Not Worthy Of Them

“The world was not worthy of them.” -Hebrews 11:38

What a wonderful epitaph to have proclaimed over one’s life. The writer of Hebrews declares this after a lengthy list of people popularly called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

Cloud of WitnessesOne of the beautiful aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy are the icons of the saints. The saints are those whom the Church recognizes to have lived a full life of actually enduring to the likeness of Christ. Most are apostles, martyrs, church fathers, and monastics. But for every recognized saint, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown and unmentioned saints.

These unknown saints are the ordinary men and women who lived daily lives of faith, love and piety. They worked ordinary jobs and performed ordinary tasks. They are the “jars of clay” containing the unsurpassable treasure of God’s presence.

The other day, I heard a woman describe her 89-year old mother as a “saint” because she never drank, smoked or cussed. While I don’t doubt that her mom is a saint, I take issue with her measuring rod. A person is not a saint simply by adhering to a set of regulations or morality. A saint is someone who is set apart for God through his or her personal and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause — to transform and renew this world into his Father’s New Creation.

Like a stubborn toddler resisting and fighting against bath-time, this world resists God’s renewal. Unfortunately, the world fights back with far more destructive and violent forces. And those committed to the world’s renewal suffer. They lose reputation, friends, jobs, homes, health and frequently, life.

But they endure. They endure with grief, sadness, pain and loss merged with an indescribable peace, joy and hope. They endure because the one who will transform and renew the world has already begun the process in them. And so, they carry in themselves the promise of God’s future here in the present. And so they trust him and follow him. It sets them apart. They are saints.

Saints aren’t perfect. They struggle, sin and suffer. They are real people. They have different color skin. They speak with different accents. They hold different values. They raise their kids differently. They attend different churches. They enjoy different movies and books. They prefer different genders. They have different life goals. They manage their money differently. They have different political views. They have different scientific views. They have different spiritual views.

But they have one thing in common. They love God. They’re loyal to Jesus and his cause. They are being renewed by God’s Spirit, tasting a bit of God’s future today. As such, they are beneficiaries and agents of God’s New Creation. And for this they struggle to live by the life of God’s future world here and now and suffer as the world around them resists.

Upon completing his “Faith Hall of Fame,” the writer of Hebrews makes direct application:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Certainly this vast cloud is filled with those who have gone before us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women who drew close to God and lived a life of intimate and loyal faith.

But the cloud also contains the aspiring saints around us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women we encounter daily. They are our spouses. They are our kids. They are our friends. They are our co-workers. They are the single man or woman living a life of purity. They are the mom who works long hours to support her family. They are the dad who comforts his sick child in the late hours of night. They are the grandma who quietly and consistently prays for the people on her street. They are the cashier at Walmart smiling at every person. They are the UPS driver faithfully delivering our packages. They are the policewoman on patrol. They are the waiter at our favorite restaurant. They are the guy that cut us off on the freeway. They are the kids playing Pokemon GO.

Because God’s family overlaps the past, present and future, the great cloud of witnesses includes those who have successfully endured the struggle of loyal faith to Jesus and his transformative project, those who still struggle and suffer in their endurance, and even those who will yet endure.

And you and I are surrounded by this great cloud, this awesome community. We’re surrounded, because we are part of it. So, let’s throw off everything that hinders and entangles and run that race marked out specifically for us, with a deeply intimate and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause.

Waxing Nostalgic – Finale

Orthodox CrossThis post concludes a short series that includes the following posts:

Waxing Nostalgic

Waxing Nostalgic – Raising Kids

Waxing Nostalgic – An Old Friend

Waxing Nostalgic – Worship

Waxing Nostalgic – My Kids’ Baptism

Waxing Nostalgic – Our Home

Waxing Nostalgic – My Blog

The future is a scary place. Some people love the unknown. I don’t. I can admit it. It frightens me terribly.

However, the past is not a safe place either. Certainly it’s familiar. But not safe.

I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa, but I’ve heard the bulletproof glass protecting this treasure also distorts it. When you gaze upon the famous portrait with the enigmatic smile, you also see your face and everyone else’s reflected in the glass.

