Why Helen?

It was my second time in an Orthodox Church.

A week before, Courtney and I had visited St. Ignatius (now our home parish) for Vespers with one of my brothers and a few of Courtney’s siblings. I knew right away that I wanted to go back. There were so many connections I made during the service to the Old Testament sanctuary and to various New Testament verses. I experienced a sense of spiritual peace that I had never experienced in church prior to that. There were about 40 people there for vespers that evening, and a third to half of the women were veiled. We were Sabbatarians at the time, and were visiting a number of Seventh-day Adventist and Seventh Day Baptist churches in the area, trying to find a church home. I remember on the car ride home saying that I wanted to keep coming to St. Ignatius—my idea at the time was that we would go to an SDA or SDB church Saturday morning, and then close out the day with vespers at St. Ignatius.

Now, a week later, my plan was falling apart.

I was in Sturgeon Bay for the weekend for drill, and Courtney was staying with my parents in Neenah for the weekend. So we met at St. Matthew in Green Bay Saturday evening for vespers. We did not know that St. Matthew was without a priest at the time. We were 2 out of the 4 people that were there for Reader’s Vespers that evening. That was not the cause of my trouble, though. My trouble came from one of the readings.

As the reader read the below, I found myself thinking it was a bunch of fairy-tale hocus pocus:

Although the holy empress Helen was already in her declining years, she set about completing the task with enthusiasm. The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem. Searching for the Life-Creating Cross, she made inquiry of Christians and Jews, but for a long time her search remained unsuccessful.

Finally, they directed her to a certain elderly Hebrew by the name of Jude who stated that the Cross was buried where the temple of Venus stood. They demolished the pagan temple and, after praying, they began to excavate the ground. Soon the Tomb of the Lord was uncovered. Not far from it were three crosses, a board with the inscription ordered by Pilate, and four nails which had pierced the Lord’s Body.

In order to discern on which of the three crosses the Savior was crucified, Patriarch Macarius alternately touched the crosses to a corpse. When the Cross of the Lord touched the dead one, he came to life. Having beheld the raising of the dead man, everyone was convinced that the Life-Creating Cross was found.

I was a little sad as I walked out of the church. Only one week since my first visit, and I still felt a longing to go back. But, I told myself, I couldn’t take my wife and future children to a place where such ridiculousness was taught.

The question hit me as I put the car in gear. It wasn’t a voice, just a question: Do you believe that the dead man who touched Elisha’s bones was resurrected? The answer was immediate and obvious: Yes, I fully and completely believed this. If you believe that touching the bones of Elisha made a dead man come to life, why can’t you believe that touching my cross would? I wrestled with this as I drove north. My first answer was that the story about Elisha’s bones was in the Bible, and the story about St. Helen, St. Macarius, and the Life-Giving Cross was not. But I instantly recognized this was a cheap cop-out. Yet I couldn’t change the fact that I believed the one and disbelieved the other.

I don’t know exactly how long I struggled with this, but I know that before I got to Sturgeon Bay I had reached that inevitable conclusion that my reaction to the story was a result of a lack of faith on my part. A lack of faith I could not overcome. I had nothing to fall back on but the prayer of Mark 9:24: ““Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” I repeated that prayer as I finished my drive, and I arrived at my hotel with more humility than I’d begun the day with.

I look back on that drive as the most pivotal moment on my path to Orthodoxy, although it would be another two years before I was accepted into the Church by Chrismation. And that is why, when my 3rd child was born, she was baptized with the name “Helen.”

So You Want to Buy a Freezer…

The first thing to consider is what you will be putting in the freezer. Do you plan to buy a whole (or half) beef once a year? Or do you plan to fill the freezer with venison in the fall? If either of these is the case you should consider buying two smaller freezers, rather than one large one. For example, I have a just over 9 cubic foot freezer, which I fill with venison every fall. We really need a bit more freezer space, because the kids are getting older and it takes more venison to last a year, but you can fit 4-5 good size deer in a 9 cubic foot freezer if you debone all your meat and have nothing else in the freezer. This equates to about half a beef. However, if I was to do it again, with a plan to either buy half a beef a year or shoot 4-5 deer a year, I would buy a 3 cubic foot freezer and a 7 cubic foot freezer instead of a 9 cubic foot freezer.

