Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What is the Perfect Prayer?

This is a common question among Christians. Instinctively we know that we must pray, but often times we get confused about what to pray? Indeed, when the Lord was asked this, His response was to pray the “Lord’s Prayer,” but sometimes even this prayer doesn’t calm our nerves. I can imagine this must have been the situation for two blind men who approached Christ. I can imagine a life without sight can be very difficult and that they would have needed something more.

So they offered the perfect prayer, “Have mercy on us!” (Matthew 9.27) Why was this prayer so perfect? They knew God. They believed in Jesus Christ as “Son of David,” so they were faithful Jews. They had such a strong need for Him, they went after Him. I imagine they must have rushed to keep up with Him as they cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” Christ, knowing their faith, asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Do what exactly?

What happened next, I believe is what makes their prayer so perfect. They simply asked for God’s mercy, nothing more-nothing less, and they received their sight. What was lacking wasn’t faith, but awareness that God knew their struggle. In their particular case, God was able to respond to their need by restoring their sight. He was compassionate in their anxiety, and they were comforted.

Sometimes we need simply to be aware of God’s compassion so that our anxiety may pass. In those times consider the perfect prayer, and seek God’s mercy. Maybe your eyes will be opened to your true needs.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Forgiveness of Sins

The foundation of our salvation in Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus came to save us from our sins, and by becoming one of us, forever conquered the effect of sin. Sin no longer has dominion over us, unless of course, we allow it.

In the Gospel we hear Jesus forgiveness the sins of the paralytic man, BEFORE healing his illness. “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9.2) That means, before we can be healed of our physical wounds, we must first be forgiven of our sins. Our bodies will eventually die and return to dust, but our souls, which will forever bear our sins, will live forever with the burden that comes with sin. By forgiving the paralytic’s sins, Jesus was reminding Him of what was important, the soul.

In our contemporary days, we are preoccupied with our physical health. Our “health care system” is focused on making us live forever. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are spent and agonized over in hospitals attempting to live forever. But what effort do we make to heal our soul? If we are willing to spend so much effort to heal our physical wounds, shouldn’t we be willing to put at least that much effort into our souls?

We can be forgiven. We only need to ask, and the Church has been given authority by Christ to forgive sins. Schedule a confession with your spiritual father today. Don’t miss the chance to hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hidden Blessings

The other day, as I was leaving Philadelphia after the Clergy-Laity Congress, we decided to stop by the Russian Orthodox Cathedral for a visit. I had heard that it was built by the Czar, and I felt compelled, really, to go. I imagined it must have been an amazing Church if the Czar had invested in its construction. I imagined gilded icons, shining onion domes of various colors and the stench of ancient Orthodoxy in the heart of a modern city. I was NOT disappointed...

When we arrived at the Church, I almost missed it, tucked in between two buildings in what has recently become a “trendy” neighborhood after many years of crime and poverty. I stood across the street to take the first of what I imagined would be hundreds of pictures. When we entered, we were met by Fr Mark, the pastor for St Andrew Russian Orthodox Cathedral. He welcomed us into the most amazing Church I had visited in recent years.

As we walked up the stairs, I asked Fr Mark, “So this was built by the Czar?” “No,” he replied. “The Russian Navy built the Church.” With a lump of disappointed in my throat, and a bit of embarrassment, we ascended the stairs into the Church. The wooden floors creaked as we venerated the Icons of the Mother of God. The icons on the walls were covered in more than a hundred years of smoke and incense. I entered the Holy of Holies to venerate the Holy Altar. Every inch of the Church was filled with the fragrance of incense. I was in one of the simplest and most humble Churches considering its history and location in downtown Philadelphia.

