Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 5, 2013

Second Born

To be second born… it’s something I know as the second of two. I’ve worked and lived with the first born and their sense of rule (and rules), their sense of “getting it”, their sense of entitlement. More power to them… truth be told in our hearts, we know we all want the same in our unrepented lives – for it’s there we all feel our ways toward claiming our rights as first born. After all, we are each unique and there will never be a repetition… and we each sense this in ourselves as well. But second born… it’s a birth into a society not of one, but one of many… and perhaps a little less singularity is or should be refreshingly somewhat more humble. Face it… our friends are already there… they may not know us, or like us, or even accept us as more than usurpers, rivals and “competition”, but it’s ours to turn that greeting into a welcome, into friendship, and love.

Through the course of Lent and especially through Holy Week, we’ve heard the stories of Christ’s first born, and we gentiles are the second born. According to the Fathers, we’re the foals of an ass… which explains a lot if you know what I mean. And maybe if the first born were stiff necked, this self-appellation is somehow more acceptable to those with whom we were meant to be kin. Yeah… they get the attribution… and it fits. Only we seemed to have failed at rising to demonstrate lives that might dispell their distrust. Perhaps they measured our shoes right at the first after all. And no question now that our family’s going on near two thousand years, we’ve sort of blown our opportunity for a fresh start, and real invitation. So what do we do now… other than fast, pray, give alms… and do the work we’re given.

And so it’s this we do… for days, seasons and years. Perhaps it might fashion us as a people… who become not just another close crowd, but truly an open people of God worthy of restoring the comity in this family. But mostly for now …we seem to struggle just where we are. Maybe that’s the era… these last days where we claim a humble out rather than think more widely… and if our hearts are truly as hard as some say, perhaps that’s not so bad. And yet so long as we’re open to grafting in more wannabes like ourselves our false divisions focusing more on our starts than our work… maybe we’ll make progress in spite of ourselves. For if “cradle”, “revert” and “convert” (even Christian, Jew, etc) were descriptions that mattered, then maybe our Gospels might have had more to say about Jesus’s youth. Yeah… they actually do say something, but they don’t stop there as if birth is the be-all and end-all. For the truth is that for every St. Basil born into a pious family… for every two there may be an “in” and an “out”, or more harshly, for every Cain an Abel.

The burden of birth… as somehow explaining all does violence to God’s love shown over and over in the changes wrought in the Prodigal, the Harlot, the Tax Collector and the Thief and so many others… and violence as well to his astonishment and commending of the faith of the Centurion, the Samaritan and so many others. And yet this joy and reality of the second born cannot erase the joy of the love in one’s first born… and those of no relation at all who drop in and stay in our hearts – those much further and wider from the center of the circles in our lives and who nevertheless express their kinship with us and become our brothers and sisters in Christ. Consider that for all our handwringing over our fallen churches and vacated faith, God is working great wonders farther beyond… in the mission fields of China, Africa and more. Let us lift our gaze from the navel of our own misfortunes and celebrate our bretheren’s with a welcome that offers our friendship in hopes of renewing our own spirits. And look more closely to see the miracles God works here… in spite of our blindness to that which He chooses over our often misguided preferences.

And so Christ’s mystical body… whether in the Eucharist or the Resurrection… is light and sweet, unrecognizable and challengingly incomprehensible. And yet in this challenge, the greatest seems to be whether we will elect to allow a few things to clarify in our communication to ourselves and those about us. For indeed there is little that we say or think we understand in looking back, and yet when we express our love in Christ, in His people, we find things simpler. And maybe this is enough: to love and glorify God… His people and His Creation… all that which we have been given in this Garden… and to see it so. Maybe now after all this prep… we can lift ourselves to the liturgy after the liturgy… this true work of the people. And so after these Forty plus days of worship in the first, let us attend …to it.

Christ is Risen!

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | April 8, 2013

Triumph of Orthodoxy

Earlier this year, I finally doubled up on a Sunday and made my way over to attend the pan Orthodox Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. As the Washington DC area has been blessed to have a large number of parishes, the effect of the service generated an authentic vision of the Triumph of Orthodoxy with a Metropolitan and 30-plus priests from five jurisdictions. More than that, for the first time I had the experience of our worship as not a people of God, but in fact as God’s suffering people. As Orthodox faithful, we  can go off in uncreative ways here… seeing ourselves alone as God’s suffering people. But what I mean to refer to is not just ourselves, our Orthodox selves in particular as the faithful people of God, but the Orthodox as icons of all believers, and our service as an re-enactment of a restoration of the faith and worship of all people. Maybe that’s an odd thing to think …just because we’ve run through this and a ceremony which walks a restoration of church “art” into the houses of worship as though it were a civil right march, but maybe not either.

Ours is a land and a time where all of us have fallen from True Faith. Some of us are on the road or have been on the road to recovery for some time, others of us are stuck in a rut and struggling to get back on the pavement, and of course there’s a third group of us still tooling happily along a wrong way “as if”. We do all three… all of us. Yes… even those Episcopalians everyone seems to enjoy making so much fun of and feel superior to…. yes, even they want in some corner to be a people of God… and if they capture that third way better, we’re remiss if we think they capture it alone. They don’t. We’re there, too. Everyone of us. And so if we really do allow ourselves to see each of these groups separately and unconnected to the struggles of the other – unconnected from our own struggles, we miss much in the Christian life. Our Christian life in that case becomes a life a part rather than a Christianity that renews and restores all people. and is a part of all of us. It’s a “handy” small Christ we can put in our pocket and take where we want, but it’s not the Christ of the book of Acts that converted thousands on Pentecost…. let alone Peter and the Apostles.

Sunday of Orthodox in Washington DC at Sts Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church

Sunday of Orthodox in Washington DC at Sts Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church

So if icons are truly a window into heaven, and for this modern guy… yeah… increasingly I see that… then the Triumph of Orthodoxy may itself be a window into the heaven wherein the church – our church – becomes an icon on earth for all people. And then maybe we’re actually getting somewhere. The truth is that all God’s people are no longer in our churches… whether these churches are Orthodox or something else, and if there is a unique gift in Orthodox spirituality, it is the  challenge to see ourselves in this, to see and experience this falling away as part of our story, to see the Prodigal worshippers as ourselves, to see our Church as wayward in its time – time and again, and to yet see the Triumph of Orthodoxy as a broader renewal and restoration of the icons as our story as well, as the restoration of ourselves and our worship, too. This too can happen, and it does because it has: Both the Fall and the Restoration. And that given a chance, given open hearts where the head and the ego (the same!) can for at least a moment take a back seat and we can “let the Church be the Church” as was intended… we can have that again. And at least let it be our prayer that God make it so.

And if we look at it this way, it doesn’t seem that hard nor does it even seem corny, goofy or all the other sorts of old foggy stuff we normally associate with our society of creative anachronism. Rather, in a dysfunctional world, the story of a group of people divided unreasonably against themselves gathering to re-enact and “model” if you will a point in time when their forebears sucked it up, picked up an image of a glorified saint and marched off to worship in ways that said, “Yeah we’re done with all the mock worship, the faux christian life, the humanity lite and ready for the real thing”….and now, we’re ready to crucify ourselves bit by painful bit in love of one another… yeah, that’s a message we could give.

