Saturday, January 24, 2009

For the arms of the wicked shall be broken

Psalm 37:17

As I mentioned in the last post, I told the Parish Council at my church an abbreviated story of how I returned to the church after a prolonged absence. I mentioned that I had written about this on my blog, and I was asked for a link to the story, but when I looked I realized that while I had talked a lot about my stay in the hospital in a previous post, I had not gone into details about what got me to that place in my life, or how it has impacted me since then, so I will try to go into more detail here now.

I've been Orthodox since infancy, and while most of that time I have attempted to be pious and good, I never really realized that I needed the medicine that the Church provides during most of the first three decades of my life. Piety and goodness seemed like enough. So I served as an altar boy, I sang with the chanters, I went to Sunday School, I crossed myself when I was supposed to, I learned to paint icons, and in all honesty, I enjoyed the Church, I just didn't feel like I needed it. And in reality, I have not been as good or pious as I appeared to other people, but I was good at hiding behind a facade that I created, and I didn't feel deceitful because I did like Church.

Because the Church was just a hobby for me, it was easy to drift away for a time, and to come back when I felt like it. In 2003, I worked on a very big commission that had to be done in a very short amount of time, and I found myself with a lot of money all at once. I took some of that money and I got myself a house about 35 minutes from where I had been going to Church. The house was a fixer-upper that I got for a good price. Since my neighbor was a friend of mine and a contractor, he did a lot of work on the house. He could only work on weekends because of his schedule, and so I didn't go to Church so that I could stay and supervise and help out. It was not something that I felt particularly guilty about because it seemed like it was an honorable and temporary reason to miss Church.

This went on for maybe a couple months. When the work stopped on the house, I had a new reason not to go to Church. I've always been a night owl, and the thought of getting up early in the morning to go to Church was in no way appealing to me, and now that I lived even farther away from Church it was much easier to just stay in bed and sleep in. Sure there was another Church five minutes away that I could have gone to, but I didn't really know those people, and I'd still have to get up early. So I gave in to my laziness and stayed home.

I stopped praying. After all, what is the point of praying when you aren't a churchgoer? Fasting seemed pointless as well. Even taking a minute to think about God would just make me feel guilty, so it was best to just shut that out of my mind. Truth be told, the one thing I didn't stop doing, which I should have, is painting icons. It was my sole source of income, and so I set about the technical act of painting while my soul was far removed from it. I have heard it said that the act of painting an icon is in itself a prayer, but if this is true, I tried very hard to not hear my own prayer. I am ashamed at what I replaced God and His Church with in order to fill my free time.

It is no wonder to me now that God's blessings seemed so far removed from my life during this time as I had run as far away as I could from Him. I ran out of commissions and had to struggle to find new ones, I ran out of money, and accumulated debt, when my car died I had no way to fix it or replace it, so I only left the house to walk to the store or when someone could pick me up. I felt depressed and alone, but I still didn't want to return to God because I thought I could still fix my situation if I could just think of how...

Then one day, I broke my arm. It was a particularly nasty break, and it required three days in the hospital. I spent most of that first night in tears reflecting on my life. A few years earlier I had felt like I had everything, and suddenly I realized that I had nothing. I had squandered everything. I never felt more alone than I did that night. I had not been to Church in years, I hadn't been to confession, and I was worried about going into surgery with my soul in the condition it was in. I felt like the Prodigal Son eating the food meant for pigs, covered in filth, alone, worried that I couldn't even go back home. I made up my mind that, like the Prodigal, I would return to my Father and say "I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but make me as one of your hired servants."

It took me several months before I got back to Church. I wish I could say that I was a transformed person that night on the spot. But this was the beginning. I was headed back along the road to my Father. During my journey back, I was checking the statistics for my website, and I saw that someone had linked an image from my website to a message board called Christian Forums. I followed the link and found that there was an Orthodox section on that forum. I spent a great deal of time reading things there, and learning things about my own faith I did not know. It helped to pull me along the road back to the Church even when I was tired and didn't want to keep walking. At Pascha of that year, I sat and watched a video of the Paschal Divine Liturgy that someone had linked, and cried that I could not be there.

It was not much later that I finally got a car again. The first opportunity I had I went back to Church, and I have been there as often as I could ever since. As if to welcome me back, I finally found my baptismal cross that had been missing for months if not more than a year the very day that I returned to Church for the first time.

Not long after returning to Church I was asked to start singing with the chanters again. I happily agreed because it is such a joy to me to sing in Church. A little while later I was asked to teach Sunday School. I was much more apprehensive about this since I didn't feel like I related well to 9th graders when I was in 9th grade, but they told me someone else would help me, and so I agreed, remembering my promise to be a servant. Last year I was asked to serve on Parish Council. This really frightened me because I had heard horror stories from my Dad over the years, but it was important to me to do what I was asked to do. I was nominated this year for Parish Council Chairman, and wanted so badly not to do the job that was set in front of me, but I know too well the many blessings God has given me, and so I accepted.