Nostalgia is like that glass. It distorts the past with phantom reflections of ourselves. It twists old photos and journal entries into a fake reality of the “good ole days.” And when faced with the frightening unknown future, it’s tempting to lose oneself chasing this will-o’-the-wisp.

I mentioned in a previous post about Debbie’s comment to me, “Everything’s changing.” Those two words haunt me.

So perhaps it’s serendipitous that the Dormition Fast, in which we honor Mary, the birth-giver of God, overlaps with the writing of this series on “Waxing Nostalgic.”

Imagine the moment Mary heard Gabriel’s proclamation that she would carry and give birth to the Son of God. I know this sounds melodramatic, but time must have stopped in the silent moment before Mary responds. You can almost hear creation drawing and holding a collective breath in excited anticipation. God’s entire plan from Adam onward lay on the shoulders of this young maiden.

In that silence, what was going through Mary’s head? Although only a teenager, she knows what happens to unwed mothers — the gossip, the rumors, the spurning and the potential death.

But from a young age, her parents, Joachim and Anna, told her that she was a promise from God. She had lived in the Temple most of her life, dedicated to God. But she hadn’t expected her devotion to escort her into the disgrace and stigma of an unwed mother.

Then she breaks the silence. Facing an unknown and frightening future, she whispers. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Time restarts and the angels and creation let out their breath knowing God’s mysterious plan moves forward.

Imagine how thrilled and delighted God’s heart was at that moment?

Mary said “Yes” to God and became a home for Christ. She’s not an incubator, randomly chosen from Israel’s women. No. She’s a person in whom God finds favor. She has learned to say “Yes” to God all her life.

And God finds favor in each of us. He calls us to a similar destiny in his kingdom. Saying “Yes” to God, we become a home for Christ and “birth” him into our world as we embody him, becoming like him by grace.

“Waxing nostalgic” the last several weeks has been a wonderful experience. I have a life filled with fantastic memories and precious relationships. I know I am a rich man. And I am a tremendously thankful man.

The experience has also been fruitful. I’m learning that we prepare for our future by reflecting on and learning from our past. Too often, I’ve said “No” to God. I want to understand why. I want to grow in grace so that I naturally say “Yes” to God. I want Christ to live in me and through me.

I’m choosing to end this series on my fiftieth birthday. While this series ends, the process won’t. I’m sure there will be more posts reflecting on the past to prepare for the future.

The terrifying unknown future looms before us. God is next to us encouraging us to step forward. And he’s in the midst of the unknown calling us to him. His destiny, to bear Christ in the world, awaits us.

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Waxing Nostalgic – My Blog

The Offramp Splash PageAs my time at the Vineyard and professional ministry drew to an end in 2003, I began blogging. Originally, several of us who left the Vineyard and started a faith community started blogging through our new community’s website, “The Offramp.”

Some of those blogs remain, untouched for several years. I keep them on the righthand bar and visit them occasionally. They bring memories of good times with good friends. For example, here’s a post by Debbie from June 2008. It highlights a walk she had with Chris, who was eight at the time. Reading it again reminded me of simpler times with younger kids, being part of their lives as they discovered and interacted with the world around them.

I have enjoyed my blogging experience. Back in 2010, I wrote this about my blog:

“I began this blog in March 2003 as our family left professional ministry and embarked on a journey of theological exploration. This blog has recorded our joys and struggles as we explored a different form of Christian community. It has allowed me to deconstruct and reconstruct my theology and wrestle with my new identity outside of professional ministry. It has marked special events in our family’s life. And recently, it has recorded our family’s journey into the Holy Orthodox Church.”

That post in 2010 was my last post on this blog. Or so I thought.

After joining the Orthodox Church, I struggled with what I should post on this blog. Entering the Orthodox Church signaled the end of our faith community and our exit from the Emergent Church/Home Church conversation. I was also experiencing difficulty with some aspects of Orthodoxy, but didn’t feel it was appropriate to openly post those struggles. As an Ortho-newbie, I became aware that I had less and less to say.

I was also struggling with depression, unable to reconcile years of calling, training and experience with no longer being in ministry.

So I sensed the need to go silent, to immerse myself in Orthodoxy and to let God bring some much-needed healing.