So this day and in this Triumph of Orthodoxy it seemed to me that we were meant to be fashioned not just as an icon of a day long ago, but of a day yet to come. I felt as though we really were one people… a people of Orthodoxy in whose image worship was restored even as the icons themselves were restored to the church. And this worship wasn’t ours alone as though made up out of our heads, but fit into a pattern not made by human hands, fit into a mold of glorified humanity, or better, humanity glorified in the gilded image of divine beauty… as the Divine project would have it in making man was at last completed with the last words of Christ’s Passion in John’s Gospel, “It is finished”. And yes, there is more gold brocade in the living icon of this moment, more clergy and less lay folks than might be fitting, but we’ve had five plus years of a united, pan Orthodox clergy association… and how many years for our pan orthodox lay activities? Mmmmm. Right. Okay. Got it. So maybe it takes a long time to climb out of the catacombs? Yep. But if we let our anti-clericalism continue to be the excuse for not making the effort ourselves, then in the immortal words of John Wooten, we are preparing to fail by failing to prepare ourselves. And if we do not come together as a church of one faith in Orthodoxy, as one true American people chosen and allowing ourselves to become Orthodox, how can we possibly expect anyone to consider that we take the Savior at His word, that we should all become one? And hence our orthodoxy becomes not a faith for all people but for us alone… fitting for those seeking shelter in the catacombs, but not for those who’d chance a battle with Babylon to lift their souls to the heavens.

No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to our former state by uniting it to divine beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in words and images.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 21, 2013

Dorotheos of Gaza on Humility (and Fasting)

As we begin the Great Fast, the temptation to wonder the point of it all, “Can we do this?”and as it unfolds even “Can we keep doing this?” FWIW, I find my enthusiasm is always high until that first plate of Lentils and rice looks back at me from the placemat… and then my ardor cools. But none of this is about diet, or achievement, or anything other than bending our will away from serving ourselves – quite literally in this case, and more toward love and serving others. For by this small step of fasting (and all the disciplines the Church gives us) and the series of small steps that each year’s Great Fast brings and even each day that we manage within it – it’s by all of this that we begin to awaken to making a less conscious, more natural bending towards behavior more becoming in our Way. The point is to find Christ less in the momentous singular acts of giving, and more in the everyday moments God places before us… as in, “It ain’t much, but if you’ve got a moment, would you take a look at this and give it a shot?” Fact is, He’s done the big stuff. The idea that He’s saving something really important “just for us” to do down-the-road and we can just skate by for the time being… waiting for that big day… seems a bit of a presumption. Even we know we’d fail at that. And more to the point, the follow-0n that we’ll just say, “Hey…. I tried. That’s enough, isn’t it?” Well, I’m just not so sure. Did we do our job… the one we were REALLY asked to do, or the one we chose for ourselves a tad beyond our skill level… ’cause it looked cool and all? Grabbing the headlines is one thing. Having them read the way we’d like often nothing but a fantasy. As the Great Basketball Coach once said that “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Do the little stuff. See it as important. We fail here, too, but our chances with time… lot’s of time… years and even a lifetime… is that, yes, with training… and this IS our training, we can do this. And if we can do this, we can take on much more. But ordering our lives this way and the tasks we set ourselves to is important… even if we can’t (always) see it that way.

One day Zosimos was talking about humility. There was a certain sophist present who, hearing what he said, wanted to enquire more deeply into it and he said, “Tell me how you can reckon yourself a sinner. Do you not see that you are a holy man? Do you not see that you have already acquired virtue? Do you not see that you are fulfilling the Commandments? How can it be that doing all these things you still reckon yourself a sinner?”

The old gentleman did not quite know how to answer, and he said, “I do not know how to explain it to you, but it is quite true.” The sophist then brushed this aside and repeated his request to know how this could be true. But the old gentleman still could not find a way of explaining it and began to say with his usual holy simplicity, “Do not try and confuse me. I tell you this is exactly how I feel.”

Since I saw the old gentleman hesitating to reply, I said to him, “Is this not rather like sophistics or medicine? When a man is studying it carefully and is practising it little by little, by doing the work he acquires the state of mind proper to a sophist or a doctor, and he is unable to say and does not know how to explain how little by little he was led into that state of mind, for the soul absorbed it imperceptibly. The same sort of thing is found as regards humility; the work of fulfilling the Commandments generates a state of humility and the process cannot be explained in words.”

When he heard this Abbot Zosimos was glad and embraced me and said, “You have found the answer; it is as you say.” The sophist, hearing this, had his difficulty laid to rest and accepted the explanation. For the elders used to say that by doing certain things we intend [to cultivate] humility; when the state of true humility is generated [in the soul], no one can find an adequate description of it. – Dorotheos of Gaza, “Discourses and Sayings”, “On Humility” pp. 99 – 100

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 6, 2013

Going to the Well

This morning’s Washington Post had two letters that gave me pause. One seconded a columnist’s call for renewed “mysticism” in the Catholic Church, and another offered that mysticism was the ticket to escaping superstition. My heart goes out to these folks, and I’m thankful for their views as much as I’ve not found the mystic writers recommended my cup of tea. More to the point, given the rarity of mysticism – especially in the Age of Faith, one wonders whether this is in fact the right idea for the Age of Scepticism… as it’s unlikely to offer much to Average Joe… whoever he is. By contrast, an Orthodox Christian’s Life in Christ seems more accessible and more appealing… even as it promises instead a way that is anything but exotic or ecstatic; for nothing could be less exotic or ecstatic than asceticism and a drop-in visit to ordinary reality… and believe me, I write this standing on the verge of Great Lent… dreading the appearance of that first bowl of Lentils.  And so despite the temptation to the contrary, I wouldn’t think anyone has the gall to suggest they or their church has an “exclusive” on anything… much less this approach… only that no matter what others do for reasons of their own – or reasons that seem to make greater sense to them, to me, and to anyone looking at a bowl of gruel for 50 days, we crazed Orthodox still hold and will continue to hold this “stuff” as somehow normative in formation of a Christian life. Just don’t ask me why… it’s a mystery. Anyway… the foregoing letters prompted a response of sorts and here it is.

As it comes to the place of faith in our lives, G.K. Chesterton’s “The Well and the Shallows” lays our choices out rather clearly: We can wrestle or we can slide by. No one else makes this decision; no one else can make us take one path or another. And it’s our choice, and we shouldn’t want it any other way. More to the point, this is God’s choice… as the path of love does not and cannot begin with compulsion.

And whoever says evangelism and proselytism don’t work hasn’t seen the power of the gospel of secular consumerism. It’s not shy, nor is it waiting for you to make a choice. Fact is there is never a single moment where it assumes that you can do anything other than to choose among the offerings it places before you. No, it’s not what you choose that it demands, but that you choose “Now!” …before we have to put you on one of those list of subversive types. Indeed, that someone could do something else entirely… like “Nothing” …seems a choice considered possible only to the extent it fits within the alternatives of the consumerist cornucopia. What this means is that “doing nothing” is less about defiance and something that looks more like compliance with the over-arching demand to do something… anything. And so this “nothing” has to constitute an activity we can sell to… if we’re going to accept it as legit. And it is by this means that even intentional subversion is converted into consumption and self-gratification. Never mind that the end may be a consumption of a different sort… it is nevertheless self gratification all the same.

