Sunday, July 26, 2009

Last Day in Palm Springs: Heavenly Visions

It’s 7:00 pm and 108 outside. The conference is over. I’m tired. The hierarchical Divine Liturgy this morning was an amazing experience for me. I have seen and concelebrated many hierarchical Divine Liturgies. This one, for me, was different. Perhaps it was different because I was standing at the side, instead of in front, and I saw more of the movement of subdeacons, altar boys and non-celebrating priests. It seemed for a few moments that I was in heaven. It seemed as though all of the variously clad servers and clergy were angels moving in seemingly random paths, each on a mission, each working separately/together to create one motion of the Bishop toward the Altar. Christ, the Great High Priest, was seated on the solea surrounded by the Apostles (the fellow bishops and the priests, who are elders). For a moment, I could not tell if it was heaven or earth, and so it was heaven, for a moment, superimposed on earth—or was it earth superimposed on heaven?—it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that after a week of struggle and politics and differences of opinion and not a little misunderstanding and even a few moves that seemed to me to be somewhat shady, the Church is still the Church. Sinners are still icons. The light of Christ radiates for all who are graced to see it. In the words of St. Paul, “We have this treasure (the Glory and Grace of God) in earthen vessels.” There is no confusing whose the Glory is. The “eartheness” of God’s vessels was evident throughout the week, yet for me, for a moment, the Glory was also evident.

And so this is the Church. Men and women, like angels, like subdeacons and altar boys behind the altar, going here and there, getting ready, seeming to contradict each other, doing their best, upset when they fail, relying sometimes too much on the strength of their arm or the power of their position, all to bring the King of Glory to the Altar. And somehow, Christ is still there. Even when our proposals are shot down, Christ is still there. Even when it seems so unfair, Christ is still there. Even when you are sure that Christ is not pleased with “the way things are done” or this or that or the other thing, Christ is still there. This is the Church.

This morning before the Liturgy, I was hearing confessions. It was an accident really. I just happened to be there early and had my stole (for I was to help distribute Holy Communion later) and people started coming up to me asking who was assigned to hear confessions that morning. Usually two to four priests are assigned to hear confessions before Liturgies at conferences. No one was there, so I started hearing confessions. I heard all sorts of confessions from all sorts of people who were at all sorts of places spiritually. Somehow with each one, I felt a little of their heart. I felt each one was making a step. I had no time to counsel or instruct. Mostly I listened, said one or two words, and said a shortened form of the absolution prayer. I told them they were forgiven; I accepted on Christ’s behalf their step. Each one at his or her own level was either a brightly robed heavenly subdeacon, or perhaps a dark robed heavenly chanter, or a plain robed heavenly Altar server. Each according to his or her strength, each making mistakes according to his or her weaknesses, each moving one step closer to who they are called to be. The Altar on earth not only reveals the heavenly Altar, but it reveals all of Christian life. A life full of struggles, both personal and corporate, full of mostly hidden victories, and a life that manifests Christ’s Glory in earthen vessels.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Discontent in Palm Springs

So the discontent emerged. Unfortunately, it was not handled as well as it could have been. To start with, however, I must commend the Metropolitan for recommending an audit before one was recommended from the floor. Personally, I am happy with this step. Probably, the audit will not be as thorough as some want, but it is a big first step. Once the Archdiocese gets used to having external audits, and now that there are some upset people paying closer attention to financial matters, the auditing will become more strict until it sooner or later reaches some widely recognized level of accountability.

And after all, we are dealing here with (1) an Orthodox Bishop (2) who is wildly popular for the almost miraculous growth of the archdiocese over the past 35 years. Actually, I am one of Metropolitan Philip’s biggest fans. I trust his leadership and believe with all my heart he has never done anything with archdiocese resources that was immoral or improper, as far as he knows. But Orthodox Bishops are not accountants. Money comes in, money goes out. Urgent needs are met as well as they can be with what resources are available. The Metropolitan doesn’t consult an accountant every time he helps a struggling seminarian or supports a good cause. Ah, but there’s the rub.

His Eminence said at one point today that when he took over the archdiocese (about) 35 years ago, the assets of the archdiocese were $600,000. At that point, he established a two-signature policy to ensure that there would be no fraud. Thirty-five years ago, for a charitable corporation of that size, such a policy was probably sufficient. Today, however, the archdiocese is worth about $60 million. It’s time to update the accountability policy. This is just common sense. There does not have to be any wrongdoing, and those who advocate a strong external audit are not assuming there is any—at least I’m not.

