is called to the monastic life, I lose my son.

Our trip was a success. It was one step in a journey. Chris met his expectations for the trip and I met mine.

So sitting in the dark on the bus, pulling into our final destination, I listened as Chris spoke with a young woman. She had asked about our trip and Chris tried to explain our journey to the monastery. She responded by saying, “That’s a really long trip to take.” And Chris’ response broke through my fears, my ache, my fatigue….

“I would have been lost without my dad.”

I know his statement was specifically about our trip. But, for me, I hope it speaks prophetically about the journey that lies ahead for him… and for me.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Being Before Behavior

Hands b&w-sRGB“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.” -St Augustine

St Augustine’s quote is a beautiful expression of an incarnational life, a life that genuinely embodies Jesus so that he naturally lives through that person.

An incarnational life expresses itself in behaviors, habits, thoughts, attitudes and feelings that naturally reflect Christ. But it doesn’t originate there. The incarnational life first and foremost embodies Christ in our very being. The fancy theological word for this is “ontological.”

Fr Stephen Freeman has written an article on the ontological approach to understanding salvation that provides the proper context for discussing life in God. I would highly recommend reading his article. This ontological perspective is one of the primary theological perspectives that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy.

God is the only true Being. God gives us being and is the continual source of our being. His goal is for us to move toward “well-being” and ultimately to “eternal being” in communion with him.

Cluster of GrapesIn this light, right or wrong is either the path toward eternal being or non-being. Or to borrow Jesus’ imagery, it’s either remaining connected to the vine and naturally thriving or being cut off and naturally withering.

In contrast, the popular, yet distorted theology views right and wrong from a legal perspective of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment — behavior and consequence. Sin is seen as immoral behavior and death its punishment while salvation is viewed as obedience and living forever its reward.

But from an ontological perspective, life or death are not the reward or punishment of our behavior. Life and death are about our being. In this light, salvation defines life — salvation is life and life is salvation. And death defines sin — sin is death and death is sin.

So life is well-being and ultimately eternal being as one remains in communion with God, the Source of Being and Life. Death is sub-being and ultimately non-being as one severs communion with God.

This is the framework for understanding Christian life. The incarnational life, a life that naturally embodies Jesus, is first and foremost God’s life in our being that naturally expresses itself through my will, mind and body into my relationships and world. From this perspective, St Augustine’s vision of incarnational life is an expression of life and well-being and not only behavior.

Too often, the discussion of Christ’s likeness centers only on behavior. In other words, a person is considered to be like Christ if he or she avoids certain negative behaviors like drinking, smoking and lying and adhering to positive behaviors like feeding the poor, attending church, acting lovingly, and praying for people. From this perspective, I expend my energy modifying my behavior to adhere to a list of appropriate behaviors, usually determined by the specific faith community in which I live and associate.

But as good as that behavior might be, by itself it isn’t necessarily Christ’s likeness. Again, the incarnational life that naturally embodies Jesus is ontological. The core issue is being, not behavior. From our being, and thus our well-being and eternal being, springs behavior.

So I should expend my energy cooperating with God in the transformation of my being — to choose the ongoing path of life and well-being in intimate communion with God.

Not Worthy Of Them

“The world was not worthy of them.” -Hebrews 11:38

What a wonderful epitaph to have proclaimed over one’s life. The writer of Hebrews declares this after a lengthy list of people popularly called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

Cloud of WitnessesOne of the beautiful aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy are the icons of the saints. The saints are those whom the Church recognizes to have lived a full life of actually enduring to the likeness of Christ. Most are apostles, martyrs, church fathers, and monastics. But for every recognized saint, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown and unmentioned saints.

These unknown saints are the ordinary men and women who lived daily lives of faith, love and piety. They worked ordinary jobs and performed ordinary tasks. They are the “jars of clay” containing the unsurpassable treasure of God’s presence.

The other day, I heard a woman describe her 89-year old mother as a “saint” because she never drank, smoked or cussed. While I don’t doubt that her mom is a saint, I take issue with her measuring rod. A person is not a saint simply by adhering to a set of regulations or morality. A saint is someone who is set apart for God through his or her personal and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause — to transform and renew this world into his Father’s New Creation.

