Thursday, May 29, 2008

Top Gear vs. Mythbusters

Given my geeky tendencies, it should be no surprise that among the few shows I follow on tv, Top Gear and Mythbusters rank at the top. It's not just what the shows are about (cars and, well, myths/urban legends) but the amusing way in which almost everything is approached. It is even more fun when, occasionally, the two shows tackle the same subject. For example, over the years, both shows tackled the subject of escaping from a sinking car, and they agreed in their conclusions. Then, both shows wondered whether it would be possible to beat a speed-trap camera by just going very fast.

On Mythbusters, the camera was set up at a circuit and a sports car attempted to go past the camera fast enough to not get caught. I don't remember the exact details, but I think the car got somewhere around 100 miles an hour with absolutely no effect on the camera: the license place appeared clear as day on the picture. Conclusion: myth busted.

Or is it? Top Gear is, after all, a car show. With the Stig. Their conclusion was slightly different. It is, actually, possible to beat a speed-trap camera by going fast. You just need a car capable of going 170 mph to do it. Advantage: Britain.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Planning for Salvation (May Article)

Last month I had the pleasure of assisting with the youth retreat at St. John the Baptist, in Tampa. Part of my involvement in the retreat was giving a presentation entitled "Goals without Plans are Fantasies." Since my dissertation work at Notre Dame involved the design of autonomous robots, I repeatedly had to face the difficulties inherent in the process of planning. Most of these difficulties are brought about by the size, complexity, and unpredictability of the world. The world is simply too big to be able to plan for every possible outcome. One approach is to eliminate planning altogether and simply react to the immediate environment. As researchers have repeatedly found, that approach does not work very well if you try to imitate something more complex than an ant, or, perhaps, a limited version of a turtle. If the goal is to achieve something more complex than walking about and looking for sources of food, some planning has to take place.

A robot without a goal most often moves in a pattern determined by its surroundings. Even though we are much more sophisticated in our interactions with the world around us, the basic principles still apply. If we neglect our goal, we become vulnerable to the problems, cares, and distractions of life. We change with the latest changes in entertainment, political, or social trends, perhaps not even knowing why we change. We may not know whether these changes are good or bad; they are, however, inevitable as we interact with the world around us. Therefore, in order for the changes in our lives to be meaningful, we need to have a goal which influences the changes in our lives, which brings us to the next point in the planning process.

A robot with a goal but without a plan moves towards the goal, but is most often thwarted at the first obstacle. What this means for us as people is that even when we keep our final goal in mind, we still need for a plan for accomplishing that goal. Without a plan, we can easily feel like we have stopped making progress in our lives. At that point it is easy to become discouraged. There is a chasm between us and our goal, and often, by the time we have gotten to this point, we may not see a way to bridge that gap. In order to prevent this state of affairs, we need to have, as quickly as possible, a plan for achieving our goals, especially the ultimate goal. So, how do we plan for salvation?

As Christians, our end goal is, simply put, "to go to heaven." It is a goal which can be simply stated, but which is quite complex. Ultimately, our going to heaven is contingent upon God's grace, mercy, and love, but we have an important role to play in our salvation as well. Christ tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that "men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken" (Matt. 12:36). St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). The book of Revelation says, "each person was judged according to what he had done" (Rev. 20:13). Let's see, then, what God will be looking for in the final judgment.

Throughout the Bible, God gave us the ingredients to lead us to the kingdom: love, prayer, forgiveness, humility, charity, self-sacrifice, and all the other virtues. It is up to us to plan for a way to put these things together in order to achieve our final goal. These, then, are smaller goals, which lead to the final goal of salvation. For some of us, the virtues come easily. For the rest of us, when we honestly look at ourselves, we find that our love is not perfect, our charity could use some growth, and our prayer life lacks enough fervor. If that be the case, what can we do?

The Fathers tell us that we grow by doing. The prayer of the heart begins with the prayer of the lips, which starts to stir the soul and set it aflame with love for God. Lack of charity is driven away by the joy of giving, of knowing that we are the instruments by which God blesses those who are less fortunate. If we want to become more loving, let us plan on giving love each day: a little smile, a kind word, a token gift. It takes planning and discipline, but this is the path of watchfulness on which we work and grow in the image of Him who holds all things.

Having said all this, it is important not to take the parallels with robots too far. After all, we are not robots, but human beings created in the image of God, each one a beloved child of God and a reason-endowed member of His flock. What this means in practical terms is that, having made a plan for our journey to heaven, we should not forget to remain humble and allow God to show us His plan. He knows us better than we know ourselves and He desires each of us to be saved. Throughout our lives He tries to bring us to Himself and to guide us toward the kingdom. Our plans need to allow Him to guide us; they need to be flexible enough to change according to His will. We need to begin by having our plans, our way of knocking on God's door, and He will open the door and guide us as He has promised. So let us plan each day to take another step towards the kingdom so that, at the awesome second coming, we may all hear the invitation, replete with guidelines for us to consider in making our plans: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:34-36).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Daily happenings

Yesterday after the Liturgy I forgot to turn my cell phone on. Around 5:30, I remembered that and told Magda that I probably should turn it on. Her reply was something along the lines of: "Yeah, you should. You're probably going to get a call from the alarm company." (Since I live close to the church, I am the first contact should the alarm go off). Sure enough, at 5:33 the phone rang and the alarm had gone off. Turned out to be a door that wasn't properly closed, but the whole episode was quite amusing.