Having two smaller freezers would substantially reduce the energy cost of running the freezers. Freezers are most efficient when full, which is why many people recommend that you add jugs of water to the freezer as it empties. We would eat out of the smaller one until it was mostly empty, then move the remainder to the fridge freezer inside and shut off the smaller freezer. Then, we would eat out the larger freezer until it was about half empty, at which point we would shut off the larger freezer and move the remainder of the meat into the smaller freezer. This would be much more efficient than the current situation, in which our freezer is half or more empty for half the year.

Another thing to consider is how much variety there is in what you will be filling the freezer with. Are you buying a whole or half beef once a year, or filling your freezer entirely with venison? Or are you buying a quarter cow once a year, plus butchering 50 chickens and 15 turkeys, plus hunting for deer, duck, pheasant, and goose? If you are closer to the second situation than the first, you are likely to find that every time you go to the freezer to grab something, its underneath a bunch of other stuff. The solution in this case is to get an upright freezer and a chest freezer. Upright freezers are far less efficient than chest freezers, but they are very good at keeping multiple things separate and organized. You can have a beef shelf, a venison shelf, a chicken shelf, a duck shelf, etc. When a shelf gets empty, you can reload it from the chest freezer. This will greatly reduce the time you spend digging through the chest freezer, which often involves taking quite a bit of food out of the freezer and then putting it back in.

Often, you can pick chest freezers up for a good price on craigslist. However, if you decide to buy new, try to look at a few different brands. Figure out what you will use to keep things organized inside. I like milk crates. I can pull out the milk crate of ground venison quickly and easily to access the milk crate of roasts underneath. Also, when the freezer is getting empty, a milk crate holds 1 gallon milk jugs perfectly. You can refill these jugs with water and place them in the freezer to take up space and help the freezer run efficiently. However, some brands and sizes of chest freezer won’t fit milk crates. Find a brand that fits a convenient stackable storage container, because the last thing you want is everything loose in the freezer.

Notes on the Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos

Some Protestants react very strongly to the idea that Mary, the Theotokos, remained a virgin for her entire life. While this claim is rather mundane in light of other claims the Church makes about her, such as the claim that she miraculously conceived a child without seed, and the claim that she carried God Himself in her womb, some people are highly invested in it not being true. If you are one of those people, probably nothing I write here will change your mind in the least. However, these notes may help you understand why millions of Orthodox Christians affirm her perpetual virginity.

First, we should note that there is no verse anywhere in the Protestant 66-book canon of Scripture that explicitly states that Mary did or did not have sexual intercourse after the birth of Christ. However, there are verses in the Protestant canon that do have implications on the question. Probably the most obvious of these is Matthew 1:25, which explicitly states that Mary remained a virgin up to the point of giving birth to Christ. “But he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (ESV). While the verse does not make any explicit statement about what happened after the birth of Christ, most English-speakers would find it to be a reasonable inference—absent any other information—that Mary did not remain a virgin after the birth of Christ. I am not an expert on Greek, and I cannot say whether that inference would seem as natural to a Greek-speaking reader of the 1st or 2nd century as it does to an English-speaker today.

There are also several verses that refer to siblings of Jesus. Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Mark 6:3, Luke 8: 19-21, John 2:12, John 7:3-10, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19. All of these refer to brothers, sisters, or both of Christ. Again, most English-speakers would find the implication that Mary had other children after Christ reasonable. When this was the extent of my knowledge on the subject, I assumed that Mary had other children after Christ, and therefore did not remain a virgin after his birth. However, I was never highly invested in this belief. It was just an assumption, based on implications, and wasn’t really something I thought much about.