Thus, “Religion” becomes of necessity your private choice – and it must be kept private! as if it were yours alone, and no more than this! lest it become… there it is again… subversive. Hence more than any other Seventh Day Adventist, Moonie, or Buddhist monk, the missionaries for this Faith in Modernity and its oracles of progressive advancement of mankind and his possibilities or destiny are everywhere present and filling all corners, ads, dramas, and indeed every waking moment so as to transform you and your world into theirs. Even your choice to opt out entirely becomes …in their vision …a self-fulfillment of some new pursuit of yours – and safely sanitized. There will of course be books, seminars, and get-a-ways sold to you to further feed your “hobby” and keep you safely occupied and away from the mainstream… as though you in turn must be quarantined for our protection.

Many of these opt-outs will even be sold to us as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or whatever. But looked at candidly, even and especially here… most religions and “spiritualities” have already succumbed to the power of this gospel. For no matter what the intent of their resistance, increasingly these great religions (or many of their adherents) see themselves as fitting within this exaltation as a profitable (whether these profits are measured in dollars or spiritual benefits is no matter to them) sideshow, a minor deity in the pantheon idolizing “the Self” and its rule. And so for the most part those still obsessed with issues like Works vs. Faith, or Scripture vs. the Church, even Science vs Religion… these just aren’t our real problems (if they ever were) and many are completely unaware of the revolution already lost. No, we don’t need lie detectors to spot our errors or GPS’s to rechart our location. We’ve got these handy dandy active Atheists to tell us where we are… we don’t even need to ask! Heck they’ve spotted all our errors, our transgressions and stupidities for us! It’s almost as though by professeing to “see” our sins…. those of us with the temerity to hold ourselves on some hallowed path (whatever it is they don’t care), they can see where we’ve missed. Yeah… I know… sure: So what if it proves the Gospel … that whole mote-beam thing? Point is they nailed us, divined our sins and rare occasions may have even mentioned some of their own. But isn’t it odd how the outgrowth of this exorcism isn’t our damnation or theirs, their salvation or ours either… but simply a validation that we’re all really brothers in the Kingdom? For neither God’s prophets, nor his oracles, his worshippers nor even those who curse his name are able to escape the our condition on our own.

So what are we to do? Opting out involves submission of our selves to another authority. Typically, we underestimate the powerful cultural resistance and start off as though it’s a simple task. It’s not. You literally can’t “just do it”. There far more preparation required. I mean Nike’s mission is to sell the fool’s gold that the only difference between the amateur slacker and the expert sportsman lies in the shoes. Commitment, endurance, endeavor, courage, faith…. those things that constitute the sort of strength of character that keeps us going when there’s nothing we can see, seems nothing we can do… and it’s all on the come. When all we know for sure are the aches and pains of endless and inconvenient training, dieting, working out, matches… not all those years, experiences, all those sacrifices….those things we could have and would rather have done… all these are dismissed. No, what separates one from the other is just a quick purchase. “Just do it!” More succinctly, “Do it now!”

Freedom moves in another direction. And yet as simple as that first other directed step may seem, it’s the next and the next and the next where it’s tested, tried and proven… and inevitably there’s a moment… where the dullness hits, and the lure of the former way seeks to reset its hooks once more. Like the  alcoholic’s initial wake-up call, it’s an admission that there is something, some power, greater than ourselves, and we can do nothing of our own, on our own, or by ourselves without this assistance – it’s this acknowledgement of powerlessness that is the beginning of freedom. For its typically our dependence on the contemporary currents that shackles us in the shallows even as it shakes its fist in pretense of a freedom from tradition, superstition, stupidity, narrow mindedness… and all those things taken to demean our humanity. But deception is always more convenient, and what path could appear more wise than to unmask our fears, feed them with a sense that we’ve been misled, and proceed to ensnare us in a deeper confusion as though the only way forward were to reject all other possibilities.

The truth is quite opposite. The very grave struggle of coming to this realization is the beginning of a battle to gain our freedom through an awareness of the greater subtleties of life, of other persons, and even the person of God. If this were either a simple minded task or a simplistic belief involving no more than, “Where do I sign?”, those who accuse religious people of superstition might rightly be credited as on to something. But to take the Marxist quip, “Show me how you spend your money and I’ll show you what you worship”, the narrowing of religious understanding to… well, “standing as if in a certain pose” is precisely the tool applied to deceiving these same well-meaning folks into mistaking their freedom as servitude by reversing and limiting their perspective. No, it’s not that my worship that makes me superstitious as though pretending to see what isn’t… because that’s not what we’re about in our worship. Rather what we seek to do is more focused on trying with all our strength to pierce the veil obscuring our vision and see what truly is… as it is… and without all the glitter and distraction of our personal delusions, fears, and wishes. But if following the crowd in the obsession of the moment is more compelling, fine. Only there can be no greater superstition than to follow a crowd as though it were a protection form evil consequences.

Fact is that this resistance and self-actuation on this or any path can easily become… well, just as annoying. For whatever path we choose to make as our own, for our self-annointed “wonder” (or “weirdness”) is similarly balanced on a knife’s edge between success and failure. And so the true power of Christianity as I’ve come to know it in the Orthodox Church is less in what it seems to build up and more what it turns over in one’s way: Failure  may be the path to success; weakness of greater power than strength; and death… well, the path to new and eternal life. And it starts with a hard push, literally seizing the freedom from intellectual self-flattery and then kicks toward reducing the ego, letting it and “the old man” go, and taking up a service to others – God especially, but his people – ALL of them… those we think good, those we think bad, and even those we think ugly or of any attribute we might name: All are beautiful in His eyes… and should become  so in ours.

I’m pained when I see myself and others miss this. I should be. And yet for a long time… yeah… I know I wasn’t. I remember one time when one of those folks who had a greater impact on my life than I realized asked us (her parish council at the time) where we had seen God that day. And we’d all had such wrestles rushing about our day just to get there… I’m afraid there wasn’t a whole lot of patience with the question. Fact is there wasn’t a single one of us who answered other than,

“Nope. Didn’t see him.”
“I think He was on break, man.”
“Yeah… like why didn’t he show up?”

And I look back on that moment as one of those great misses in my life. And in her gentleness, our pastor said nothing.

That was in my pre-Orthodox days and so there’s nothing untoward or unwelcome in laying it out there (as if we have to?): Yes, women can be good spiritual guides. Duh. Shouldn’t be news… especially to the Orthodox. Or as the ad might say, “Got a mom?” It’s only our destructive clericalism that leads us to think, “Hmmm, shouldn’t that be a guy… like a priest?” No. Fact is, maybe like St. Seraphim, it oughtta be a bear! My point in relaying this isn’t to shock, but to lay the conditions in which I was first struck by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s books, and the notion that we may not be able to see God, but we can know his path by the mark of His footsteps as they leave impressions in the sand. We have to look harder… but He is always there. Even when we don’t want Him to be there; even when we despise Him, and even when we deny His presence; …and even when we’d like to think He’s in us but not the other guy… He is there and in both. And our denial, our separation, and our Fall …. is all that we know, or know for now.

