Friday, March 28, 2014

Quote of the Day - March 28, 2014

For he that is praying as he ought, and fasting, hath not many wants, and he that hath not many wants, cannot be covetous; he that is not covetous, will be also more disposed for almsgiving. He that fasts is light, and winged, and prays with wakefulness, and quenches his wicked lusts, and propitiates God, and humbles his soul when lifted up. Therefore even the apostles were almost always fasting.

Saint John Chrysostom - Homily 57 on Matthew 17

Is it a Sin to Doubt?

Many sermons are preached from pulpits around the globe about Faith. “Have faith!” “It just requires faith.” “If you have faith….” Faith is a strong and necessary thing for our Christian journey, but is it a sin to doubt?

In the Gospel According to Mark we hear a story of a father struggling with his faith. His son was possessed by demons, but when he was brought by his father to Christ’s disciples, they were unable to heal him. He had nowhere else to turn, but to come to Jesus with his doubt. The young man’s father said to Jesus, “’If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’” (Mark 9.22-24) And the child was healed by Jesus.

The invitation by Jesus and the Church to have faith is a common struggle to all Christians. We struggle to have faith not always because we refuse to believe, but because sometimes all we know is pain and struggle. Our “real life experience” is filled with examples of the fallen reality of human existence, and we wonder sometimes if God is really listening? We wonder if our faith is strong enough to either convince God to help us, or to accept that He might not help us in our moment of pain.

Having faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and as a gift, must be accepted by us in order for it to have any power in our life. Accepting the gift however sometimes requires a bit of effort on our part for our faith to “come out” in us. This is when Jesus says to us, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9.29) Doubt is not a sin; not trying is.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Your Cross; Your Struggle

When Jesus Christ invites you to take up your cross and follow Him, it is an invitation to embrace the spiritual struggle of subduing your passions. Only you and God know your struggle. It sometimes is good to be reminded that just as others don’t know your whole struggle, neither do you know anyone else’s struggle. This gives us a chance to embrace the Great Lenten journey as we accept that we must give our entire life over to Christ, and that IS a struggle….but it is YOUR struggle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

LIVE Bible Study March 26, 2014

We will attempt a live streaming of tonight's bible study series.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Salvation Requires Free Will

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, when the Archangel Gabriel invited Mary to accept God’s challenge by becoming His Mother. Of course, that isn’t how it’s written in the Bible, but that IS the essence of what took place.
Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, "Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people." Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!" But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. "And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end." Then Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. "Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. "For with God nothing will be impossible." Then Mary said, "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1.24-38)
I choose my words VERY carefully here to illustrate that God indeed invited the Virgin Mary to accept this challenge. There should be no doubt that Mary exercised her free will by her response, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” She could have said, “NO!” Thank God she didn’t…

If Mary, the betrothed of Joseph, had rejected the Archangel’s offer, we might still be under the curse of death, as God may not have taken on human flesh and become a human being for our salvation. You might say, it was only possible for God to take on human flesh BECAUSE Mary said, “YES.” If Mary had chosen her own comfort and acted in her own self interest, Jesus may not have been born. If Jesus had been born, we would still be dead today…..BUT thankfully, she said, “YES.” This explains not only the Archangel’s greeting, but also the hymn of the Feast, in which we are invited to also call out to her.
Today is the summary of our salvation, and the revelation of the age-old mystery. For the Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin, and Gabriel announces the good news of grace. Therefore, let us join him, and cry aloud to the Theotokos: "Rejoice, Maiden full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But it wasn’t only Mary’s free will that was able to limit our salvation. Just as we are invited to call out the Virgin Mary with the words of the Archangel, we are urged to mimic the Virgin Mary, and responding to God’s call for us. Using OUR free will, God allows us to join the Virgin Mary and say, “YES” to God’s invitation to follow Him into heaven. And just like her, we are required to use our free will to either submit ourselves to God or reject His invitation.

