Saturday, April 30, 2005

Thousands celebrate Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem

Thousands celebrate Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem


JERUSALEM (AP) - A sea of flames illuminated Christianity's holiest shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as thousands of pilgrims took part Saturday in the holy fire ceremony, a key event in the Orthodox Easter rituals.

The event passed peacefully despite plans by protesters to block the participation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Irineos I.

Demonstrators, who object to the Patriarch's alleged role in a controversial land deal, were kept away by the hundreds of Israeli police who set up barricades throughout the alleys leading to the Jerusalem holy site.

The shrine, marking the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried, was filled with thousands of pilgrims. Hundreds more waited outside for the holy flames to emerge.

At the start of the ceremony, church leaders descended into the underground burial area. The faithful clutched their bundles of unlit candles and torches while waiting in the darkened church for a flame to emerge from the tomb.

Some Christians believe the flame appears spontaneously, as a message from Jesus that he has not forgotten his followers.

When church leaders, including Irineos, emerged with a lighted torch, a cheer arose, and the flames were passed around, illuminating the church within seconds.

Tensions were high ahead of the ceremony.

The Greek Orthodox Church is in turmoil over a deal in which the church reportedly leased prime property in disputed east Jerusalem to Jewish investors.

The alleged land deal is politically explosive because Israel claims all of Jerusalem, while Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Jewish land purchases in east Jerusalem are seen as bolstering Israel's claim to that section of the city.

In the past the ceremony has also been a flashpoint between different Orthodox denominations, who have argued over protocol at the ceremony.

About a dozen Greek and Armenian clergymen briefly scuffled over who would be first to emerge with the flames, but they were quickly pulled apart by Israeli police stationed inside the church.

Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by a number of denominations that jealously guard their responsibilities under a fragile network of agreements hammered out over the last millennia.

"Every year there is always tight security, but maybe this year it is even tighter because of the land deal," said Matthew Doll, 30, a pilgrim who waited outside the church.

Protesters had vowed to bar Irineos from the ceremony, but were kept away by the police, said Dimitri Diliani, the head of a Palestinian Christian coalition who have been spearheading the protests.

The reported deal has stirred huge anger among Palestinians who feel betrayed by the church.

At a rare news conference last month, Irineos told reporters he was unaware of the alleged transactions, and that he was not involved in any deal which was reportedly signed by Nikos Papadimas, the church financial officer who vanished three months ago.

Papadimas is wanted in Greece after Greek Orthodox Church officials in Athens accused him of absconding with church funds worth more than $1 million Cdn. His wife is wanted on separate charges of money laundering. Separately, a European arrest warrant has been issued against Papadimas, Greek officials said.

But as the flames emerged from the tomb, church bells pealed and tensions melted away.

"This is one of the most beautiful and spiritual experience of my life," said Jonathan Parish,42, of Boston. "I have dreamt of being in the presence of the holy fire for a long time," he said.

AP Photo, via Minor Clergy

Paschal Epistle of Metropolitan Laurus

Paschal Epistle of Metropolitan Laurus of Eastern America and New York,
First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia


"Let the heavens be glad as is meet, and let the earth rejoice; and let the whole world, visible and invisible, keep festival..."

In these Paschal days of spring, when nature is awakening from the snows of winter, these words of the Paschal canon become particularly meaningful. “Let every breath praise the Lord," God says through the mouth of King David. And “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaimeth the work of His hands."

During these days, we sense with new strength that even inanimate, unconscious creation unceasingly offers up praise to its Creator.

But what of man, the reason-endowed crown of creation? The overwhelming majority of men have rejected their Creator, have perverted the divine gift of reason, turning it into something to advance their own glorification, and not the name of God.

We have been created to love and glorify the Lord willingly and consciously, as the Apostle Paul says: “Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks" (I Thess. 5, 17-18).
Extending His great love toward us, to set aright what had been trampled underfoot, the Lord sent His only-begotten Son, Who has shown us that only through the voluntary bearing of our cross are we able to restore within ourselves the fallen image of man.
He came to adopt us, that we might become Christians, people of Christ, not only in name, but in deed, in our manner of life.

Water mingles with water, and oil with oil; and for us to become one with Christ we must become like unto Him.

And for this it is essential that we constantly uplift ourselves to Him in spirit, that we pray to Him, that we always remember Him, not only during Great Lent and Pascha, but continually.

And for this we must, from one year to the next, connect this Paschal joy to the next Paschal joy, until, by the mercy of God, we reach the eternal Pascha and enter into the never-ending joy of our Lord.

One may reduce the meaning of any given prayer of ours to the words of the Paschal canon: “Grant that we may truly partake of Thee in the never-waning day of Thy kingdom".

It is my earnest desire that the risen Lord grant this to all of us.

We greet our beloved archpastors, pastors, and our whole God-loving flock on these great and saving days of the radiant Resurrection of Christ.

Truly Christ is risen! Amen.

+Metropolitan Laurus
Pascha, 2005

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Houston Press: Million-Hour Madness

Activist Celia Hagert says the system shouldn't begin until the computer program is sound.

Million-Hour Madness
Religious charities discover state welfare reform savings are based in part on their backs

Suzii Paynter and her small band of intrepid, faith-based foot soldiers recently found themselves trouping down to the basement of Christian Life Commission in Austin for an unusual experiment of sorts.

Most of her crew were longtime retirees who had helped the needy and helped the state in the past. They were First Baptist "regulars" who volunteered their time at the downtown homeless shelter. Paynter, public policy director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had several co-workers along.

They were committed to providing more assistance in what has been touted as a major overhaul of the welfare system in Texas.

State government, in a plan stretching back nearly ten years, had pledged to revamp an unwieldy bureaucracy to streamline the eligibility process for services and benefits to disadvantaged Texans. Agency functions would be consolidated, archaic computer systems would be upgraded, and key work would be outsourced to private contractors.