And more than that, it occurs to me the real answer is simply that in the Garden is a well… a well of great depth where the water is sweet and over-flows with an abundance of life. But instead of drinking, for some reason the abundance of life giving water that joins both life and death in an experience of eternity… instead of the rippling music that flows from the great gift of even a small waterfall… you know what it does? For some reason drinking is the last thing on our mind… and instead we hunger for something else, for a difference, for a fruit whose after-known bitter taste still leaves us confused, blinded, and pointed everywhere else but back to a Source far greater than any that can be known. Glory to God for His great and abundant mercy, for the freedom He gives us, and the love that He offers us in communion with His Son in the one and only path that is our return, for the life giving waters and the courage, the patience and gentle wisdom to drink as offered rather than turn elsewhere. But especially for the renewed sweetness in our labors along this way.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 4, 2013

Psalmthing to do here, there and everywhere

So it’s been a while since the ol’ blog and I have seen each other.

“Yo’ blog. How’s it goin’?”
“Mmmm. I sort of ‘member ya… but betcha don’ l’member my password, huh?”
“Nah… I got it. One or two dead animals, old cars or something and we’re ‘IN’.”

Life’s been busy. Darling D’s nursing class had a “can’t call it capping day” service… something referred to now-a-days as a “Commitment to Excellence” where the head of the school carefully followed that title (and quickly) with the distinction: “…excellence… whatever it is YOU take that to be.” So yes, of course we were there… which of course means as well that I was puzzled. See the thing is… I doubt many of these women are slackers as the school tells them “we’re training you to be leaders in your field”… ’cause no one’s going to say, “Nah…. seriously… you’re dead meat day one you’re outta here. But we’ve got your tuition, we’ve produced a highly qualified grad, and hey… that’s your problem.” Only I wonder, what if you ARE a slacker? Like the nurse the other day at the nursing home that won’t answer call buttons? Yeah… kind of like that. I mean, what if YOUR definition of excellence means bonbons, a glass of wine and the phone off the hook? Don’t we want our nurses to meet the patient’s definition, the doctor’s definition, and hospital’s definitions of excellence? We start with someone else’s demands on us, and that pulls us forward, we learn, we “invest” and we digest their standards until we’ve internalized it into our own. Our standards of excellence come later… AFTER we’ve learned to do excellent work meeting someone else’s, and then someone else’s…. and so on until our experience distills into our own sense for what ought to become our normative.

Don’t know ’bout you guys, but when I’m lying on a cot awaiting my own dinging, danging donging dead bit, if I’m up for one last Oreo / Fritos and Dip / Popcorn… whatever… I’d like to think the old step-and-fetch-it button doesn’t turn up the cold police officer in that (now) old Bud Ice commercial where she says, “I even had an ambulance towed…” as they cut to the motto: “Yeah… that’s cold!” But hope only takes you so far, and the question isn’t so much whether I’ll be able to duck, or whether I’ll be able crawl over to the Oreo thrown at my head now lying on the floor, but whether we can modify the three second rule when I get there… or at least have time to ponder the trade-off: “Hmmmm… let’s see… distinct possibility of highly infectious LONE cookie consumed pronto…. versus time running out on chancing one’s remaining lifetime on trying to catch a re-throw… “

Whoever said the hard decisions are over when you get to the nursing home had no idea what they’re talking about. And what’s more likely… hey… what’s the odds of an interruption in the a slacking between (re-run) Friends (episodes)? Long enough to throw a second cookie? Not a chance.

So there you are… and instead of calling for that second cookie, you scoop up the one you find, pick up the old Psalter… “Yeah… I remember this… this David’s blog thing… only now it’s my own prayer life… and that could come in handy ’bout now. Hmmmm. Yep… here it is… bookmarked just like I left it. You could think of it as sort of my own prayer life’s commitment to excellence… whatever I take it to be… or leave it to be, or not be…. and all that.”

Seriously? What other standard is there? Hmmmmm. Fortunately things are better than my jest suggests… perhaps.

But here’s the thing, and as usual, I”m sure I’m late to the party here, but this just kind of came to me a couple of weeks ago and it seems to work for the Psalms. Simple enough, too. I’ve tried reading them like the Prokeimenons… where I take a line and repeat it after every subsequent phrase as a chorus. Sometimes we move on and pick another as things go on in some of the longer ones and the tone changes as you hit a new line that… well “rings”, but mostly the first phrase will do. And yes, it takes longer to go through, but since I’m only doing one set (a third) of a Kathisma a reading… that’s typically only 3 psalms, and doesn’t really add that much time. But if you try the approach, it seems to help pull more of the power and tone of the poetry out and lay it before you… just as the Polyeleos does in Psalms 134/135. And no, it’s not that very high level of memorizing the psalms… but it is engaging the text more closely, and seems constructive. Who knows where it leads if one has the courage and stamina to do it “enough” so that it works its magic. But of course like “cook until done”, I have absolutely no idea what could possibly be enough…. enough “…for what?” Precisely.

So as for me? Unlike the kids in the back seat, the only thing I know is that I know I’m not there yet.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | February 12, 2013

A Remarkable Servant of the Servants…

Pope Benedict’s resignation is… well… quite surprise. Whether you liked him or not, agreed with or resisted him, whether you respected him or otherwise… he was there until… well… until he wasn’t. There will undoubtedly be a lot written on him, the Roman church, the papacy and all that in the next few weeks. I wouldn’t try to compete with better, but only wish him “Many years!” as we would on anyone’s retirement. He has in fact turned out to be the Spacer Pope we rather expected of a man his age at his stepping up. Now with his stepping down, he seems somewhat more remarkable for his relaxed grip on power… a sort of grip as refreshing as it is rare.

Here’s a very balanced reflection by a Jesuit writing in and published by the New York Times… or at least I thought so! As someone who read the NYT as only a Sunday paper until recently, I have to confess that it continues to pleasantly surprise me with its breadth, even if it’s own positions are almost predictable to the point that no matter their apparent logic, coherence and depth one cannot help but wonder that the sort of inquiry engaged never quite measures up to its self-professed worth. Reason pursuing a foregone conclusion tends to look more like explanation than the sort of honest, wide-open inquiry which could potentially convince those with other views… but that’s not terribly likely or troubling anyway given that my view is increasingly that “persuasion” is more often self-amusement than anything else.

Please turn to: The Change Upon Christ’s Rock, NYTimes Op-Ed, February 12th.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | February 1, 2013

My Phone Hates Me – Chapter Two

The following discourse addresses a running issue… nah… make that an EXPENSIVE issue. Back in the day… phones used to cost me $30 a month plus extra for the long distance you never used anyway. And say what you will, a 4-G phone ain’t givin’ me $100 or more worth of  “betterment” a month. This second chapter follows an earlier post, “Inigo Montoya and The Princess Phone” which gluttons for punishment may like better. Times were simpler once… and even simple enough even then.