I exited the Holy of Holies to begin venerating the Holy Icons, when it hit me. This WAS the glorious Church I had expected, but not for all the (lack of) gilded icons. As I went from icon to icon for veneration, I began to notice that each one, EACH ONE, had a relic of the Saint. I was blessed to venerate relics of:
  • St. Andrew the Apostle
  • Saints Peter and Paul
  • The Three Great Hierarchs (Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian)
  • Saint George
  • Saint Elizabeth the Grand Duchess
  • Saint Luke the Physician
  • Saint Tikhon who had consecrated the Church in 1902
  • And at least a dozen more Russian Saints, the names of which I couldn’t read, including the first pastor of the Church who had been martyred by the Communists when he returned to Russia.

As we were preparing to leave the Church, I commented to Presvytera, “Much better than some ‘cracked bell’ isn’t it?” We were in Philadelphia just a few blocks away from the Liberty Bell. It may seem strange, but I have always been the kind of person who chose to visit local “hangouts” rather than famous tourist locations. I’ve been to New York several times, but never to the Empire State Building. I went to Athens and DIDN’T  go the Acropolis. It isn’t that I am against those places. I just prefer, when possible, to visit ‘normal’ places that help me appreciate people who live where I am visiting. But don’t worry, I have been to the US Capitol, The Prada Art Museum, Sidney Opera House, Ellis Island, and many other famous locations.

This has been a long-time tradition of mine which began in 1987 when I was in Australia with my high school choir. While visiting Melbourne, I heard of a nearby Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Catherine, the same name as my home Church at the time. I stopped by for a visit and have been hooked ever since. Visiting local churches during vacations has given me two blessings; experiencing the local people, and the grace of God present in their Church. I highly recommend fitting a visit to the local Orthodox Church into your next (and every future) vacation plans. You won’t be disappointed. I haven’t been.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Unhealthy Heart is Not Healthy

When we think of the human heart, it goes without saying that, with the assistance of modern medicine, we can easily distinguish between and unhealthy heart and a healthy heart. Well trained doctors can even tell the age of a heart based upon “normal aging patterns” that are manifest in various tests. But the fact still remains, an unhealthy heart is never considered healthy. At the very most, a wounded heart might be considered “a typical 70 year-old heart” or with some other modifier. But it would be deadly for a physician to evaluate the human heart as healthy if it is not. To this point, I’m pretty sure every reader will agree.

Source http://greenolivedigital.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Healthy-Vs-Unhealthy-Heart.jpg

What happens if I said an unhealthy family is not healthy? Would I receive equal levels of agreement? I doubt it, not because families are always healthy, but because when we discuss families within today’s social context, we no longer speak about something that is as “cut-and-dry” as the human heart muscle. The mere implication that a family might be unhealthy is predicated upon an underlying agreement that there even exists “a healthy family” model after which we can evaluate other families.

Please allow me to explain. I am attending this year’s Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America 42nd Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress, which bears the theme, “The Orthodox Christian Family: A Dwelling of Christ and A Witness of His Gospel.” During the Keynote Address of His Eminence Archbishop DEMETRIOS of America, he stated, “If everybody and everything is a family, then nobody is truly a family in any meaningful sense.”

Hearing this profound statement is when it occurred to me. Our society has been calling an unhealthy heart healthy. What the Archbishop is trying to help us understand as a society, (and I HIGHLY recommend reading his full address) is that before we can heal what is wounded in our families, we must first appreciate that our families are wounded in the first place. And the only way to accomplish this is to acknowledge there DOES exist a model of a healthy family.

As divinely revealed, a healthy family includes father and mother, along with their children. Anything outside of this model, is not a healthy family. What do I mean? Am I suggesting that a husband and wife without children, not a healthy family? Is a single parent family not a healthy family? Each family has a condition, a range of healthy, if you will, just as a heart might be “healthy for a 70 year old smoker.” But if that same heart was in a twenty year old college student, it would be considered unhealthy.

Does a husband and wife not have children because of medical circumstances? Then we might say, “a healthy family for someone who cannot bear children” as an indication that the family is dealing with a wounded model. Then the Church can minister to the wound. Of course, this is just one example, as there would be many examples of wounded or otherwise unhealthy families.