The predicted results are touted as nothing short of spectacular. Texas would save nearly $400 million in costs over the first five years, much of that coming from staff reductions in government jobs. And there are supposed to be tremendous gains in efficiency.

But as Paynter and leaders of other faith-based organizations would eventually discover, a primary component of this grand plan is to save money by using their volunteer services.

Then they found out just how much of the load they were projected to shoulder to make this new system as success: one million volunteer hours of work every year, much of it in tedious chores like entering data into state computers.

"We were a significant part of the plan, yet no one had held a forum or sent out a letter or recruited a round table or asked for an advisory committee," says Paynter. "There had been no outreach about this plan whatsoever to say we were written into this role, and certainly no money for it."

So they trekked down to the basement to try to test the plan.


A decade ago, George W. Bush made welfare reform part of his campaign for Texas governor. Few argued with the call for change.

The system had remained largely the same since it was first designed in the 1960s. Needy residents still have to run a gauntlet of government screening before being qualified to receive assistance.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission says a low-income working couple, with two children and an elderly parent, would have to fill out four separate applications at different state offices to try to receive aid. They would need to try to qualify at these various offices for children's health insurance, food subsidies, Medicare and community care assistance.

Many of the poor don't have access to cars, leaving them trying to use bus routes to get to various government offices involved in the eligibility process. Once there, they often face waits and are usually interviewed in person by caseworkers who fill out the lengthy applications and verify their claims.

The poor would often be sent back for more documentation -- social security cards, paycheck stubs, birth certificates and other records required to process their forms.

The state's solution to the problems was a plan to merge call centers and privatize key functions. Applicants could make one phone call to a call center, where a well-scripted employee of a private company would determine just what services the applicant was entitled to receive. No waiting in line, no filling out forms, no being told to go and get more documents and come back.

The plan required a new software system that would integrate the forms for all the major public benefits programs to provide "one-stop shopping" for applicants.

And, in no surprise to anyone who has followed Bush's "compassionate conservatism" doctrine, this new integrated eligibility model would rely heavily on religious-based and community-based groups.

State Representative Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, served on the bipartisan panel appointed by Bush in 1996 to study welfare reform. He says the committee supported a broad look into privatization in the welfare area, but it was considered only a study.

He says he was surprised to hear next that a state request for proposals had suddenly been issued to privatize the system -- a $2 billion project, with major corporations lining up for the action. "All of a sudden, we had EDS and IBM and Lockheed Martin, all wanting to be a part of this process," Naishtat says.

At the time, the Clinton administration put the kibosh on the plan, saying that the management of these programs could not be privatized.

The state Health and Human Services Commission regrouped and decided that it could at least overhaul the antiquated computer software system. It had been cobbled together over the years to serve 50 Department of Human Services programs across 20 agencies. The state legislature put $55 million into the program created in 1999, then another $137 million in 2001.

When legislators raised privatization ideas again, a far friendlier face was in the White House, and Bush disciple Rick Perry was in the governor's office. To qualify the program, Texas lawmakers called for a small corps of remaining agency caseworkers to do the eligibility determination.

Under that plan, the commission boasted that it would be able to cut 4,500 state workers and close 200 local offices across the state. That was calculated to be a $389 million savings in state and federal funds over the first five years.

In the last legislative session, the program advanced as part of the massive House Bill 2292, sponsored by Arlene Wohlgemuth, then a Republican state representative from Burleson in the Fort Worth area. She lost a run for Congress and is now a lobbyist.

Her legislation called for consolidating a dozen agencies and departments into five mega-agencies under the human services agency. The goal was greater efficiency for the state and the needy, with creation of the new consolidated call centers for assistance.

"At the time I came to the legislature in 1995, we had already been talking about 'one-stop shopping' for benefits, trying to make it as convenient as possible for the applicant and for the state," recalls Wohlgemuth. "These call centers are the epitome of that."


Nothing works until the software works, however. And the software still hasn't worked completely, even though it has been in a limited phase since July 2003. Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities says it's hard to imagine how call centers will work when the state still hasn't made sure the software -- the backbone of the program -- is working.

Known as TIERS, the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System is two years behind schedule and has had 50 version updates. Lawmakers were told last session that the system has serious problems in interfacing with other state agencies and in installing old records into the new system.

Jose Rocha, a recent state health department retiree and a member of the on-site assistance team for the project, told the House Committee on Human Services this month that the state should not risk rolling out the new computer system.

In his testimony, Rocha said the software failed to process dates correctly and could not distinguish between those who were eligible and those who weren't in a single household. It also had wrongly certified nonresident aliens for benefits and sent multiple sets of benefits to the same person because that person was registered three times in the system, he said.

Naishtat urges serious caution. "Many of us feel that we're moving too quickly on a system that will have a direct impact on thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of vulnerable people in low-income families," he says. "Questions, and very serious questions, still remain, so it makes perfect sense to me that we look very carefully at it."

If HHSC wasn't having enough problems getting its house in order for TIERS, IBM also has sued the state over the $1 billion call-center contract, saying that those who made the decision on the contract had past ties to winner Accenture.

Allegations regarding conflicts of interest and insider influence have riddled the project and its contracts -- several former staffers who worked for Perry and Texas agencies are accused of having a hand in the project as state workers, then going to private jobs with companies who gained lucrative contracts from the project. Wohlgemuth herself has been the target of some of the accusations.

The call-center contract is based on the software working and contingent upon in-house assessment as to whether in-house employees or outsourced workers can do the job the cheapest.

Criticism over the computer problems is now coupled with complaints about the assumption that nonprofit volunteers will fill a massive void in the labor required to make the program work.


Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for the human services commission, argues that the million-hour volunteer component was an estimate of the time already spent by nonprofits in assisting the process of helping the needy obtain benefits.

That time can account for simply referring a client to a phone to make a call to the state's call centers, she says. If that's the case, they've got a lot of community groups fooled. They are mobilizing to figure out their role in the process.

Joe Rubio of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston Catholic Charities is already talking about additional training and liability needed for his own volunteers. Basically, the nonprofits have advised and assisted the needy who look to them for help, but they hardly embrace the idea of taking over the bureaucratic work of state agencies.

Rubio says this new role for religious groups -- replacing government, rather than assisting -- is slowly eroding the effectiveness of faith-based organizations.

Some leaders of nonprofits say it's one thing for government to embrace the faith-based community. It's another thing to balance the budget on the backs of volunteer groups and the poor in the process.

"It's missing a certain spirit, a caring spirit, that we're going to make it better to serve people better," says Rubio. "I just see us trying to cut back on government by exposing the vulnerable to more risk than they're taking already."

According to the business plan, faith-based and community-based organizations would handle the initial application process for up to one-fourth of the needy seeking welfare.

The business plan expects all enrollment and screening -- that is, the work not done by faith-based and community-based groups -- to be done over the phone or online. Paynter can already feel the tug of desperate non-English-speaking hands on her sleeve, given that the average call-center call is estimated to last only seven minutes.

Paynter says, "When you talk about the initial stage of the application, any kind of face-to-face meeting is going to happen with these community organizations."

While some confusion continues over the specifics, many charities see themselves having to station volunteers at computer terminals, tediously punching in the data that the state will check in the eligibility process.

"Many of our agencies make food-stamp applications available to clients, when they come in for a food box, or help clients with their paperwork," Rubio told a Senate forum on the subject. "However, this is a far cry from committing on paper to having a staff person available at all times to assist clients with the food-stamp application process."

When Paynter's group finally learned of the million-hour plan, she gathered up volunteers and headed to the basement to try to simulate the work they would be expected to handle.

The test run was on what she refers to as a "script," a flowchart of triangles and arrows indicating who was supposed to do what and when in the application process.

The group downloaded a 14-page application for Temporary Aid to Needy Families and tried to follow the arrows in a mock run. The resulting efforts were awkward at best.

"It was a lot for us to handle," Paynter admits.

Skeptics are now backing a bill by Representative Dawnna Dukes to halt the start-up of the computer program -- and consequently, the volunteer plan. The Austin Democrat wants it to be fully reviewed under the stress of a full state caseload.

"I think this legislation is an extra layer of protection," Celia Hagert says. She notes that the budget assumes that 60 percent of the state's eligibility workers can be cut within the next two years, replaced by the upgraded computer system, volunteers and private contractors.

Goodman says that Dukes has a valid point.

"We had a fall rollout of the call centers planned," Goodman says, "but if it doesn't work, we can't go forward with the call centers." | originally published: April 28, 2005

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Conversions to Orthodoxy

There is an interesting article in today's Dallas Morning News about conversions to the Orthodox Church.

An Orthodox choice

Ancient faith gains believers from decidedly more modern churches

04:54 PM CDT on Friday, April 22, 2005

By ROBIN GALIANO RUSSELL / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

The Eastern Orthodox Church, as far removed from a nondenominational or evangelical congregation as you can get, is nevertheless attracting a growing number of converts who are drawn by the tug of an ancient faith.

Converts are trading in their PowerPoint sermons and praise bands for the ancient rhythms of a liturgy that hasn't changed in thousands of years – a pendulum swing from the casual, seeker-friendly services that have dominated contemporary evangelicalism.

Their numbers are still small compared to megachurch growth patterns, with 1.2 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America and an estimated 10,000 in the Dallas area. But adherents say there's been a surge in people drawn to the faith.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church, the most evangelistic of the American Orthodox churches, has tracked conversions for several decades. The number of its churches in the U.S. has doubled in 20 years to more than 250 parishes and missions. About 80 percent of its converts come from evangelical and charismatic backgrounds, 20 percent from mainline denominations.

Many go on to become Orthodox priests. About 78 percent of clergy in the Antiochian Church are converts, up from 10 to 15 percent 25 years ago. Nearly half of the students in America's two largest Orthodox seminaries are converts.

Those who convert say they are drawn to an aesthetic beauty and spiritual mystery in Orthodox worship that are often lacking in their own Protestant services. It's like entering a time machine that allows congregants to worship as the early Christians did.

Not that it doesn't take some getting used to.

Orthodox services are based on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which can last two hours or more. Congregants stand much of the time, while priests in vestments offer incense and chant the Psalms.

'Startlingly different'
Frederica Mathewes-Green, a former Episcopalian and author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, said the experience of Orthodoxy was "startlingly different" from anything she'd known in Western churches. But it clicked when she saw it was directed toward God rather than her own emotional needs.

"It called us to fall on our faces before God in worship and to be filled with awe at his glory. I could never go back. I now find Western worship tedious and sentimental. To me, the contrast is jolting."

Ms. Mathewes-Green also prefers the Orthodox view of the Christian life as a healing process and a journey, rather than a one-time "sinner's prayer." She and her husband converted from a liberal Episcopal Church in 1993 and helped found an Orthodox church made up mostly of American converts.

"It's not about getting the sin-debt paid, the ticket punched and now you wait around to die and go to heaven. Orthodoxy is a transforming journey where every day the Christian is being enabled to bear more of God's light. That's exciting," she said.

Stan Shinn of Wylie, who was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination and attended Oral Roberts University, recalls feeling nearly overwhelmed when he stepped inside Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in North Dallas for the first time.