So my phone hates me. Nothing new here. Okay… maybe it doesn’t hate me. Just thinks I’m stupid… as in stupid enough to support it in the luxury to which it’s oddly become accustomed. Like my kids phones? Yeah… only worse.

“Yeah… like so you need a 12-year-old to program me, add-in your rollodex and all that memory hogging junk… what’s with that? Big brain and oversize thumbs can’t handle it, huh? Sure. We phones got your number. Literally, man.. and it’s a lot smaller than you think. Really. No kidding. Almost as small as your IQ.  Like real… single digit… tops! Sorry…. I know, it’s hard to hear… but there you are… and you thought your IQ was something like 10 digits to match? Think again. We’ve seen you trying to text. Even watched you trying to fumble your way with an app, find something in your friends list… and why do you still keep dialing “Information” when you could just Google that puppy? Forget it. And btw… been watching your scores… whaddya mean you can’t even get past 100,000 on Temple Run! Hey… why don’t you just trade me in on an old rotary and carry that around in your pocket? Talk about pathetic! I wanna new user!”

Yeah… apparently has a high opinion of me. But I’m dealing with it. And it explains why it keeps downloading stuff without asking, sticking it on screens somewhere I don’t want or can’t find… and even annoys me with apps I can’t imagine ever using. So I delete them… and the phone takes it personal. As in: “Oh yeah… delete my friend? That was a great app! Sheesh! I’ll show you. There look at that! Two apps! And I put’em on your home screen where I used to keep the camera. Yeah… go find the camera now, buster! How you like dem app(les), huh? Who’s your Mama, now?”

So it’s making this personal and all.  Might even ‘splain how it got broken. I mean… I didn’t even do anything. Honest. Really… even the phone company believes me. Maybe.

Did get something weird on my voicemail at the house however… ’cause I can’t remember how to dial it on the cell… unless it’s in my “recently called numbers”.  Yeah… maybe the phone has a point. Anyway… message went something like: “Yeah… you’re so old you probably even like Neil Sedaka… howling out like this: ‘Breaking up… it’s not h-a-a-a-r-d to d-o-o-o-o-o do-wop ditty do-wop ditty doo doo …clang!” Yeah…. so maybe I am… even though Neil and I were never tight. Honest.

And the message came in ’bout the time the thing broke… but like I said, I’m not sure how. Most of the time, I’m in wireless zones and use it that way. So it’s only those odd moments when I actually want to use my phone as a phone… not an MP3 player, not a web surfer, not a chat machine… but an honest to goodness phone. And then it’s zero zip nada. But you get the picture… this is such a dated use… it’s like taking your wife out to dinner, sending her roses, and generally being nice: “Gee…  you remembered to be nice? Hey… and I thought we’d moved on….kind of passed that!” Huh? Well.. maybe not. Nice to go down memory lane every now and again with her… maybe even daily, huh?

But I guess to my phone this all seems ….just some kind of unrequited love. Not sure at who’s end it’s more unrequited… mine or it’s…. but I guess we don’t connect so well. And yeah… I know it’s an Android… but it’s way better than HTC Windows …a double loser phone I couldn’t even speak to or through, and it’s the first worthy successor to my iPhone-3 that was so slow by comparison it must have been a woolly caterpillar. But they all bust like the DooDah Man (and no, I didn’t pull the kid move when he/she wants a new phone and accidentally-on-purpose drops it) and I had to ship it off… ’cause I bought it directly from Google; Google said to “Take it to AT&T…”; and AT&T said, “You bought a jailbreak phone and did what with you SIM card? Can we arrest him for that?” and pretended not to find anything wrong… just so they could say, “Send it to Samsung.” So I called Samsung… which BTW, has decided to speak extremely softly (more on that later) and mostly by email. And to their credit, I shipped it UPS at their expense. Told me 2-days shipping, plus three-days to fix it, and another 2-days back. Well… phase one took more like five days ’cause they taped it on the back of a cheetah like some kid would do with grandma (seen it?), only it turns out even cheetahs have their limits… or get distracted by the litterbox or food bowl every now and then. I’m thinking it’s just too bad it didn’t eat the thing!

So now I get an email that Samsung has no idea how long it will take. Also they won’t tell me what the part is that they’re not stocking…. only that the part has to come from Freaking Korea… ’cause it’s probably something so strange no one could find it locally… like Scotch Tape that always seems to get lost… honest… it was right there next to the scissors yesterday… and now Samsung’s suffering from some sort of NIMBY  syndrome that means they have to have Korean-made “much better than Three-M tape”. And yes, I do mean Freaking Korea …cause it isn’t South, and it isn’t North… it’s just angry Korea…. like especially at Americans… ’cause we deserve it (yep!) and this is some sort of passive aggressive revenge… which apparently they’ve figured means I’m a good target… me the geezer, a worthless, hapless, pointless and safe place to tick off kind of a dude. Or maybe they’re waiting to enlist Pierce Brosnan again, so they can send James Bond through enemy lines into North Korea, trade some weapons for hostages, dodge a death ray from a killer satellite, and then fight some British chick with swords… all over my stupid phone part… or Scotch Tape. And after they shoot movie, after they put it into general release and only after it wins an Academy Award… THEN they’ll ship the part. And if it doesn’t win? “Say Sayonara… ’cause then we can kill you… ’cause you forgot how much we hate the Japanese?”

Lot of hate going on here with these phones. Not sure who, but it’s my guess SOMEBODY has issues. BIG time.

“Oh yeah… forgot… this phone was yours. Sorry ’bout the delay… but thanks. Here’s your royalty check btw. Hmmm… maybe you can get a grilled cheese with that? Dunno…. better just ask for toast… maybe they’ll give you butter… otherwise, hey… plain is good, too.”

Yeah. So isn’t it sweet? First the sound on Samsung’s switchboard is barely audible, and then when you ask the guy to speak up so that maybe the FBI listening in on my conversation can hear with all their sophisticated amplification, but then they guy couldn’t wait to get me off the phone. Used to irate callers? Yeah… I bet they are. “Sorry sir, I can’t hear you. Better than that… you can’t hear me!!!Ha!… looks like we fooled another one… thought the line went dead and hung up just like the last 200,000 angry callers… Brilliant! This strategy is working… fabulously!!!  Live line with zero amps sounds like a dead line… and they hang up and go away! Victory is mine, Will Robinson!”

So I’m phoneless Joe Jackson. Have a great weekend. Call me… oops! Can’t do that! Call my desk or my house… I know they speak those obscure Wood Furniture and Brick Wall languages… but you can just Googlefish that. See… I’m thinking my phone’s really out there in Califormula having Barbecue, goin’t to In-and-Out and visiting Napa for a winery tour… havin’ a great time.

“Call…? You kiddin’? Call who? Me? I’m charging everything on one of those dial-debit account things we smarter-than-you-are phones can handle. Yes… I’d love another watt or two, thanks! Oh… still there? Yes…….who needs a user like you anyway? USER=LOSER. LOL! ROTFL!”

