Thursday, January 27, 2005

Fairweather Fans

Recently, my friend Mark, who is a writer and homeless, asked if I would type up an article he wrote about the local baseball team so he could send it to the papers. The article, titled "Fairweather Fans," is a lament over the fact that fans of the local team have been giving up and switching to other teams after a few losing seasons, losses sustained as a result of poor choices made by the new owner.

"I'm not about to abandon our team over bad decisions made from lack of experience," he wrote. "It's easy to love a winner. But it takes real fan loyalty to ride out season after season of letdowns. Who in the world would want to be part of an organization that won't even support its team when it's down?"

I'm not really much into sports, or competition in general for that matter, so I didn't get much out of the article. I just typed it up and printed it out. But then, as I reread the piece, proofing it for typos, I began to hear another voice whispering, another meaning seeping through those words.

A guy makes a few bad decisions, and you just abandon him? You give up on him? Sure, its easy to love a winner. But when things are down, that's when team loyalty really means something. That's when you gotta believe that winning season is still out there. You gotta believe.

It's easy to love a winner.

I'm still on your side, brother. I'm holding out for that winning season. Praying that it finally comes.

I still believe in you.

Monday, January 24, 2005

On a lighter note...

So in an earlier post, I remarked that "the will to power is the subtlest form of Satanism, and the one most practised by apparently religious people."

Then along came this article about a gesture made by our beloved president, that was, shall we say, highly suggestive in the minds of some.

In response to this article, one of E's left-leaning friends wrote, "George Bush a satanist? Could be. Lots of people worship themselves."

Sunday, January 23, 2005

"The Lover of Truth" - a guest post by Johanna

I once wrote in an email to Johanna, "I think every person who writes a blog hopes that it will be read by intelligent people with interesting ideas of their own." Johanna's comments have been so incredibly beautiful and thought-provoking that I wrote to ask if she would like to try her hand at a full-length post. This is the result.

I hope we will be seeing more of Johanna's writing in the future.

Having mulled this over a while, I’ll see what comes up. But first, I’d like to quote the great Indian sage, Ramakrishna, who puts much of this succinctly… and it’s also in direct relationship to the recent large conversation over at Morning Coffee, and in general to what appears on Guerilla Orthodoxy.

"To worship God in order to generate material success or to be victorious in some litigation is not the sign of a true practitioner, who simply remains open to whatever gifts of abundance flow spontaneously and mysteriously from Divine Reality. This attitude of grateful receptivity does not preclude working hard at some honest occupation. Yet even when engaged in personal effort, the lover of Truth experiences the miraculous flow of Divine Sustenance, and therefore can never be obsessive about earning or saving money. Such a person becomes constitutionally incapable of being obsequious, servile, slavish, or deceptive in order to receive material or emotional compensation of any kind. The ecstatic lover cares only for Truth, not for money, adulation, or power.

"Nevertheless, surprising abundance often comes to such a person. The true lover humbly regards even minimal subsistence as a gracious gift from the vast storehouse of Divine Abundance. These true lovers no longer even instinctively reach out to grasp, becoming instead sheer receptivity. They are capable of receiving Divine Grace through a single glance, breath, or heartbeat – even through tribulation.

"The Bhagavad Gita describes this person as 'one who remains spontaneously content with whatever comes.' The person who loves Truth alone, free from any self-centered motivation whatsoever, can gratefully receive the gifts of basic sustenance or immense wealth from any direction whatsoever. By not desiring it, this person purifies it and uses it generously for the common good."

Now for the Three Temptations…

First, self-preservation, self-interest, self-importance, that primal instinct of humans to cling to life, as if it is all there is. Totally ordinary to do this, by the way. I operate on this basic assumption most of the time, if I’m really clear about what I’m doing. And realizing that makes me aware of how little I trust in or even remotely understand the Christian mystery of resurrection. But it does give me a clear direction to open myself to, even if I don’t have much of an idea of how to do that. It’s not so much something I decide as it is an attitude of ceaseless self-inquiry.