What looked good on paper – definitive answers to his search for early Christian worship and doctrine – had taken him to a "very bizarre and strange" church with icon-filled walls, heavy incense and Byzantine chanting.

"I felt like there was a gauntlet thrown down in front of me," he said.

He and his wife, Janine, and their three children converted in 2002 from their nondenominational church to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Like the Shinns, those who convert are joining 350 million Orthodox Christians around the world.

First-century church
"Orthodox" means "right belief." The Orthodox Church traces its origins back to Jesus' apostles and first-century practice. The Roman Catholic Church makes that same claim, but the two branches of ancient Christianity differ in ecclesiastical hierarchy and a few doctrinal points.

Roman Catholics believe the pope has ultimate authority, while Orthodox Christians say their council of bishops is more in line with Scripture and church tradition. (The early church had five centers of Christianity – in Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople, which is now Istanbul.)

Orthodox Christians also disagree with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which states that Jesus' mother was born without sin herself.

The two branches of ancient Christianity split in 1054.

Today, the Orthodox community is led by patriarchs and a hierarchy of bishops who must be celibate. Unlike Catholic clergy, Orthodox priests can marry before ordination.

Archbishop Dmitri, 81, leads the Archdiocese of Dallas and the South for the Orthodox Church in America. He grew up as Robert Royster in a Southern Baptist family in Teague, Texas, but converted to Orthodoxy as a teen because he wanted more out of faith.

"Everything was true, but it was not complete. It wasn't that I needed to repudiate it. I just went on to find the rest of it," he said.

The Orthodox consider themselves to have a bond with other Christians but believe they have a more accurate understanding of the faith. At a recent daylong festival in Dallas about Orthodox Christianity, Archbishop Dimitri encouraged people in other denominations to cling to the elements of the historic faith that their churches uphold, but added an invitation: "If you find there are holes at the bottom and you have to abandon ship, then head for one that's still afloat," he said.

In search of history
Conversion to Orthodoxy often begins with an intellectual quest, Mr. Shinn said. He began searching when he saw modern churches abandoning historic Christian tenets, such as the Nicene Creed, and stripping their sanctuaries of any religious symbolism to be more seeker-friendly.

"The elements of Christianity were disappearing before me like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. What kind of Christianity would my grandchildren inherit, and would the Gospel even be recognizable?" he said.

Studying church history and tradition raised even more questions: Why was the Apocrypha a part of Scripture until the Reformation? Did the early church really have bishops instead of the congregational rule that governs most Protestant churches? Why did they have such a high view of Communion and baptize infants?

And the ancient liturgies, chants, incense and sacraments used in Orthodox services, he discovered, were not taken from medieval Catholicism – as his Protestant upbringing taught him – but from early church worship.

"It all caused me to re-evaluate my core assumptions. Instead of me judging history, I decided I wanted history to judge me and tell me what should I practice," Mr. Shinn said.

The unchanging nature of the Orthodox Church is a strong draw for "serious Christians" who are tired of Protestant individualism yet disagree with the Catholic Church's teachings, said the Rev. Peter Gillquist, chairman of missions and evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

"It's charismatics and evangelicals, those diamonds in the rough who are looking to find Christ's church. There's a lot of people who love the Lord and his word, but they're still looking for his church."

Father Gillquist was a "card-carrying evangelical" himself before his conversion to Orthodoxy. He attended Dallas Theological Seminary and Wheaton College, and was a director for Campus Crusade for Christ, a nondenominational evangelistic campus organization.

Now he uses evangelistic strategies to promote Christianity and the Orthodox Church. Most who come into the church now are people from other denominations who are confused by the hundreds of Protestant denominations and disturbed by increasing theological liberalism, he said.

Ethnic flavor
But some who are ready to convert still think the church might be too exotic for them, said the Rev. Anthony Savas, pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas.

"They're afraid it's too ethnic. They wonder, 'What will my friends think?' " he said.

It's true that the Orthodox Church in America took on the ethnic flavors of 20th-century immigrants. The dozen Orthodox churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area reflect these geographic and ethnic heritages. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church is Dallas' largest, with 1,500 active members. The church holds services in Greek and English and hosts an annual Greek festival with ethnic foods, dance and crafts.

St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in the Oak Lawn area is predominantly Russian. At Sts. Constantine and Helen, an Antiochian Orthodox Church, 80 percent of the families speak Arabic. Services at both are in English. There's a Hispanic congregation in Oak Cliff – Holy Transfiguration Hispanic Orthodox Mission.

Converts become more familiar with the church through catechism classes and the guidance of spiritual godparents (individuals and couples in the congregation who mentor new converts). If they've already been baptized in another church, they also must be chrismated, or anointed, to be received in the Orthodox Church.

Americans who convert to Orthodoxy know they will be part of a minority faith. That doesn't bother Father Savas at Holy Trinity, who grew up Orthodox among Mormons in Salt Lake City.

"It's wonderful to practice the ancient Christian faith in an environment that doesn't know what to do with it. A minority can be a beacon of light, like the apostles, who took it beyond their own country," he said.

"It's a beautiful eye-opening experience for people to see the church of the New Testament is alive and thriving today. We don't define ourselves by who we're not. The church is just here. And we're here to lift it up."

Orthodox Church in America
Adherents say there is only one Orthodox Church, which is administratively organized into several jurisdictions. The faith, worship and doctrine is the same, but churches differ in language and administration.

Dioceses of Orthodox Churches are administrated by bishops in North America, as well as archbishops and patriarchs abroad.

Orthodox Christians belong to two major ecclesiastical families: the Orthodox Oriental (Coptic, Syrian) and the Orthodox Byzantine (Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian).

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is the largest American Orthodox body, with more than 530 parishes, and was founded by Orthodox Christians from Greece and the surrounding areas.