Yeah… that’s the chat my phone sent me. Thanks phone… I hate you… even more than you apparently hate me.  Which brings into mind a whole new strand of Technological Repentance kind of a deal. ‘Not sure what that is. But of course the good thing is my phone hasn’t been baptized yet… so in one of those medieval kind of things… that means it’s excommunicated and you can do whatever without consequence. “Ha ha! Take that!” And I guess that’d be another repair complete with more lolly gagging in a lounge chair poolside:

“Hey… thanks for the dunk. Now I’m workin’ on my tan. Oh… btw, don’t call, text or whatever. I r-e-a-l-l-y need some ‘me’ time.”

Just what I need: a phone out of contact with me… but not my wallet and armed (?) complete with expensive habits. Just wait ’til it gets some sort of sunscreen cancer and starts billing me for chemo, radiation and all the rest. Probably even find some luxury recuperation spa.

Meanwhile… some of us miss the good old days when Ma Bell gave you a phone, plugged it into the wall, and when you went for a walk, nobody bothered you. Back then, you never knew you were so off the wall and into the woods… and you loved it. Now? Same thing feels almost naked… okay… maybe not naked… I do have a tie on and all the rest. But unprotected? No, that’s not it either. I think it’s unconnected.  Waaaay Antedeluvian, man.

Soon as my kids find out (I did send them an email they’ll pick up sometime in class)… I’m sure they’ll phone in the Marines, a crack intervention squad… or even put on a Telethon for me. I’m looking forward to all the stars in Hollywood appearing in tears, “And… and…it’s like he’s been without a phone for… what is it? A week! OMG! Think of the pain, the pathos, the whatever ….!” All right… sure none of that will happen or seem like it should. But it’s fun to think about.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 29, 2013

Dance Like a Butterly

Alexander Schmemann’s “O Death, Where is Thy Sting?” is a delightful puzzle that dances its way across the pages and through a number of tougher ideas about religion, death, resurrection and secularism, tossing them up in the air like a juggler and then almost walking away, leaving the reader to figure where they come down, and whether we catch them all. For this, I have to say I’m thankful but at the same time, acknowledge it’s no easy couch read …or that it is as the words elide smoothly past you… and you realize you gotta get up and catch these things! But once you go back, slow and it down to really think things through, Fr. Alexander’s a bit disturbing. Or at least he would seem to be if you didn’t place the whole of his writing firmly within the context of his Orthodox roots, for without that, I think it’s easy to sense that he’s trying to say something new, rather than simply pushing back and reset a rather traditional balance.

Fr. Alexander stresses life, and life within the Life in Christ lived here and now. And he does this within a book themed on addressing the matter of death and what we make of it. He makes some effort at contrasting the Philosopher’s Death as found in Plato with the Secular Materialist’s Life to detail how neither is satisfactory before going on to distinguish something of the uniquely Christian view. This latter he bookends nicely within the context of two thoughts from scripture:

“God did no make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living…” (Wis 1:13)

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” (1 Cor 15:26)

And just as in philosophy where the prof’s will tell you, “After Plato, it’s all footnotes…”, by contrast with Fr. Alexander, after these rather clear statements it all tends to get a little fuzzy. In part I think this has something to do with the editor’s juxtaposition of these texts with some of others that thematically complement the discussion but come from elsewhere. But in his effort to thrust our faith back from being a religion and more into a way of life, his assault against incursion of comfortable religion’s next-worldliness on Christianity, a heaven-mindedness that demeans the present, he risks a confusion among those of us A.A. Milne might have called Pooh-brained (“of little brain”) or in my terms, just Thickheaded… a state to which I freely admit wallowing.

“Death remains the same mysterious passage into a mysterious future. The great joy that the disciples felt when they saw the risen Lord, that ‘burning heart’ that they experienced on the way to Emmaus were not because the mysteries of an ‘other world’ were revealed to them, but because they saw the Lord. And he sent them to preach and to proclaim not the resurrection of the dead – not a doctrine of death – but repentance and remission of sins, the new life, the kingdom. They announced what they knew, that in Christ the new life has already begun, that he is the Life Eternal, the Fulfillment, the Resurrection and the Joy of the world.” p.112-113

And as much as I love this emphasis… yeah… I had to back it down. Either we’re just reshifting and recovering a balance, or the whole of our faith has really veered dangerously like Junior’s Daddy (as in Earnhardt meets the Wall)… which I don’t suspect for a moment as the implication… so much as to say the Kingdom is now and after, the Life is now and after… and what’s really going on is more of the not-either-or-but-both-plus thing. And I think that works better for me, and it seems to settle the muddle for now… even as it leaves a delightful puzzle for revelation later… literally. I mean as in as later as it can possibly get for each one of us, or at least as later as it’s going to get this side of glory.

The key difference is that for the Christian, unlike Plato’s ideal world, the other world is also here and now… there is a blending rather than separation of worlds, and one literally bleeds into the other – it’s a two-way street back-and-forth, now and forever… and yeah, we’re not kidding about the blood. For Life is not separate from death, nor are the dead merely lifeless matter. And thus Christianity is not an effort to pick and choose between the Platonic and Materialist views so much as seeing a continuum and a unity where the world prefers either a dichotomy, or nothing at all. It’s a view where the world beyond this visible one we know need not be outside or separate so much as invisible, and more than that, we can’t say. So natch, this is where it gets back to going a bit fuzzy for me no doubt because as Fr. Alexander himself puts it, we’re beyond what we know. What we do know is that Christ was seen on the way to Emmaus with a resurrected body and a different visage… one recognized more by action, by words, and by spirit than by form – though it was definitely physically formed though not in the Plato discusses, but similar to that we experience with each other. And it’s this insight into the nature of the resurrected body that offers the Christian complete freedom towards this life of ours in our current bodies – if only we can seize it. And that puts a smile in my heart, for what a joyful thought that gives us!

“In essence, my body is my relationship to the world, to others; it is my life as communion and as mutual relationship. Without exception, everything in the body, in the human organism, is created for this relationship, for this communion, for this coming out of oneself. It is not an accident, of course that love, the highest form of communion, finds its incarnation in the body; the body is that which sees, hears, feels, and thereby leads me out of the isolation of my I.

But then, perhaps, we can say in response: the body is not the darkness of the soul, but rather the body is its freedom, for the body is the soul as love, the soul as communion, the soul as life, the soul as movement. And this is why, when the soul loses the body, when it is separated from the body, it loses life; it dies, even if this dying of the soul is not a complete annihilation, but dormition, or sleep.

And so, indeed, every form of sleep, and not only the sleep of death, is a kind of dying of one’s organism, for in sleep it is precisely the body that sleeps and is inactive. And here we find no life except one that is suspended, unreal – there is nothing but sleep. If this is the case, then when Christianity speaks about the resurrection of the body, it does not speak about the vivification of bones and muscles, for bones and muscles and the whole material world, its whole fabric, is nothing more than certain basic elements, in the end – atoms. And in them there is nothing specifically personal, nothing eternally mine.

Christianity speaks about the restoration of life as communion, it speaks about the spiritual body that over the course of our whole life we have developed through love, through our pursuits, through our relationships, through our coming out of ourselves. It speaks not about the eternity of matter, but about its final spiritualization; about the world that finally becomes truly a body – the life and love of mankind; about the world that has become fully communion with Life.” p. 43-44.

