Prelims, Zacchaeus, and Lent

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I found this goat in an acacia tree in the Afar Region of Ethiopia. It reminds us of Zacchaeus.

 

It’s been a tough (but edifying) couple of months! In a nutshell:

  • Kristen and the boys enjoyed an extended stay with family and friends in Oklahoma from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. This was in part because the car we bought in November was totaled by a deer the day after Thanksgiving (no people were hurt, thank God). We replaced the car once John joined everyone in Oklahoma for Christmas, and the replacement has been serving us well.
  • Charlie became quite accustomed to lots of sweets, TV (especially Dinosaur Train), and getting his way while in Oklahoma.
  • Judah has two mandibular incisors, and has decided he’s not such a big fan of sleeping through the night.
  • Kristen recently enrolled in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, which is a a fifteen week course designed around four vantage points or “perspectives” — Biblical, Historical, Cultural and Strategic. Each one highlights different aspects of God’s global purpose. This is a highly recommended course for those looking to live and minister overseas.
  • I (John) spent most of the last two months preparing for my preliminary oral exam (prelim), which I passed on January 17th! This allows me to write, submit, and defend (this July) my PhD thesis, which addresses the control, prevention, and treatment of bovine digital dermatitis, a major cause of lameness in cattle. In my PhD program (Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine), the prelim is somewhat unique. Essentially, I was required to design and write an innovative research proposal that I then presented to my PhD committee (five veterinary researchers at ISU), at which point the committee asked whatever they wanted in order to determine my level of knowledge regarding veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine. My research proposal involved surveillance of brucellosis in Ethiopian livestock, a topic of great interest in the Ethiopian veterinary community, and at Mekelle University in particular. Preparation for the prelim was much more stressful than the actual exam, but everything went well.

At this point, we have our noses to the grindstone, and we’re doing what we can to prepare for the move to Mekelle. Once I finish my PhD (in July, God-willing), our plan is to dedicate all of our time to meeting with potential supporters in order to raise the support we need to move. Our goal is to have the support raised to enable to move during late fall or early winter of 2018/19. All donations and support that we receive before that time go toward our start-up/travel expenses.

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The boys checking out one of Charlie’s favorite Christmas gifts.

 

As we continue to work towards these goals, we can’t help but feel stuck in a sort of limbo, of waiting until the next big thing. At times like these we remain grateful for the way in which our church shapes time to enable us to focus on the most truly meaningful cycles and narratives – those that allow us to participate in salvation history. Our church does Pascha/Easter big (the Feast of Feasts!), and we prepare accordingly. In fact, there are three layers of preparation for the annual celebration of Christ’s victory over death – Holy Week, Great Lent, and the four weeks prior to Lent.

The first event that occurs in preparation for Great Lent (which, in turn, prepares us for Pascha), occurred during the Divine Liturgy this past Sunday. The Gospel reading for this service is Luke 19:1-10 – the story of Zacchaeus. Here, we encounter a man who made his living by collecting taxes for the Roman government (collecting more than was required in order to provide himself with income). However, this man had heard that Jesus, a well-known teacher and healer, was passing through his town, and he so desired to see this Jesus that he (being short) climbed a tree in order to do so. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann says in his wonderful book on Great Lent,

…the theme of this first announcement is desire. Man follows his desire. One can even say that man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledge by the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, ” says Christ,”there shall your heart be.” A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man;  when he passionately desires something he does things of which “normally” he is incapable. Being “short,” he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things. . . .

Zacchaeus desired the “right thing”; he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins as the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desire: the desire for God and His righteousness, for the true life.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t tell us that climbing the tree results in Zacchaeus seeing Jesus; rather, he tells us that Jesus “looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.'” Thus, Zacchaeus’s desire leads to being seen by Jesus; as Schmemann says, “it ‘forces’ Christ’s attention; it brings Christ to [Zacchaeus’s] home.”

Finally, it is noteworthy that Zacchaeus climbed a tree, with no regard for his own dignity, in order to see Jesus, who would climb his own tree, with no regard for his own dignity, for the life of the world two weeks later. We who desire to see Christ are called to take up our cross and follow him, regardless of the cost.

As we prepare for Great Lent, may we all, in our desire to see Christ, be seen by him, and thus be changed.

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Thanksgiving and Fasting During Advent

This week, Kristen suggested we talk about what Thanksgiving has come to mean for our family over the last few years. To do so requires that we begin with Advent.

Advent/The Nativity Fast

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Charlie examining the icon of the Nativity, and of St. Nicholas.