It isn’t to suggest that members of a healthy family are somehow “better” than members of an unhealthy family. Just as one wouldn’t say a man with a healthy heart is “better” than a man with an unhealthy heart. It merely allows us to identify wounds which are in need of spiritual attention within our journey to Christ.

Yet in our attempt to fight for “equality” in any definition of family by defining “everybody and everything as a family” (using His Eminence’s expression), we have ultimately told the heart patient he is perfectly healthy, when in fact his heart is in great physical distress.

In our attempt to allow something unhealthy to be considered healthy, we in fact put all those who are members of that family at great spiritual risk. Since they no longer see their situation as in need of healing, the Church is unable to minister to them, and as such, every time members of that particular family hear the teaching of the Church, they will reject the teaching as either being “mean spirited” or not relevant to their situation. Keeping our heart analogy, if a patient is told their heart is healthy, they will ignore a physician when he speaks about heart healthy as not relevant.


If you truly desire to grow closer to Jesus Christ and live with Him forever in Heaven, then you must begin to ACCEPT that you are wounded. In your particular situation, it may not be your family. It might that you are wounded in your Church Community relationship. It might be that your relationship with your friends is unhealthy or wounded.

WE ARE ALL WOUNDED by nature of living in a fallen world, and Jesus Christ is the physical of our souls and bodies. At least we should trust His healthy model and evaluate our reality against His.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Faith Requires Freedom

In today’s Gospel we hear:
"All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." Matthew 11.27-30
It is a common experience of any believer when speaking with “non-believing” friends, to be frustrated that we can’t seem to “convince” them to believe. I must confess that it took me many years before I accepted this passage from the Gospel.

WE CAN’T CONVINCE anyone to believe in God. ONLY GOD reveals Himself.

So, in continuation of my “freedom” theme for the 4th of July, I thought it would be helpful to remind you that if God doesn’t force someone to believe in Him, why should you try? Your job is to live the love YOU have for Christ, and allow that love to reveal Him to them. You have enough to focus your attention that you don’t need to waste time trying to debate Jesus into someone else’s heart. If He chooses to reveal Himself to them, He will.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The 4th of July - A Day Worthy of Fasting

It is the custom of Orthodox Christians to fast as an offering to God. By fasting, we offer Him our entire being as an expression of gratitude and submission. When re-reading (READ THIS if you have never read it) the Declaration of Independence, you may appreciate the beauty that is in offering yourself to God today, as it is Friday, and fast. By doing this, you honor the sacrifice and total dedication to those who initiated the fight for your freedom.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
From the Archives of the United States G

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The 4th of July and Fasting

As Orthodox Christians we have been fasting every Wednesday and Friday with very few exceptions since the earliest days of the Church. In the “Teachings of the Holy Apostles to the Nations” we find this:
But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; (Matthew 6:16) for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).
Hypocrites was a reference to the unbelieving Jews who fasted on Monday and Thursday, not a reference to Christians. With very few exceptions during periods when fasting is forbidden (after Christmas, after Pascha, after Pentecost) these days remain the staple fasting guide of every Orthodox Christian. Even when Feasts of the Church fall on these days, there is fasting expected albeit lessened in honor of the feast. For example if August 15th happens to fall on a Friday, the fast is lessened to allow for fish, oil and wine, but no meat is served.

Why is this important? It happens to be the simplest manner in which the Church can teach and train her believers to place God above all other realities in life. It may be difficult for those who do not fast to understand the nuance between having steak and having fish during celebrations. Please allow me another example.

My birthday is during the Nativity Fast every year. This means I must fast every year on my birthday. If my birthday celebrations are going to include meat (I really enjoy a good prime rib) then I must “transfer” my birthday celebration prior to November 15th. “Now” I am free to celebrate with whatever food I wish in honor of my birthday. In fact, for many other reasons, we “transfer” birthdays and anniversaries to long weekends or other dates out of convenience. What does it teach our children when we can’t do the same out of respect for our Faith Tradition? The Church indeed transfers several feasts so that they can be celebrated outside of fasting periods, the most famous being the Feast of St George. When Pascha is later than April 23 (the date of the Feast of St George) then the celebration, including Divine Liturgy, is “transferred” to the Monday following Pascha. This is done in order to maintain the dignity that is Holy and Great Lent and Holy and Great Week.