Today, on the Feast which honors the Virgin Mary’s free will acceptance of God as her master, we are reminded that our free will can either save us or condemn us. God could not save us without her free will, and God cannot save us without our free will acceptance of that salvation. Don’t let her freedom go to waste. Say “YES” to God today!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Christ said Take up YOUR Cross

Half-way through Great and Holy Lent we are brought face-to-face with the Veneration of the Precious and Holy Cross of Christ. In the Gospel read on the Third Sunday of Lent, Jesus calls each of us to discipleship with the words, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) Many things can be said about taking up our cross, but one thing is for certain. Christ NEVER said, take up someone else’s cross and follow Him.

A constant theme of our Christian journey is the call to humility. Weeks ago the Church reminded us to be like the humble tax collector rather than the prideful Pharisee. We were challenged to humble ourselves in repentance and return to our Father. And this week, we are called by Christ to take up OUR cross, deny ourselves and follow Him. What is the difference between MY cross and YOUR cross? It’s mine with all my strengths and weaknesses. It’s my personal struggle with the passions that are unique to my Christian struggle, or cross. Your cross is yours.

To take up YOUR cross is to accept your Christian struggle as YOUR Christian struggle, rather than comparing your struggle to everyone else’s struggle. Humility isn’t only for the blessings we experience, but for the challenges as well. What might seem like a heavy burden for you may be light for another; but what seems light to you, may seem heavy for another. Only when you focus on YOUR cross, can you fully appreciate the grace that the Precious and Holy Cross of Christ has for you in your life.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Does Your Faith Drive You?

When four men were bringing their paralyzed friend to meet Jesus, they encountered a serious obstacle. Arriving at the house Jesus was teaching in, they could not enter since the crowds had already filled the house. They couldn’t even get near to Jesus with their sick friend. They might have given up if not for their faith. The Gospel of Mark says, “And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was.” (Mark 2.4) From a hole in the roof, they lowered their friend to Jesus. What followed their climbing on the roof is quite important. The Gospel continues, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2.5)

It was their faith that Jesus praised that day in Capernaum, but not just their faith. They could have had faith and stayed at home praying that God would heal their friend. They could have had faith and waited their turn outside for Jesus to finish preaching and leave the house. But their faith was so strong, that it drove them to not give up. Their faith drove them to make sure their paralyzed friend encountered Jesus. Their faith drove them to bring their friend into God’s holy presence. It was this driving faith that Jesus honored that day.

Faith comes in all shapes and sizes, but ultimately it must be enough to drive us closer to God. This is why, especially during Great and Holy Lent, the Church increases the opportunities for us to have a real encounter with Jesus Christ in His Church. With divine services daily during the Great and Holy Lent, there is no excuse for us to “give up and stay at home,” just because it might be inconvenient to come to meet Jesus in His Church. And just like in the Gospel, when we come to His Church, we come into His real presence, not just waiting politely outside for Him to come to us.

Does your faith drive you? If you spend another Great and Holy Lent just living and experiencing the same life you always live, you will be no different than the crowd watching from a distance. Take full advantage of Great and Holy Lent, and allow your faith to drive you closer to God. It is when you finally allow your faith to drive you that you will hear God say to you, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What is Truth?

The Sunday of Orthodoxy is both a theological and historical celebration. The final end of the Iconoclastic controversy ended in 843AD when the Empress Theodora, the first Sunday of Great Lent, officially restored Holy Icons to their rightful place within the Church. The Church had earlier in 787AD defended the truth of Orthodoxy present in the Holy Icons as a witness to the Truth of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, the first Sunday of Great Lent has been a dual celebration of truth and history ever since!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not exalt your own wisdom. Proverbs 3.5

As we approach the end of the first week of the Great Fast, this verse from today’s readings caught my attention. It is exactly what the Great Fast is meant for us to accomplish. So often people think fasting is about food, when in reality it is about our ego and selfish desires. I often think just how much more peaceful the world would be if this verse from Proverbs was dripping continually from our tongue. Each half of this verse is vital to a proper understanding of the Great Fast.

