Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Honor of Baptizing

I was again honored today to celebrate a baptism in which another human soul was forever united to God. As Orthodox we believe quite literally that upon baptism we are not only outwardly affected, but inwardly as well. We believe that we die with Christ and are born new with Him in His Resurrection. probably already knew that.

Today I wanted to share what a honor I consider it to be as a Priest to be the celebrant during any baptism, but today was a bit more special for me. The boy was 9 ½ years old. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t a pagan. He wasn’t neglected. He was born into a loving Christian family. The reason he was not yet baptized is because his family has been on a journey. For more years than he has been alive, his mother who is a recent convert to Orthodoxy, was searching. Many years ago, through friends, she was introduced to the mystery of Orthodoxy, but it wasn’t until early last year that she deeply in her heart understood what the Orthodox Church was......”what she had been searching for all along.”

Sometimes God allows us to search and long for Him before He fully reveals Himself to us. He allowed the Jews to wander for forty years in the desert. He allowed the gentiles to revel in their various pagan religions for centuries before He revealed Himself to them.  He continues to allow millions of human beings to live in spiritual darkness. Why?

Of course we don’t know why God does everything He does. We are after all His creation. If we understood everything He did we would be God. But sometimes He allows the darkness because we are not ready for His Truth. Remember Moses had to be shielded from His glory for his own safety. Sometimes, which is why I feel so honored when I am allowed to celebrate a baptism, He allows the darkness because some of us choose the darkness. Some of us actually prefer the darkness, and He never forces anyone to accept Him or follow Him.

That is why before the baptism takes place, the candidate must first reject the devil, and then embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and as King. Then through the act of free will we are united to God in Baptism. We are forever joined into union with the Holy Trinity. And being a part of that awesome reality can be really humbling sometimes, especially when it occurs in the life of family in the midst of a great journey. That was the case today. Not every member of this particular family is Orthodox, but they are all believers in Christ. Maybe someday, by God’s grace, they too will choose to follow the Orthodox Way of Life. And maybe, that day, I will again be honored to welcome into God’s Church, freely.

Friday, August 29, 2014

End of Summer; End of Self

September 1st is the first day of the New Ecclesiastical Year, and with it a sense of newness. A new calendar, a new series of Gospel lessons, a new cycle of Feast of Christ and the Theotokos, but most of all it brings us a sense of reflection on the end, not of summer but of our time on earth.

The Gospel lessons at the end of summer are filled with reference to the end of time, the kingdom of heaven, and eternal life. “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19.16) This all-too-often question initiates a conversation with Jesus during which some people are filled with joy, while others “went away very sorrowful” (Matthew 19.22). What could cause such a drastic difference in the reaction to Jesus message?

The common denominator EVERY time someone departs Jesus sorrowful is, SELFISHNESS. It was because King Herod was selfish for power that he murdered thousands of innocent infants after he heard of Jesus’ birth. It was because the Scribes and Pharisees were selfish for the power of Rome that they betrayed their own Savior to be crucified. And it was because the rich man “had great possessions” that went away sorrowful at the words of Jesus.

Selfishness ALWAYS gets in the way of our relationships, between us and God, and among our fellow human beings. It was to help us defeat selfishness that God first established the commandments. So when Jesus answered, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments,” (Matthew 19.17) He wasn’t suggesting that merely keeping a set of rules would get anyone into heaven. It was THROUGH following the commandments that selfishness is defeated. THEN, once we have defeated selfishness, we can enter into eternal life free to love God above all others.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dogs are dogs; People are people

I have noticed a disturbing trend lately to characterize the behavior of different animals in human terms. I’ve been wanting to write this blog for some time now, but haven’t had the time to actually sit down and write it. I will begin with a quick disclaimer. I grew up as a dog owner. I loved my dog. I cried many tears when we put him to sleep after his long illness. It makes me sick when people mistreat animals by beating, starving, etc. So this blog IS NOT about condoning the mistreatment of animals. I limit my comments in terms of how our society is trending toward the humanizing of animals, and what I believe is a dangerour spiritual trend.

Here are some examples of the trend I’ve notice recently:

I’ve been hearing terms such as pet parents and pet caretakers for several years, but (and it might be a false impression) it seems like an increasing coverage of stories in which animals are characterized with human emotions. Crying elephants, hugging and jealous dogs, it’s beginning to appear that animals are equal to humans. And that is the point of this post. Animals, which for the purpose of this blog will refer to NON-HUMAN animals, though they may appear to express human emotions, are nonetheless not human. So, why the strong urge to “see” human characteristics in animals?

Here are a few examples of what I believe expresses at least a portion of the reason.