Orthodox Church in America has its roots in Eastern Europe and Russia. It was established when Russian missionaries landed in Alaska in 1794. Ethnic variations of the Orthodox Church of America include Serbian, Romanian, Albanian and Bulgarian. It includes about 700 parishes, missions, communities, monasteries and institutions throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Antiochian Orthodox, from the Archdiocese of Antioch, was established by immigrants from the Middle East, and includes more than 200 parishes and missions in the U.S. and Canada.

Coptic Orthodox Church, established by Arab-speaking Orthodox Christians from Egypt, includes about 700 parishes, missions, communities, monasteries and institutions throughout North America.

Robin Galiano Russell

It should be noted that, contrary to the impression that this article leaves, the Coptic Orthodox Church is not part of the wider Orthodox Communion, having rejected the 4th Ecumenical Council, and the subsequent 3 thereafter. They are certainly very close to us in terms of their piety, and one can hope that a reconciliation may one day occur, but it has not happened as of yet.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Robert Novak: The Israelis are Squeezing the Life out of Christians in the Holy Land

The interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Christ rose from the Dead

Robert Novak has a good column on how the Israelis have been squeezing the Christians in the Holy Land, with the result that areas that once were predominantly Christian have a quickly disappearing Christian minority today.

For information on how you can help preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land, click here.

The Orthodox Reply to "We have a New Pope"

St. Mark of Ephesus, holding a scroll which quotes his words: "The testimonies of these Western teachers I neither recognize nor accept, I surmise that they are corrupt. There can be no compromise in matters of Orthodoxy."

The Orthodox reply is:

"But he doesn't have us." -Bishop Daniel of Erie

To read more about the history of Orthodox resistance to Papal claims, see this page.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Why is Orthodox Easter So Much Later This Year Than Western Easter?

This is a somewhat complicated question, but one often asked, and so here is the answer in the simplest terms that still convey the gist of the issues.

Easter (or Pascha) is not a feast that is celebrated on a fixed day according to the Solar Calendar. The reason for this is that Easter is the Christian Celebration of Passover (“Pesach” in Hebrew, which is where the Greek word “Pascha” is derived from), and the Hebrew Calendar is a lunar calendar (based on the cycles of the moon) rather than a solar calendar (based on the annual cycle of the sun). However, while Passover can fall on any day of the week, the Christian Tradition is to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the day in spring when the night and the day is of equal length, and so after this day light is on the increase and darkness is on the decrease (in the northern hemisphere, that is).

The date of the vernal equinox is fixed at March 21st. The problem comes from the fact that the Julian Calendar, so named for Julius Caesar, who established it as the official calendar of the Roman Empire, has a slight error which took centuries to become apparent. The Julian calendar (which was the calendar used throughout the Christian world) assumes that the solar year is 365.25 days, and so normally a year is 365 days, but every fourth year (called the leap year) an extra day is added to the month of February, and the year is 366 days. The problem is that the actual solar year is 11 minutes shy of being precisely 365.25 days, which does not seem like much, but about every 128 years, this results in a day’s difference. As the centuries passed, the date that the vernal equinox actually occurred on began to slowly drift away from the date that it was supposed to occur. Pope Gregory XIII introduced a revised calendar in 1582, to address this problem, and to adjust the calendar such that the actual vernal equinox again occurred on March 21st. When Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, the difference between the two calendars was 10 days. Since that time, the difference has increased to 13 days. Unfortunately, however, five centuries prior to the calendar change, the Latin speaking western Church split away from the Orthodox Church, and so this calendar change was not accepted by any of the Orthodox Churches until the 1920’s. A few Churches accepted the change in the 20’s and several more followed suite in subsequent decades, but the Orthodox Churches of Russia, the Ukraine, Serbia, the Georgian Republic, the Holy Land, Jordan, Sinai, and Mount Athos, have continued to use the Julian Calendar to the present day. But when it comes to determining the date of Easter, even those Orthodox Churches which did accept the Gregorian Calendar continue to use the Julian Calendar.

Occasionally, both Easters coincide. More commonly, they are a week or so apart. But sometimes, as is the case this year, they are a month apart. But what should be noted is that the Jewish Passover continues to be celebrated by calculations that are similar to those of the Julian Calendar, and so Orthodox Easter is always after the Jewish Passover, and in close proximity to it. Western Easter often falls prior to the Jewish Passover, and as is the case this year, it can be as much as a month prior.

Friday, April 15, 2005

America Made the Right Decision

Some times I am disappointed with Bush, but then things like this remind me of why we made the right decision.

Bush throws the first pitch of the Season, last night
Photo from Football Fans For Truth

This could have been what we would have seen the President doing last night:

Monday, April 11, 2005

My War Wound

Click to enlarge

Blackfive posts some new Marine posters. The above is my favorite.

When I converted to Orthodoxy, I had just finished college, and had a Nazarene theological degree... but Nazarene Theological degrees don't go too far when you are Orthodox. I still had the desire to pursue the ministry, but one requirement for my becoming a priest was that my wife would have to convert... and she wasn't ready to convert when I was. She also felt a lot of pressure to convert, for that reason, but didn't want to convert just to make me happy... and so I had to ponder what other carrer path I should take. At that time the first Gulf War was on the horizon (and predictions were at the time that it would be a long and bloody war, rather than the short and nearly bloodless war (for our side) that it turned out to be), and so being my father's son (he was a World War II vet, and instilled in us a sense of duty and obligation to our country), I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I had prayed about it. It seemed the best path to take, but I aslo asked that God's will would be done.