The verse that made me reconsider some of these assumptions was Ezekiel 44:2: “And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore is shall remain shut’” (ESV). This verse is in the context of Ezekiel’s vision. My first response to the verse was that was not talking about Mary. However, I was aware of that Christ continually referenced Ezekiel by referring to himself as the “Son of Man,” a title taken directly from Ezekiel. I had also accepted by this point that the entire Old Testament existed to point to Christ, and that prophecies and visions in the Old Testament especially so. So the question was, what did this saying in Ezekiel’s vision reveal about Christ? What else could this be a type of? I tried just taking the verse in Ezekiel as literally as possible—it only meant that an actual gate on the actual City of Jerusalem was to remain closed, because God had entered through it. But then the obvious question was, if God felt so strongly about a gate through which He entered a City, how would He feel about a gate through which He entered humanity?

Returning the earlier verses, I realized that when I read Jesus’ statement “I am with with you always, to the end of the age,” in Matthew 28:20, I did not feel that it necessarily implied that Jesus would not be with us always after the end of the age. In light of Ezekiel 44:2, I no longer felt that Matthew 1:25 implied that Mary did not remain a virgin. However, this left the question of the brothers/sisters of Christ.

The primary written source for the claim that Mary was perpetually a virgin is the Protoevangelion of James, which scholars say was written in the Second Century (for comparison, they also say the Gospel of Luke was written in the Second Century). Orthodox Tradition is that it was written by James, the Brother of the Lord, just as Orthodox Tradition is that Luke was actually written by Luke. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the authorship of the Protoevangelion of James, the claim made in the Protoevangelion about the brothers of Jesus is that they were older children born to Joseph from a previous marriage. This immediately made sense to me, as when we talk about Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt, we say that he had 11 brothers, when he only had 1 full brother, Benjamin. While Joseph of Nazareth was not biologically the father of Jesus, he is referred to as Jesus’ father in Scripture (Luke 2:48), so it makes sense that Joseph’s sons would also be called Jesus’ brothers.

Because I was not strongly invested in maintaining a narrative that Mary had sexual intercourse at some point in her life, this evidence was enough to convince me that Orthodox claim of perpetual virginity was reasonable. Later, when I accepted that the Orthodox Church was what it said it was, I became Orthodox, and thus accepted the teaching of the Church on the matter.

I should also note that even if the scholars are right, and the Protoevangelion of James was written in the mid-to-late Second Century, there would still have been many people alive who had been trained in the faith by the apostles, and who even met the Theotokos. These are the people who made the choice to preserve this book rather than anathematize it.

One final thought. Some Protestants have described as “poorly written fan fiction” the story in the Protoevangelion of James of a midwife attempting to check the Theotokos for a hymen after the birth of Christ and having her hand burst into flame. Considering the Biblical statement that there are many true stories about Christ that are not recorded in Scripture (John 21:25), I am not sure on what basis they write this story off as fiction. Do they also write off the story of Moses’ hand turning leprous (Exodus 4:6)? Of the earth swallowing Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16)? Of the fire from heaven consuming the drenched sacrifice of Elijah (1 Kings 18)? I will write more later about my own experience surrounding miracles not documented in Scripture.

Hopefully these notes help create a greater understanding of the Orthodox teaching on the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos. Thank you for taking the time to read.

Frugal Friday: Mead

There are many people who go all out on fancy equipment and supplies for brewing mead, but humans have been brewing mead with primitive equipment for thousands of years. I found this basic, foolproof mead recipe online years ago, although I cannot now find the site I found it on. It makes a very enjoyable mead with no equipment and very little cost. I will also mention a few variations that you can do, although I recommend starting with the basic recipe.

Shopping List:

  • One gallon jug of spring water
  • 2-3 lbs local, raw honey
  • 1 snack box of organic raisins (you may have to buy a pack of several snack boxes)
  • 1 pouch bread yeast (or 1 Tb of bread yeast if you already have some)
  • 1 balloon (you may have to buy a bag of several)

Instructions:

Open the spring water. Pour out 12oz of water (1.5 cups) for each lb of honey. Pour the honey, yeast, and raisins directly into the jug of water (a funnel helps). Cap the jug and shake vigorously. Poke a pinhole in the top of the balloon. Uncap the jug, and stretch the opening of the balloon over the mouth of the jug. Set somewhere to ferment.

