The Gift of Veneration

The day I met Fana she was slowly walking down the middle of Troost Avenue. I stopped and asked her if she was okay and suggested she move to the sidewalk. I’m not sure she understood me then. 

After many months of seeing her on the street and in and out of our church and at Reconciliation Services, she seemed like she had become more comfortable with me. In her broken English she would ask me questions. She always asked me about my “babies.” Mostly she was quiet. I learned that she had emigrated from east Africa. She lived in a group home and had lost custody of her children due to her mental illness and instability. 

One Sunday after church I noticed how badly worn her shoes were. I asked her what size she wore. I had collected some donation items earlier in the week and I had a great pair of shoes in my car that had never been worn. They were even her size. What a wonderful coincidence I thought. 

When I took her out to the car and showed them to her she said she didn’t want them. Here I was trying to help her, to give her what she needed! I didn’t understand. But then again, I never asked her if she needed (or even wanted) new shoes. I saw her torn and dirty shoes and I thought I could fix that for her. 

The following week a friend and I asked Fana if she wanted to go to the store with us and pick out a pair of shoes. She seemed excited to go with us. It was fall and with winter on its way I tried to steer her towards some sensible options. She didn’t like what I picked out. She kept returning again and again to a pair of flashy and impractical wedge slip-on sandals. 

Against my better judgement we got the sandals. Fana seemed happy. 

The next time I saw her she wasn’t wearing the sandals. She was wearing her old tattered shoes. Didn’t she like them? Had she lost them? Had she sold them? I didn’t ask her about them because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. 

C.S. Lewis wrote, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” 

I saw someone who needed shoes and I gave her shoes. I saw a need and honed in on a practical solution. That’s a good thing, right? But giving Fana a pair of shoes was well within the realm of what I could spare. It didn’t stretch me or challenge me. It didn’t necessitate time or attention—things that are much harder for me to part with.

I have written a quote on a chalkboard in my house by French philosopher Simone Weil. It reads, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” My giving was more of a knee-jerk-reaction to a need than an act of generosity. 

Over the course of many months of driving her to and from church and talking with her on the phone I did have more time with Fana. I learned of her sadness in losing her children. I heard her story of how she traded one world of suffering for another. I saw her frustration with her inability to understand the language and the place she now found herself in. I saw that in her tattered old purse that carried bits of plastic bags, random found objects, and what seemed like trash, she also carried the beautifully intricate beaded jewelry she made. 

St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:3 that “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor … but have not love, it profits me nothing.” 

Fana needed so much—a home, a job, her family restored, her mind restored, and even some new shoes. But what I failed to understand till much later was that what she enjoyed about going to the store to pick out those shoes was the attentiveness that was offered to her then. 

Giving that is separated from love is empty. And generosity without attention is common and limited.

Fana is not unlike others I have met through Reconciliation Services. Trauma, displacement, abuse, poverty, mental illness, sickness, and addiction rob people of their dignity and so much more. By honoring and deeply respecting people, Reconciliation Services labors to cultivate true veneration for the people it serves. It is a generosity that is born out of attentiveness and it goes far beyond a quick fix for an immediate need. 

Fana has moved to another state. We have talked on the phone a few times since she moved. I never did see her wear those silly sandals. But in the end it wasn’t about me giving her the shoes I thought she needed—the quick fix. In the end, I needed to see that the most generous gift I could offer her was attention.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Guilt, Empathy and Veneration

I have never suffered discrimination because of my racial identity. My mother was adopted from Korea as a young child and my father was born into a white American and English family. For the most part, I have identified as white for all my life. Growing up, most of my peers were white and I didn’t really have any exposure to Korean culture. My Asian ancestry has never really been a source of discomfort for me, and my Asian physical features have only seldom been pointed out as indicators of difference. The one exception to my life of racial anonymity comes from a time when I worked at Starbucks.

It was during a slow block of time during my shift—around 2 or 3pm—when a semi-regular approached the register. He was a middle-aged white man, generally chummy with the baristas, and typically ordered a plain black coffee. I normally spent my entire shift working the bar, but on this day, I was manning the register. As the man approached the counter, I greeted him and asked what he would like to order. The man’s brow furrowed as he silently gazed through the top of my head and fixated upon the menu behind me. Assuming he had not heard me, I repeated my question, to which he responded with a grunt and crossed arms, his eyes still refusing to acknowledge me. When a few seconds had passed, a co-worker stepped in and took the man’s order without any trouble. I was later informed that the man refused to be served by me because he thought I was Vietnamese. Apparently, he had fought in the Vietnam war and was known to make derogatory remarks about Asians generally.