“Advent” is taken from the Latin word adventum that can be glossed as “arrival,” or, better, “approach.” It refers to the time in which we prepare for Jesus’s approach in terms of his birth on Christmas. Now, unlike the West, the lands in which most members of the Orthodox Church live today have relatively few historical ties to the Latin language. For this reason, many theological and liturgical words with Latin roots are referred to differently by Orthodox Christians. Thus, the time spent in preparation for Christmas (or, in Orthodox speak, The Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ) is commonly referred to as the Nativity Fast. Of course, we Orthodox Christians who live in the West do use a number of terms that are traditionally associated with Western Christianity, like Lent, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc.

While our (Western) family tends to refer to this season as Advent, we can’t help but acknowledge that a defining characteristic of the Orthodox observance is fasting (hence the name, Nativity Fast). For the forty days prior to Christmas (beginning on November 15), the standard practice for Orthodox Christians is to abstain from eating anything that comes from an animal with a backbone (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) for the entire forty days, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to abstain from olive oil and wine, as well. In addition, portion sizes are to be decreased. The money saved from fasting is to be given to the poor. Naturally, time spent in prayer and contemplation of the birth of Jesus is increased.

This sort of fasting also occurs during Lent (in preparation for Pascha, or Easter), in preparation for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June, in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of Mary in August, and nearly every Wednesday and Friday of the year.

It would be misleading for me to claim that my family (and, in particular, me – John) is diligent in our fasting. I will say that we are diligent in our intentions, and in resuming the fast when we fail to keep it for whatever reason. We have come to appreciate that a significant part of the value of the fasts is the humility learned by failure alongside the desire for perseverance. In addition, how a family fasts, and how that will differ for members of the family, varies based on a number of things – pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and very young children (among others) are exempt from the expectation of fasting, and children are weaned into fasting. Orthodox Christians are encouraged to discuss the fasts with spiritual advisors (typically their parish priest) to determine how best to keep the fasts in their own unique contexts.

The reasons for fasting are numerous, and beyond the scope of this post. The most straightforward explanation for the Nativity Fast is that Christmas is likened to a second Easter (or Pascha), in the sense that Christ’s incarnation is the necessary antecedent of his death and resurrection (Fr. Alexander Schmemann coined the phrase “Winter Pascha” to describe the Nativity). And just as Lent precedes Pascha (being the period in which the Church prays and fasts as a community in preparation for receiving initiates into the Church on Easter), the Nativity Fast precedes the Nativity.

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Charles Maximus at four months (left) and Judah Severus at four months (right).

We are commonly asked how, as Orthodox Christians who fast from November 15 to December 24, we celebrate (or do we even celebrate?) Thanksgiving. The Nativity Fast had been around for some time (to say the least!) before Orthodox immigrants to the U.S. encountered this holiday and the traditions (i.e., foods) associated with it. Since there are a number of Orthodox hierarchies in the U.S., this issue is handled slightly differently, depending on the hierarchy. For the most part, there is either an explicit dispensation granted, or a more implicit understanding that the intents and purposes of fasting are commensurate with those of the Thanksgiving meal (when celebrated appropriately), and that the meal is therefore acceptable.

Orthodox Christians see obvious and significant value in celebrating, as President Lincoln stated in 1863, “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The core of Orthodox worship is Holy Communion; another term for this is Eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστία (eucharistia, “thanksgiving”). The verbal form, εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō, “to give thanks”) is used in the earliest reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me'” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

The heart of Orthodox worship, then, is participation with Christ in the offering of thanks to God for his body, broken for us. And this, of course, extends to offering thanks for all that God has given us, a practice that I, for one, could stand to be much better at doing. A helpful reflection that has had a significant effect on me is to imagine what I would lose if God were to take away everything for which I had not given thanks.

Another practice that has developed in many American Orthodox communities and/or families is gathering to pray and sing a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things,” or the Akathist of Thanksgiving. An akathist (taken from a Greek word indicating that it is to be sung while standing) is a hymn that takes a specific form, sort of like a sonnet. This particular akathist was written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan in 1934, during the height of the Communist persecution. It is often attributed to Archpriest Gregory Petroff, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940; the image of someone praying this in the gulag is incredibly powerful.

Here is a recording of this hymn being sung, and here is the text in full. A few highlights:

How glorious You are in the springtime, when every creature awakens to new life and joyfully sings Your praises with a thousand tongues! You are the source of life, the destroyer of death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding-garments, white as snow. All the earth is Your promised bride awaiting her spotless Husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming, after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to You for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature.
Glory to You for the numberless creatures around us.
Glory to you for the depths of Your wisdom–the whole world a living sign of it.
Glory to You: On my knees, I kiss the traces of Your unseen hand.
Glory to You, enlightening us with the clarity of eternal life.
Glory to You for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

How near You are in the day of sickness. You Yourself visit the sick. You Yourself bend over the sufferer’s bed; his heart speaks to You. In the throes of sorrow and suffering, You bring peace; You bring unexpected consolation. You are the Comforter. You are the Love which watches over and heals us. To You we sing the song: Alleluia!

