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Mission Monthly – December 2008

(The following article was published in the October, 2008, issue of TOUCHTONE Magazine. Its author, John Thompson, is a librarian at Waynesburg University in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, where he also teaches New Testament. He, his wife Nancy, and their three children attend St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Morgantown, West Virginia. I print it here as a meditation for the approaching gift giving season of Christmas. As parents, Grandparents, Godparents, Uncles, Aunts and maybe just good friends undoubtedly we will find ourselves bringing gifts to the children in our lives. This article is about more than just “gift giving” and it offers a challenging point of view of what it means to love our children.)

Weed Free: on Tending a Child’s Garden of Influences

IT IS GOOD TO WANT someone to control the violence, irreverence, and sex that appear in the media, so that children aren’t exposed to stories and images that corrupt their desires and dull their consciences. That would be a good thing for society as a whole. But for the sake of my wife and our three children, I have to draw the line at a different place.

The Four Rules

And so my wife and I follow four rules of disengagement. The first one is: If it is addictive, don’t offer it to children.In our family, that means alcohol, smoking, and drugs. It also means video games, television, Gameboys, and iPods. We play games, but we do it as a family and we promote the games that encourage thought and interaction, not the acuity of the thumbs and fingers. We watch videos, but not television, and we certainly don’t watch television “serially.”

But the real struggle, the real area where the discipline is needed, is in how we—the parents—live and in the way we spend our money and time. Here is where the most effective teaching takes place, for good or ill, because, as everyone knows, our children pay much more attention to what we do than to what we say.

Hence, the second rule of disengagement: You should want your children to imitate you.This is one of the hardest rules to follow. It is annoying beyond words, at times, to see my children copying me. But then I remember that if I want them to remain disengaged from what will harm them, they must be able to attach themselves to a positive influence. Me.

This leads to the third rule of disengagement:Don’t give your children things that will isolate, spoil, or corrupt them. My childhood preceded the Sony Walkman phenomenon, which is now the iPod phenomenon. The music you can get on them is truly amazing, both in variety and in quality of reproduction. I don’t object to persons who use them, unless that person is one of my children.

I am perhaps irrationally afraid that my children will use their iPod or CD player or whatever to escape something unpleasant, whether it is boredom, a sibling, or my discipline. Instead, they should be learning to deal constructively with their boredom, siblings, and parental discipline.

Withdrawing into his own world is an ever-present temptation for a child, as tempting as candy. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that following rule No.2, I don’t use these devices myself.

Our fourth rule of disengagement is: Even when giving the children gifts, teach them about the rewards that they should be working for. When we give them gifts, we are giving them some clues about what we think will make people happy. That is why I object, in principle, to expensive toys that have no functional use. They imply that happiness comes from being able to afford expensive toys. This is an unfortunate concept for children to have but it is disastrous for adults.

These are not rules for rejecting society or for withdrawing from it. They are rules for equipping my children to selectively engage the world when they are mature enough to assess its merits and dangers. One of the most compelling arguments for disengagement is that the attitudes and values that society encourages effectively preclude the values that I want to cultivate.

You can only grow so many plants in your garden. Some of the plants I want to see flourish in my garden— gratitude, reverence, simplicity, and the love of beauty—are relatively fragile and require special attention, and so I must go to what others regard as extreme lengths—a radical weeding policy—to protect them.


Mission Monthly – November 2008

“Above everything, beware of your own confidence, lest you fall from a height of discipline because of lack of training. It is better to move ahead a little at a time. So then, withdraw from the pleasures of life little by little. Gradually destroy all your evil habits, lest you bring on yourself a mass of temptations by stirring up all of your passions at once. When you have mastered one passion, then begin waging war against another. And before long you will get the better of them all.”

St. Basil the Great

Having Fr. Peter Gillquist with us last week filled our home with joy, laughter, memories and much edifying conversation. In recounting the many things he loves about the Orthodox Church, one brief comment stood out, “What I love about the Orthodox Church is that she is high in her standards and high in her mercy.” Truly this is one of our h’s most appealing and fundamental characteristics. When training for the priesthood men are given significant instruction and hopefully a serious appreciation for guiding in this way the souls of the beloved spiritual children given over to his care. I have been blessed to have been given many wonderful teachers, fathers and mothers who have helped me to understand and make good effort at balancing standards and mercy, for my own needs and for the needs of others.

I thank God for the high standards of moral and ethical Truth to which we all are called as Orthodox Christians. Solely on that level our Church is one of the last defenders of this foundation of human dignity and purpose. I am eternally grateful to God for His patience and kindness with us who are trying, however poorly, to “withdraw from the pleasures of life” and “destroy [our] evil habits.”

What St. Basil has written here is encouraging on many levels. It is almost a permission, if not an actual directive, to take our time in the arena of spiritual warfare. One of the most telling axioms of spiritual warfare addresses the subject of food and fasting, one of man’s fundamental needs but also one of man’s most common abuses: “Unless a man learns self-control with his stomach he will never have true self-control in any area of his life.”Here we see why the Church in Her wisdom instructs us to fast, whether lightly or strictly, over half the days of every year. And of course it should go without saying that this is not a “legal” requirement to “earn” victory (our salvation), but it is good to be taught and reminded that fasting IS required for victory in the arena of self-control, and is obviously an essential building block of strong discipline. And why? To gain, day by day, month by month, year by year, in our love for and trust in God, to develop the ability to address and conquer even greater sin in our lives, and finally to grow in showing greater and active love for our neighbor.