So why is this issue important for us as Orthodox Christians? If you have been a reader of my blog for any length of time, I believe “just about everything” is connected to our spiritual journey. According to an article “Why do we anthropomorphize?”  which cites the Association for Psychological Science, the author suggests,
“Various motivations may also influence anthropomorphism. For example, lacking social connections with other people might motivate lonely individuals to seek out connections from nonhuman items. Anthropomorphism helps us to simplify and make more sense of complicated entities.”
However, I have a different opinion. I often have a different opinion when it comes to interpreting “motivations” for various behaviors. For me, at least part of the reason for this behavior is evidenced in the fact that you seldom read the evidence of the opposite as positive news. When was the last time you read a scientific article which praises the “animal characteristic” found in humans? Allow me to be more specific. When was the last time you found a scientific survey which studied “Why do men fight to defend their territory” as a benefit to our understanding life?

It seems to me like there is an overwhelming desire to reflect only certain human characteristics in animals rather than animal characteristics in humans in order to establish a “more welcoming” atmosphere for such behaviors in humans. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the presence of homosexuality in animals far exceeds other articles. First, we are obsessed with sex. The second reason might have to do with what the article referred to as “lonely individuals to seek out connections” since homosexuals often find themselves as outcasts of society.

It seems to me that our fallen humanity’s desire for self pleasure is so strong, that we will not cease until we establish enough evidence that such desires are “just part of our animal heritage” rather than behaviors that should be frowned upon. I believe this is also related to why we choose only SOME characteristics.

I think there is another reason for this tendency. The more humans can create the impression that we are no different from the rest of the animals, the less we have to be responsible to God’s desire for us in our life. THAT is why I think this is important enough to blog at length on this. Anything that lends a false impression that we are exempt from God’s desire, takes us away from Him and is directly linked to the devil’s temptation that first lured Eve to ignore her obligation to God. This is our ancient fallen human struggle. As Saint Paul said,
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. (Romans 7.15-21)
That is not to say there is no example of humans and animal, even wild animals, coexisting peacefully.

In both of these examples, it was the divine character of the saint which brought out the human peacefulness in the animal. This is quite different than that current trend. So if you wish to truly witness animals acting human compassion and love, then as Saint Seraphim said, “Acquire inner peace and a thousand around will be saved.” AND.....even the bears will sit peacefully with you. In the meantime, dogs are still dogs and people are still people.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Forgiveness Challenge

With all the commotion making its way through the internet lately about the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” it planted an idea in my mind. What if we all took the “Forgiveness Challenge” instead? It requires no money. It requires no cold water. It requires no internet or social networking account. It requires only your desire to forgive everyone who sins against you EVEN IF they cannot repay you for what they have done.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the ultimate “Forgiveness Challenge” explained. “’Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18.21-22) This is followed by the parable of forgiveness (Matthew `18.23-35) which includes a king (God), a servant (you) and another servant (someone else). The king has called all his servants to settle their accounts with him, but in the face of not being able to repay the king, the servant (that’s you) begs to be given more time. The king, moved by compassion, forgives the entire debt. However the servant (that’s you again) refuses to do the same for the other servant (that’s someone else) so he is thrown into debtors prison (that’s hell) until he repays the debt, which we already know he cannot do.

Jesus “called you out” for the ultimate “Forgiveness Challenge” when He says, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18.35) You have 24 hours to complete this challenge or risk a lot worse than a bucket of ice water.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Courage and Hope

The media coverage this week presents us with the opportunity to witness true Christian courage and hope. In the face of struggle and illness, our faith is challenged, sometimes to the extreme. We may even find ourselves at the end of the line. It is at those moments that Jesus reminds us that faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to move mountains. It will be enough to get you through the struggles your face.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Comic Strip NOW Available for Church Bulletins

Suicide is the Ultimate Sacrifice at the Altar of Self

I’ve been holding off, trying not to really, blog about the recent news of the suicide of popular actor and American hero Robin Williams. It was quite clear in the minutes and hours that followed the news of his death that anyone who dared to speak harshly about him or suicide should be prepared for a plethora of criticism with statements such as:
“You don’t know anything about depression.”
“How can you say such cruel things at a time like this?”
Some of the comments I’ve seen online have been downright cruel against anyone who chose NOT to honor the man for taking his life. HONOR? That’s what I said. Let me explain...

In a prepared statement his widow said,
“Robin's sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson's Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.”
From this statement we are to understand that his suicide could only be characterized as part of his brave fight with depression and other struggles. That is when I realized I had something to say. Giving up hope is NEVER brave.