We journey every day from person to person, and situation to situation, placing our trust “somewhere” in order to maneuver through the waters of life. We trust the engineers who designed the bridge we cross. We trust the police to keep us safe. We trust our teachers to instill proper knowledge in our minds. We trust the neighbor to keep watch over our home when we travel. In each of these situations, though, trust was earned by direct experience; either directly such as our trustworthy neighbor, or indirectly through our city’s licensing boards. In each case we do not extend trust lightly but through careful evaluation, sometimes leaving us “burned” when someone we believed was trustworthy failed to hold up his end of the bargain. In fact, we’ve all been hurt or taken advantage of by someone who has then lost our trust.

So it isn’t without hesitation that we read this verse from Proverbs and doubt our ability to put its words into action. How can we test the Lord and determine His trustworthiness? With other people, we can evaluate them based upon direct experience, but how can we directly experience God? On the other hand, we have constant direct experience of our own wisdom, and while it may sometimes fail us, at least we know what to expect. At least when our wisdom fails, we have only ourselves to blame!

That is where the Great Fast begins to make sense. Through our fasting and increased prayer and Church attendance for the Sacraments (all three are necessary for a proper and balance Great Lenten journey), we are given the opportunity to, if not directly experience God, at least to build direct experience of scenarios is which we risk placing our trust in Him. If we can experience enough “successful scenarios” we could make an internal logical argument to build up the trust in God by slowly adding great risk.

For example: We “risk” hunger by fasting from meat on Wednesday and Friday. After experiencing that we “won’t die” just because we fast from meat, we learn to trust God with our hunger. After weeks of realizing we are no longer hungry, nor are we dead from not eating meat, we are willing to go a little further and trust God with other food items. Eventually, we find that keeping the fast hasn’t hurt us in the least, and may have even helped our bodies become healthier, so we extend the logic of trusting God into other areas of our life. We create a log of experiences in which trusting God has been a safe venture, so we are more willing to trust Him with issues of greater importance than just what to eat for lunch. Next thing we know, we have placed our trust in Him with all our heart.

Putting aside our own wisdom is most likely the single most difficult thing we are asked to do by God, not because it is impossible, but because we are most knowledgeable about ourselves. We know our strengths and failings, even if we choose to ignore both. When Jesus says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me,” (Mark 8.34) He is challenging us to the greatest struggle of our life. He calls us to this challenge, not because He is on some ego trip, but because He knows our wisdom will eventually fail us. He knows that unless we are willing to trust in HIS wisdom, we will always fall short. We know this too but we’ve just learned how to tolerate the failure of our wisdom. Now it’s time to learn to trust in the success of His wisdom.

Engage the Great Fast! You’ll build a plethora of experiences of trusting in God. Eventually you’ll allow Him your whole heart.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Forgiveness is Key

The key to salvation is the gift of forgiveness. Jesus says, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6.14-15) If we want to enter the gates of Heaven, we must use the key provides to us in forgiveness. 

It Isn’t Giving if It’s Garbage

After more than twenty years working in the Church, I continue to be amazed when I come across what some consider a gift. Our Church collects food in the Narthex, like many other Churches, and thankfully we average one ton of food collected each year. But once, I happened to look inside the basket and check out what people had donated. It was an exceptionally large collection that particular week, which is why I looked in the first place. What I found not only amazed me, it was a bit depressing. Someone had cleaned out their pantry and donated the food to the Church for the poor. NOT ONE item in the bunch was still “good” as EVERYTHING had expired. Some was even expired by more than three years. Now I know many of us will ignore expiration dates a few days, but THREE YEARS!? What possesses people to donate this garbage? It would need to be thrown away at the shelter, and that was IF they had chosen to double check; not to mention the reputation of the Church when it was discovered where the food originated in the first place. I threw at all away!

Great Lent is a time of giving. We give ourselves to God in increased prayer, fasting, attending Church services, and by giving to others. Saint John Chrysostom taught that the money we save by fasting should be given to the poor. But it isn’t really giving if the items we donate are otherwise meant for the garbage.