My gut reaction was one of confusion, but I didn’t want to react with offense. Perhaps this man had experienced trauma from his war experience. Perhaps I represented what he perceived was the source of his pain. I didn’t feel personally responsible for his trauma, and likewise I didn’t feel it right that he held a single racial group responsible for it. The experience did, however, provide me with a brief glimpse into what pain the man might be carrying, in the light of which any personal offense I held quickly faded.

Dostoyevsky says in Brothers Karamazov that “everyone is guilty for everyone else.” In the brief interaction in Starbucks the man projected blame upon me for actions that I didn’t commit. Momentarily I felt guilty for something beyond my control and initially it felt unjust. However, once the initial offense faded, I was able to see a fellow struggling human being instead of an instigator of aggression. Perhaps I would have felt similarly if I were in his shoes, I began to experience a sense of compassion.

In our culture guilt is usually utilized to demarcate the limits of moral responsibility rather than to be in solidarity with the human race, as Dostoyevsky seems to suggest. We tend to use personal guilt to confine blame to an individual person or situation. Initially I didn’t want to be held responsible for this man’s pain, especially when I hadn’t personally done anything to contribute to it (to my knowledge). Patience, forbearance and empathy for another are perhaps foreign to a common understanding about guilt and blame. However, such traits of compassion are at the core of what it means to belong to a family, and more, the human family. This image of familial responsibility is laid out in the Lord’s prayer.

St Cyprian of Carthage, a Christian bishop in the third century, wrote of the Our Father:

Before all things, the Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not My Father, which art in heaven, nor Give me this day my daily bread; nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one.

The Biblical model for asking forgiveness then, is not one of individual guilt alone. In the case of my story with the Vietnam veteran, I was held responsible for things that I personally had nothing to do with. I came to symbolize an unjust war, the lack of care for war veterans and the trauma of combat. However this man is a part of God’s family and therefore a part of mine. So the question I had to ask myself was, “could I share in his guilt and pain?” There was very little I could do in the moment, but instead of rejecting this man and his pain, I experienced grace to resonate with his suffering. I experienced grace to reflect upon ways in which I could repent of a culture of indifference .

In response to the immense suffering in this world, and the guilt that we all share, I cannot simply bow my head in detached sorrow. I want to find ways to begin to think differently and to act differently. Thinking differently about guilt will affect how I pray and how I live. As St. Cyprian suggests, I can ask for forgiveness for the pain and the guilt of the whole world. Accepting responsibility for my culture and for my history is not meant to cripple me with unproductive guilt. It is meant to remind me that I am not an individual unto myself and that I am a part of the ills and cures of this world.

Veneration is the essence of our work at RS. Veneration describes the attitude and the act of respect for “living icons” – people made in the image of God and therefore worthy of profound honor. By implication we all partake of that image, and so share in the pain and guilt of this world. Veneration, then, can also include acts of solidarity and empathy. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic events circulating the news with plenty of pain and guilt to go around. Instead of distancing myself from the pain in an attempt to exonerate myself of any responsibility, I am striving to turn away from any of the ways in which I participate in a culture of hate and fear. I am connected not only to countless suffering people, I am also connected to those structures and histories that have perpetuated suffering. So, as I pray for the forgiveness of our debts, I also pray for the wisdom to know how to act in ways that heal the wounds inflicted by our sins.

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Veneration and Holy Fools!

If you walk into any church with ties to ancient Christian history, you may be struck by the beauty of the icons that line the walls and the saints depicted gazing outward invitingly. The interesting thing about saints is that we often think of them as having always occupied this place of honor in our houses of worship. Once they’ve been canonized, saints are commemorated for their holy life and their stories serve to encourage and remind us to continue to struggle in pursuit of holiness. But for the majority of these venerable ones, their time on earth was not spent saturated with laudation. Quite the contrary, in fact. Many were fiercely hated, even by their own churches. It is only in retrospect that we call them holy and admire their faith.