HOWEVER, we can’t simply reschedule nationalized US holidays such as the 4th of July, so what alternative do we have? We should keep the fast when the 4th of July happens to fall on a Wednesday or, as is the case in 2014, a Friday. This is completely in keeping with the ancient and sacred Orthodox Christian Tradition. Greece, for example, celebrates March 25th (Greek Independence Day) EVERY YEAR during the Great Fast. The fast is “lessened” by allowing fish, oil and wine, but THIS IS IN HONOR OF THE FEAST OF ANNUNCIATION and not for Greek Independence Day.

There is a uniquely American exception to this rule of fasting on Thanksgiving Day. Early in the 20th Century, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of (then) North and South America, decided to allow for the “full celebration” of Thanksgiving including turkey, in deference to the unique fact that it is the ONLY US holiday dedicated to giving thanks to God. However, this exception is limited to Thanksgiving Day, and is not universally practiced.

As Americans who are Orthodox Christians, we owe it to our children to train them that their faith is more important than what foods we eat on the 4th of July. Then, when the time comes for them to choose between living the life their Church teaches, and the life the secular world teaches, they will have already been trained to follow the Church.

Don’t You Think It’s Time We Take Responsibility for Ourselves?

Ever since Adam and Eve refused responsibility for their disobedience of God, (See Genesis 3.12-13) the “stain of original sin” has plagued each of us. We each have inherited a fallen world in which we EACH have a proclivity toward sin. We can’t seem to avoid it. Even Saint Paul acknowledged this “war inside” of us in which we do that which do not wish to do, and don’t do that which we wish to do. (See Romans 7.15-25)

So, when will we finally learn to take responsibility for our sins? Many people are of the opinion that their sins do not affect the “greater society” with all the talk of so-called victimless crimes. BUT the reality is that our sins DO have an effect on others. Just consider the recent recall of GRACO infant seats. In an article today, it was announced that GRACO “gave in” to pressure to include the infant seats in a recall because “Buckles can get gummed up by food and drinks, and that could make it hard to remove children.” The article STATES “The company says there have been no injuries reported because of the problem.” So let me get this correct......NOBODY has been hurt, but because some parents don’t clean their infant and car seats, food and drink “gum up” the buckles so the COMPANY has to spend millions to replace dirty buckles? PLEASE!

I’m not against product safety standards. I’m not even against reasonable oversight, but in THIS case we’re not talking about straps that didn’t safely restrain children or infants in accidents. How much you want to bet that the “new buckle design” will eventually be found not strong enough because it had to be altered to accommodate parents “lack of cleaning habits?”

Now before you get all “we have to protect our children” on me, you must understand this post isn’t about child safety, nor is about government agencies. It IS about personal responsibility. When we sin, we MUST stop trying to pass the buck. Our friends can’t make us sin. The most relaxed safety standards can’t make us sin. Even the devil can’t make us sin. WE SIN, and it’s about time we take responsibility for our behavior.

Christ understood this when He granted the Church authority to forgive sins. The Church understood this when it commanded the confessor to fully consider the heart of the penitent in “meting out mercy.” That is the gift of Holy Confession. WE take responsibility for our sin, and engage in a life of repentance to grow ever closer to Christ.

Take responsibility for your sin, and schedule Holy Confession with your Priest TODAY!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Should I Focus on During Holy Confession?

A follow up question from our previous episode on “Preparing for Holy Communion” last week, this question focuses more attention on the actual Mystery (or Sacrament) of Holy Confession and what our attitude should while we are confessing to a Priest. The Mystery of Confession is expressed as a communion between the one who is confessing and God, once we have opened our heart to Him.