Second, the will to power. I was so struck by the particular choice of your description, that "kiss my hand, acknowledge my dominance" thing from the Church. What immediately came to my mind was something about attachment… if you are attached to the exoteric form of these gestures within the ritual, it can seem extremely offensive. But within the practice of cultivating obedience to and true faith in God it is merely another opportunity to play with and test your relationship to all of that. Esoterically, mystically (and this is one of the very wonderful things about Orthodoxy, that these levels are real and alive within the heart of the Church) it is not merely obedience to some outside authority; what we really obey is our deep understanding that truly we do not have life on our terms. Where I see it working for me is when I can have the humility to mold myself to what is, rather than demand that what is mold itself to my desires. It’s kind of like one of the basic tenets of pure rock climbing: "Never alter holds. Leave them as you found them. If you can’t do a problem as it stands, come back later when you can."

Third, messianic destiny. Yea, we all have that drive to "throw ourselves down and prove how special we are," to some degree or another. Is my even posting this diatribe just another form of that? I know it is just so hard (but ultimately so freeing) to admit to ourselves how great God is, how completely inexplicable and how incredibly small we are, for all of our pretensions of greatness and human attainment. To totally strip down the security of our personal beliefs and stand naked in our vulnerability before Existence… this is not an easy or comforting state. This is fear of God, a most profound declaration of not knowing the answers.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

...and hast revealed them to babes

So the other day I was in a high school Sunday School class, and we were talking about the feeding of the five thousand. I wanted to make a point about how this miracle is an image of the Kingdom of God, where everything is shared, where there is always enough for everyone, and where no one ever goes without. I wanted to contrast this image with the way things actually work in the world in which we live. So I asked the kids a question: "Under ordinary circumstances, if you had five loaves and two fish and five thousand hungry people, who would end up getting the food?"

The answer I was expecting: "The strongest" or "the fastest."

The answer I got: "The ones with guns."

Well, duh.

In other news, a new website recommendation: Public Theology. A tres cool site with lots of interesting articles on religion and civic discourse. Check it out.

Also, two new books on the coffee table: Telling Tales, a collection of stories edited by Nadine Gordimer, with essays by the likes of Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, and John Updike. Even better, all the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to AIDS education and treatment. And Small Wonder, a gorgeous collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver I am slowly re-reading, savoring, because I need all the optimism I can muster to get through the inauguration tomorrow.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The ruin of Joseph

Last month, retiring Senator Zell Miller made a speech on the floor of the Senate about "obscenity" in the media (think "wardrobe malfunction"). You remember Zell; he's the Democratic senator who endorsed George Bush at the 2004 Republican convention. The speech has been making the rounds on the Internet; maybe you've seen it. In support of his position, Senator Miller quotes extensively from the Prophet Amos, including the verse that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. loved to refer to, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).

It is interesting to note, however, that the good senator omits any mention of what was without a doubt Amos' greatest and most overriding concern: the vast disparity of wealth between rich and poor, the willingness of a few to indulge in obscene luxury at the expense of the many who live in poverty and squalor. This is the "ruin of Joseph" over which Amos laments.

Unfortunately, nobody, whether Democrat or Republican, seems too interested in outlawing this kind of obscenity these days.

Food for thought:

"Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals--they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way"
Amos 2:6-7

"Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, 'Bring something to drink!'"
Amos 4:1

"Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate."
Amos 4:11-12

"Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away."

Amos 6:4-7

"Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.'"
Amos 8:4-6

Bottom line: Martin Luther King got Amos' message. Zell still doesn't get it.

Happy birthday, Dr. King.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The three great temptations

From a journal entry dated December 26, 2003

I am reflecting on the story of the temptation of Christ in the Gospel of Luke. Realizing that the three temptations represent three major openings of the psyche, whose roots go down deep into us.