Perhaps the saints that illustrate this fact most profoundly are those that fall into the category of “holy fools.” In the ancient Christian tradition, holy fools are those individuals that feigned insanity to combat vanity, both personal and societal. These saints are some of my favorites, not because they encourage me, but because they terrify me. The lives of the holy fools are filled with acts that defy social norms, often bringing the need for repentance into sharp focus. Much like the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who performed such acts as cooking his food over dung to call attention to the sin of Israel, the holy fools lived in such a way as to prick the conscience of a society. The most emblematic of the holy fools was the seventh century saint, Simeon of Edessa. This man masked his piety with acts of absurdity, upsetting conventional definitions of holiness. It is said that he often disrupted church services by throwing nuts at attendees and blew out candles, provoking the wrath of the seemingly pious. He would at times eat meat on fast days and walked around the city gate with a dead dog tied to his belt. He was known to preach against excess and neglecting the poor. He challenged those that would define holiness according to mere institutional conformity rather than acts of truth religion – the care of widows and orphans, as the book of James says.

What terrifies me about St. Simeon is the fact that he could very well have been someone that I have met on the streets of Kansas City. His behavior certainly corresponds to that of someone I might normally consider “mentally disturbed,” a “menace to society,” or simply anyone that makes me feel awkward or uncomfortable. I would have hated being around St. Simeon, and I know this because I don’t like being around anyone that upsets my normal schedule or asks me to give of my time or energy. Figures like St. Simeon, and to some degree, the stereotypical vagrant, make me uncomfortable because they remind me that something is wrong—in my heart and in my society. St. Simeon called attention to the failure of dead religion to care for the poor, and the raving beggar on the street calls to attention the failure of our society to care for those that are abandoned and marginalized. Holy fools disturb the peace – the false peace of indifference and spiritual stagnation.

I often find myself romanticising figures like the holy fool or the prophetic voice because I like the idea of someone who goes against the grain of society. Before I aspire to holy foolishness, however, I remember that these types are often hated because they disturb the “peace” – they also disturb my “peace.” That false peace is often my own complacency, my dead religious piety and refusal to give of myself. When I ignore the voice of those that prick my conscience, I find myself often ignoring the voice of God. It is, after all, the foolishness of God that these holy fools are emulating. The prophecy of Isaiah says of the Messiah that “He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” God often shows up anonymously and speaks through the most unlikely of characters. If I listen to the cries of the holy fools, I become sensitive to the presence of God in those people and situations that disturb my “peace.” Those that upset my life may not be simple inconveniences, they may be the way that God seizes my attention and makes me aware of his heart for the poor. In doing so, He invites me into veneration, to recognizing everyone around me as the presence of God.

I’m no holy fool (just a regular one) and I don’t know how to live prophetically; but I am trying to treat everyone I meet as a potential saint. To do this, I ask for God’s grace to listen and to be attentive to hear His cries for justice in the mouths of fools.

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Violence or Veneration?

“And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.’” (Zechariah 13:6 KJV)

What is true reconciliation? Some think of it as balancing a checkbook, others a husband and wife making up, still others overcoming the issues of discrimination and prejudice in our culture. While all of these reflect pieces of reconciliation, the Messianic prophecy above causes us to go deeper. It carries with it a sense of deep suffering to restore a friendship. The Messiah considered the wounds He received to have been received from His friends.

  • Many New Testament references convey this idea:
  • “Greater love has no man … than to lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13);
  • “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God…” (Rom. 5:10);
  • “in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both in one body to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:15b-16a).
  • And, St. Paul says that “God, …  reconciled us to HImself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of  reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

In times of war, terrorism, family traumas, pressures over competition to keep or find a job, temptations abound to blame the “other” as the problem in order to secure ourselves. Instead of seeing an enemy as a friend who doesn’t realize this yet, social and political solutions are often presented as the rationale for demonizing the other and excusing ourselves. Fr. Seraphim Rose often reduced the choice of a Christian as “saving our soul or saving our skin.”

As Christians, we follow the Messiah Jesus in seeing the other as our friend. Like St. Paul taking the debts of Onesimus as his own in Philemon, v. 18; or the Good Samaritan assuming the debt of the robbed and wounded man in Luke 10:35, so, we that are “strong ought to bear the weaknesses of them without strength and not just please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1 NAS).