So after much prayer and thought, I said goodbye to my blog in May 2010.

Two years passed and I began sensing the need to write again. So in April 2012, I revived this blog. I will admit that I haven’t posted consistently the past four years. Months would pass between posts. Life had changed and its ebbs and flows would drift me back to this blog and then pull me away again.

I know my decision in 2010 was the right one. But looking at that two-year gap brings pangs of regret. There were significant moments that I wish I had processed and recorded on this blog.

There were vacations, celebrations, holidays and daily life. My firstborn, Michael, graduated high school in 2010. This was one of the proudest moments of my life. And it symbolically transitioned our family into a new phase as our first child stepped across the threshold into adulthood. Dan died in December 2010. I miss his voice and laugh. Danielle entered high school. Michael was admitted to the emergency room with a collapsed lung, which scared the hell out of me. Maribeth moved from California, and our family still misses her dearly. Chris saved and bought himself a bike. Michael, Danielle and Chris generously collected their monies and bought Cathy a bike for Christmas. And at the end of 2011, our family bought our first house, packed over 20 years of our life and moved to Pomona.

The other night, our family had a fun dinner at a local restaurant. As we were leaving, our kids walked out to the car ahead of Debbie and me. As we strolled out behind them, she leaned over and said, “Everything’s changing.”

This is something I’ve been sensing for months and has only been heightened as my fiftieth birthday draws near. I’m sensing the need to prepare for the next phase of my life and for whatever it brings. As I pray and ponder, there seem to be a couple of important facets to this preparation. First is redeveloping my intimacy with God. I mentioned in an earlier post about this urge for intimacy that occurred earlier this year during Lent and has only grown.

The second is remembering my past. I have started reading through my old journals as well as rereading my old blog posts and those of my friends. I believe I’m compelled by more than nostalgia.

White KeysThe recent activity on this blog is the expression of those two facets. I’m making room to pray and reflect. The activity and noise from daily life easily obstructs the internal currents of the soul. Writing clears the debris and increases my sensitivity to my inner life. It’s not always a pretty picture. But it is a necessary task.

I genuinely don’t know how this blog will develop in the months or years to come. Thirteen years of my thoughts, my reflections, and my life have been recorded here in over 700 posts. In some ways it has become an important part of me. And if I’m right, it will play an important part of my future. We shall see.

Sighing Is Praying

My oldest son told me a joke the other day:

Question: “What’s heavier — 200 pounds of feathers or 200 pounds of bricks?”

Answer, “The feathers. Because you also have to carry the weight of what you did to the birds.”

Without going into details, there’s a lot of heavy “stuff” happening in my life right now. Each thing by itself is common to normal life. But everything together forms a heavy weight.

So, I’ve noticed myself sighing a lot lately.

In an essay on “sighing” in the Bible, Arther Pink writes:

Maturing“The groanings of the believer are not only expressive of sorrow—but also of hope, of the intensity of his spiritual desires, of his panting after God, and his yearning for the bliss which awaits him on high (2 Corinthians 5:2, 4).”

I think that’s a good description of the internal forces inside me that express themselves as sighing. It’s an intermingling of stress and faith, of sorrow and hope, of loss and love. It’s a longing for what currently is to be shaped into how things should be.

St Paul writes a poignant portrayal of groaning in Romans 8. Creation groans. God’s people groan within creation. And God’s Spirit groans within God’s people. Like a woman in labor, everything is sighing and groaning toward the hope of God’s New Creation being birthed.

What Paul describes on a cosmic level, each of us experiences at a very personal level. All the little details of life — marriage, singleness, parenthood, friendships, careers, spiritual growth, societal justice, and so much more — are the contractions in which New Creation labors to be born in us and through us. And even though we may articulate prayers that petition God’s will, the deepest and most genuine prayer may be a sigh.

Before this season passes, I know there will much more sighing… and groaning and tears. And they will be my prayers.

Waxing Nostalgic – Our Home

I’ve lived in many places. Most of them have been in southern California. But I’ve lived in different homes.

I spent my childhood in La Puente and West Covina.

After high school I lived in Irvine for my first year in college. I then moved to Hawaii for about six months when I joined YWAM for their Discipleship Training School.