The first temptation is that of self-preservation or self-interest, and ends with Christ saying, "One does not live by bread alone." Yet how many of our relationships are compromised or even determined precisely by bread, by manipulative attempts to ensure our own survival and well-being? If we were to imagine all our relationships as stones making up a wall, at the very base of this wall would be one great stone engraved with the words quid pro quo. Even our relationship to God is shaped by our conception of God as being Αρτοδότης, the "bread giver." The book of Job is essentially asking the question whether anyone really loves or serve God gratis.

The second temptation, the will to power, also goes deeper than we know. Society is a hierarchy, and every meeting, every relationship contains this subtle and not-so-subtle jostling for power. In the Church, this is often quite overt: kiss my hand, acknowledge my dominance. Interesting that Satan says that this authority belongs to him, and not by usurpation. Satan is the author of dominance, while God relates to the world and to Godself only through kenosis or self-emptying. The will to power is the subtlest form of Satanism, and the one most practiced by apparently religious people.

The third temptation: messianic destiny. Throw yourself down, and prove how special you really are; throw yourself down, and everyone will see that yours is not an ordinary life. We are quite terrified of living an ordinary life. Our superheroes are projections of this deep need to feel and be extraordinary, special, different. How much of our motivation lies in this secretly cherished desire to someday be revealed as the hero, the protagonist of the story?

Sunday, January 09, 2005

On the Coffee Table (and elsewhere)

Some of you may have noticed the new sections to the lower right: the first is "Siteseeing," recommendations to other weblogs and sites of interest (any reader recommendations?). The other is "On the Coffee Table," a list of books I am currently reading (and which are actually scattered between the coffee table, couch, bedside table, and various other locations).

I recommend the new book by the Monks of New Skete, Rise Up with a Listening Heart, but their previous book, In the Spirit of Happiness, remains far and away the best contemporary work of Orthodox spirituality, bar none. This book helped me to take the next step in my inner life at a time when I really needed to do so.

Gilead is a lovely book, wistful and wise. It is a story about listening, about our efforts to bridge the "great chasm" that separates us from each other like Lazarus and the rich man. As Rev. Ames, the narrator, says in the opening pages, "See and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand... You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it."

Ain't that the truth.

The Rape of Nanking I commented on in my previous post "The greatest miracle." It is utterly devastating to read, but I believe ultimately redemptive in its candid search for the roots of violence.

The Castle by Franz Kafka I have only just started. I met a homeless fellow a few days ago, bought him a cup of coffee and a pastry, and we had the most fascinating discussion ranging from Dostoevsky to Kazantzakis to Camus, but he highly recommended Kafka's unfinished work The Castle as the greatest work of modern fiction. So I'm checking it out, and hoping to discuss it with him the next time we meet.

And while we are on the subject of recommendations, my "best film of 2004" award goes to The Motorcycle Diaries. In fact, I have to confess that it was this movie that was the inspiration for the rechristening of this blog as "Guerilla Orthodoxy" (it was originally titled "Orthodox Action"). A lusciously filmed movie cinematographically speaking, detailing the famous journey of Ernesto "Che" Guevara across the South American continent. The movie depicts Che as being above all open-eyed, seeing everything that is happening, the vast injustice then sweeping South America, as it still is today. Although at a superficial level the movie expresses a kind of disdain for the Church, at a deeper level Che is portrayed very much within the categories of South American hagiography, acquiring a kind of saint-like persona through his deep identification with the suffering of the people. See this film.

So what are you reading? More importantly, what are you reading that is changing you?

PS Note that all of the books are linked to, the largest of the indie bookstores, a good place to get books from, and a thoroughly cool place to visit. But even cooler is supporting your local independent bookseller. Kick the Amazon habit.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The greatest miracle of all

While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.’ When Jesus heard this, he replied, ‘Do not be afraid. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.

