Updates: Advent 2018

So much has happened in such a short time! We’re quickly learning how challenging it can be (and in Ethiopia, it likely will be) keeping folks updated throughout this immense transition. I’d intended to write this update shortly after I’d arrived in Ethiopia, but I’ve found a number of things have either distracted me from doing so or have made it difficult. In any case, I’m determined to get an update written this beautiful Monday morning (every day has been sunny, with the temperature hovering around 70*F).

Big news first: as the photo up top suggests, Kristen is pregnant! The baby is due June 10! This blessed surprise alters our planned schedule slightly, but not too much. As of right now, our plan is that I return to the States in March, at which point the family will make stops in Chicago and Ames on our way to Colorado Springs in April/early May, where we’ll attend a month-long cross-cultural and language learning course. We’ll return to Oklahoma and have the baby and leave for Ethiopia one to two months later – that would be the end of July or early August.

Per the court hearing last week, the adoption is technically scheduled for June. However, we’re told that it will likely happen sooner than that. That’s really all we know. It has been a profound exercise in patience.

Kristen and the boys are splitting their time between Tulsa and Stillwater (and a little bit in Edmond). Kristen’s found a gym with two hours’ daycare per day included in the membership, and swim lessons for the boys, so she can (hopefully) get a little break and the boys can burn off some energy (although, of course, they have plenty in reserve). Charlie loves pre-K at Jenks Southeast Elementary.

I (John) arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, on Thursday, November 29. I spent the weekend visiting folks in and around Addis; coincidentally, my boss from Iowa State was visiting at that time, so I was privileged to visit Addis Ababa University’s veterinary college in Debre Zeit/Bishoftu, as well as the African Union’s Pan-African Veterinary Vaccine Center. On that Sunday I attended the Divine Liturgy at St. Frumentius Orthodox Church, which is part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa.

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Divine Liturgy (the Great Entrance) at St. Frumentius Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa.

I arrived in Mekelle on Monday, December 3, and was greeted by some ex-pat friends I’ve come to know during my travels. In fact, one ex-pat is currently in the States, probably for several months, and I’ve been blessed to stay in his house at an extremely reasonable rate while he’s gone. They’ve been a huge help to me as I’m learning where to buy groceries (and everything else), general procedures for food safety (e.g., uses for tap vs. filtered vs. bottled water, bleaching produce, etc.), where to set up a bank account (there are so many banks!), and a million other things that one wouldn’t think one needs to know. I believe that this preliminary trip will be immensely helpful for many reasons, but one especially noteworthy reason is that I will be much more comfortable with the little things when I return with Kristen and the boys, which should make the transition significantly smoother.

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My first attempt at roasting my own coffee. Note the amateur’s uneven roast on the left, and the teacher’s much more even roast on the right.

I’ve met with personnel at the veterinary college and at the seminary, and we’re all excited that years of planning are coming to fruition. We’ve begun working on Memoranda of Understanding, outlining the details of our work agreements in order to manage expectations (on both sides) to the greatest extent possible. I’m also doing due diligence to get visa issues worked through, which has been largely a waiting game (which is what I expected).

I’m quite grateful for the many obvious (and some less obvious) blessings that have been revealed as this adventure unfurls. The people, whether at the vet school, the seminary, or my ex-pat friends, have been the biggest blessing. I’ve grown unaccustomed to living alone, and I’m quite ready to glam on to anyone who gives me even a sideways glance. The food, the coffee, the weather, dipping my toe into the language(s) and liturgy, have all been delightful.

I’m struggling with the challenges associated with trying to stay connected electronically, and navigating both intermittent power and internet access (which is both intermittent and often agonizingly slow), and trying to become accustomed to my new normal. This is true in terms of the work I’m trying to accomplish (including writing blog posts!), staying connected with friends and family, especially Kristen and the boys (we’ve come to really like the Marco Polo app), or simply coming to realize what creature comforts will simply not be part of life here (I’m looking at you, Netflix). Again, some blessings are more obvious than others.