When I returned to southern California, I lived with my parents in West Covina for a couple of years until I was married. During the first few years of our marriage, Debbie and I lived in two places in Azusa and two places in West Covina. Currently, my family lives in Pomona.

IMG_6513The largest amount of time I lived in one place was in Glendora. Debbie and I moved to Glendora when Michael was about a year old. We lived in the same four-unit complex for almost 20 years. We started in a two-bedroom 1-1/2 bath unit from mid-1993 until late 1999. Then we moved into a three-bedroom 2-1/2 bathroom unit until February 2012. This home and city will always hold a dear place in my heart.

It was in this home that Debbie and I raised our four young children. We made friends with wonderful neighbors. We had a caring and generous landlord. The front lawn and courtyard became the playground for our kids and their friends. We would laugh and shout and sweat through rounds of dodgeball and tag and hide-and-seek.

And like any home filled with family life, there was a mixture of memories spanning the spectrum from momentous to mundane. We have memories of first steps and first days of school. We have memories of the mundane like homework, washing dishes, watching TV, and illnesses. We have memories of joy, laughter, giving and loving. And we have memories of arguments, timeouts, tears and tragedy.

As our children grew, Glendora was a small enough and safe enough town to let our children begin walking to friends homes, to the library, and to the park. In this safe environment, our children learned to stretch their wings and venture beyond our home on their own.

Debbie and I moved into our Glendora home as a young couple with a toddler and dreams of life and ministry together. By the time we left that home, we were an older couple with four adult children and twenty years of full life and invaluable family memories.

When I look at photos of our apartment, I can’t believe we fit six of us in that space for so long. It must explain why we love being together so much.

IMG_9374I remember our moving day on January 28, 2012. It had been difficult packing twenty-plus years of life into boxes and then a truck. It was simultaneously exciting and sad.

We visited the apartment in the following week to clean the unit and hopefully receive our security deposit from twenty years prior. Our landlord was visibly saddened to see us go and promised the full deposit. When the cleaning was finished, we visited each room and said good-bye to our home. Chris even said good-bye to the timeout corner. And then we stepped out and shut the door on twenty years of a blessed and fantastic life.

Four years later, we have transformed our Pomona house into a home. It doesn’t have the same kind of memories. It never will. And that’s okay. The new memories are a continuation of our full family life. We now have memories of sitting around our dining room table for dinners, laughing to the point of falling out of our chairs. We have memories of the two rescue dogs that have joined our family. We have memories of deep conversations about relationship, church, God and life. And most likely, we will eventually have memories of saying good-bye to our kids as they continue to grow and venture into a new life in the world beyond the safe haven of our home.

God, thank you for our homes. Thank you for the safety of four walls and a roof. And thank you for the life, love, and joy that continually spills out of those four walls.

Happy 19th Birthday!

Today, my youngest daughter, Danielle, turns nineteen years old. It’s her last full year as a teenager.

Zahariades Family 2001As a young girl, I loved watching her run around the house, her curly hair bouncing with each step. Her young infectious giggle made me laugh. Her tears broke my heart. She loves her sister and brothers. As you can see from an early family portrait, she absolutely bursts with personality.

Dani has grown into an amazing young woman. She is a fiercely loyal friend and cares deeply for those she loves. As a friend, she has your back. I wish I could have had a friend like her when I was a young man. I’m not sure if her friends know what a special person they have in Dani. But I do. And God does.

She is also very creative. I’m astounded by what she can do with needle, thread, and yarn. For the past several years, I would watch her spend hours hand-crafting beautiful and imaginative gifts for her friends during Pascha and Christmas. I don’t think her friends realize how much time and care Dani put into each gift. But I do. And God does.

Dani is extremely committed. When she puts her mind and will to something, she perseveres for the long haul. Years ago, Father Patrick assigned her “hand maiden” duties during Sunday services. And every Sunday since, I watch Dani quietly attend the candle box unnoticed and with no fanfare. She carefully tends the candles as an act of worship. I’m not sure anyone notices. But I do. And God does.

Danielle Wedding PortraitDani is an incredibly strong and courageous person. I don’t know if people ever see how the occasional stress and heartbreak chip away until there are tears. And then the resolve returns. But I do. And God does.