While I was waiting to ship to boot camp, once a month, we had to report to a poolee meeting. This particular poolee meeting was during the air war, and as all the poolees ran in formation with the US and USMC flags waving, people stopped to applaud and show their support. We stopped at a park, where we played flag football... but most of the poolees were fresh out of high school, and were eager to impress their recruiters, and so played it more lack tackle without the benefit of pads. Someone hit me from behind, and I felt a pain in my lower back, but didn't think too much of it at first. But when we ran back to the recruiter station, I was really feeling it toward the end of the run. I still figured it would only be a problem for a day or two. As it turned out, I could hardly stand up or sit up for days.

What made matters worse was I had no insurance at the time (I was supposed to have had insurance while in college, but I always put down on my paper work that I was insured by "Yahweh, Inc.", and my policy number was "MT0817" (for Matthew 8:17)), and since I was not yet active duty, I could not use military medical care... despite the fact that I had to report "as ordered sir..."

To make a long story short, I was in limbo for a couple of months, because it was hoped that it would get better, but it didn't... really. A couple of times I thought I was making progress, and began working out again, only to have that pain come back as bad as before. In the meantime, the gulf war ended, my wife converted to Orthodoxy, and I finally got a release from the Marine Corps, when it became clear I wasn't going to be able to go any time soon.

Years later, when I finally had the insurance to see a decent doctor, and my back was bothering me enough to prod me to go and see one, I found out that I had hyper extended a semi-movable joint in my lower back, and that since then it had become arthritic. It still gives me trouble from time to time, but I believe God used that injury to guide me in the way He wanted me to go. I enjoyed my brush with the Marines, still have a love for the Marine Corps, even though I wasn't able to earn the globe and anchor. But I can say that I enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was wounded during the gulf war. :)

Colorado: Benefits system in a pitiful state of affairs

Note: My comments are those of a private citizen, and do not represent the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in any way.

The Denver post has the following editoral on the ongoing welfare fiasco in Colorado. If any Texas officials or politicians are reading this editorial, I would encourage them to think about themselves being on the hot-seat when things in Texas meltdown, and to also keep in mind that they can still avoid the meltdown here, if they do something about it soon.

Benefits system in a pitiful state of affairs:

"Even while the focus must be on efforts to get the new applications system in working shape, it is essential to understand what went wrong and why.

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of periodic editorials on the state's welfare computer problems.

Experts advised against it, but the $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System went online Sept. 1 to streamline administration of a number of state and federal benefits programs. Seven months later, the system is still a mess, still the subject of delays, of mistakes and of litigation.

It is a pathetic state of affairs, with Colorado's most vulnerable citizens being jerked around in the process of applying for benefits for which they are eligible.

Several parties likely share the blame for the system's warts, though sadly no one wants to take responsibility. As the problems with the system drag on, the question of responsibility has inevitably come front and center. State lawmakers want to know who or what is to blame for the mess that has delayed assistance for many sick, hungry and elderly people in Colorado who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and income supplements. The attorney general is investigating. As Republican state Sen. Ron May, an information technology expert, quipped recently: "The fingerpointing has begun." Perhaps it should have started sooner.

Is any one party responsible for the more serious flaws?

State officials ordered the system, but why did they put it online after county experts warned it was not ready? Did an independent validation contractor who was supposed to monitor the system's launch leave too early due to the state's mounting budget problems? Did the responsible state agencies - Human Services, and Health Care Policy and Financing - fail to properly manage the startup or ensure that county workers were adequately trained?

Attorneys who represent social services applicants say they haven't seen any urgency from the governor or the state agencies responsible for these programs.

Some state officials believe the problems started with Electronic Data Systems, the Texas company contracted to develop the software system, and escalated from there. Did EDS misrepresent the system's readiness, miscalculate the technical needs or fail to deliver the capabilities it promised?

The attorney general's office confirmed last week it is looking into whether EDS met its contractual obligations. An EDS official says it has met, and exceeded, its obligations - that a decision to add faster processors within days after the system went online was in the works well before Gov. Bill Owens issued a public demand for them some three weeks later. Moreover, there was a backlog in processing welfare applications even before the new system went online, the official said.

Owens' spokesman Dan Hopkins said it's possible the slow processors exacerbated the backlog that led to the bottleneck existing today. EDS says the company was contracted to provide enough power to have 2,700 people use the system - only a third at any given time, which is the "industry standard." Instead, said the official, 4,100 people became users, many untrained, exceeding the system's capacity. Contract language supplied by Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough says that the system would support 2,700, and states, "The licensing agreement does not limit the number of users who may use the system simultaneously."

EDS spokesman Bill Ritz said his company supports the independent review now underway and is committed to "identifying and resolving remaining issues."

Despite a possible lawsuit against EDS, the legislature's Joint Budget Committee has recommended renewing the existing contract with EDS. "We were not going to renew the vendor, but then we decided that won't solve the problem and could slow things down," JBC Chair Abel Tapia said.

McDonough said the state has not yet officially accepted the EDS system. "We're still in a position to ask things of EDS because the project is not accepted," she said. While the fingerpointing goes on, the players should keep in mind that problems with the system have not gone away. Needy people are continuing to suffer."

One of the more telling comments above is the one about how they wanted to dump EDS as a vendor, but then realized this would cause more problems than it would solve. This shows the danger of the privatization of such essential elements of a welfare system. It's sort of like checking into the roach motel, you can check in, but you can't check out. Once these vendors get their hooks into the system, they become indispensible, and can then start jacking up the price, and/or simply fail to live up to all their contract obligations, and what can the state do? ...nothing, but like it.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Hymn to the Martyrs

The Death of Metropolitan Benjamin

This is a hymn from the Triodion that was used this past thursday on the feast of the Annunciation. I found it particularly striking:

"Breathing one purpose and looking to a single hope, vying with each other in their end, the victorious martyrs looked upon death for Christ as the only entry into life. O strange wonder! Though the torture might have been postponed, they seized hold of it as men seize hold of treasure, and they said to one another: 'Even if we do not die today, yet some day we shall surely die, obeying as we must the laws of human birth. Let us turn necessity into an act of generous love; willingly let us make our own what is the common fate of all, and let us purchase life with death' At their intercessions, O God, have mercy upon us" (The Lenten Triodion, Supplementary Texts, p. 206).