Like a stubborn toddler resisting and fighting against bath-time, this world resists God’s renewal. Unfortunately, the world fights back with far more destructive and violent forces. And those committed to the world’s renewal suffer. They lose reputation, friends, jobs, homes, health and frequently, life.

But they endure. They endure with grief, sadness, pain and loss merged with an indescribable peace, joy and hope. They endure because the one who will transform and renew the world has already begun the process in them. And so, they carry in themselves the promise of God’s future here in the present. And so they trust him and follow him. It sets them apart. They are saints.

Saints aren’t perfect. They struggle, sin and suffer. They are real people. They have different color skin. They speak with different accents. They hold different values. They raise their kids differently. They attend different churches. They enjoy different movies and books. They prefer different genders. They have different life goals. They manage their money differently. They have different political views. They have different scientific views. They have different spiritual views.

But they have one thing in common. They love God. They’re loyal to Jesus and his cause. They are being renewed by God’s Spirit, tasting a bit of God’s future today. As such, they are beneficiaries and agents of God’s New Creation. And for this they struggle to live by the life of God’s future world here and now and suffer as the world around them resists.

Upon completing his “Faith Hall of Fame,” the writer of Hebrews makes direct application:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Certainly this vast cloud is filled with those who have gone before us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women who drew close to God and lived a life of intimate and loyal faith.

But the cloud also contains the aspiring saints around us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women we encounter daily. They are our spouses. They are our kids. They are our friends. They are our co-workers. They are the single man or woman living a life of purity. They are the mom who works long hours to support her family. They are the dad who comforts his sick child in the late hours of night. They are the grandma who quietly and consistently prays for the people on her street. They are the cashier at Walmart smiling at every person. They are the UPS driver faithfully delivering our packages. They are the policewoman on patrol. They are the waiter at our favorite restaurant. They are the guy that cut us off on the freeway. They are the kids playing Pokemon GO.

Because God’s family overlaps the past, present and future, the great cloud of witnesses includes those who have successfully endured the struggle of loyal faith to Jesus and his transformative project, those who still struggle and suffer in their endurance, and even those who will yet endure.

And you and I are surrounded by this great cloud, this awesome community. We’re surrounded, because we are part of it. So, let’s throw off everything that hinders and entangles and run that race marked out specifically for us, with a deeply intimate and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause.

Authentic Sainthood

Peter's DenialI first saw this icon in a Facebook post by St John the Evangelist Orthodox Church.

I absolutely love this icon. For me, it captures a level of authenticity unlike other icons. This is an icon of Peter’s denial.

Four things immediately grabbed my attention when I saw this icon:

First, is the accusatory gaze of the rooster. If a bird ever looked at me like that, I would ring it’s neck. Or at least throw a rock at it. But Peter didn’t do either. Because in the sound of its crow and gaze of its eyes, he heard his friend’s voice, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

Second, is the despair on Peter’s face. This is a man at his absolute worst. Despite his bragging and posturing, he completely failed his friend. He has failed the movement. And as far as he knows, he has completely disqualified himself from everything Jesus spoke about and worked for. There are some failures from which you cannot recover, and this is one of them. And now, stared down by a lousy fowl, he’s curled into a shell of a man.

Third, is the smoldering fire. It’s barely burning, almost reduced to wisps of smoke. But those wisps ascend to heaven and are noticed by God. I think it’s very symbolic of this failed man. It reminds me of Isaiah’s prophecy, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Fourth, is the halo. In the midst of failure, accusation, and despair, the halo remains. Peter doesn’t know it yet, but hope and holiness still shine in the darkness.

Peter was pretty familiar with failure. It seems to be one of the Gospels’ subplots. If it wasn’t so tragic, we would confuse Peter as the comedic sidekick to Jesus’ heroic journey. He’s brash. Quick to speak. Quicker to misstep. Sinks like a stone in the water. Called “Satan” by Jesus. Confuses flailing for swordsmanship and cuts off Malchus’ ear in an attempt to defend Jesus. And now, when his devotion counts the most, he denies Jesus three times.