Such a way is reflected in an event in the life of an early Christian, Paulinus the Merciful, Bishop of Nola, Italy. The only son of a widow under his care was taken as a slave by pirates. Having nothing with which to pay the ransom, he traded himself as a slave for the boy. He worked as a gardener for the pirates and eventually won their favor and was able to restore as well all the captives from Nola!

The refusal to pay back evil for evil, to turn the other cheek, to exhibit long-suffering are signs of the Christian on the Cross. There we are invited to join our Lord in His prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Of the Cross, it is written, “Thou hast stretched out Thy most pure hands upon the Cross, and gathered all the nations, as they cry: O Lord, glory to Thee!” (Troparion, Sixth Hour of Royal Hours for Holy Friday).

Seeing the end from the beginning enables us to overlook and forgive much. We see the other as they are in Christ: an icon of God, an eternal brother or sister, a co-heir of peace, joy and the communion of love for ages to come. For this reason, we respond to violence with veneration, to slander with silence, and to crushing words with creative love. Why? Because we are followers of Him that declared, “he that does not gather with Me, scatters” (Mt. 12:30).

On the corner of 31st and Troost Avenue, people are gathering … to Christ and one another. May He that stretched out His arms on the Cross to gather us all into One enable us to share with Him in this ministry of gathering, of reconciliation, of venerating the other we encounter each day as the friend of Christ, the icon of God.

Article by Fr. Alexii Altschul, Reconciliation Services Founder

Casting Out Fear: Perfect Love and Veneration

Most children are afraid of the dark. Places that, when lit, are normally benign and ordinary, take on a foreboding quality in the darkness. The stairwell to the basement is the lair of ogres and monsters poised to snatch the ankles of the poor soul tasked with retrieving the family's Christmas decorations or a pound of meat from the storage freezer. The darkness is home to all manner of terrors conjured by the unknown.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I became aware of my fear of the dark. I was around eight years old. Of course, I had experienced fear of the dark prior to this moment, but I distinctly remember acknowledging my fear as something I could combat. I had awoken from sleep in the middle of the night by an urgent need to use the toilet. My room was located on the opposite end of a long and dark hallway that led to the bathroom. I dreaded the long walk to the toilet as if it were through the valley of the shadow of death itself! In reality, the distance was probably only a few meters. As I walked down the hall, I could feel the fear creeping up my back and materialize as a dark presence stalking my movements. For some reason, despite my anxiety and the cries of pain radiating from my bladder, I resolved to confront my fear. I resisted the urge to sprint down the hall and deliberately walked slowly. Part of me was attempting to convince myself that there wasn’t really anything to fear in the dark. Another part of me was challenging the darkness, the demons, and whatever other monsters lurked behind me and in the shadows. “Do your worst,” I whispered to the darkness, all the while hoping that nothing would do anything, especially not the worst. After what seemed to take several aeons, I arrived safely in the refuge of the bathroom and relieved myself. It was the bravest moment of my life.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, through the mouth of a wisened elder in Brothers Karamazov observed, “[F]ear is simply the consequence of every lie” (Brothers Karamazov, 58) While it seems a little harsh to say that my childhood self was afraid of the dark as a consequence of lies, I certainly was afraid of fictions created by my imagination. Fear rears its menacing head when the unknown is filled with lies or untruths.

1 John 4:18 says that “perfect love casts out fear.” I have often wondered what is meant by perfect love in this passage. In verse 12, John says, “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us.” God’s love is perfected, or completed, in us when we love one another. God’s love is complete when it is participated in. This is a profound statement and lies at the heart of the mission of RS to venerate the living icons of God in our community. John says that no one has seen God but that we abide in God when we love. Loving the other is a way of “seeing” the invisible God. John takes this idea so far as to say that no one can love God when he doesn’t love his brother. Loving one another is loving God. This is the perfect love that casts out fear: the love of the other.