Friday, April 08, 2005

Applause and Liturgy

Am I the only one who finds the applause at the Popes funeral wierd?

From what I can find out from a web search, applause seems to be a recent innovation even for Roman Catholics.

Before becoming Orthodox, I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, which is part of the Holiness movement, from whence comes phrases like "Holy Roller" (from people literally rolling on the flow). The Nazarenes are a bit tamer now, but shouting, pew jumping, hanky waving, and dancing are still a living memory, and occassionally one stills sees such things in some local churches. But as strange as all that might seem to others, applauding at a funeral seems even wierder to me.

Even a Roman Catholic Cardinal Ratzinger has the following comments on applause during the liturgy:

"Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly - it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation."

It seems to me that applause during a worship service is the final step in the process of making the services a show. This is not unconnected with the innovation of the pew, which invites people to sit and watch, rather than to stand and pray. In the Scriptures, it is clear that public worship was always done either while standing, or bowing, but never while sitting.

Colorado: The Price Tag Just Went Up... Again. And Now the Legal Battles Heat Up

Note: My comments are those of a private citizen, and do not represent the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in any way.

There are several new articles related to the Colorado Benefits Management System debacle.

State Plans To Spend Another $17 Million On Welfare Computer:

"DENVER -- The state plans to spend an extra $17 million this year because of problems with its new welfare computer system, which went online in September despite complaints from counties that they weren't ready to make the switch.
And budget planners say the state could have to come up to another $40 million next year to cover Medicaid claims that have been delayed because of the switch to the Colorado Benefits Management System....

Sen. Abel Tapia said the Joint Budget Committee has refused to sign off on the state's annual payment to Electronic Data Systems and has met with the attorney general to find out whether the company should be responsible for the extra money. However he thinks the state needs to spend the money now. "We feel that if we did any less it would hurt the people who receive the services and not the departments," Tapia said. However Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, said he continues to hear from people having trouble getting benefits. He isn't convinced the state should sink any more money into the system. "At some point we've got to say we don't have any confidence in getting this fixed," he said.

Electronic Data Systems spokesman Bill Ritz declined comment.

The state has already scrapped its old computer systems and Sen. Ron Teck, R-Grand Junction, said turning back isn't an option. However, he faulted the state for not working hard enough to make sure the system was ready before putting it online. He also said Electronic Data Systems should have done a better job designing the system so there wouldn't be as many change orders now."

And then there is this:

Motions target 2 officials for benefit system woes
By Bill Scanlon, Rocky Mountain News

A Denver law firm asked a district judge Wednesday to hold two top state officials in contempt because of uncorrected problems in Colorado's welfare benefits system. One motion filed in Denver District Court asked that the executive director of human services be found in contempt if her department doesn't stop seeking reimbursements from Coloradans who received overpayments from the food stamp program. The filing said that Human Services Executive Director Marva Hammons told the court she wouldn't hold anyone responsible for overpayments caused by errors in the new $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System. Reimbursements shouldn't be sought until it's known that CBMS didn't cause the overpayments, the motion said.
A spokeswoman for Hammons said state lawyers are reviewing the motions and will respond in court.

Another motion asked that the head of Health Care Policy and Financing, Karen Reinertson, be held in contempt because the department missed deadlines for correcting problems in the Medicaid portion of the system. Denver District Judge John Coughlin ordered the state to fix by Feb. 28 software glitches that generated a flurry of contradictory letters to people applying for Medicaid and other programs. But lawyers for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which filed the suit, say the letters kept on coming and that complaints from clients about services cut off or denied are on the rise.

A spokeswoman for Reinertson said the attorney general is reviewing the court document. "We'll have a response in court," Rhonda Bentz said.

State officials implemented the $200 million CBMS on Sept. 1, despite officials from all 64 counties asking that it be delayed until errors were fixed. It replaces six systems that processed food stamps, Medicaid, cash assistance and other welfare benefits. It was supposed to be easier to use and more accurate than the old system, but it has been beset by problems.

A legislative committee this week appropriated an extra $17 million to cover cost overruns in CBMS, including overtime for county workers and legal fees. Gov. Bill Owens announced March 16 that Deloitte Consulting would be paid $335,000 to $365,00 to conduct an independent review of CBMS

Officials and politicians in Texas should be asking themselves whether or not they want to have to answer for their actions in court as well, because they are heading in the same direction here in Texas. At least Colorado's officials could claim they didn't see it coming. But with the Colorado mess as such a vivid warning, what will the excuse be for those in Texas who are pushing an equally flawed computer system into service, and are also pushing through a 57% staffing cut (despite Colorado's experience of realizing that they needed more staff than they did under the old system), untried call centers, and privatization of large portions of the welfare system?

Unfortunately, hope is fading that the Texas Legislature will do anything to prevent the looming disaster on the horizon. So, in about a year, you will probably being seeing a series of "see, I told ya so..." posts. I hope not, but am afraid that this is where we are headed.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Loosing the Ass

From saying 18 of St. Anthony the Great, found on page 5 of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

"Some brothers were coming from Scetis to see Abba Anthony. When they were getting into a boat to go there, they found an old man who aslo wanted to go there. The brothers did not know him. They sat in the boat, occupied by turns with the words of the Fathers, Scripture and their manual work. As for the old man, he remained silent. When they arrived on shore they found that the old man was going to the cell of Abba Anthony too. When they reached the place, Anthony said of them, "You found this old man a good companion for the journey?" Then he said to the old man, "You have brought many good brethren with you, father." The old man said, "No doubt they are good, but they do not have a door to their house and anyone who wishes can enter the stable and loose the ass." He meant that the brethren said whatever came into their mouths."