After a day or two, your balloon should stand up. after 10-14 days, the balloon should flop back over. When this happens, take the balloon off, recap the jug, and shake vigorously. Replace the balloon. The balloon may stand up again. If so, wait another day or two after it flops over again, and then pour your mead into glass bottles or jars. You can use a coffee filter or cheesecloth to strain out the raisins and yeast, although most of the yeast will have settled to the bottom and can be avoiding by pouring gently and not fully emptying the jug. Seal the bottles. You may taste the mead at this point, although it will taste significantly better after conditioning in the bottle for 6 months to a year. The website I got this recipe from said that it gets even better if you condition longer, but I have never been able to let it go past a year.

Variations:

  1. Use the dregs from your homemade cider in the place of the bread yeast
  2. Use the apple peel method that I recommend for cider in place of bread yeast
  3. Add a cinnamon stick or two, a clove, and a star anise–Or whatever else you want to try
  4. Use only 1-1.5 lbs honey, pour out an additional 2 quarts of water, and add 2 quarts of apple or other fruit juice.

Let me know how you like your results!

A Must-Read Comic

I don’t know that I’ve ever recommended a comic before, but this one has definitely earned it. Read it here.

How Can You Discuss Liberalism in America Today?

Earlier today, Audible recommended to me through its algorithms the book Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen. I’d never heard of the book or its author before, so I did what I usually do when Audible recommends a book to me: I read the one-star reviews. Reviewers’ biggest issue with the book, it seemed, revolved around the definition of liberalism. Just from reading the one-star reviews, it is clear that Deneen’s critique of liberalism would include modern American Republicans and self-styled “conservatives,” who are of course squarely within the Lockean school of liberalism. Yet these reviewers clearly did not consider Republicans/”conservatives” as a subset within liberalism, but as somehow opposed to liberalism. The fact that these reviewers are wrong is immaterial–they are expressing the common understanding. In light of this, how does one actually go about discussing liberalism in America today? In a two party system where both parties draw their ideology from liberalism, the larger ideology of liberalism has largely become invisible. Is there a way to discuss liberalism in America today, or has it become so ingrained, so taken for granted, that it has become impossible to discuss, critique, or evaluate?

On “Making a Difference”

Not long ago, I read somewhere of a conversation between the author and his brother regarding monks. I’ve tried every search term I can think of to find it, but no luck so far. As I recall, the brother told the author that he admired the acetic discipline of the monks, but asked what difference all that prayer and fasting did if there was no one to see it or be inspired by it.

There seems to be an idea that virtue only “makes a difference” if it is seen. If you live a life of virtue, and it is seen by many, and causes some of them to live lives of virtue, that has value. But (in this view) if you live a life of virtue as a hermit, unseen by the world, that life of virtue has less value somehow. This idea is simply not true, as the example of St. Mary of Egypt should illustrate.

The life of St. Mary should also illustrate that God can take a life of virtue lived in complete anonymity, and not only make it public, but inspire millions with it if He so chooses.

This mistaken idea is probably particularly dangerous to those of us that have blogs or social media accounts. These mediums can provide us with a seductive possibility of “making an impact” by sounding a trumpet when we give alms or do other things that we should be doing.

Back when I had a Facebook account, there was a time when I got tired of arguing with people on every post I made. So I started posting pictures of cathedrals instead of words. People will argue with words, even when they are crafted with more skill than I posses. Yet beauty bypasses the level of argument to strike directly at the level of experiential knowledge. Unfortunately, when we seek to spread virtue by sounding trumpets before us on blogs or social media, we are detracting from the beauty inherent in virtue, and thus making virtue less attractive to those around us. On the other hand, if we can let go of the idea of “making a difference” and focus on our own repentance, on building virtue in our lives, the beauty of that virtue will shine out through us.

Writing helps me to organize my thoughts, but I know better than to see this blog as my avenue to making a difference. Any difference made through this blog will only be as a direct result of my own repentance.