My current morning routine has me waking with the sun, saying morning prayers, and reading from Isaiah, Revelation, and Luke. Isaiah is a book I’d love, love, love to have more time to dive deep into. I feel like I know it while it yet remains an immense mystery (which is, of course, true for all of the Scriptures, but it’s more amplified for me with Isaiah). I’m currently in what’s referred to as “deutero-Isaiah”: chapters 40-55, which begins, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from theLord’s hand double for all her sins.” Words of intimacy and comfort follow, originally intended to encourage exiles in Babylon that it is time to return to Zion (Jerusalem). 2,500+ years later, it has been wonderful to read a bit of this message every morning as I adjust to a new way of life, as well as to prepare to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.

I pray that all our friends and family find comfort in knowing that we are invited to return home out of our (self-imposed) exile thanks to the One who became one of us in order to make it possible.

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John Prine, the Opioid Epidemic, and the Death of My Sister

Recently, my friend Scott Elliott, pastor at La Grange Church of Christ, shared a new music video for the song Summer’s End by John Prine, which I recommend you watch all the way through before reading further.

Scott, with his typical eloquence and pastoral acumen, offered these comments:

This video from John Prine is heartbreaking. It is a reminder that we live in a broken world, and we all long for everything to be made right. We long for home, and not just our imperfect understanding of home. We long for home as it should be. We long for a home where that which has been lost is restored. We long for a home where sin and death are words that mean nothing to us because they no longer exist.

If you are struggling with addiction, you are not alone. If you are depressed, you are not alone. If you are hurting, you are not alone. If you are lonely, you are not alone. There are people all around you who love you and care for you. Reach out to someone and find help. We are on this journey together.

“For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:14-16)

Scott’s post, and Prine’s video, completely hijacked my day. I started weeping in a corner of Doubleshot Coffee. I’ve revisited the video countless times since, and I weep harder every time I see it (at this point I’m just ugly crying). I’m ashamed to admit, however, that I didn’t figure out why it had such an impact on me until the third time I watched it.

My little sister, Crystal Ann, died of an opioid overdose on January 16, 2011. She was 28 years old. Crystal was 14 months younger than me, and my only biological sibling. Apart from being siblings, though, we had very little in common. The majority of our interactions (at least the ones I remember) involved fighting – often physically. In high school, due to a part-time job and my music, I was rarely home (she wasn’t either, for that matter), and we saw each other less and less.

As adults, our interactions became more and more rare, so that we saw each other two or three times a year, tops. I knew from Mom that Crystal was struggling with substance abuse and addiction, including several hospital stays and multiple attempts at rehabilitation. The Sunday that she died, she left a voicemail for me, which was relatively rare. Even more surprising (given my poor record at returning messages), I called back and left a voicemail, in which I told her that I loved her.

I have no way of knowing whether or not she heard that voicemail. I hope so.

At Crystal’s visitation, with the help of my Aunt Janet and my granddad (Paw-Paw), I prayed the Psalter over her body; it took a little less than four hours. Later, when I began to include the lighting of candles as part of my prayers, I began to pray for God’s mercy regarding Crystal when I lit those candles. As Charlie and I (and now E., and soon, Judah) light candles when we enter the church, we pray for Aunt Crystal first, every time. In the Orthodox Church, prayer for loved ones who have died isn’t about time in purgatory, or indulgences, but is first and foremost an expression of love for our deceased. It is founded on a belief that while God cannot be bribed or manipulated, he certainly hears our genuinely impassioned pleas for mercy on behalf of those we truly love.

In any case, although I pray regularly for Crystal and think of her frequently in the context of my boys’ relationships with one another, I didn’t realize that I was weeping for her (or, to be more precise and honest, for us) until I’d watched Prine’s video a few times. I didn’t realize how powerful the concept of home is for me, and how much my little sister plays a role in what “home” means to me. I think that I’ve wept more, and harder, for Crystal in the last couple of days than I did when she died.

The loss of my sister has absolutely impacted how I think of death, what death means, and the significance of Christ’s victory over death by means of his crucifixion and resurrection. I hear and contemplate the many versions of the Paschal Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead/trampling down death by death/and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”) year-round; I am frequently reminded of the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily; I hear the Christ’s victory proclaimed loudly in the music Johnny Cash made at the end of his life:

I hear these hymns and songs, and I am filled with hope – hope in God’s mercy, in Christ’s faith, and in his perfect love. My prayer for those who have fallen asleep is that taught to me by my Church:

O God of spirits and of all flesh, who hast trampled down Death, and made powerless the Devil, and given life to Thy world: Do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant, in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. Pardon every sin which she hath committed, whether by word, or deed or thought: for Thou art good, and lovest mankind; for there is no man who liveth and sinneth not, and Thou only art beyond sin, and Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy law is truth. . . .