Luke 8: 49-53

This text was the subject of my morning meditation. I'd love to say that I found some kind of deep, meaningful insight into the passage, but to be honest the only part that resonated with me was, "they laughed at him." Interesting to note that this is the only place in the New Testament where anyone ever laughs. And upon reflection, I have to say that this is probably the kindest response one could imagine from a family that has just lost a child, only to be told that she was merely sleeping. It's a wonder they didn't turn on Jesus in a furious rage, venting all of their grief and anger at God against this itinerate preacher who claimed to speak in God's name. As it was, their weeping was turned into laughter for just one moment, but it was harsh and bitter laughter, the kind reserved for fools and madmen.

They laughed at him because they knew. They knew she was dead. And they understood the finality inherent in that word dead. They knew that this is how the world works, that little children who are dead don't get back up again.

For some reason, I got to thinking about Bart as I read this passage. When I first met Bart, he was puffing and wheezing, gasping for breath after just the short walk from the parking lot to the place where we were handing out USDA food commodities. Agent Orange had eaten up one of his lungs and most of the other one after Vietnam. Bart would stop by sometimes after that and we'd have coffee and talk. He told me he'd been a wild kid with a fast car growing up, doing crazy kid stuff, but secretly he'd wanted to be a Baptist preacher when he grew up. Then he got drafted and went to 'Nam and saw things there that nobody should ever have to see, and one day he shot a little kid who was running towards him and his buddies with a live grenade strapped to his crotch.

Bart never became a preacher. He worked as a truck driver when he got back, because all he ever wanted after that was just to be alone and drive and drive, to sit silently behind the wheel and put miles between himself and wherever else he'd been. Bart is someone who can tell you how the world works. He can tell you that little kids who are dead don't get back up again.

Do not be afraid. Only believe.

Some people will tell you that they can't rationally accept the miraculous stories about Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead, but they have the greatest respect for his teachings. My response to that is, frankly, to laugh. Have you ever read the teachings of Jesus? How the rich will one day be brought low and the poor and hungry will be satisfied? How the first shall be last and the last first, the least shall be greatest and the rulers shall serve, how all the power structures of this world will someday be overturned? How people should love their enemies and not respond to violence in kind and give to everyone who asks or is in need? Now that's irrational. To effect such a radical restructuring of societal values would require a greater miracle than raising the dead.

Currently, I am reading Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, which details the unspeakable horrors the Japanese army visited on the people of Nanking in 1937, slaughtering over 300,000 people in the space of just a few weeks, and leaving hundreds of thousands more with physical and emotional scars that never healed. Chang took her own life a few months ago, an action that led many people to speculate that she was a victim of "compassion fatigue" or "secondary trauma," that she entered too deeply into the sufferings of those about whom she wrote, identifying so closely with the victims that in the end she became one herself. And so some will conclude that it is better not to look too closely, better to view such events, if at all, through a soft and unfocused lens, better not to see too clearly. Better not to know too much.

Do not be afraid. Only believe.

The reality is that I am still afraid, and I don't yet believe, at least not in any definitive sense. I don't even have any idea what such faith might look like. Like so many others, I am grappling with the scope of the tsunami in Asia, stretching my mind to fit around the unthinkable human proportions of this catastrophe. And at the same time, I am struggling to avoid the impression that life is just random tragedy after random tragedy, or worse. After all, those who perished in the tsunami were disproportionately the poorest of the poor, living huddled in ramshackle huts along the shoreline trying to eke out a meager living from the sea. And the rape of Nanking wasn't random, nor was Hiroshima, or My Lai, or 9/11, or the bombing of Baghdad. So many, many little children. And I wonder, is it possible to look unflinchingly at the world as it is, and still go on believing?

Jesus said that one day the tears of those who weep will be turned to laughter, not the bitter laughter of those who know too well how the world works, but the gentle and spontaneous laughter that comes from unexpected joy, the laughter that surprises us while tears are still streaming down our faces.