With these goals in mind we see St. Basil giving us no reason whatsoever to consider our spiritual labors as trivial or optional; but rather his definitive instruction, while urgent, directs us to be gradual and persistent in “getting the better” of our adversaries and never to become over-confident. I have seen individuals press themselves and/or others, sometimes through over-confidence (pride) but usually through immaturity, and I have seen the bee’s nest of struggles borne from this error. Beloved, if one’s sincere desire is to be with Christ and enter into the generous fellowship of the Holy Trinity then what joy there is in knowing that this great journey begins first by only needing to be oneself; and knowing that we have a Mother, our Holy Church, who believes enough in Her children to set before us both the highest standards of living and the highest degree of mercy (forgiveness), let us, like the wise, patiently make the most of our time (Eph. 5:15-16) to master our passions, one by one, and with steady, untiring purpose “get the better of them all.”


Mission Monthly – October 2008

“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again.”

Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country(1948)

Every year during our family’s summer vacation I look forward to reading a great book. I have not always succeeded but this year’s effort was indeed rewarding! This meditation will not be a book report but I will enthusiastically pass along the recommendation I received to read Cry, the Beloved Country!

Our vacation could not have been better, but to the annoyance of my wife there was (only) one drawback to the beautiful cabin offered to us by our good and generous friends: the television (which, I might add, is an equally annoying concession of the cabin’s owners for the sake of extended family—right P&C?). I limited my television watching mostly to Ryder Cup golf, a Packer game and to catching up on current events, especially the upcoming Presidential election and early reports of our n’s mounting financial crisis. It is here that my meditation begins.

Could there be a more accurate term to define the current financial crisis than “tragedy” as noted above? Of course, it would be offensive and naive to describe the outright corruption we are seeing as a mere tragedy. The fundamental question, however, is not how we label this crisis but whether or not we as a nation, especially our civil authorities, will resolve this criminal mismanagement or else remain a part of the crime.

There are some parallels between 20th century South African apartheid and the society of 21st century North America, and I can see none greater than the disparity of opportunity and the death knell of self-interest. As a “Christian” nation we are seeing myriad levels of anti-Christian morals arising as a result of declining standards of behavior in both the public and private sectors. I remember reading one of the founding fathers who said something like, “The fundamentals of a successfuldemocracy are founded on the expectation that our leaders will be men (and women) of high moral character.” Here the word “leader” should not be limited to an elected official, although it may have intended strictly to be so, but I would also include the leaders of industry, education, our homes and churches.

I would not change for a moment being a citizen of this nation and democracy; there is no other country that offers the freedoms we benefit from. But let us be frank: this is no utopia and not all freedoms are beneficial! There is far too much evidence of fraudulence and duplicity at all levels to think otherwise. What are we to do? I believe, like anyone suffering from an unknown illness, we must first admit to the illness, and then take courage to seek remedy.

One of our Presidential candidates has been criticized for saying, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” The nominee responded by illustrating, and I believe few would disagree, how these fundamentals are rooted in the strength and ingenuity of the American worker who is ready and able to keep our economy moving. I would add that it is my hope that the strength and ingenuity of the American citizen is also ready and able to participate in mending that which is broken within our society. Government and corporate America, both loveless bureaucracies, will never establish policies free of material self-interest. It would take enormous amounts of uncharacteristic humanity and humility for it to be otherwise. We cannot wait for this; but what we can do is stay watchful as faithful Orthodox Christians, doing what we can as individuals, families and churches not to be indifferent to the remedies needed to mend whatever may be broken in our lives and society. There is no excuse for us ever to become cynical about our social systems. We must remain realistic, of course, but we also must remain courageous, believing, thankful, hopeful, positive, hard working, moral and generous. Today we begin by prayerfully preparing ourselves to cast our vote on November 4. After that, as always, our vigilance over the tragedies of corruption and indifference will be tested, and I pray God will help us to have the determination to establish and uphold, as individuals and as a nation, that which is right and well-pleasing in His eyes.


Mission Monthly – September 2008

“A [parish assembly] can only be the Church if her experience is such where all ages, genders, professions, cultures, etc., meet, for this is what the Gospel promises us to be the Kingdom of God: a place where all natural and cultural divisions are transcended.”