May the immortal King, who hath dominion over the living and the dead, and who rose again from the dead, Christ our true God, through the intercessions of His all-immaculate and all-blameless holy Mother; of the holy, glorious and all-laudable apostles; of our venerable and God-bearing Fathers; of the holy and glorious forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; of the holy and righteous friend of Christ, Lazarus of four-days, and of all the Saints, establish the soul of His servant, departed this life, in the dwelling-place of the righteous, give her rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number her among the righteous, and have mercy on us, and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind.

May thy memory be eternal, O our ever-memorable sister who art worthy of blessedness.

 

A Veterinarian’s Prayer

As many of you know, I was blessed to have the opportunity to study historical theology and biblical exegesis at Wheaton College from 2010 to 2013. I followed that with a research position at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where I was blessed to be able to pursue a PhD in Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine.

As I transitioned from focusing full-time on biblical and theological studies to focusing full-time on veterinary infectious disease research, I felt compelled to articulate the relationship between the two: between what it means to be God’s co-worker (as articulated in passages like 2 Corinthians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; and Romans 8:17) and to be a veterinarian (and, in particular, a veterinary researcher).

I wrote the following prayer as a result of my preliminary thoughts on this topic, to help me begin to articulate some of these ideas, and to enable me to ask God’s help in better realizing and implementing them.

O Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son and Word of God, through whom God the Father created all things, both visible and invisible, Source of Life and Destroyer of Death

Blessed are you who allows me to witness and participate in the beauty of your creation; for every creature that awakens to new life and joyfully sings your praises in a thousand ways; for the birds and beasts that bear the imprint of your love.

In your great mercy and love for mankind, cause me to turn back from thoughts, words, and deeds that defile and afflict your creation; rather, cause me to be your co-worker in caring for and healing the birds and beasts over which you have given mankind stewardship.

You who have said, “apart from me you can do nothing,” grant me the wisdom, patience, understanding, and benevolence to honor the dignity you have bestowed upon my labor as a veterinarian, that by my participation with you in this work you would be glorified, with the Father who is from everlasting, together will your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

The words in italics are taken from the Akathist of Thanksgiving, a beautiful prayer that magnifies the glory of God in the face of suffering, with a focus on the beauty of God’s creation.

I had the privilege of sharing this prayer with a group of veterinarians and veterinary students at Christian Veterinary Mission’s Real Life Real Impact conference in 2017. I spoke about what prayer is, why we do it, and then I discussed the components of my veterinarian’s prayer.

Ultimately, prayer is our sacrificial offering to God, as we see in Psalm 141:2 (140 LXX): “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice,” and in Revelation 8:4: “The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”

Tertullian put it this way in the third century:

“It is an excellent custom to present, like an opulent offering, a prayer fattened with all that tends to dignify and honor God. For this is the spiritual oblation that has wiped out the ancient sacrifices. . . . We are true worshippers and true priests who, praying in the Spirit, in the spirit offer up prayer, an oblation fitting and acceptable to God, one, indeed, which he has sought, one which he has provided for himself.”

Regarding why we pray, I think it begins with the understanding that we are a “royal priesthood . . . that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). This concept of priesthood necessarily involves the concept of mediation. In the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, in an article on the Hebrew word for priest (kohen), Philip Jenson writes:

“Perhaps the central concept of priesthood is mediation between the sphere of the divine and the ordinary world. A priest through his ritual actions and his words facilitates communication across the boundary separating the holy from the profane. The priests represented God to the people in the splendor of their clothing, in their behavior, and in oracles and instruction, while in sacrifice and intercession they represented the people to God.”

Prayer, then, is our offering to God on behalf of all of creation (including, but not limited to, our fellow human beings). Likewise, through prayer we act as God’s co-workers, allowing His grace to work through us via our praise and intercession.