But I don’t want to write specifically about Robin Williams. I only mention his situation since it was his suicide that brought it yet again into the public conscience. What bothers me deeply, and has for quite some time, which if you read my blog might be obvious, is that our society continues to run full speed ahead into a world dedicated to self.
People celebrate abortion as an expression of self rights.
Sexuality has devolved into pleasing the self through pornography, gender reassignment, same-sex marriage.
And now suicide is a brave example of self expression in the throngs of depression and other illness.
In a society which honors the self above all other relationships, I suspect we shall see an increasing trend toward this horrific end to life. And why not? After all, for almost thirty years life itself has been a matter of personal choice. Why not death? And if the media coverage of Robin Williams is any indication, it shall be seen as just another example of how we have the right to do whatever we feel is in our best interest. If we don’t want to suffer; no problem. It wouldn’t even surprise me if suicide became part of health care “management” to assist those who no longer want to suffer.

Christ said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8.34) That includes suffering and especially NOT thinking of the self above all other relationships.

So why did I finally decide to blog about this? If you have any love for your family and friends, you will fight the temptation to characterize this suicide as anything other than what it really is; a tragic and cowardly expression of the loss of hope. It is NEVER brave to give up hope. Our hope is in Christ who conquered death for us, so that we might live with Him in a place where there is no pain, suffering or sighing, but life everlasting. Anything else is just simple selfishness.

Of course I would be remiss if I ended this post without reminding you the Church teaches that the state of our heart when we die is permanent. If we enter into death in a state of desperate hopelessness, THAT will our eternal condition. This is just one reason why the Church frowns upon suicide. We don’t what anyone to be eternally hopeless. That would be, and is already, hell.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Does it Mean to Move Mountains?

In the Gospel of Matthew (and elsewhere) we hear Jesus state, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17.20) When was the last time you saw ANYONE moving a mountain “by faith” instead of dynamite or bulldozers? Did Christ mean something different?

St John Chrysostom offers some insight to understanding this claim of faith. “Where did they remove a mountain? I would make this answer, that they did far greater things, having raised up innumerable dead. For it is not at all the same thing to remove a mountain, and to remove death from a body. And certain Saints after them, far inferior to them, are said actually to have removed mountains, when necessity called for it.”

If the Apostles didn’t move mountains, it wasn’t for their lack of ability, but the lack of any NEED to move a mountain. Too often we hear this particular faith challenge as license to demand any particular miracle from God, and then we blame Him for not acting upon our demand. The ability to move mountains has been given to ANYONE whose faith is strong enough, but I’ve personally never met anyone who had that particular need.

And that is where genuine faith is critical. When we have genuine faith in God, even the smallest amount, we will know our real needs and focus upon those rather than so many other desires we treat as needs. As we hear during every Liturgy in honor of the Theotokos, “One thing is needful.” Forget about moving mountains; move your heart to be with Christ.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What are You Willing to Do to Make Your Dreams Come True?

All of us have dreams; dream vacations, dream jobs, dream homes, even dream families. We invest our resources of money and time preparing ourselves to accomplish our dreams. When we are faced with choices, any choices, we painfully weigh our options against their potential to help us accomplish our dreams. If any choice either works against our dreams or doesn’t at least lead toward our dreams, we quickly opt out for fear that our dreams won’t become a reality. We will do ANYTHING to make our dreams come true.

As we begin another Church year in September, I would like you to consider this question, “Do you dream about being in Heaven when you die?” If you do, and I presume you do, what are you willing to do make that dream come true? The Orthodox Christian Way of Life is designed to help you make this dream a reality. Here are some examples:

Attending Church Services as often as you can – We read of two glimpses into Heaven in the Holy Scriptures in both Isaiah (chapter 6) and Revelation (chapter 1). Moses was commanded by God (told to us in Exodus) to shape Old Testament Worship (the model for New Testament Orthodox Christian worship) with the understanding that when we are worshiping God in Church, we are preparing to experience Heaven. SO....the more time we spend in Church for worship, the more we will appreciate the reality of Heaven. Heaven isn’t a good day fishing, it isn’t a good day at the golf course, it isn’t a peaceful field of bright colored flowers. Heaven IS the angels and saints (that includes us) worshipping God ALL THE TIME. If you dream about being in Heaven, but you don’t enjoy being in Church, spending more time IN Church will help make your dream come true.

Living the Fasts and Feasts of the Church – Jesus Christ commanded, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) The only way you will be able to enjoy Heaven is to learn NOW how to deny yourself and take up your cross. When you live the fasts and feasts of the Church, you are learning how to focus your entire existence around having a relationship with Christ. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has established a CALENDAR which focuses your time, daily-weekly-seasonally, on growing closer to Jesus Christ. If you dream about being in Heaven, allowing your life to be shaped NOW by the Church to focus upon God all the time will help your dream come true.

Caring for the Poor – Christ directly connects our entrance into Heaven to serving the poor in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25.31-46). Caring for the poor is an act of love. God IS love, and He commanded “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,' and 'your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18, Luke 10.27) If you cannot love your neighbor, and your enemies (Matthew 5.44), it will be impossible to enjoy Heaven. If you dream about being in Heaven, learning NOW to love your neighbors and enemies by caring for them, will help your dream come true.