John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion

I have been fascinated as of late by thoughts of the miracle of parish life. The whole notion of what it means to be a parish, what holds a parish together, is awe-inspiring in its very nature. God's Church is holy, catholic (universal), apostolic, authoritative, inclusive, decisive, defining, demanding, judging, reconciling, merciful, loving, and beautiful. Her members are called (see John 15.16) and yet we are free to choose to stay or to leave. Her life is as full as her people are willing and able to serve and share in it. She gives everything and yet she is completely dependent upon her members to do anything. She is perfect in Her divine nature and yet she is covered with all manner of bruise and stain from the brutality of her human nature. Her Eucharist is one and is offered for the reconciliation of the entire creation, and every remote parish in every canonical corner of the world completes this offering in its fullness. She is one at the Eucharistic table with all the right-believing and yet she is splintered by self-interest and sin. She is a complete blend of any and all diversity (correctly understood) and yet there is absolutely no homogeneity in her broad character. She demands unity of belief and yet allows a wide variety of expression. Accountability is a cornerstone of Her stability and bishop to baby are equally held to the highest of standards. Her name, Orthodox, is defined by those who claim Her, and those who claim Her cannot define themselves with any other name. She is freely chosen, but once chosen Her freedom is defined by obedience.

Without getting too far from my initial thoughts these thoughts do fascinate me in their great implication on our lives, first of all because of how thankful I am for the beauty of our parish, our little oasis of God's grace, given, received, and built up with all the promise proclaimed in “the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19); and secondly, if we as individual Orthodox Christians are to take seriously the meaning of our name. Here is the main question I am asking: What is it that holds a parish together? There exist many views of Orthodox Christian parish life, some to extreme ends: those who see the parish as a little monastery and those who see the parish as a place to go only when there is a need. Of course neither of these extremes are acceptable or healthy “parish” expressions of the Kingdom of God, and while they do exist my experience has shown me that neither are purposeful in presenting a far-reaching encounter with the Church's life, liturgy, stewardship and “koinonia” (truly close fellowship).

In the best of circumstances I believe the primary reason a parish remains whole and intact is because of God's grace and its very nature as the body of Christ. Most people know this and have an innate sense of it at the very core of their being and conscience. Fierce individualism wages war against this sensibility and yet people most often see the isolation spawned by radical individualism (or feel its consequent sad loneliness) and learn to seek answers to their questions in the only place where True Life can be found. In the worst of circumstances I have seen, over the last thirty years, the Enemy work his way into the very conduct and composition of a parish. These occasions of drama may temporarily cast a shadow over the life of a parish, but they never overshadow the vast and deep faithfulness of the majority of men, women and children committed to Christ through their local church. And somewhere in between there is the lukewarm parish, maybe even with seemingly higher levels of commitment, content with doing “just enough” but ultimately doing it half-heartedly. Oh the miracle of the parish. A place for all God's people to fail and be lifted up with renewed hope for today and for eternity. A freely chosen home where persons of all types, backgrounds and interests genuinely belong for one united purpose: Eucharistic life in the Body of Christ.


Mission Monthly – August 2008

(The following passage is from St. Nikolai Velimirovic's commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew 6:22-33—the third Sunday after Pentecost. It is a brief passage but one of great depth and importance! I am not sure how many ways there might be to impress upon a Christian the very urgency and responsibility of his election. I suppose the only restriction to this might be the number of those who undertake the attempt. I do not believe I have ever found better. What is said is left to each of us not to debate or dispute but only to respond. May we each do so with obedience, humility and boldness in the greatness of our calling!)

“Of all men on earth, the greatest responsibility before God is carried by the one who calls himself a Christian, for God has given most to the Christians, and will seek most from them. To peoples who had moved far from God's primal revelation, God left nature and the mind: nature as a book and the mind as a guide to the reading of this book. To Christians, though, in addition to nature and the mind, God's primal revelation has been restored, and a new revelation of truth has been given in the Lord Jesus Christ. As well as this, Christians have the Church, that is the guardian, interpreter and guide in both Revelations; and finally, Christians have the power of the Holy Spirit, who has given life from the Church's beginning, and teaches and guides it. And so, while non-Christians have the one talent—the mind—that guides them and teaches them from the book of nature, Christians have five talents: the mind, the Old Revelation, the New Revelation, the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit.

“When a non-Christian turns to nature, to read and interpret it, he has the light of only a single candle: the mind; when a Jew turns to nature, to read and interpret it, he has the light of two candles: his mind and the Old Revelation; but when a Christian turns to nature, to read and interpret it, he has the light of five candles: his mind, the Old Revelation, the New Revelation, the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit. Who, then, should see better and more clearly: the one with a single candle, the one with two or the one with five? There is no doubt that they will all be able to read up to a point, and even less doubt that the one with five candles will see further and read more clearly than the other two.

“When a man who walks by the light of five candles finds them all extinguished, he will be left in greater darkness than a man who walks by the light of one, and it is extinguished. When two men find themselves in one and the same darkness, it is darker to the eyes of the one who comes in from the greater light. But those who walk by the light of just one candle—with a pure and undarkened mind—can pierce through the dark valley of this life into God's great light; however, it is easier for those whose way is lit by a five-branched candlestick. And when those who walk with one candle are without excuse (Romans 1:20) if they turn from the path and lose themselves in darkness, what sort of answer will those to whom God has given five candles have before Him, when they turn from the way and lose themselves in darkness? In very truth, of all men on earth the greatest responsibility before God is borne by the man who calls himself a Christian.”