I am not a very good servant, and I don't know that I ever will be. But God accepted me back after I denied Him and sought to live my life without Him, and how can I ever repay Him for that? And He continues to bless me far more than I could ever deserve in this life. For every half-hearted attempt to serve Him and to serve others I have received more in return than I could have imagined.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Last night was the first meeting of the Executive Board of my church's Parish Council. As the new chairman of the council, it was the first of these meetings that I have attended. At the conclusion of the business portion of the meeting, I started to tell them about some things that are going on in my personal life lately. It was so nice to spend just a few minutes of time talking about who I am as a person, what is going on in my life, what my hopes and dreams and aspirations are. Since then, I have given a lot of thought to what it means to share these things with people at Church. And the conclusion that I have reached is that not sharing is a monstrous distortion of what it means to be a Christian.

We are created in the image and likeness of God. And specifically, in the image and the likeness of the Holy Trinity. Just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons, they are in perfect union with each other. To be truly human is to be in union with other humans and with our Creator. Furthermore, we believe in a God who became a man, sharing in our humanity so that we could share in His Divinity. We also believe that the Church is the Body of Christ, that our salvation lies in our being one with each other with Christ as the head of the Church. To choose to exist as isolated individuals is truly to deny all of these things in practice regardless of whether we agree to them in theory. This isolation, it seems to me, is the very essence of sin. If we truly practiced unity with one another, we could not lie about our neighbor, steal from them, murder them, use them for our own gain, or abuse them.

So tonight at the first meeting of the full Parish Council, I shared the abridged version of how God used financial ruin, and a stay in the hospital to bring me back home to the Church, and how I vowed to return to the Church as a servant which is why I agreed to be on Council and why I agreed to run for Chairman despite my fears and trepidation. And once again, I saw how this little bit of sharing is what begins to tie us together as Christians.

For a while now, I have been sharing things through this blog, and on various other sites I am on, but there is something very different about sharing things in person. What I write here may be read by many people, or no one at all. People may be brought to tears by what I write, or they may roll their eyes. This is not a personal medium, even though there are people writing and people reading. There appears to be a connection between writer and reader, but in most cases this is little more than an illusion. I don't know most of the people that will read this, and so while it might make me feel good to write things down, and it might help someone to read it, we still are not united together in a substantive way.

I have been doing much more sharing in person lately. I have shared my joy, my sorrows, my struggles against temptation, my sins and my faults with people, and in return I have received love, forgiveness, acceptance, encouragement, and consolation. The truth is that if we are even a little bit serious about being a Christian, we have this desire within us to share, and to have others share with us. It is imprinted in us as beings in the image and likeness of God. We have just forgotten how because we live in a fallen world that encourages us to stay separate from each other.

We may start by sharing bits of information about ourselves, but over time we begin to actually share our whole self. And I am finding that the more I do this, the more blessings I have to be thankful for, and I spend more time sharing myself with God.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Putting My House in Order

This past week, Fr. John came over for my annual house blessing. The act of sanctifying the space in which I live nearly all of my life and dedicating it for God's work is a profound and wonderful act, and yet I dread it every year because it means that I feel like I have to clean my house.

I have not posted a blog entry in just over a month now. This blog was intended as a way for me to take some of what is in my head and expose it to the light of day, to share with others my struggles, my triumphs, my joys and my sorrows. I wanted it to be a means for me to spend more time outside my thoughts and to let others in. But in order to do so, I feel like I have some cleaning and rearranging to do. It turns out that this is harder for me to do than I had expected.

For the better part of my 32 years on this earth, the part that I can remember at least, My life has been lived inside my head. I let very few people in to look around, and I spend very little time outside of it. I keep people at arms length because it is easier than trying to fix what I don't like about myself, and easier than taking the time to clean up and set my life in order. The one thing that never occurred to me in all this time is that there are actually people that might want into my head even though the place is a mess.

The real reason I have not posted anything in a month is that I have been busy doing a little cleaning in my head and in my heart to welcome an amazing new friend in. And like any good cleaning, it kicks up a lot of dust, displaces a lot of things temporarily, and occasionally looks like more of a mess than before I started cleaning. My head has been more of a mess than usual, making it hard to write about my thoughts in a public forum, but it has been a mess in a way that hopefully will make it a more inviting place to be on a regular basis.

Just like my priest doesn't ask if my house will be clean before he schedules a house blessing, this person didn't ask me to clean house, but I feel compelled to put my house in order before I invite someone else in. I find my head a more peaceful place to be now that I have done some cleaning. I like opening the doors and letting the sunshine in. I like bringing this visitor in to have a look around. I like being able to share my life with another person who for some reason doesn't seem to mind that I haven't finished cleaning yet and probably never will. And when the dust settles, I am hopeful that I will start spending more time outside my mind, and be more willing to let others inside.