Debbie and I are so proud of our gorgeous, bold, creative, compassionate, strong, capable, faithful and amazing young woman. I don’t think anyone can love her more than us. And then I remember…

God does.

Authentic Sainthood

Peter's DenialI first saw this icon in a Facebook post by St John the Evangelist Orthodox Church.

I absolutely love this icon. For me, it captures a level of authenticity unlike other icons. This is an icon of Peter’s denial.

Four things immediately grabbed my attention when I saw this icon:

First, is the accusatory gaze of the rooster. If a bird ever looked at me like that, I would ring it’s neck. Or at least throw a rock at it. But Peter didn’t do either. Because in the sound of its crow and gaze of its eyes, he heard his friend’s voice, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

Second, is the despair on Peter’s face. This is a man at his absolute worst. Despite his bragging and posturing, he completely failed his friend. He has failed the movement. And as far as he knows, he has completely disqualified himself from everything Jesus spoke about and worked for. There are some failures from which you cannot recover, and this is one of them. And now, stared down by a lousy fowl, he’s curled into a shell of a man.

Third, is the smoldering fire. It’s barely burning, almost reduced to wisps of smoke. But those wisps ascend to heaven and are noticed by God. I think it’s very symbolic of this failed man. It reminds me of Isaiah’s prophecy, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Fourth, is the halo. In the midst of failure, accusation, and despair, the halo remains. Peter doesn’t know it yet, but hope and holiness still shine in the darkness.

Peter was pretty familiar with failure. It seems to be one of the Gospels’ subplots. If it wasn’t so tragic, we would confuse Peter as the comedic sidekick to Jesus’ heroic journey. He’s brash. Quick to speak. Quicker to misstep. Sinks like a stone in the water. Called “Satan” by Jesus. Confuses flailing for swordsmanship and cuts off Malchus’ ear in an attempt to defend Jesus. And now, when his devotion counts the most, he denies Jesus three times.

But where any of these failures may have driven most men to quit and return home, Peter never walks away. Well… not until after his denial and Jesus’ torturous death on a Roman cross. At that point, it’s all over. Messiahs don’t get crucified. They don’t die at the hands of the army they’re supposed to rout.

So perhaps Peter’s failure was needed at that moment. I think Peter may have been brash enough to attempt to continue Jesus’ movement without him. And in doing so, he would have interfered with God’s far greater plan. So Peter’s ultimate failure in the courtyard when confronted by a young girl was the necessary breaking point in a man both to get him out of the way as well as to prepare him.

So disillusioned and stripped of self-confidence and grandiose plans, Peter returns to his life before Jesus called him to follow. Or so he thought.

I love how the scene plays out in John 21. Peter is trying to forget Jesus by immersing himself in his old life and work. Jesus appears on the shore and does the exact same thing he did the day he called Peter.

And Peter gets it.

His immediate response is still brash. But it’s a brashness similar to the prodigal son, a story Peter must have heard Jesus share many times. It’s a brashness that compels him to run to Jesus’ side. Well, actually swim, not run. I wonder if Peter thought to himself as he was struggling to the shore, “Now would be a great time to walk on water, Jesus.”

But there would be no divine assist this time. This time Peter needs to struggle to Jesus himself. Sometimes God needs to stand back and let us exercise our will and devotion.

What a morning that must have been for Peter. Breakfast with the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was not covered with bruises and blood like he was barely alive and somehow survived his torture and entombment. No this was a living, healed and vibrant Jesus.

And after breakfast, Peter takes a personal and painfully therapeutic walk with Jesus. He relives the failure from three days prior. And like his friend who was lain dead in the grave and now walks next to him with new life, Peter’s failure is resurrected and transformed into a commission.

Prior to his denial, Peter probably had the audacity to continue Jesus’ movement in the wake of his perceived failure at the hands of the Romans. Now commissioned, he is empowered to be the initial spokesperson and leader of Jesus’ movement in the wake of his glorious ascension forty days later.

And Peter’s transformation would not have been possible without crushing failure.

God does not extinguish the smoldering wick. In God’s New Creation, the smoldering wick can become the shining star.