I am not all that different from my eight-year-old self. I still fear the darkness, but instead of the darkness in the bathroom hall, it is the darkness of my ignorance. When someone walks into RS behaving strangely or is dealing with life challenges that seem insurmountable, I am gripped by fear. When I alienate someone I radically disagree with in politics, faith, or philosophy, I am gripped by fear. Like a child, I make monsters out of people when I imagine what resides in the darkness. But, as Dostoyevsky said, this fear is produced by a lie – a lie I create. My fear of the other is birthed from a lack of relationship, a void filled with assumptions and untruths. This fear is cast out when I receive God’s perfect love and choose acts of veneration - respect and honor toward others.

Veneration is best practiced in much the same way I combatted my fear of the dark as a child. In order to see others as living icons of God, I need grace to slow down, to challenge the darkness of my ignorance and to listen. Although it may be uncomfortable and every part of me may long to run away in terror, perfect love would have me linger. Perfect love—the love of God extended to me and to those around me—desires to illumine my darkness. Perfect love invites me into relationship with those that I fear; it invites me to see God.

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Paying Attention is a Form of Veneration

Recently I tried something dangerous with my sons: forging! Fires ablaze, molten hot steel, and heavy hammers wielded by an 11 and 13 year old; not usually a recipe for a successful outing but the Boy Scout troop we are a part of decided to give it a try last weekend. Like the other dads, I was brimming with manly excitement on the day the campout began. I knew nothing of forging but I made a quick study on youtube and purposed to pound out three railroad spike knives and a few great memories with the boys. However, in the process of working on our first project something happened. Through it I learned three valuable lessons about the importance of cultivating my attention rigorously in order to live a life of love and veneration.

After our first few blows against the cold anvil steel, I placed our railroad spike in the flame of the forge to heat up again. I then turned to reposition the tools but by the time I turned back, half of the spike had melted away! One minute we were making a blade worthy of the Dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain, the next all we had was a molten twig like the leftovers from a sparkler on the 4th of July! In an instant I learned that when you are forging, nothing, not one thing, can overtake your attention.  

Cultivate attention to preparation
Here in lies my first lesson. I should have spent more time surveying the setup, prepare the tools, and coordinating roles with my son before we began. The Scripture says in Luke 14:28, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has what is needed to complete it?” Attention to preparation is an essential part of any work worth undertaking but I was too excited to slow down and prepare properly. Additionally, my son’s excitement to get started was hard to resist. Like a young man with zeal but little knowledge, I thrust the project into the fire before all was prepared and ultimately paid the price. I believe this lesson is as true in forging as it is in my work, my prayer life, and especially in my relationships. 

Cultivate my attention daily and purposefully
You should have seen the disappointment on my son’s face when he realized that the early form of his blade was now only slag in the fire. Slag is what you dig out of the coal ash when you make a mistake like this—molten rock and metal fused into a useless lump. His disappointment lingered almost as long as the oily soot on his cheeks that day. I felt terrible as if somehow I had caused his distress directly. He tried to hide his frustration as he sat on a stump near the forge but would not speak for a long while. Here is where I learned my second lesson: if I do not cultivate my attention daily and purposefully, accidents happen and these can strain the relationships with those I love the most. Now, I can rationalize this accident, size it up against “real trauma” and say it wasn’t my fault, but I know that would be just another distraction. I needed to pay attention to my son’s disappointment and look into my failing, the slag in the bottom of the forge of my own heart, to remind myself of why deep intentionality with my attention is worth the effort.

Cultivate attention to the state of my heart
As my son and I returned to salvage the project the best we could, another problem arose. It kept taking longer to heat the spike and make it pliable. The fire was quickly waning. A more experienced friend taught us why. In forging, slag builds up over time as a natural process of creating and can plug the fan beneath the flames and kill the fire. A good blacksmith, he said, pays attention to the flame and periodically sifts the coals, dredges up the slag, and removes it. 

As I reflected on this later, I remembered that St. Paul wrote about slag in his letter to the Church in Rome when he said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...” (Rom 3:23).  Slag builds up in my heart and removing it is critical to keeping the fires of inspiration hot. Simply put, I need to cultivate attention to the state of the flame in the forge of my heart. I know to do this but regularly I let my attention get drawn away by distractions. I know how to remove the slag too. For me this is regular confession to God in quiet reflection daily. I’m embarrassed to admit how difficult it is to make time to do that. In my heart there are projects incomplete, bits of intentions left undone, and parts of prayers dangling mid-sentence—all melted away in moments of distraction. No wonder the fires of inspiration flicker somedays! I am so thankful for learning this third lesson.