Unfortunately, the floor discussion today turned into a loyalty litmus test. Once this happened, the conversation had to be shut down, thus completely obfuscating the issue. Oh well, at least the issues were raised and His Eminence and the Board of Trustees heard the very loud “no” vote (which was quickly put aside) when the floor was asked to approve the financial report. They know it is time for some more accountability.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Explosion in the Philippines

Business meetings all day today. I did learn that an “Old Catholic” university in the Philippines has asked to come under the Episcopal oversight of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. The Metropolitan of Australia Chrismated 250 of the 800 student earlier this year. There has been an explosion of interest in Orthodoxy in the Philippines. They have had to bring in a celibate priest (archimandrite) just to go around teaching (catechising) the groups that want to become Orthodox. The Metropolitan expects to have 150 churches in the Philippines by 2015. There were no Orthodox Churches in the Philippines just a couple of years ago, and only two right now. May God grant us such an explosion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Man Plans His Ways, But...

Proverbs 16: 9--A man plans his ways, but the Lord directs his steps. Or, to put it another way: Life (God’s life, the life of faith, the life that we live and give to God) is what happens after we make our plans.

This morning I looked at the conference schedule and realized that there were no meetings that I had to attend, so I decided that I would go for Divine Liturgy at 9:00 am and just hang out talking to people and maybe trying to think up something inspiring to put on my blog while I sat in the lobby until vespers at 5:00 pm. Sounded like a good plan....

Just after I got off the freeway on my way to the conference hotel, my cell phone rang. It was my foster sister calling to tell me that my foster mother in Goleta had been sick in bed for three days and refused to go to a doctor. She had tried to call me several times, but had the wrong number. My sister was able to track down my cell number and call me to get me to call my mother (I’ll just drop the “foster” at this point). Instead of turning left into the hotel conference center, I made a U-turn and headed back to the freeway. I asked my sister to call and tell my mother I would be there in person in four or five hours—and off I went to Goleta (just north of Santa Barbara).

The rest of the family heard I was coming and came from Ventura (one hour drive) and Palmdale (two hour drive) to say hi. Mom was looking pretty good (for 70ish) and couldn’t sit still but had to make something. She did not want to talk about herself. She wanted to hear about Bonnie and the girls and the grandchildren. Then as each family member showed up, they wanted to hear everything again. One of Mom’s granddaughters-in-law (AKK, I can’t remember her name!), whom I had never met and who lives in the same house came home toward the end of the few hours I was able to spend there. Mom and I and her three daughters and miscellaneous grand and great grand children were sitting around the patio table having sandwiches when she came home. Mom introduced me merely as Uncle Scott—the name almost everyone in the family calls me. When she asked me to explain my relationship to the family I said, “They took me in when I was fifteen and saved my life.”

The granddaughter-in-law said jokingly to Mom, “You whipped him into shape did you?” No one giggled. They just looked at me, and then I said to my “niece,” “No, they loved me into shape.” Then my sister (the one who called me and who herself has had at least twenty foster children) said, “just love, only love.”

Love is a dangerous thing. Healthy children (or any human being for that matter) cannot exist if we do not love. But if we love, we open ourselves to immense pain. Of the several foster children Mom had, I am the only one who is not dead or in prison (that I know of). Of the twenty or so that Nancy (my sister) has taken in, only a very few now have what most of would call healthy lives and relationships. Without love, the ones who made it wouldn’t have; but love comes at a cost.

When I said to Mom after this little exchange that it must have been pretty tough having me in the family, especially the first couple of years, she only said “We loved and we prayed, and we prayed.” I’ll take a Baptist who loves and prays over an Orthodox Christian who doesn’t any day.

Someday I may tell my story in one running monologue, but I still feel like I should not do that yet. In the mean time, I share snippets as it seems useful. May God help us all to love and pray, even when the Lord directs our steps in a way different from what we had planned.

Clergy Meeting with the Metropolitan

Today I was impressed by Metropolitan Philip. I watch him answer questions from the clergy, some of whom were aggressive in their questioning, with openness and willingness to accept suggestions. Metropolitan Philip's answers were clear (although sometimes off point) and for the most part satisfactory. I do not agree with all he has done or is doing, but to my satisfaction he has explained why he has done what he has, and the canonical authority—or interpretation—by which various actions have taken place. You have to respect a guy who will allow two hours of open microphone to answer questions from a hundred and fifty often grumpy old men. Do I think everything is now out in the open? Certainly not. I do, however, think that enough is out in the open to trust the rest—right now. The most important thing I have learned through this whole six months of misunderstanding is that misunderstandings are resolved by listening. Certainly human beings will disagree. That’s why we have leadership: if we all had to agree first, nothing would get done. But if we are open about what we are doing and why, and if we listen to the concerns of those who disagree with (or perhaps only don’t understand) us, then we can go a long way toward functioning together peacefully as churches and as an archdiocese.