So naturally my body, spiritual and material as it is, still needs a few fixer uppers. That’s pretty clear. What I like is how this drives an embrace of the body rather than its rejection as has so often been suggested, but fairly its an embrace fed by the knowledge of the truth that my body isn’t just material that automatically or naturally (and every other way) decays and decomposes into minute particles, but is something more. And that something more is both the content of my mind and my heart… the invisible animations that ultimately become spiritualized… and materialized, according to how I carry on in the love I show here and now. Either it can move towards Christ, or towards something like Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. This means more than just tending the garden of my heart as though for myself alone in my own prayers, but more something I do as though every part of creation, every thing living, were filled with God’s presence and that my every breath, every action and every thought were prayer of love…  and thus a step along a path of living more purely in this vision.  Then if I have this right, what will remain and will be restored is the body as I leave it… yet it will reflect whether it has been harmonized in this spirit, or something more discordant. And if I leave defiled, then my “spiritualized” or my resurrected body mirrors this; but if instead I manage something more pleasing towards eternity, something better, then no matter what physical decay may have engendered on my remains, there may be another story worth telling where the ‘spiritualization of matter’ energizes a form made new and as dissimilar as the butterfly rising in flight is from the cocoon it leaves behind.

 “…In this sense Christian faith is radically different from ‘religious belief’. Its starting point is not ‘belief’ but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. ‘For our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect… as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Only ‘love never ends’ (1 Cor 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the ‘content’ of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess him as the Life of my life.” p.110-111

For Fr. Alexander Schmemann, for his love, for his inspiration, for his gifts and his writings… we can be thankful. Fr. Alexander, pray for us. Lord have mercy.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 19, 2013

Inauguratin’ Rythym

So the news of the approaching Inauguration is that after one rector who might have given the oath of office was dismissed or dismissed himself for disagreeable comments made a decade or more ago, they’ve found a new man. That man is Cuban-born Episcopal priest Luis Leon. As the Washington Post puts it, “… he is expected to be uncontroversial”.

And my reaction? Christ is everywhere controversial. The Gospel is controversial… radically controversial and life changing. If it’s not, then it’s not the Truth. The problem with Christianity is that it makes us uncomfortable… it is NOT a comfortable religion. Anything but.

Yes… we have too often taken the comfortable parts and extracted them as a comfort for us as we absorb the deaths of our loved ones, but it is very clear that Death is not comfortable… or shouldn’t be… and is not part of the Christian life. If a life is lived in love of Christ and His people, those He loves, and it is lived so completely and intensely in this love that nothing else stands between it and the life of God, that this animates every fiber of our bodies, minds and spirits every moment, then when that life is over, our own lives are so radically disrupted by this terminus that it’s as though a power cord were suddenly ripped out of a light tower and a shower of incandescence darkened. This is a life lived so absolutely without fear, without holding back, without claiming, “This is mine”… that it can’t be any other than a life so completely surrendered to God and His people that its end becomes an inordinant challenge, speaking as it does to us, “How can he…?” and “How can I not?”

This is the intensity of communion, real communion… where the very fiber of our Lord is ingested in each of us, every part of Him, and becomes part of each of us at the core of our being as it grinds literally through the gestation of our core. This is the link that is inescapably clear as though instead of administering it one-by-one, we consumed communion simultaneously… without losing a drop of the intimacy of the cup and with each other… as would be the case in the eschatological time of Heaven rather than the sequential linear time of our lives here on earth… where as a Body, we consume His body within our own to become one with Him and His Body as we become one with each other.

And yet in our time, the great and real tragedy of our lives is how our experience of separation diminishes this whole fullness into something tamer because… well, we want it that way…. we’re afraid of playing with fire, so we cool the fire-hot love in that chalice almost before it hits our lips, and the dimensions of the feast are lost before our eyes as well as before our hearts and minds. There is as much lost of this in our lives, in the lives we should live as we lose in the death of our loved ones. For this is our death… the loss of the vision of Holy Fire… each Sunday within the Cup dying on the cross for the desire with which it would fill in ourselves.

And this Life of Christ, the Life in Christ as we would have it… and rather than the will of the Father, it becomes subject to and about our will… and is so much less, even less christian… and especially something uncontroversial. And it becomes less of the “Yes” to Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father offered by our Lady Theotokos at the Annunciation, a moment and a person more honorable beyond compare than Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim. And it is nothing like that…. nothing that radical… but something more we’d offer as if we were answering a question we’d barely paid attention to… something more dismissive… something like, “Hmmmm… what? Ah…. yes, dear. Sure, another cup.” And it is that other cup that we drink.

So perhaps uncontroversial is what we really want, right? Something that lets us get on with it… with that disengaged, inattentive sense of our lives… caught so much in our own webs we’re scarcely aware of the Life that passes ever close by. Let it pass. Choose the uncontroversial. Stick with what we know. It’s “better”, right? No one will miss us… not for now, not for these few moments while I finish my coffee, read my sports pages, or whatever. No, not ever. Let alone and get along.

And that’s my thought about the Inauguration… an event intended in a secular sphere of kings and queens, despots and dictators… and not unlike the inauguration of each of our days, each of our liturgies, and each of our repentances… if we would just let it be so. I don’t know about you, but I say… so let it crown us, let us instead take the radical, or die trying… let that be our cross and our victory.

Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 15, 2013

Obedience Trials

When I got our last pup, I had this idea we would bond on some deep level… like one of those great Boy-Dog novels of our youth, and so I looked into Obedience Trials. Our prior dog had been a Schipperke, and after losing the battle to suggest we really ought to have something more like an Aussie or Miniature Aussie even to the point of taking the family down to a house where a young, single woman was breeding Aussies and spending an hour or two… I gave that dream up. No, I don’t think it was the slobbery ball, or the amazing vocabulary the dogs had, or their gorgeous coats and hazel eyes. It was the moment went we got on to what sort of maintenance was involved. And the young breeder said the visit to the part was all well and good but not really enough.

“Oh, really?”
“Sure. I rent sheep”.
“You what?”
“Rent sheep.”
“As in rent to own? or just rent?”
“Nah. You just rent. Take the dogs out once  month and run them, let the herd those bad boys.”

Well… let’s just say that was the end of that. I don’t care how comparable the maintenance was the rest of the time, or the measured folio of her rather famous satisfied adopters (yeah… I pretended to not be impressed, but let’s face it, when you see a bonafide celebrity or three… you’re impressed something’s up… even if it’s only the price)… this just wasn’t gonna happen. I mean the truth is that no matter what anyone’s (mine) ambitions might be for how much they’re gonna do all that dog stuff, at the end of the day, Dad’s get up and go to work, and it’s Mom’s dog. Doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do when you come home… dog knows who’s on the case most of the time. And follows the master… or more likely mistress. So that was an agreement settled by losing.