In other news, I cannot watch hockey with my wife. She cheers for the puck (i.e., "Run away, little puck, run awaaaay!) I still haven't figured out quite how to respond to that :)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Universal Mission of the Church

As mentioned before, I am posting some of the articles that I wrote for our monthly bulletin. The following is the article for April.


Our journey through Lent has reached its glorious finale. The church has been decorated, the altar doors have been opened wide, the news of the resurrection has been proclaimed to the world. It is Pascha and the whole Church rejoices. However, for the Church, this is only the beginning. After the Resurrection, Christ told the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Later, He says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These words were spoken not only to the apostles, but also to us, who follow in their steps.

The Church reminds us of the universal mission of the Church when it brings us together for the service of Agape Vespers on the afternoon of Pascha. During this service we read the Gospel message in many languages. Over the years I have had the opportunity to hear this Gospel in many languages such as Korean, Basque, Japanese, Turkish, and Kikuyu. Sometimes these languages were read by native speakers, other times by people who had the opportunity to live where these languages were spoken and to see the Church at work in those places.

As Orthodox Christians we are part of the united family of the Church. We are connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ in every place where the Church in present. We become one with them in the Eucharist we share. We are connected to one another in our worship, in our love for God, the Church, and one another, as well as in our mission to be Christ’s witnesses in the world.

The meaning of Agape Vespers extends even further. Psalm 24 says: "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Ps. 24:1). The reading of the Gospel in many languages reminds us that God's love extends over the entire world. We, as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9), are the messengers of God's love. It is to us that St. Paul says: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). To us Christ says, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). We cannot, therefore, remain indifferent to suffering, whether it is near or far. The Orthodox Church here in the United States has provided avenues through which each of us may help others.

The recent Kenyan crisis, in which at least one Orthodox church was destroyed and several priests were left without shelter during the violence, was a different kind of reminder of the mission of the Church. The Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), a ministry of the Standing Council of Orthodox Bishops of America (SCOBA), which was already on the ground working with the Orthodox Church in Kenya, sent out appeals for help so that they could meet the needs of those who had been hurt. OCMC focuses on the spiritual work of the Church. Through our support of OCMC, missionaries go to places like Albania, Kenya, Romania, and Tanzania. Among their activities there, they help build churches and schools, start drug and alcohol counseling programs, and organize health care programs. When the need arose in Kenya, because OCMC was in the best position to offer humanitarian help, it took on that aspect of the Church’s ministry.

In most situations, however, it is the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) that does the almsgiving and support work on behalf of us, the Church. In the summer of 2005, Romania suffered catastrophic flooding; later that year, hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast; last year Greece endured fires that endangered thousands of lives and livelihoods. Every time, IOCC, the official international humanitarian organization of SCOBA, acted swiftly in providing relief to the affected regions.

These two organizations continue to do important work for and on behalf of the people of God: helping those in need, spreading the good news of Christ, and bringing hope to many parts of the world. This year, IOCC offers volunteer opportunities in the Gulf Coast to help rebuild homes that still have not been restored after hurricane Katrina. OCMC provides opportunities for both short and long term service in Alaska, Albania, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Romania, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. Members of these service teams will help build and restore churches, teach English as a second language, teach catechism, care for orphaned children, provide substance abuse counseling, and provide general health care. Among so many worthy projects, each of us can find one to take to heart and support. Our support is essential in order for IOCC and OCMC to continue to follow Christ's mandate to serve. This support can come in a variety of ways: we can pray for these ministries, support them financially, or listen to the call to become a volunteer. Perhaps next year one of our own Holy Trinity family will tell first-hand stories of the work the Church is doing in far-away lands and add a new voice to those reading the Agape Vespers Gospel in many languages.

For more information on the work being done by these important outreach and evangelism organizations of the Church and for more ways in which we can show our support, please visit: and

Friday, May 02, 2008

Christ is risen!

It's rather hard to believe it's been a month since I last wrote. It almost goes without saying that it's been a busy month and I loved it. I still haven't gotten a recorder for the sermons... so I'll post some of the things I write for the monthly church bulletin and, maybe, some thoughts on my first Holy Week and Pascha as a priest. In the mean time...

In geeky news, I like being able to do things I'm not supposed to be able to. Specifically, I am talking about talking to a web-hosting tech person about using CSS files in Soholaunch. I was told that it was complicated and I should provide the specs and the company would take care of things. Needless to say, geek that I am, I figured it would be faster if I just figured out how to either use CSS or fake it. After a couple of hours of looking at various pages in Soholaunch-based systems and a brief look at the Soholaunch wiki, I was using my own CSS file in Soholaunch, which did just about everything I needed it to do (complete with Soholaunch menu directives and all that). Truth be told, the way Soholaunch deals with CSS is rather cumbersome, but I've dealt with much worse things in my time of fiddling with computers.

In "I don't know what's good for me" news... Yesterday when Presvytera and I had a doctor's appointment (everything's just fine) and I commented that "I'm in a hurry, so I can't leave the car in the regular parking lot, because that is patient parking and I'm impatient." Or today, when she told me she needed more praises for everything she accomplished today (quite a bit, actually), I launched into: "Πάσα πνοή..." (Let every breath...). It's a good thing I have good reflexes and I can catch the chapstick as it flies towards me :)

And so, life goes on.