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In my veterinarian’s prayer, I begin with a brief reflection on who God is, which is intimately connected with what God has done. As I’ve said elsewhere, the most important question we can seek to answer is that of Jesus to his disciples: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42). I then give thanks for his call on my life, and for the amazing gift of the invitation to participate with him.

I move on to offer repentance, recognizing that as human beings, we turn away from God and seek to do our own will in contradiction to his will, and in doing so we distance ourselves from the source of existence and life, and draw closer to non-existence and death. As the priests of creation, when we do this, we draw creation farther away from God along with us. Elder Zosima makes the same claim in The Brothers Karamozov:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.”

Finally, I ask for wisdom, patience, understanding, and benevolence to enable me to move forward and enter into the invitation to participate with God in the work that I’ve been called to carry out in his name and for his glory.

I found this exercise immensely helpful, and having this prayer to remind me has been an absolute gift. I encourage all who have made it to the end of this post to consider composing a similar prayer, that you might spend some time working through what it means for you, specifically, to be God’s co-worker on earth.

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These of Whom We Speak Are Not Dead

Last Friday, we said goodbye to the body of Betty Coatney, my Pawpaw’s wife of 10 years, whom he married some time after my Mawmaw died. As Charlie and I kissed her cheek for the last time, I couldn’t help but note that it was Charlie’s first time to see (and kiss) a dead body. (We had talked earlier that day about how a dead person’s body looks like it’s asleep, but that the only thing that can wake it up is when Jesus comes back from heaven.)
“Thank you for taking care of our Pawpaw. We love you. We’ll see you when Jesus comes back.”
Yesterday we celebrated the falling asleep of the mother of Jesus (the Dormition of the Theotokos, celebrated on August 15th each year) by attending the Divine Liturgy. As Charlie and I leaned in to kiss the icon of Mary, resting on her bier, I said to him, “See, she’s resting in her coffin, waiting for Jesus to wake her up.” His response: “Like Nana Betty?”
Yes; just like Nana Betty.
I’m so grateful for the Christian understanding and love for the bodies of the deceased. The priest at Holy Apostles, where we usually go when we’re in Tulsa, noted in his homily yesterday the words of St. John of Damascus from the eighth century:
In the Law, anyone who touched a corpse was accounted unclean (Num. 19:11). But these of whom we speak are not dead. Because Life itself and the Author of life was reckoned amongst the dead, we do not call these dead who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection and in the faith in Him.
What a gift! That which was once unclean becomes clean! That which we once were right to fear no longer has any hold over us!
Kristen, Charlie, Judah, and I waited graveside as the attendants lowered Betty’s casket and prepared to fill the grave. As I helped Charlie empty a shovel-full of dirt onto the vault, I heard the words that conclude St. John Chrysostom’s most famous Easter homily:
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!

He descended into hell and took hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
It was embittered, for it was abolished!

It was embittered, for it was mocked!

It was embittered, for it was purged!

It was embittered, for it was despoiled!

It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!

It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!

It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?

O hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that have slept.

To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.

Amen.

There And Back Again (and There Again Soon)

At the end of May, I had the opportunity to visit Mekelle, Ethiopia, in advance of our move there in the near future. This visit was part of a USDA project hosted by Iowa State University, called the Foreign Agricultural Service Faculty Exchange Program. Each fall, several faculty members from veterinary colleges throughout Africa spend the semester in Ames, Iowa, working with colleagues in their respective areas of interest, with an emphasis on curriculum development and pedagogy. Then, the following spring, their counterparts at Iowa State visit corresponding veterinary colleges in Africa for about a week, to better understand the similarities and differences between Iowa State’s veterinary school and the particular African veterinary school, and to discuss/brainstorm potential collaboration between the two institutions.

Last fall, Iowa State hosted two faculty members from Mekelle University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. One of Iowa State’s faculty members was unfortunately able to make the trip, so I was asked to go in his place, as someone who will be working closely with Mekelle University and who will maintain close contact with Iowa State faculty members. I naturally jumped at the chance, at traveled to Mekelle with Dr. Matt Brewer, assistant professor of parasitology at Iowa State.