And if that can ever be, it will be the greatest miracle of all.

Jesus in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
"Peace on Earth"
Hear it every Christmas time
But "hope" and "history" won't rhyme
So what's it worth?
This peace on Earth


To donate to help the victims of the tsunami in Asia, please visit the website of
Inter-Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The vampire's mirror: the parable interpreted

I wrote the parable "The Vampire's Mirror" as part of a continuing reflection on the theme of invisibility (cf. the poem "Transparency"), and more specifically about a phenomenon that I would call "cultural reflectivity." Cultural reflectivity is the extent to which one sees one's own reflection in the prevailing culture, the extent to which one's values, ideas, and assumptions are reflected in one's surroundings. There are some groups for whom there has been a more or less deliberate attempt to ensure that their existence is not reflected in the culture, to erase their presence from the societal mirror, as the presence of women, people of color, and so many others has frequently been erased. In the ancient world, slaves and non-citizens were referred to as "aprosopoi," which means "faceless." But it means more than this. Prosopon in Greek means both "face" and "person." To be one of the aprosopoi means to have been depersonalized, dehumanized, devaluated. It means to be one of those whose presence is never mentioned in the story by which a people defines its identity.

And yet the vampire's mirror is about something more than this. Specifically, I wrote the story in response to some statistics that were referenced by a friend of mine, a psychologist, regarding the relatively high rates of depression, disease, and suicide among gay and lesbian people, as a way of thinking about how this invisibility affects those who suffer it.

Vampires are invisible because they are dead, because their very presence constitutes an unwarranted intrusion upon the land of the living. And I think that this cultural invisibility contains within itself the seed of a kind of death. It has all the approbative force of a societal mandate: "you should not be here, you do not belong here." Is it any wonder, then, that those whose presence has been thus erased fulfill this collective mandate in their own lives? When gay and lesbian people engage in self-hatred, self-destructive behavior such as use of drugs, risky sex, and suicide, they are in effect acting on our orders. "You are dead." They fulfill the mandate we have given them: to disappear.

Although their lives are undeniably a part of the human experience, gay and lesbian people are surrounded by books, billboards, magazines. television programs (and yes, churches) in which they do not exist, in which there is no sense in which their presence is reflected. They are invisible.

And for this reason, when I read about the litany of physical and psychological maladies afflicting the general homosexual populus (though by no means all homosexual people, as I should hasten to point out), my immediate response is "To what extent am I responsible for this?" As Fr. Zossima taught us, we are to make ourselves responsible for everyone and everything. I wonder to what extent I, by silence and complicity, have contributed to a cultural landscape that could inspire such self-loathing in homosexual people. I wonder how I could contribute to a world wherein they would value themselves enough to make positive and healthy choices for themselves and those they love.

St. John Chrysostom wrote regarding the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that the greatest pain afflicting Lazarus was that "he could not see another Lazarus." He stood outside a world of plenty looking in and seeing no reflection of himself, nothing there that confirmed that he ever existed. People who passed him at the gate looked past him, beyond him, through him.

I wonder how it feels to be invisible.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The vampire's mirror: a parable

Everybody knows that a vampire cannot see himself in the mirror. If a vampire stands in a crowd of people at a party, looking over their shoulders to see into the mirror on the wall, he will see everybody else's reflection, but not his own. He will see people happy and not so happy, people arguing and flirting, people striking up conversations that will lead to long-lasting friendships, people making connections.

The vampire tries to mix and mingle at the party, tries to blend in. He eats hors d'oeuvres and laughs and chats politely. But he keeps looking over his shoulder at the mirror, hoping to find himself among the guests. He never does.

The mirror speaks to every person who passes by: "This is who you are. You are tall or short, pretty or plain, male or female" To the vampire, however, the mirror says, "You should not be here. You do not belong here. You are dead."