What sort of praise can I give You? I have never heard the song of the cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to You. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers You prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in You, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to You. I have heard the mysterious murmurings of the forests about You, and the winds singing Your praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Your glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship? All nature obeys You, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Your love, I long to thank You, pray to You, and call upon Your Name:

Glory to You, giving us light.
Glory to You, loving us with love so deep, divine, and infinite.
Glory to You, blessing us with light, and with the host of angels and saints.
Glory to You, Father All-Holy, promising us a share in Your Kingdom.
Glory to You, Holy Spirit, Life-giving Sun of the world to come.
Glory to You for all things, holy and most merciful Trinity.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

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Charlie and Judah on Charlie’s birthday (one day after Judah’s birthday).

Who Do We Think We Are?

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Kristen and John at Niagara Falls in October 2009, when John was on leave after returning from Iraq (and after having dragged Kristen to a monastery for their first week together).

This entry will be shorter than previous ones, because we don’t really want to talk about ourselves all that much (at least on the blog; I (John) could talk about myself all day). However, we do want to explain how we came to desire to work overseas, and why we’ve decided to pursue this goal.

Kristen’s Story

When I was 17, an evangelist came to the Stillwater Church of Christ and shared his experience as a long-term missionary in China.  I was so moved and impressed by the work he was doing, I contemplated packing my bags and moving to China the next day.  Years later (in 2011), I went on a short-term trip to Haiti.  It was my first experience with extreme poverty and I really didn’t know what to expect, but by the time my trip came to an end I didn’t want to leave.  Many of the people I met were still displaced from the effects of the 2010 earthquake but the amount of love and joy they had for each other and for me was inspiring and overwhelming.

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Kristen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010.

As Christians, we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to care for and love the sick and the suffering, to try to live a life worthy of His sacrifice.  While that can, and should, be lived out in our own communities and neighborhoods, there is also a need in communities that don’t have the resources we have been blessed with here.  God calls each of us in different ways and John and I feel there has been a desire and a willingness placed on our hearts for Ethiopia.

John’s Story

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John at the ziggurat in Ur (of the Chaldees) in southern Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham (2009).

My first encounter with some sort of development work involved two short-term spring break trips with the Church of Christ University Center in Stillwater, OK (also, by the way, where Kristen and I met). One trip was to Impact Houston Church of Christ, which has an amazing inner city ministry; the other was a work project in Saltillo, Mexico. These trips made me aware of the possibility of development work as ministry.

At the same time, I was able to attend one of Christian Veterinary Fellowship’s Real Life Real Impact weekends, where I learned about the kind of work that Christian Veterinary Mission did around the world. At the time, I recognized that I wasn’t mature enough (both in my faith, and simply as a person) to pursue development work long term. However, my decision to join the Army Veterinary Corps was heavily influenced by my desire to use the skills and knowledge I had obtained to serve others. I was seeking to share Christ’s love through veterinary medicine in whatever capacity I could at the time.

While in the Army, I did some work in Bosnia, the Congo, Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda, which served to strengthen my resolve to find some way to pursue development work in the future.  I was deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, and it was there that my life changed drastically. I can say that in hindsight, but at the time, I would have said that Iraq was inconsequential: I wasn’t a combatant, and because the Army had become so risk-averse by 2008, I really didn’t have that much to do. I had a lot of time to read, though; and (much more importantly), I had a lot of time to pray. This is where I discovered the Orthodox Church (something we plan to write about in more detail in a future post), but in many ways, it’s where I discovered my absolute dependence on Christ, and where my desire to drop everything to serve him really sprang to life.

Everything since then has been an effort to discern how Kristen and I can use what we’ve been given to know Christ and to love others in such a way that we can look back and know that we made the most of what we were given.

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John and Kristen on their wedding day (May 29, 2008) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why Christian Veterinary Mission?

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I’m a little behind on posting this week, because Charles Maximus’s godmother got married in Chicago this weekend, and Charlie was the ring bearer. Congratulations to Jen and Garrett Ledesma; many years!

Thanks to all who have been showing their support as we prepare for next year: those who have been praying, those who have made very generous contributions, and those who have contacted us to encourage us, followed us, and provided us with their contact information!

Today, I want to write about our sending agency (I’ll explain this term below): Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM). I want to explain who they are, what they do, and why we chose to partner with them.

What is Christian Veterinary Mission?

