Friday, March 26, 2010

Commentary on poem Russian Easter

Posted: 26 March 2010
Updated: 17 April 2010

In March1990 I presented a paper called The Values Crisis to the Fourth Annual Sunstone Symposium West in Pasadena, California. It was a continuation of a paper presented in Concord [California] a year earlier, which contained an account of recent personal and professional experiences in the arena of Soviet-American trade [obviously before the fall of the USSR]. It also suggested ways how we Christians, with our unique Mormon traditions, could respond to the extraordinary changes taking place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, during the intervening year so many changes had occurred in Eastern Europe and elsewhere that I wondered where to begin. Having revised the paper at least ten times since agreeing to present it, I decided to take a long perspective first at my own values crisis [including marital issues] and then that of my birth [Mormon] culture.

A call from Moscow
In early April 1989, my [then] wife and I received a telephone call from Marina in Moscow. Marina was the young woman who had been our tour guide the previous January on our visit to Russia and Siberia. She had just received permission to leave the Soviet Union for the first time and wanted to stay a few days with us on her first trip to America. Marina came with her best friend, Lena. Our home in Long Beach was their first stop outside their own country. We learned that both young women were members of the Russian Orthodox Church. They had scheduled to be in our home during Russian Easter (April 30). As many of you may know, Easter, for Russians, is their most important holy day. So, to help them celebrate such a special day, we went to the closest Russian Orthodox Church for services. This occurred at midnight on Easter morning.

Russian Easter in Long Beach Third Ward [Mormon Church]
Later on that same Russian Easter Sunday, out of interest and curiosity, both Marina and Lena came with my family and me to experience a typical Mormon sacrament meeting. As the bread tray was being passed along to those sitting on that hard wood pew in Long Beach Third Ward, Marina (on my right) leaned over to me and whispered, “Is it permitted? We are not members of your church.” She was clearly absorbed in the service and hanging on every word. Without thinking, I replied spontaneously, “Of course, we are all Christians and believers here.” With that explanation, the three of us took the bread together.

New Realization
Shortly after that moment I began to realize that I had just take the sacrament for the first time in a way different than I’d ever taken it before. Now, together with these two eager, enthusiastic and sincere believers, albeit from an old, alien and ailing culture, we took the sacrament as fellow believers! All distinctions between us disappeared. And in some mysteriously new and wonderful way, I experienced that ordinance of eating that broken bread together as something more transcendent than at any time previous. With our Russian friends, I realized that I was more than a member of the Mormon Church!

Universal Community 
With that realization, I began to experience an extraordinary sense of freedom to participate with any other believer in any other worship setting. The setting, itself, became insignificant. The institution became insignificant. It no longer mattered whether it was formal or informal. What became significant was acknowledging membership in a community of believers.

By that simple act of taking bread together distinctions were obliterated, and I realized I had joined a far more fundamental and universal spiritual community. Several days later the deeper irony of that unplanned moment began to dawn on me. As I have said before, up until then I had been preoccupied with and focused on a Mormon Mission to Moscow. I had invested over thirty years of preparation into a completely Mormon-centered enterprise. Now, in one spontaneous moment of providential good humor, I experienced a Moscow Mission to Mormons!

I felt my thirty year preoccupation transform in a moment—in a twinkling of an eye!. In that moment I felt open to whole new universes of good news! In that moment a new understanding of a universal law began to awaken in my consciousness. And it has taken time to begin to apply this new understanding—this subtle but major shift in my personal values—to practical reality.

Russian Easter

“Is it permitted?”
Ask our two Moscow guests
On a Long Beach bench
As sacred emblems pass our way
“We are not members
Of your church.”

“Yes,” I whisper,
“All are Christians
And believers here.”

Then we three as one
With tear-stained smiles
And Slavic souls communing
Took thus the broken loaf
And through the Ancient date
A Mystery rose to fuse
The Awful Fission.

Long Beach
30 Apr 89

Monday, March 15, 2010

Singer of Israel

Original Post: Ides of March 2010
Updated: 17 April 2010

In recent weeks Fr. John has been calling me "The Singer of Israel", because I love to sing the Epistles during the Liturgy prior to the Eucharist. When he first started calling me that as I received the Eucharist, I felt a thrill of recognition and confirmation.

Before first singing those Epistles, which tradition says were written by the Apostle Paul, I used to be a severe critic of Paul, who had been known as Saul of Tarsus. I still have intellectual questions about his letters and experiences, BUT when I sing those Epistles during the Liturgy something remarkable happens. It feels as if--I know this sounds strange--it feels as if Paul's spirit is singing through me!

As I reflected more on my critical questions in light of my current reading of Garry Wills' enlightening book What Paul Meant, it occurred to me that my attitude had been heavily influenced by Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Joseph felt in competition with both Paul and Mohammed. Wills' insights are helping me transform my attitudes towards Paul, but I don't know what will happen to my delight in singing his Orthodox-chosen Epistles..

End of Odyssey--but not the journey!

Posted: Monday, 15 March 2010
Updated: Saturday, 17 April 2010

On Sunday, 14 March, Fr. John gave one of his marvelously passionate, extemporaneous sermons. This time the story was as reported in Mark 9:17 where the father of a son possessed appealed to Jesus as a last resort. The father had previously appealed to the chief disciples, who were powerless to help. Fr. John was careful to point out how honest this father was and how Jesus honored his honesty by healing his son. The man acknowledged his weak faith but asked Jesus to forgive his unbelief. This Jesus did and then healed his son. Fr. John emphasized the direct contact with Jesus and the powerlessness of his disciples..

After the sermon, the Eucharist was served by young Hieromonk John from the nearby monastery. When he invited all Orthodox Christians to come to the chalice, he added that they must come in fasting and prayer, having recently confessed in the Orthodox way. This surprised me and I was unable to approach the chalice. But, I was able to receive the elements from our Fr. John Hennies as he served the remnants to all others in attendance, Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

Remembering having recently read Garry Wills book "What Jesus Meant", especially Chapter Four, "Against Religion", I felt suddenly released to come to the Last Supper just as I was, without precondition. I felt able to sit at Christ's table as friend and brother, needing no clergyman to announce preconditions for supping with the Master. A question was answered, which I'd pondered for years: when did celebrating the the Last Supper morph into something controlled or conditioned by ecclesiastics? Hiermonk's well-intended, innocently and possibly thoughtlessly spoken words answered my question. I no longer needed to accept his or any other clergyman's presumed authority in receiving the Eucharist.

What is the kind of religion Jesus opposed? Any religion that is proud of its virtue, like the boastful Pharisee. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them. Any that exalts its own officers, proud of its trappings, building expensive monuments to itself. Any that neglects the poor and cultivates the rich, any that scorns outcasts and flatters the rulers of this world. If that sounds like just about every form of religion we know, then we can see how far off from religion Jesus stood.

What Jesus Meant
by Garry Wills
Penguin Books (2006)
Chapter 4: Against Religion (last paragraph)

I felt my Orthodox Odyssey end as it had begun and felt a new, uncertain but hopeful path open up before me. I also recalled my poem Russian Easter, written in 1989, which may have been when my Odyssey started in a surprising way. Click here for poem; here for commentary.

Father John was concerned that I was leaving the Orthodox Church. Not at all, I quickly assured him--at least not voluntarily! ;-)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

End of Odyssey--but not the journey!

Event: March 14, 2010
Updated: May 25, 2012

This odyssey came to an end at the chalice on a mid-March Sunday morning in 2010 when a young hieromonk from a near-by monastery served the Eucharist. By that time I had included the Orthodox tradition into my world view. I did not need his theater. My journey continues in