Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It isn’t about Doing More; it’s about Being More

You wake up every morning running at full speed even before getting out of bed because you already know there are more things you need to accomplish today than you have time to finish. But every day you wake up committed to working hard for your family’s needs, and you don’t stop until the moment your head hits the pillow, and the next day begins all over again before you are even finished with today. The sense of exhaustion is real. Just when we are at our most exhausted moment, the Christ calls to us, “Let’s go, there’s more to do.” Just then you beg God, “Please, don’t ask me to do more.” 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Just a Bit More...

We live in a busy society. Our day never seems to stop from the moment we wake until the time in which we finally lie down to sleep, normally MUCH later than we would hope. We live in a multi-task society in which we are expected to always be thinking about work and how we are going to accomplish the next task on our agenda. We live in a society in which if we dare to spend a few moments to reflect upon the “greater things of life” we are considered lazy. When rest does come at the end of the day, you are finally able to reflect upon the joys of life. Just then, you get a call: “Get up, go back to work, you have more to do before you can sit down!”

I wonder if that might have been the reaction of the Disciples when Jesus came to them that fateful day and said, “Put out into the deep and let your nets down.” (Luke 5.4) They must have been very frustrated since they had, like so many of us, worked all night long and needed a moment of rest. And Jesus knew their frustration when He blessed their efforts with a catch larger than they expected. Their willingness to “go just a bit more” was honored by God.

Many times, just when we think that we can’t possibly do one more thing, the Church calls out and challenges us to go just a bit more. We are asked to fast when we struggle just to put food on our table. We are asked to come to special Church services when we struggle just to get to Church on Sunday morning. We are asked to read the Bible when we struggle just to find a few moments to catch up on the important news of our world. And the Church wants us to “go just a bit more?”

The blessing of a great catch was possible only when the Disciples were willing to “go just a bit more,” and the blessing God has in mind for us are only “just a bit more” away, but we may never know those blessings. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Desire, Struggle & The Cross

The Christian path to salvation is freely given and must be freely embraced. Jesus said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) In this invitation, Jesus grants us the ability to choose to follow Him. For two thousand years, holy men and women have desired Christ, struggled to deny themselves and followed Christ. Orthodox Christianity is a “tried and tested” way of life that will lead us to see God....IF we desire it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What Sunday Worship is REALLY all About

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!" And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6.1-4)

The majesty which Isaiah witnessed when he saw God being worshipped in Heaven was also expressed in the Temple which God commanded Moses to construct for His People to worship Him on Earth. For a better description of how Moses was commanded to construct the Temple, read Exodus chapters 25-28 all of which express the majesty of God.

This SAME majesty is expressed in Orthodox Christian worship. Golden candlesticks, incense, Altars, Thrones, Vestments, precious metals and stone are all integrated into Orthodox Christian worship for a reason – to prepare us for being in Heaven.

Many Protestant Churches today express quite a different atmosphere to their worship. Rather than the majesty of heaven, many Church services Sunday mornings “feel” more like a night club. Rather than bowing and reverencing the Altar of God, many Church services Sunday mornings lift up the human passions rather than the mantle of God. In fact many Christians validate this by using the expression “It felt awesome today in Church!” or “I get so lifted up when I go to Church!”

On the contrary Saint Paul and Saint John the Theologian had quite the different reaction to seeing God being worshipped in heaven, much the same as Moses and Isaiah.

And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. (Revelation 1.17)

And I know such a man -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows --how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Corinthians 12.3-4)

The Orthodox Church has a centuries-long witness in the lives of countless holy men and women who have had visions of God, ALL OF WHOM express similar stories as we find the Holy Scriptures. So, if we are preparing as Christians to worship God in Heaven for all eternity, why would we not express that same majesty in our Earthly worship? Of course as Orthodox Christians, we do, are at least we should.

The trend in mega-Churches toward the night club atmosphere is obviously attractive to many in today’ entertainment culture, but does it REALLY prepare believers for what is coming for all eternity? If God taught that the way to salvation was in taking up our cross and denying ourselves, it would seem that Sunday worship would focus, not on what makes us FEEL good, but the awesome majesty of being in God’s presence. Would a believer, if they were in the presence of God, REALLY worry more about feeling good than bowing in reverence at the Altar of God?

When you come to Church on Sunday, please consider the REAL reason you are worshipping God. If you are focused more on how you “feel” rather than being in His Presence and glory, you may not be preparing yourself and your family for what is coming in Heaven. Don’t you want to be prepared?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Every Struggle Should be Embraced

When Jesus Christ said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow Me,” (Mark 8.34) He was comparing our Cross to our Christian struggle. But does God expect us to welcome every struggle? We all struggle, but not everyone embraces their struggles nor should they. What types of struggles are we expected to embrace if we are to follow Christ?

When we find ourselves in a struggle that is beyond our control such as poor health or natural disaster, we would do well to remind ourselves, that this sort of struggle is the result of our fallen world, and is not necessarily punishment for poor behavior or a test from God. Sometimes things just happen. These struggles should be embraced as any other part of daily life and they strengthen us for tomorrow.

When we find ourselves in a struggle that is the result of our Faith in Jesus Christ, either in the form of temptation or persecution, we would do well to remind ourselves that the world will forever fight against us to keep us from calling upon the Lord. We will never avoid temptation or persecution so long as we are following Jesus Christ. These struggles should be embraced as building spiritual muscles to fight against the devil and our passions.