It’s a tough trip to make when you’re only staying for a few days. There are now direct flights via Ethiopia Airlines (a quality airline with a solid reputation) from Chicago and Washington, D.C., but for bureaucratic reasons we had fly from Des Moines to Chicago, with a six hour layover, United/Lufthansa to Frankfurt with an 11 hour layover, Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, where we went through customs, discovered and reported missing luggage, and shifted over to the domestic terminal for our flight to Mekelle. We left for the Des Moines airport at about noon on Saturday, and arrived at our hotel in Mekelle at about two pm on Monday.

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Waiting to board our last of four flights, from Addis Ababa to Mekelle.

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Arriving in Mekelle, “The City of Knowledge,” after nearly two days of travel.

 

Mekelle University College of Veterinary Medicine

Our welcome to Mekelle helped us overcome our exhaustion, however, thanks to our veterinary colleagues’ incredible attention and hospitality! We were invited to dinner at the home of Dr. Birhanu Hadush, one of the exchange program’s scholars, where we were treated to a number of delicious, homemade Ethiopian dishes, with lots of injera, and, of course, a coffee ceremony. This hospitality was especially noteworthy because the vet school was hosting a number of visiting veterinary faculty from schools across Ethiopia, as it was exam week for the veterinary students (in which both internal and external examiners gave oral exams) and the school was hosting a National PhD Curriculum Review Workshop to review the college’s new proposed PhD programs (something that I will be heavily involved in!). We are immensely grateful to the leadership at the college for their kind and detailed attention during our visit.

We spent most of the week visiting with colleagues at the vet school, including tours of the college and attendance at a number of students’ exams and the curriculum review workshop. We discussed ways in which Iowa State and Mekelle University might collaborate in the future, as well potential projects and responsibilities that I will take on when we settle in Mekelle. We were also invited to present some of our research at Iowa State in terms of potential future collaboration with Mekelle.

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Discussing the research program at Mekelle University and potential collaboration with ISU.

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Many of our discussions involved amazing Ethiopian cuisine.

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Presenting some of my research on bovine digital dermatitis.

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Dean Berihu Gebrekidan presenting me with welcome gifts from Mekelle University.

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We were able to become familiar with the veterinary college’s campus.

 

 

St. Frumentius Ethiopian Orthodox Seminary

I also made time to visit St. Frumentius Ethiopian Orthodox Seminary and to discuss our plans there, as well. I met with Dean Tesfay Hadera, the Academic Vice Dean Gebre Hawarya, and the Theology Department Head Kase Tafesse. We discussed some of the ways that I might help, especially with biblical languages and exegetical methodology (i.e., the ways and means in which we approach interpreting Scripture). I was extremely encouraged by their enthusiasm and welcoming demeanor, and I’m confident that we’ll find ways to work together when we get to Mekelle.

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With Dean Tesfay Hadera, dean of St. Frumentius Ethiopian Orthodox Seminary.

 

Mekelle and Axum

Our hosts made sure that we took time to see Mekelle and Axum, where the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia was situated, during our visit. It was a great time to visit with our guide, Baruk, a veterinary microbiologist with a strong interest in church history. Naturally, we hit it off. It was so great to see Axum and all of the history I’ve read so much about; I’m excited to share it with those who come to visit us once we’re settled!

 

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At Mekelle’s memorial and museum for those who fought against the communist regime (The Derg) in the ’70’s and ’80’s.

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Exploring the ancient ruins of Axum. These stellae are about 1,700 years old.

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In front of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, home of the ark of the covenant.

 

I’m extremely grateful to have been able to visit Mekelle and touch base with our future hosts and collaborators. We’re definitely working our way around the bases now; God willing, we’ll get to home plate soon!

“That Bwessed Awwangement… That Dweam Wivin a Dweam…”

If you receive our monthly newsletter from Christian Veterinary Mission (and if not, sign up here), you probably know that we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary by undergoing the wedding ceremony in the Orthodox Church, which is often referred to as being “crowned.” We were blessed to celebrate this occasion on the Feast of Pentecost, May 27, 2018, at All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, the parish where Kristen and I joined the Church, and where Charles Maximus was baptized.