Participating in the Whole Life of the Church – The life of the Orthodox Christian Parish is dedicated at all times to helping you make your dream of being in Heaven come true. The Divine Services, Bible studies, opportunities to serve the poor, fellowship through social events, house blessings, the Mysteries (Confession, Holy Communion, Unction, etc) special blessings (hospitals, newborns, adoption etc), special classes (Orthodoxy 101), and Parishes are always considering new ways to help you make your dream come true. The only part missing is YOU. What are YOU willing to do make your dream come true? It’s YOUR choice.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Questions and Answers: What do the Fathers say about mental illness?

In the final episode of our special questions and answers summer sermon series, we have attempted to share with you a brief introduction to how the Church Fathers may be able to guide us in understanding, or at least coping with, mental illness. Taken from the perspective of science as informer to the Church in terms of how we understand the human brain, the Fathers offer us the vantage point of understanding our original state, namely that humans were created in the image and likeness o God. In the case of mental illness as “not the normal” we may better understand the affect of sin on the human soul and mind, and work toward healing which is only possible in Christ.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sometimes God is Right In Front of You; But Do You Recognize Him?

Each year toward the end of summer we hear the story of Peter walking on water. We hear about how Jesus chastises Peter’s lack of faith. We hear about how Jesus calms the storms that surround us. But what I want you to consider THIS year is that sometimes Jesus is right in front of your eyes, and STILL you don’t recognize Him, just as the disciples didn’t recognize Him when He came to comfort them during a late night storm.

The Gospel says, “How in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out for fear.” (Matthew 14.25-26) In the midst of the storm the disciples who had witnessed His power, were unable to recognize Him. What could have prevented them? What prevents you from recognizing Him?

The disciples were talented fishermen. They were likely very good sailors. Is it possible they were so focused on their own abilities to get them through the storm, they “had no need” to recognize Jesus had come to help? It wasn’t until they were at their last possible moment before Jesus said, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14.27) When all was said and done, Jesus had brought them safely through the storm and they declared, “Truly You are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14.34)

Don’t wait until the very last moment to recognize that God is right there in front of you. It could save you from a great amount of unnecessary stress.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Questions and Answers: Wedding Rings and the Meaning of Marriage

Did you know there was a reason why the Priest placed your wedding ring on your right hand? Are you one of the many who have changed your ring to your left hand to “fit in” to our American society? In this week’s episode of Be Transfigured! we will answer the question, “Why do Orthodox Christians wear their weddings on their right hand?” You may be inspired to change it back...if you have the courage. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Holy Things are for the Holy

With these words, we Orthodox Christians pray during the Divine Liturgy that the bread and wine having been presented may become, by the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Orthodoxy “things” matter, because Jesus, the Divine Incarnate Word of God, entered into creation. The Holy Mysteries of the Church (Sacraments) are each indications that the Grace of God is manifested through His Creation. Even our own hands can become the vehicle of God’s grace when we help those around us.

For those who question the truth of blessed objects, myriad miracles can attest to their power throughout human history. If God can bring water from rocks, (read Exodus 17) why couldn’t He bring other blessings from other physical objects? In the New Testament we hear of “handkerchiefs and aprons” (Acts 19.12) brought from Saint Paul having miraculous healing powers.

But if physical objects can contain the healing power of God, they can also contain the evil works of demons. It concerns me that so many Christians carelessly involve themselves with items used for evil or other demonic purposes. If coffee grounds can be used by demons is it possible there might be residual evil present in the cup? Can tarot cards every really cease to be connected to darkness? Can practices designed to “communicate with other gods” ever be harmless?

The Orthodox Way is the way toward holiness, and we should never dabble in anything that does not convey God’s grace. The Holy Things are for the Holy; leave the unholy for someone else!

“They do not need to go away.”

With these words Jesus admonishes those who believe they are unable to give the sort of care needed for those around them. When the Disciples were not yet graced with the presence of the Holy Spirit, their weakness and doubt often was translated to become a lesson for those around them and for us today. In this example, Jesus was healing the multitudes when the disciples reminded Him, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” (Matthew 14.15)

Since they only had five loaves of bread ad two fish, they did not believe they had the ability to help the people. I believe most of us today would have, and often DO HAVE the same reaction. Our resources are so few, barely enough for us, that we could not possibly help those around us. And yet Jesus says, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14.16) More than five thousand were filled that day with only five loaves and two fish.

When we allow our resources, no matter how few, to be used by God to help others, great things can happen. When we put the needs of others ahead of our own immediate needs, miracles can happen. Most especially when we allow God to work through us, lives will be saved. Next time you consider how little you have to offer, remember that God can accomplish greatness with what you already have. “They do not need to go away. YOU give them something.”