5 Years

Once again, the blog has been neglected for months. The main reason for this is the amount of time and energy that I’ve had to focus on the final capstone project for a degree I’ve been steadily chipping away at the requirements of for the past eight years. The final project, the culmination of both an intense 16-week class and the whole 8-year journey, has been submitted and now I have only to await a grade. Hopefully, once I catch up some on the many projects around the house that have also been put off due to the class, I will be able to write more. But tonight it is raining, so I have an excuse for writing rather than working on one of my many projects waiting outside.

I didn’t even write the week of my birthday, which is very unusual. This year my birthday came and went with much less reflection on life and goals than typical. Of course, that week an important assignment was due for my capstone project, so my focus was not on the birthday. Now that I have time to think and look back, it amazes me how much has changed from my birthday five years ago to my birthday this year.

On my birthday in 2015, I had not yet met Courtney. Now, not only are we married, but we have three children and a fourth on the way. In 2015, I had never yet stepped foot in an Orthodox Church, yet today I am the father of cradle Orthodox children. In 2015, I rented a room in a 2-bedroom condo. Since then I bought a house, sold it at a profit, and bought another house with more land. In 2015, I had never killed, gutted, skinned, or butchered a deer. Now I am asked to teach others these skills. In 2015, the management of the condos where I rented a room prevented me from growing a few vegetables. This year, we have a separate garden just for potatoes and onions.

In 2015, I was almost ready to give up on having a family. Five years made an incredible difference. Over the next five years, I hope to build further on the foundation established over the past five. I hope to move us closer and closer to self-sufficiency. I still need to get much better at fishing, to establish more gardens, and possibly move again to a larger property where we can have some farm animals, along with countless other projects. I hope to document this journey here.

Hopefully, the next update in this journey will be soon.

Finally! A Footwear Solution for Women and Children

The challenge when it comes to men’s footwear is deciding which of the many excellent Made in the USA boots to buy. The challenge for women’s and children’s footwear is the opposite. While a few of the companies that makes men’s boots also make some women’s boots, with the notable exception of Red Wing’s Clara (which is very pricey), these are simply sized down men’s boots, and not at all feminine. The options that are actually made for women (excepting boots for equestrian purposes) tend to be shoddily made of pleather or cloth. And Courtney likes to wear flats, which seem to be ubiquitously made out of cheap fabric.

Elgin’s first boots

Boys boots are no better. When Elgin was little, he would refuse to wear shoes. We finally got him to wear shoes when we bought a pair of work boots for him at Sears. They looked good at first, but were pleather and he managed to wear them out before outgrowing them despite how fast he was growing. He went through a few more pairs of those boots, because he would actually wear them, and we eventually found that he would wear rubber boots (or as he calls them “poop boots”) as well. And so, for the last few years, Courtney and Elgin have worn footwear that rather quickly deteriorated. Edna fared better–she was passed down a pair of crocs that seemed to wear quite well, and she wore them until she grew out of them. Crocs seems like a good play shoe for her, but as she’s gotten older I’ve become less comfortable with her wearing them for church on Sunday, or on other more “dressy” occasions.

Elgin’s boots
Edna’s shoes are just like Mommy’s

Well, it seems that we’ve finally found a solution. Courtney came across a company called Adelisa & Co. that sells women’s and children’s shoes that are handmade in Nicaragua out of genuine leather. While I would prefer to buy Made in the USA, handmade in Nicaragua is much better in my opinion than machine made in China. The leather is relatively thin, which makes the shoes and boots softer. Edna wore her shoes to bed the first night or two after she got them. Elgin has been wearing his boots every day, and they have not seemed to need a breaking in like thicker leather boots typically do.

If you’ve been looking for a better solution for women’s and children’s footwear, give Adelisa & Co. a try. Prices are reasonable, with Courtney’s shoes at $65, Edna’s at $45, and Elgin’s boots at $55. They have a variety of other styles available as well, including a simple Oxford that looks equally good on boys and girls.