Colorado: Please take a number. We'll call you back in a few days

Post / Craig F. Walker
Temporary worker N.S. Suleiman, left, and program leader Dean Taylor enter data for Arapahoe County into the new Colorado Benefits Management System. The county hired dozens of temps and approved hundreds of overtime hours to transfer the data for 37,000 existing cases.

The lattest news from Colorado:

Laboring behind benefits
By Manny Gonzales
Denver Post Staff Writer

Aurora - Problems managing the state's new computer benefits system have forced human services officials in some counties to turn away walk-in visitors.

Residents in Arapahoe County who drop by the local human services office are told to fill out a questionnaire and wait up to 48 hours for a telephone call.

Jefferson County has a similar policy, and Denver residents who currently receive benefits are asked to call customer service for non-emergency issues.

Officials say it's the only way caseworkers can enter the backlog of cases into the system, while simultaneously trying to manage new cases and complaints.

"It would take us 20 to 30 minutes to handle each (walk-in) inquiry, and we had about 400 walk-ins a day," Arapahoe Community Support Services Administrator Carol Saile said. "Walk-ins were just a big slowdown."

Arapahoe County imposed the limits at its human services headquarters in Aurora to give workers more time to transfer data into the state's new $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System (CBMS). In a recent report, Arapahoe was lagging behind most counties in such transfers.

"We're not going to be at the bottom of that list for long," said Saile, who assures that all inquiries get call-backs within 48 hours.

CBMS was implemented by the state Sept. 1 to streamline the processing of a variety of benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid, to a half-million of some of the state's most needy residents.

But the system was initially overwhelmed and county workers struggled to make it work, creating a backlog of cases and delaying checks. To transfer cases from the state's old system into CBMS, a task that is known as "cleansing," county workers had to enter each case manually while navigating a maze of database pages.

An Arapahoe worker was cleansing an average of eight cases a day before the new walk-in policy was put in place, Seymour said. Since implementing the policy in February, the rate has tripled.

But some residents say the lack of face-to-face interaction is too impersonal and not always reliable.

Three times, Monica Bell has received a notice that her 16-month-old son's Medicaid benefits had been eliminated. As an Aurora resident, Bell had to wait for a call from an Arapahoe case manager. Twice, she said, she never got the call, which meant more questionnaires and more waiting.

"They say they're trying to fix the system, but it just feels like I'm getting the runaround," said Bell, as she stood outside the human services office recently, hoping to speak to someone.

Denver and Jefferson counties also no longer accept walk-in inquiries unless there is an emergency.

"If it's not (an emergency), then we get their information and respond back within 24 to 48 hours," said Cheryl Ternes, director of Jefferson County's division of community assistance.

"We're doing a real good job in responding, and it makes everything much more manageable."

Sue Cobb, spokeswoman for Denver's human services, agreed. "This way, we can prioritize the folks most in need of assistance."

Arapahoe County hired dozens of temporary workers and approved hundreds of overtime hours to transfer about 37,000 existing benefits cases into CBMS.

And while the focus remains the backlog, that doesn't mean a needy resident won't get help, especially if it's urgent, said Katrina Seymour, Arapahoe human services spokeswoman.

As long as the walk-in policy gets the system working right, it's worth the extra wait, said Tracine Schneidt, 37, of Aurora.

"I got called back right away when I submitted a question about my benefits," said Schneidt, who relies on food stamps and Medicaid. "Plus, there are no more long lines of people waiting with questions."

Monday, April 04, 2005

Remembering the good and the bad about Pope John Paul II

I had intended to write a bit about some of the darker aspects of the tenure of Pope John Paul II from an Orthodox Christian perspective, but Dr. Joseph McLellan has beat me to the punch. See click here to read part I, and click here to read part II.

In short, we certainly owe him a debt of gratitude for his stand for the sanctity of human life, and his opposition to communism. However, he was not the traditionalist that the media has made him out to be. He held traditional Roman Catholic views on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and clerical celibacy, but he actually took the Roman Church in a more liberal direction when it comes to Ecumenism and inter-religious "dialogue". Click here for a summary of a video tape which documented the many betrayals of Christ which took place with the full blessing of Pope John Paul II.

For example, in Assissi, Italy, at a day of prayer for world peace, Buddhists were given the use of a Roman Catholic Church, and allowed to set up a Buddhist idol on the altar.

Here are a few photos of similar betrayals:

Here we see Pope John Paul II kissing a copy of the Koran... a book that denies the doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ

Here we see Pope John Paul II receiving a holy feather from a Pima Shaman

Here we see Pope John Paul II receiving a Hindu blessing... the red dot on the forehead.

It is just such things as these that made Mel Gibson so mad that he painted his face blue, donned a kilt and a sword, and became a Traditionalist Roman Catholic (a group in schism from Rome, which holds to the older traditions of the Catholic Church).

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Verdict is in: The Law Is An Ass

"If the law supposes that,' said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass--a idiot." -from Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

Terri Schiavo is dead, and it was all perfectly legal. But the Nazis killed millions of people, and that was perfectly legal too, according to their corrupt and evil laws. However, at Nuremburg, they were put on trial for crimes against humanity, and held accountable to a higher law that was not found in their code of law, but which it was assumed that we are all nonetheless accountable.

Judge Greer, Michael Schiavo, and George Felos my not stand before a human court and held to account for their actions, but unless they throw themselves on the mercy of the court ahead of time, the day will come.

"Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink... Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment...." Matthew 25:41-42,45-46.