My wife has a quote on the chalkboard in our house by Simone Weil, a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist, that says, “Attention is the purest form of generosity.” I appreciate that reminder. Learning to cultivate my attention is a form of charity, veneration and love that takes sacrifice and practice, especially in my work at RS and with my family. 

There are so many exciting projects but without attention to preparation, accidents will happen. There are people who count on me and our RS team daily who are struggling to survive and succeed, and without my cultivating attention daily I will inadvertently disappoint and fail those who I care for the most and finally, I need to lead by example in cultivating attention to my heart and removing the slag to keep the flame burning hot enough to be effective. There is no greater gift I can give myself and those I love than well cultivated attention. 

By the end of the weekend my sons and I had completed three railroad spike knives and polished them to a brilliant shine. We were exhausted but I had learned a lot about an ancient art and the cultivation of my attention as an act of generosity, love, and veneration.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Veneration as Celebration

As a mother of three boys, I know the power of celebration. It is one of a mother’s many responsibilities, to celebrate. I rejoice in the accomplishments and milestones of my guys. I watch them grow and learn, always looking for moments to celebrate, to venerate. And when the awards don’t come and the race is not won, I still encourage my kids, I still value them, I still celebrate and venerate them.

It is easy to celebrate a child, especially our own. We see such joy, such potential. We may even see our own strengths and influences in those celebratory moments. And in their innocence and humility, children see little shame in seeking praise. So, we readily celebrate small things. We honor the mundane. We venerate them simply because of who they are.

At Reconciliation Services we talk often of the mission to see each person we come in contact with as a unique person created by God and therefore worthy of veneration, celebration, honor. That word honor is synonymous with both venerate and celebrate.

That connection between celebration as veneration was so tangible to me recently.

It was a very active Friday night meal at RS. It was a cheerful energy, the kind that good food and intense conversation can conjure. Sometimes in that crowd there is a quiet celebration waiting to happen. Sometimes I am blessed enough to get to be in on it.

David walked in and greeted me as he often does.

“Do you remember me?” he asked. “Of course I do, David. I haven’t see you in awhile.” He told me he had a birthday recently. “I turned 52,” he said. I congratulated him of course and told him that I, too, recently had a birthday. He pointed out that I share a birthday with his uncle and then he named several people he knew with birthdays near my own. He recalled each person’s age and birthdate.  “You’re really good at remembering dates,” I told him. “Yeah, people say I am pretty good with numbers,” he said.

Then he reached inside his big winter coat and pulled out an envelope. He opened the envelope, which had his name neatly written on the front. “Would you like to sign my birthday card?” he asked. “Of course I would. Thanks for asking.”

David is a tall, quiet man. There is no arrogance in him. He is guileless and simple and gentle. He often wears multiple coats and carries a black leather satchel. You won’t likely see him without his hat on or a hood pulled up over his head. He is poor. He is homeless.

At first, I felt quite sad for him. Had he been carrying that card around for days just hoping someone would know, would ask to sign it? Only, David wasn’t sad. He was smiling, like he always does, and he was excited to see me sign his card. It wasn’t a sorry attempt at pity or attention. David didn’t announce his birthday to the room full of people gathered for the Friday night free meal at Reconciliation Services. Surely we would have sung to him, congratulated him, patted him on the back. He didn’t make his way around the room adding signature after signature to his precious birthday card. He asked me, just me.

David offered me a personal invitation to know him, to celebrate him. He made himself so vulnerable to me and in turn challenged me to be vulnerable too. I don’t like to feel vulnerable. I like my boundaries. I can serve the Friday night meal with a smile and willingly pour cup after cup of lemonade and wipe table after table. I keep moving. I keep doing.

David’s invitation was immediate and profound. It couldn’t be hurried or brushed aside. He cut right through my walls and said, “See me.” Was he an angel sent by God to test me, to prove me? Was it the voice of God Himself, saying, “I invite YOU”? Perhaps.