Whether it is food that has expired or old clothing filled with holes, just because someone can’t afford something nice “off the shelf” doesn’t mean they deserve garbage. I have even heard, much as I would prefer to pretend I hadn’t, the poor should be thankful for what they get. REALLY!? Thankful to be eating our garbage? PLEASE! Where is the love in that?

During this Great Lenten season, set aside some groceries for the soup kitchen/pantry and each week BUY a few extra cans to be donated. It is always ok to bring items you already have, especially this time of year since, if you are fasting, you won’t eat certain foods until Pascha, and they will spoil by then. This week would be a good opportunity for example to bring the extra cheese and meats that are still fresh in your refrigerators. Why should good food rot just because you are fasting? But under NO CIRCUMSTANCES, should the food be expired, spoiled, ruined, or otherwise fit for the garbage. There is no love in donating garbage.

Monday, March 3, 2014

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Clean Monday; A Reminder of Where it all Began

During the next seven weeks, we shall be invited by the Church to spend our days in prayer, fasting, reading Scriptures, helping the poor, and participating in the Divine Services of the Church. By the time of Pascha, we will have read Genesis, Isaiah, and Proverbs in their entirety.

As we begin our Great Lenten journey, we return to the beginning with a reading from Genesis which tells of the first three days of creation. This is combined with the opening verses of Isaiah which tell of a people who have no longer know their God.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day. Then God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day. Then God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear"; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth"; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day. Genesis 1.1-13
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: "I have nourished and brought up children, And they have rebelled against Me; The ox knows its owner And the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know, My people do not consider." Alas, sinful nation, A people laden with iniquity, A brood of evildoers, Children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, They have provoked to anger The Holy One of Israel, They have turned away backward. Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness in it, But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, Or soothed with ointment. Your country is desolate, Your cities are burned with fire; Strangers devour your land in your presence; And it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, As a hut in a garden of cucumbers, As a besieged city. Unless the LORD of hosts Had left to us a very small remnant, We would have become like Sodom, We would have been made like Gomorrah. Hear the word of the LORD, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the law of our God, You people of Gomorrah: "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?" Says the LORD. "I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. "When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies -- I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow. "Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword"; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 1.1-20
It is important for us to be reminded of two things on this first day of the Great Fast. First, that God is the source of all life. It is because God desires life to flourish on the Earth that in fact it does flourish sometimes even despite our lack of proper care. Great Lent is our annual journey to prepare for the Feast of Feasts, Pascha; the conquering of sin and death by our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. With this reminder of our humble beginnings on Earth and the reality that humanity has a long history of turning our back on God that we can embark upon these next seven weeks with a proper intent.

Great Lent isn’t about self denial and punishment meant to somehow “repay” God for suffering on the Cross. Great Lent isn’t about “religiously” following a list of rules in order to earn favor with God. Great Lent isn’t about offering God “many prayers,” as He will not hear for our lack of sincerity. Too many people journey through Great Lent as if we are cramming for a final exam and need some extra credit points because we’re not fully prepared. There are no extra points that can earn our entrance into heaven.

We were created to commune with God, and His creation is supposed to assist us in finding Him, but we have chosen instead to use creation for our own selfish demands.
Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3.6)
We continue to abuse His creation for our own selfish needs, so Great Lent is given to us as an opportunity to return to our ancient “relationship” with His creation, to find God. During Great Lent, our fasting is meant to focus our attention on Him rather than ourselves. Limiting what and how much we eat is designed to assist us in repairing the broken understanding of food.

The great Prophet Isaiah reminds us of God’s promise, despite our former rejection of Him.
"Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword"; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. – Isaiah 1.18-20
Great Lent is our opportunity to express our willingness to be obedient to Him rather than serve our own desires. Though our sins are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Then we shall be restored to our original glory and commune with God. We will once again enjoy the blessings of Paradise and eat the good of the land, unless we refuse and rebel…..

Have a blessed Great Lenten journey!