This ceremony was a long time coming. Kristen and I were engaged in March 2007, while she was living in Chicago and I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy. We decided to get married in Europe so that we could honeymoon there and I could finalize my move from Vicenza to Chicago, where I was to be stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. Because we were told that Denmark had the most straightforward marriage laws for non-citizens, we decided to get married in Copenhagen City Hall, and make our way south to Vicenza by train (stopping, of course, at a few places along the way).

In our minds, there was no hesitation about getting married this way. We felt that we could share and celebrate with friends and family at a reception when we got back to the States (which we did), and that the ceremony was, in essence, a legal technicality. For us, the more important ceremony involved sharing our individually written vows and sharing communion (made up of crackers and wine brought up by room service) in our hotel room. Essentially, our substantial ceremony was a private prayer.

Kristen and Johns wedding at Københavns Rådhus

As we began to learn about the Orthodox Church and its approach towards the sacramental nature of our life in Christ, we began to consider when and how we might ask the Church to consecrate our marriage, to make it as fully a sign of Christ and his Church as possible. When I was first learning about the Orthodox Church in Iraq (in 2009), I vividly remember asking the Orthodox chaplain, Fr. Stephan, whether we would have to be married again if we joined the Church. “No,” he replied cheerfully, “but you may well find that you want to be crowned someday, and you may very well have some little ones in tow when you do.” How prophetic his words turned out to be.

Essentially all of our theology of marriage (i.e., our understanding of the nature and τέλος, or purpose, of marriage) can be found in the marriage rite itself. The first prayer of the service contains the following list of requests:

Deacon. In peace let us pray to the Lord.

Choir. Lord, have mercy.

For the servants of God, N. and N., who are now being united to each other in the community of marriage, and for their salvation: ℞

That he will bless this marriage, as he blessed that in Cana of Galilee: ℞

That he will grant unto them chastity, and of the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them: ℞

That he will make them glad with the sight of sons and daughters: ℞

That he will grant unto them the procreation of virtuous offspring, and an upright life: ℞

That he will grant to them and to us all our petitions which are unto salvation: ℞

Pride of place goes first to the salvation of the couple, second to their chastity, and third to their fecundity! Not the typical primary goals we often think of for a married couple!

Subsequent prayers ask God to bless the couple “as thou didst bless Abraham and Sarah” (and numerous other couples); to preserve the couple “as thou didst preserve Jonah in the belly of the whale” (and others in their predicaments), and to

Remember, O Lord our God, thy servant, N., and thy handmaid, N., and bless them. Grant them of the fruit of their bodies, fair children, concord of soul and of body: Exalt them like the cedars of Lebanon, like a luxuriant vine. Give them seed in number like unto the full ears of grain; that, having sufficiency in all things, they may abound in every work that is good and acceptable unto thee. And let them behold their children’s children, like a newly-planted olive-orchard, round about their table; that, obtaining favour in thy sight, they may shine like the stars of heaven, in thee, our God.

The final prayer before the crowning asks God to:

…stretch out now also thy hand from thy holy dwelling-place, and conjoin this thy servant, N., and this thy handmaid, N.; for by thee is the husband united unto the wife. Unite them in one mind: wed them into one flesh, granting unto them of the fruit of the body and the procreation of fair children.

So there’s a pretty clear and self-evident theme here. Kristen explained the significance of the crowning in our June newsletter, but for those who’ve never seen one, I like this (very abbreviated) dramatic portrayal (although ours was in English).

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The Epistle and Gospel passages read during the wedding service are very telling, as well. Near the end of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul concludes his comments on the interaction of husbands and wives with the statement:

No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

As alluded to above, the relationship between marriage and the relationship between Christ and the church is foundational to understanding Christian marriage, and beyond the scope of this post.

The Gospel reading comes from John’s Gospel: the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle: changing water into wine. One of the wedding prayers states how Jesus, “through thine unutterable gift and manifold goodness didst come to Cana of Galilee, and didst bless the marriage there, that thou mightest make manifest that it is thy will that there should be lawful marriage and the begetting of children.”