But where any of these failures may have driven most men to quit and return home, Peter never walks away. Well… not until after his denial and Jesus’ torturous death on a Roman cross. At that point, it’s all over. Messiahs don’t get crucified. They don’t die at the hands of the army they’re supposed to rout.

So perhaps Peter’s failure was needed at that moment. I think Peter may have been brash enough to attempt to continue Jesus’ movement without him. And in doing so, he would have interfered with God’s far greater plan. So Peter’s ultimate failure in the courtyard when confronted by a young girl was the necessary breaking point in a man both to get him out of the way as well as to prepare him.

So disillusioned and stripped of self-confidence and grandiose plans, Peter returns to his life before Jesus called him to follow. Or so he thought.

I love how the scene plays out in John 21. Peter is trying to forget Jesus by immersing himself in his old life and work. Jesus appears on the shore and does the exact same thing he did the day he called Peter.

And Peter gets it.

His immediate response is still brash. But it’s a brashness similar to the prodigal son, a story Peter must have heard Jesus share many times. It’s a brashness that compels him to run to Jesus’ side. Well, actually swim, not run. I wonder if Peter thought to himself as he was struggling to the shore, “Now would be a great time to walk on water, Jesus.”

But there would be no divine assist this time. This time Peter needs to struggle to Jesus himself. Sometimes God needs to stand back and let us exercise our will and devotion.

What a morning that must have been for Peter. Breakfast with the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was not covered with bruises and blood like he was barely alive and somehow survived his torture and entombment. No this was a living, healed and vibrant Jesus.

And after breakfast, Peter takes a personal and painfully therapeutic walk with Jesus. He relives the failure from three days prior. And like his friend who was lain dead in the grave and now walks next to him with new life, Peter’s failure is resurrected and transformed into a commission.

Prior to his denial, Peter probably had the audacity to continue Jesus’ movement in the wake of his perceived failure at the hands of the Romans. Now commissioned, he is empowered to be the initial spokesperson and leader of Jesus’ movement in the wake of his glorious ascension forty days later.

And Peter’s transformation would not have been possible without crushing failure.

God does not extinguish the smoldering wick. In God’s New Creation, the smoldering wick can become the shining star.

Why Are We Here?

The standing congregation sings the Cherubic Hymn. “Let us lay aside our earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” The tune is accentuated by the chiming of each swing of the deacon’s censor. Fragrant incense fills the room. Icons of saints look on. This is a holy moment.

Then the harmonies are disrupted with the dissonant crying from a discontented child. This pulls my attention back to my surroundings. As I glance around, I notice people shuffling tired feet and stretching aching backs. Others, both children and adults, look distracted. One heads to grab a tissue. Another exits toward the bathrooms.

I wonder to myself, “Why are we here?” Why do we gather every week? What brings us together like this? Shouldn’t we ask that question before each service?

Maybe someone is here looking for absolution for a word or deed they regret. Or perhaps it’s to find the love of God. Maybe it’s to be embraced in the comfort of friends. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to serve God and others. Maybe it’s simply out of cultural obligation. Perhaps it’s to impress parents, friends or a potential suitor. Maybe it’s to express thankfulness for a joyful event this past week. Maybe it’s to soothe the pain of the past week or to prepare for the demands of the coming week. Maybe it’s to be a good example for ones children. Perhaps the fires of spiritual renewal need to be answered. The answers to the question are as varied as the people in the room.

Body & BloodAs the hymn draws to an end, the iconostasis doors open and the Great Procession begins. The priest carries Jesus’ body and blood into our midst. HE IS PRESENT RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!

That’s why we’re here. The life and love of Jesus. His presence breathes onto all that we have carried into this place as he offers himself to us. Come. Eat and drink. My life for yours.

And we respond by offering him our lives with all of our joys and sadnesses, faith and fears, commitments and distractions.

In this holy moment he sweeps all of us and all we are and all we bring into a moment when heaven and earth kiss.

In the quiet, a mother near me hands her distracted toddler a graham cracker. She excitedly coos, “Coooookie!”

This is truly a holy moment.