Christian Veterinary Mission was founded in 1976 by Dr. Leroy Dorminy, a veterinarian from Georgia. At the Baptist World Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in July 1975, Dr. Dorminy met a woman from Africa who, when asked how Christians in the developed world can help in developing countries, responded, “what we need is for you to come and teach us your skills that we might do for ourselves.”

Dr. Dorminy then approached his denomination’s foreign mission board, but was turned away, in part because they simply didn’t know what to do with a veterinarian! As a result, he became convinced that there was a real need for an organization that understood the veterinary profession and what veterinarians can offer in the way of sharing Christ’s love in developing countries.

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Dr. Leroy Dorminy (photo courtesy of cvmusa.org).

Due to the need for experienced, professional guidance in terms of supporting those placed overseas, CVM became a part of CRISTA ministries in 1978. CRISTA’s mission is “to love God by serving people – meeting practical and spiritual needs—so that those we serve will be built up in love, united in faith and maturing in Christ.”

What Does CVM Do?

As they explain on their website, “CVM’s mission is to challenge, empower and facilitate veterinary professionals to serve others by living out their Christian faith.” Another way that CVM states its mission is “to share the love of Christ through veterinary medicine.”

CVM thus functions as a sending agency for those in the veterinary profession. One website describes a sending agency as one that “specializes in the care and service of ‘people on mission’ . . . experts in all the challenges and details of a person going into itinerant ministry, and can provide excellent financial services, mailing and database services, fund raising training, donor communication training and support, connections and resources from many other related people and organizations, and more.”

Today, CVM functions as the sending agency for more than fifty veterinarians (and their families) in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia; all of whom raise their own support, as we are doing. In addition, CVM has student and professional ministries in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. I (John) was introduced to CVM through its student ministry while in vet school.

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A map showing the location of many current CVM field staff. The map is interactive here.

Why We’re Raising Support

Before I explain why we chose CVM, I want to explain some of the reasons why we decided to raise support rather than find other funding options.

  • We want to create a community of supporters, who will come alongside us in our work through prayer, financial contributions, and interaction (both on social media and through visits). Raising financial support requires us to do the work of connecting with our supporters by keeping you up updated and involved. It also allows you, when you contribute your time to our work (and money counts here, because you have spent time earning that money) to truly be a part of the work we’re doing.
  • We don’t want to take salaries away from other potential employees. Were I to take a salary from the veterinary school, for example, that’s one less Ethiopian veterinarian or microbiologist that the vet school can hire.
  • We would like to do this work for as long as we’re able, without interruption. I intend to explore a number of funding opportunities, such as grants, once we’re in Mekelle and I’m able to help people determine their priorities and goals. Those sorts of opportunities will fund projects to benefit the groups I’m working with. But grants are typically short term, and if we were dependent on them for our continual funding, we would have to spend valuable time identifying, applying for, and being subject to the terms and conditions of the grants (assuming we’re awarded them).
  • We want our work to be sustainable, and to endure after we leave. If we’re taking a salary, we’re obliged to do the work required by those paying us. Our intention, however, is to come alongside those already doing that work, and offer our experience, knowledge, and skills, to enable them to excel long after we’re gone.

Why We Chose CVM

There are three basic reasons that we chose to work with CVM: their history of financial accountability, their experience with veterinarians and with Ethiopia, and their reputation for caring for their field staff.

CVM and CRISTA Ministries have an outstanding reputation for financial accountability. They have a four-star rating on Charity Navigator (which rates them according to financial health, accountability, and transparency), and are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. It was important to us that our supporters have peace of mind that your donations are being used appropriately and effectively at all levels. All donations to CVM are tax deductible.

CVM has a 40+ year history of supporting veterinarians, especially those seeking to share their expertise in developing countries. By working with CVM, we have access to a community that knows the pitfalls to avoid as a vet in a developing country, as well as what works.

The same can be said about living as a veterinarian in Ethiopia. CVM’s Africa Regional Director and his family spent nearly three decades in Ethiopia; other veterinarians have worked there, or work there currently. They understand the unique cultural and logistical challenges associated with navigating Ethiopia.

Finally, CVM has a reputation for caring for its field staff. This has been a constant refrain as I’ve gotten to know current and former members of CVM’s team. We’ve even experienced it ourselves, as we had some medical issues that required I leave the first CVM event we attended a couple of days early; the prayer, expressions of concern and support, and follow-up were incredible. We feel comfortable knowing that CVM’s members take care of one another, and live out the call to function as brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are a number of organizations with whom we considered partnering, and of course, other groups have a number of skill sets offered by CVM (and in a few cases, advantages that CVM is not able to offer). However, we are confident that we are in good hands with CVM, and we look forward to a fruitful partnership.

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Charles Maximus at the rehearsal for his nouna’s wedding at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago.

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