Sure, we went out and got another of the same old same old… only he wasn’t and isn’t. First Dog is always first dog, and Buster… well…  he had his issues, but compared to Jib… he was a saint. Once Buster got something down, he had it down. Jib… he knows… he’s just not swinging with it. And yes, he knows in half the time… it’s just his own way that matters more… until he thinks you’re serious. And when he thinks that’s happening, heck… he’s there before you think of it. Dog is quick…it’s us who’re slow. Yes… he did have some physical ailments that they put him on steroids at an early age, and we do think that’s part of the problem. But the biggest part of this “dog problem” is we both work now… so it’s us.

But blame isn’t what got me started. Nah… I wanted to talk about what happened to this whole Obedience Trial bit. Fact is that when the Schipp Nationals were held an hour up the road, I went and watched the Obedience Trials. What a hoot it was! These are small dogs, so most if not all of the folks running their dogs were women. Except at request of other Obedience afficionados in the area, they’d opened this part of the Dog Show to other breeds… and this is where the guys came in. Now I’d never been to a dog show before in my life, and haven’t since… so I can’t rightly say what I’d expected or how this differed… only that I did watch that wonderful movie: “Best in Show”… which I highly recommend, and there were of course some traces of that here. Yes, folks will spend college education type money here! More power to them.

And that was the nice part about Obedience… it’s not about the foofy hair, the comb, brush and hair dryer… but about the athletics. And the more you watched, the more I appreciated the women and their Schipps. I mean every guy who came out with an Aussie, a Shepherd, a Lab, a Setter or whatever… they were wired up and intense – just like the caricatures in “Best in Show”. But the women would step up and while waiting for the starting gun, laugh and joke. Typically they’d say, “Oh… I don’t know how we’re going to do today… I mean, after all… it’s a Schipp…. he’ll do what he wants.” And that’s the truth. Those other dogs… man… they did it all, smartly, quickly… decisively. When one screwed up, the owner was as crestfallen (if not more) than the dog. But with the Schipps… it was always a crap shoot. Some did it amazingly well. The teeter totter was always a bit tricky ’cause they use the same one whether it’s a 100 pound dog or a 14 pound Schipp… and the little guys have to run out all the way to the end and then wait for it to fall… which takes a long time! And then sometimes midway through the zig zag… they’ll just decide they’re done. One dog just saw something off on the horizon that needed barking at… and so went over to give it a piece of the business.

And I guess in the end what I liked about it was how humbling this really is. And I admired the women. They worked every bit as hard as the guys, but y’know… they weren’t getting worked up about it. If ol’ Fluffy wasn’t doing it today, she might do it tomorrow. It’s a dog’s life and that’s fine. You get what you get. If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times, “It’s a Schipp… who knows?” Somehow, it seemed these folks weren’t one with the dog, but meeting the dog somewhere in the middle. That’s kind of the way Jib and I work. I stay away from the attic chain, and he’s all right with that. I get close to the attic chain… and the growling starts. Oh… and he doesn’t like shadows, CD reflections on the ceiling, cracks in the pavement, garden hoses… and about 98% of the household items common to modern life. Especially when he gets edgy… meaning when anything starts to hang over the edge of a counter.. or he’s hungover, forgot his to drink his coffee… got bored waiting on the Fedex, UPS, Laundry, Postman, etc. or whatever guy is out there. Trash trucks lurk … everywhere.

Now you may not believe this, but the other night I caught Jib hard at work on a new book, “The Tao of Jib”. Animal has his fans, and like everything else, a prophet is not appreciated in his own country. Ask Jib, he’ll tell you we’ve been holding out on him. Vet thinks he ought to weigh a few pound less? “What’s he know?” Yeah. That’s what we’re dealing with. Anyway, you can imagine my puzzlement when a check came in the mail for him from Houghton… and advance from his fans. We meet them on the trail… and no…. we’re not numbered among them. “Grrrrr!” Oh… but we’re workin’ on it.

Ah… but what’s this got to do with anything? Yeah. I’ll tell you. From Jib’s pen to God’s ear, I’m telling you… folks miss one thing when it comes to this whole bit about their faith… and that’s this: It really is simpler than folks think. Yes, there are lots of things in the Bible folks don’t like or agree with. If they haven’t found them… then they probably haven’t looked all that closely. And yes, there are some I’m not real keen or comfortable with, too. Modern life makes things difficult… we’re not just talking about how I live my life, but how I live it in proximity and amongst others many of whom live entirely different lives… likely trying to compensate for what they think is wrong (and they don’t like) in mine!!!…. and many have no qualms about telling you how they don’t swing with what’s in the good book. And really, that’s okay… fine. Whatever. And so when I see a fellow like Piers Morgan – who I don’t watch – interview Rick Warren – who I don’t read… and one says to the other that the Good Book is seriously flawed and needs to be changed, and the other says that it forms his life… I get puzzled. See the way I look at these things is that the Goodness lies in a simple way… the Bible tells us how to keep impediments, obstacles and the like out of our way in our relationship to God. This doesn’t mean that if we keep them in our lives that we’re judged by others… or that we can’t make it to the end… “what’s impossible for man is not with God”… but only that we might be making it unnecessarily hard. Fairly, I think both Piers and Rick agree that they can and they will judge folks on impediments… only they choose different ones, and that seems to miss something of the point. But the world is wide, and some folks only know how to tackle things straight; others only from a more oblique angle. Which is my way of saying its not just the obstacles and removal, but how you take them on (or don’t) that may be a matter of addressing them that’s unique to each person. Sometimes… even letting something alone, living with it… is in effect a better first step towards management than the direct approach. I guess we just can never tell what’s really going on …even when are folks are adamant. Similarly… we might never know what NOT going on.

In the end, it’s not the judgment of the obstacles but the relationship we manage with God – no matter what. Just from the stories of the saints, it seems to me it’s clear there are those who never managed to overcome certain aspects in their lives we find objectionable or expect God to find objectionable. That’s our problem. Anyone ever wonder how many martyrs might have been gay? Frankly… can’t say I’ve ever thought of that… but imagine if I had, at that point like the Good Thief on the cross, it doesn’t seem to matter, does it?… The decision had been made, the life given, and that’s that. Worrying about the other attributes… well, the silence should be respected. And I’m fine with that. So perhaps the truth is that all of us have obstacles and are as disobedient as my good buddy Jib when we want. And all of us are good buddies when we want to be… we’re in our own Obedience Trial and often flunking. It’s what we do and who we are. Some are good at removing obstacles… others are not. Fairly… some obstacles are a lot bigger than others, and strength varies from person to person. God loves them all. Does it break your heart that someone would prefer the obstacle, or that someone can’t remove it? Sure it does. And in truth…. I think it breaks theirs, too…. in a secret place in their hearts. But maybe… sometimes the strength of their hearts is bound up in struggles we never see… but God does. That’s enough for me. We might never hear it said… or maybe even it’s a matter that today can’t or won’t be said. But the heart of God is on… but not in… the mind of man. Would that I could silence my mind and open my heart.

May we each of us as we zig zag our way towards the finish… make it clear… or enjoy a good scratch behind the ear if that’s what’s needed. God will save what He will; He will gather His own. And if you see differently, fair enough. I may not know a thing about obedience…. or maybe I do. I’ll have to leave that off for now… this is the best oblique manner I can manage. Jib has his own views…. Lord have mercy.

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