I’ve never carried around my own birthday card, seeking signatures. But I do long to be known, to be celebrated. David’s openness really challenged me. It brought me back to that place at my very core that longs to be close to God, to welcome his participation, his presence. Being vulnerable with one another makes this closeness possible--closeness with one another and closeness with God. We return to that celebrated state, that place of veneration, where we honor and are very much honored as well.

Can celebration be as simple as signing a homeless man’s birthday card? Yes, it is a good place to begin.

I remember you David. I see you. Thank you for inviting me to celebrate you, to venerate you. And thank you for venerating and celebrating me also.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Racism as Iconoclasm

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear" (Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas).

Earlier this afternoon while at Reconciliation Services I was speaking with a young man whom I have known now for about a year and a half. He is very bright but admittedly troubled and he is working through the issues that aren’t so uncommon for most young men of his age. On this particular day, he was commenting on a book about the history of Christianity in Africa which I had given him the week prior. He had just finished the section that was speaking about the repopulation of the earth by the sons of Noah; Shem, Ham and Japheth. After having a relatively simple (as much as that is possible) and quick discussion on allegory and genetic possibilities, my friend gave me a side-eyed glance and said to me, “so if Noah was given the job of repopulating the earth, then that means we (human beings) are all related, right?” To this, my best answer in the moment was to quote Jimi Hendrix, from his song Machine Gun where he assumes the character of a lamenting soldier, who in midst of the carnage and murder of combat, observes: “evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you, even though we're only families apart!”

The Apostle John taught that if you hate your brother you are guilty of murder (1 John 3:15). These are the strongest of words, especially for us here in the United States where we are seemingly in an unending cycle of racial tension. For many of us, the best we can do is to throw up our hands in resignation, and to do our best to “mind our own business.” I admit that this type of resignation in the face of such deeply entrenched attitudes and issues, seems like the wise choice; however, as the old adage states: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. For me, the hard fight for understanding of the theology of the Icon by the ancient Church has been the greatest antidote against the atrophying doom of ignorance.

The iconoclast period was a period in the history of the ancient Christian Church, that lasted roughly 90 years (730-787CE and 813-843CE) where the controversy over the use of the Icon in Christian worship violently erupted. In short, the iconoclasts saw the Icon as idolatry; where as the Orthodox saw the Icon as the proclamation of the incarnation of God in the flesh. The final triumph of the Icon and the reasons behind it are explained best by the hymnography sung by all Orthodox Christians on the first Sunday of Great Lent. This hymn says: 

“No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos (Mother of God), He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.”

If I were to boil this down to an essential statement, I believe it would simply say that the Icon explains what words alone cannot. It reveals to mankind that God loves His creation. That God would humble Himself and become a man like us, is too great of a mystery to simply be pronounced with words. How is it then, that racism is the new Iconoclasm? Racism not only blinds our ability to see those who simply look different than us as being made in the image of God, it can go as far as to distort our vision of them into horrific caricature. We all have family members that we struggle to get along with; accordingly, most have also had the experience of having a friend that is closer than a brother. This phenomenon is the proof, that relation is something deeper than biology. It’s about relating.

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The ancient Christian church affirmed the veneration of Icons because she discerned that the Icon could not be properly seen with just fleshly eyes, that ultimately there was something hidden behind the wood and paint. Therefore, the destruction of the Icon had little to do with the simple vandalism of a painting; rather, it was a flat out assault against the great mystery of God becoming man, to affirm his love for man. How much more of an affront is it, when we see the assault upon our brothers and sisters who are living icons, because of their outward appearance, because of biological facets like skin color and hair type? Like the Iconoclast of old, is it not because we are blind to what lies beneath? Is it not Christ who is the very archetype of every man? Panayiotis Nellas, a Greek theologian wrote:

“…It thus becomes clear that the essence of man is not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends… As the truth of an icon lies in the person it represents, so the truth of man lies in his archetype (Christ).” (Deification in Christ, p33)

In looking back to ancient history, I have found that the answer to the racial strife that lies in the hearts of so many in this country isn’t an easy fix, but it is a simple one. History can be a very tricky course to navigate, but sometimes the most complex concepts are best explained simply, and in regard to understanding the Iconoclastic tone of racism, I think I’ve heard it best summed up by an abbess of a monastery in California who recently said, “God doesn’t make junk.”

Article by Turbo Qualls, Case Manager - Reconciliation Services