The older of my two adopted sisters, Mary Grace, died nine days ago of a drug overdose in a hotel outside of Houston, TX. There is absolutely no way to convey the depth of this tragedy to anyone who was not close to Mary throughout her life, though a precious few friends and extended family have an inkling of the loss. The untimeliness of Mary's death, even the manner of it, was simultaneously shocking and anticipated. Her life, which was marked by joy in the early years but almost total heartbreak as an adult, made her funeral preparations a challenge to her family. My Dad, brother, and I did our best, between each of our funeral remarks, to balance honor of her with honesty about the hard lessons of her life. Below are my own remarks, with minor edits to the draft I read at Mary's funeral.
I was recently asked to serve my parish's bookstore ministry by writing a blurb in the church's monthly email newsletter in hopes of driving more foot traffic to the store after Liturgy on Sundays. For my inaugural effort, I did a high-level overview of Fr Andrew Stephen Damick's Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy: Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape. My "hook" was an assertion that Orthodox Christians in the deeply pluralistic West bear the burden of 1 Peter 3:15 much more heavily than do their brothers and sisters in historically Orthodox lands, and even more heavily than other Western Christians due to the rather exclusive nature of Orthodox historical claims. "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," urges the Apostle Peter to his readers. I've gotten to thinking in the days since writing the above blurb about how I might answer if thusly called to account, and this post is an effort to flesh out that account prior to being put on the spot. And frankly, I am prone to calling myself to account on a semi-frequent basis, so what follows is something of how I tend to answer the challenge.
Some years ago now (I can't recall how many), the headlines one morning were filled with news of church bombings in Egypt. There have been so many in the last handful of years that I can no longer remember if it was Christmas or Easter, or some other high feast day of the Coptic Church. In any case, I somehow came upon an Arabic report about the event that had been translated into English. In it, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church at the time was asked to comment on the attack which had left multiple ancient churches battered and blood-soaked from all the dead and injured. While the event had stoked the outrage of Western Christians, Pope Shenouda spoke only of his sorrow for the darkened souls of the terrorists, and even pleaded with them to embrace the love of Christ so that they might even embrace their victims as brothers and sisters (my paraphrase because I can no longer find the report online). My heart had never been on the receiving end of so searing an indictment, and nor has it since.
As I assume occasionally happens with other Christians whose minds are especially active, today I struggled with doubts about my faith. While the details of those doubts are not important for this post, it's fair to say that a majority of my doubts these days essentially distill down to a difficulty accepting the probability of the claims of the Gospel. In other words, how likely is it that the classic Christian claims about Jesus' life and nature(s) are in fact true? Sometimes God is not subtle about how He addresses my doubts.
In 2005, I was gifted a book called Slander, by Ann Coulter. There's no other way of describing my experience of reading that book than to say that it was responsible for my political birth, for good and for ill. I learned from Ann that mainstream media is agenda driven, not facts driven. I also learned from her that historians, like scientists, are generally not unbiased observers. They bring political philosophies and personal hobby horses to bear on events of the past and present. As obvious as these things are to most adults, these were world shaking revelations to me in 2005. "Truth is everywhere at risk!" I realized, and set about a self-appointed quest to contend for its preservation in my own small ways.
I don't typically use my blog for "reporting" on things, but the occasion of an upcoming documentary film seemed worth it. During my teenage years (roughly the mid-'90s), I listened to a decent amount of Christian rock music. I was by no means immersed in that scene, but I had my tastes (including the correct opinion that Starflyer 59's Gold album was the best alternative record of that decade) and maintained a rough familiarity with any band that was marginally successful.
A good friend of mine asked me on Facebook yesterday why I observe Lent. The question is a natural one for biblically conscious Christians who rightly desire that their religious practice have some kind of basis in the scriptures. My response to my friend was probably the most in-depth written treatment I've ever attempted of how I've come to understand the spiritual reasoning behind Lent in the Orthodox tradition, so I figured it was worth cross-posting here at my blog. To set this up, my friend had posted a general question to her Facebook followers about why any among them observe Lent. I commented saying that I would try to find her a concise Orthodox treatment of the question, since some others who commented had gone down the road of "anti-religion" proof-texting. But she countered that she wanted to know why I personally found Lent to be valuable. Why do I personally observe it? This was my response, cleaned up slightly for this more formal platform.
One of the odd realities a Protestant is faced with upon entering the Orthodox Church is the role of saints in church life and piety. Prayers are offered to saints quite frequently and encouraged of the faithful. The practice cannot be summarily dismissed as a flourish of theological decadence, as many Protestants (including myself once upon a time) are inclined to do. The Church has a theology of the saints that proclaims they are not only alive in Christ, but that they are spectators of life on earth and can be called upon for their prayers in the same way that we call upon our living friends and family for theirs.
Facebook has made people weird. I suspect a lengthy volume could be written about the host of behaviors seemingly stable people exhibit on Facebook that would be considered signs of sociopathy in just about any other context. One such behavior is the Christian Humble Brag. I'm talking about people who post pictures of their amazing houses, or their extensive world travels, or stories of their professional achievements, and then have the temerity to declare themselves "blessed". There's nothing inherently wrong, in my opinion, with sharing one's successes and privileges with others, but tying such things inextricably to God's provenance is slippery ground. The theological trouble with such declarations is real enough, but a downstream consequence is that some truly beautiful accounts of God's blessing are not made known by people who are loathe to come across as vain or insensitive to those within earshot who have not known the same kind of blessing. My wife and I find ourselves in that position right now. We don't know why God chooses to reveal Himself through blessing in the ways and timing that He does, but we know that as His creatures, we are bound by love to tell of His goodness. What follows is a story of blessing, and of two undeserving people who are overcome with gratitude.
Disclaimer: This is the kind of post I would've preferred to plan in advance and give much thought to, but today's date has caught me by surprise. Hopefully what follows below will do the subject matter justice.
Fifteen years ago this morning, I walked away from a plane crash without a single bruise or scratch on my body. While that event hasn't been without its costly ripple effects (I now mask a significant fear of flying, especially at landings, that I didn't have prior to June 18, 2002), it's been a valuable, ongoing catalyst for personal reflection. Reflection requires knowledge of the details, however, so I'll begin by establishing some context and relaying the events of that morning as they unfolded.
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