Salvation, chastity, fecundity. It should go without saying that Christian marriage is hard. Let there be no doubt about it: Kristen and I struggle and fight for our marriage. The first year was hard. Coming back from Iraq was hard. Having kids while doing a PhD is hard. We fall and get up again, over and over and over. But there is joy as well. There are moments when light shines through (such as being crowned surrounded by our friends at All Saints). And we’re reminded that when we get up, when we ask (and offer) forgiveness, when we sacrifice for one another, we are brought closer to one another, and closer to the One who joined us together unto ages of ages.

Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has crowned us (and continues to crown us) with glory and honor!

The Songs of Ascent

Kristen and I want to thank our friends and family for your prayers this past month, as Charles Maximus had a congenital branchial cleft cyst removed from his neck, which then got infected, requiring a second surgery and an overnight stay in the hospital. It’s a learning experience to have your child undergo general anesthesia; especially as someone who has induced general anesthesia in numerous animals over the years. In any case, Charlie has fully recovered with a virile scar to show for his troubles.

Aside from our adventures in and out of the hospital, the last month has been essentially more of the same – I (John) am still seeking to complete my work by the end of July; Kristen is taking care of the boys and working through the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. We continue to prepare for August, when we intend to leave Ames for Oklahoma and begin to raise support full time in order to be able to move to Ethiopia as soon as possible.

In the meantime, while the Western Church celebrates Easter this weekend, in the Eastern Church, we begin Holy Week this weekend, celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus on Saturday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday*. In any case, the period that we call Great Lent ended Friday (March 30).

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Grumpy Orthodox Cat tells it like it is.

One aspect of our Lenten devotions that has had an especially profound impact on me this Lent has been our weekly (at least) reading of the Ascent Psalms. Psalms 120-134 consist of a series of short psalms that are believed to have been written upon the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. These psalms serve as a series of meditations that simultaneously address two types of ascent in their original context: first, and most naturally, the ascent of those climbing Zion in order to reach the newly-restored temple in Jerusalem. Secondarily, it addresses the ascent associated with returning to Israel following their exile in Babylon.

The first of these psalms, Psalm 120 (or 119 in the Greek), reads:

An ode of the Ascents

1 In my affliction I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me:

2 Rescue my soul, O Lord, from unjust lips, from a treacherous tongue.

3 What must be given to thee, what must be added to thee against this treacherous tongue?

4 The warrior’s arrows sharpened with hot coals from the desert.

5 Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar,

6 So long has my soul been exiled.

7 I kept on being peaceful with those hating peace, when I spoke with them they kept on hating me for no cause.

Donald Sheehan’s translation, from the Greek.

Notice how verses 5 and 6 are translated here: “Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar/So long has my soul been exiled.” These are psalms meant to be sung while climbing out of the pit; while returning home from exile; while approaching the Lord in order to make offerings to him, to glorify him, to praise him, and to seek succor from him. These themes of return from exile are found throughout:

“I was delighted in those who had said to me: We shall go to the Lord’s house” (122:1)

“Our soul has escaped like a sparrow from a hunter’s snare, the snare has been shattered and we have escaped” (124:7)

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; he who dwells in Jerusalem shall be forever unshaken” (125:1)

“When the Lord had brought back the captives of Zion, we became like those who are given great comfort” (126:1)

And so on.

During Lent, we read these psalms at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful service, but it can be easy to miss the profundity of what is happening. During the weekdays of Lent, communion can only be given from a “presanctified” host – that is, the Eucharist must have been prepared beforehand, at the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. During the Presanctified Liturgy, a number of actions are taken by clergy to prepare this presanctified host for communion; the Ascent Psalms are read while this is happening.

We read these psalms, then, as a community, in preparation for Holy Communion during Great Lent. We read these psalms as we ascend to the Lord, as we seek to return to him from the exile of our rebellion. We read these psalms and are filled with joy, because the Lord is welcoming us back from this self-imposed exile: he’s welcoming us home, to Zion, to Jerusalem, whose “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”


*The reasons for this difference between East and West are somewhat complicated (and unfortunate). Essentially, both agree that the date for Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, many of the Eastern churches have not adopted the Gregorian calendar for their liturgical observances, so that there is a 13 day difference between the date for the spring equinox. In addition, the date for the full moons was established based on problematic predictions made centuries ago, rather than on astronomically correct observances. These differences account for different calculations between East and West for Easter Sunday every year, despite the fact that both use the same foundational criteria to make the calculations.