And then there are the struggles that we bring on ourselves. We procrastinate. We eat poorly. We sleep when we should be working. We work when we should be praying. We make all sorts of decisions EVERY day that bring us struggle. HOWEVER these struggles should be avoided because they are the result of our poor decisions. This type of struggle is NOT your cross, but your consequence.

And THESE struggles can only be avoided when we embrace the Cross and those struggles that strengthen our faith SO THAT we can fight against temptation. Avoid the poor behavior and the struggle fades away.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

There is Power in the Cross of Christ

Ever since finding the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ in 327 C.E. the Christian world has lifted it high for all to venerate as a sign of victory and power. The Power of the Cross defeated death two thousand years ago, and the Power of the Cross is sufficient for you to defeat your temptations and struggles. All you need is to accept the Power of the Cross into your life, and live a new life in Christ.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Politics and Morals Don’t Mix

In a recent conference in Washington, D.C. a group gathered to discuss the plight of Christians in the Middle East. It was held in Washington, I suppose, with the dream that close proximity to our Nation’s politicians would garner a certain amount of attention to the moral cause of protecting an oppressed people. According to statements made by the organizing committee, the discussion was productive. However, a US Senator, believing (again I suppose) that American Foreign policy interests would be morally sufficient for anyone to support the Nation of Israel, was booed off the stage by a primarily Arab Christian group of people. Why?????because politics and morals don’t mix.

In America it has become trendy to use expression such as, “Keep your religion to yourselves,” or “Don’t force your religion on others.” In many of these cases that I have experienced these expression are used in response to a predominantly Christian moral being used as a basis for law. Of course the most common moral issue debated nowadays is same-sex marriage. The Christian Church (in general terms) has been characterized a gay-hating, middle-ages loving, white men, which may actually be true in a few cases. But any objective evaluation would reveal this is just not the case. In fact, if something is to be voted upon, which is the American political way of assessing common moral behaviors, how ANYONE chooses to come to their particular vote is a matter of choice. This unfortunately is rarely the case. Why??????because politics and morals don’t mix.

And yet, another popular trend today is for America to “force” her morals upon other countries when it comes to issues of gender, sexuality, citizenship qualifications, and even international borders. How is it, that a population which demands to be left to their own moral choices chooses NOT to allow other nations the same benefit? Why????because politics and morals don’t mix.

Even within America, those who cry freedom of moral oppression from one party, acknowledge that OTHER behaviors are CLEARLY not acceptable. Polygamy, Incest, Child-Adult relationships, bestiality...ALL these are just as taboo as homosexuality used to be, and YET, the LGBT community continues to demand their independent right while denying anyone else to ability to vote on the matter. Why???????you got it....politics and morals don’t mix.

So what is the solution? God gives each human being the free will to choose Him or to deny Him. We live in a society which allows for the public debate and participation in the setting of common morals. It seems pretty clear to me that LGBT issues are quickly becoming the “norm” while bestiality etc are not. I accept that I live in a land that allows for such freedoms to be manifest in the very laws of our nation. In fact, I am thankful for the freedom this country does allow for. However, I think it is high-time for both sides to concede they will not convince the other. In the meantime, can we at least acknowledge that both sides benefit when we allow freedom to prevail?

That means.....if Christians want the freedom to not support, participate in, or in any other way endorse same-sex marriage, we must not forget it is that SAME freedom that allows others the choice TO marry. Alternatively, if the LGBT community wants others to keep their religion to themselves, they must not forget it is the SAME freedom they are attempting to deny others in their choice. Freedom works both ways, and while politics and morals don’t mix.......politics and freedom are a match made in heaven.

Excerpt from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem “Catechetical Lecture 13”

St Cyril, prior to becoming Bishop of Jerusalem, had been charged with preparing those for Baptism. These lectures were delivered in the (then) brand new Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem in 348 CE just two weeks prior to Holy and Great Friday, most likely in the shadow of the True Cross of Christ which was present in the Church from its finding in 327 CE until 614 CE when it was stolen by the Persians. It was restored to the Church in 628 CE. The Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ on September 14th commemorates both the original finding and its restoration.

Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the sake of the poor; without toil, for the sick; since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils: for He triumphed over them in it, having made a show of them openly (Colossians 2:15); for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the gift; out for this the rather honor your Benefactor.

Hymn of the Cross
Save O Lord Your people, and bless Your inheritance. Grant victory of the faithful against the adversaries of the faith. And protect Your people, by Your Holy Cross.

Kontakion of the Cross

You were lifted up upon the cross of your own will, Christ our God. Grant your mercy upon the people that bear your name. In your strength make glad the Orthodox, giving them victory over their adversaries. May they have your alliance as a weapon of peace, and an invincible trophy.

Find the complete "Catechetical Lectures" of St Cyril HERE

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Divorce is Still Broken

In a recent Huffington Post article about “blended families” I came across this opening quote, “Just because your family has been through a divorce does not mean it is broken. In fact, it's quite the opposite.” I cannot disagree with this statement strongly enough. Even IF you don’t agree with the Orthodox Christian understanding of marriage, how divorce can EVER be considered anything other than broken is beyond logical. But then again, I don’t look to the Huffington Post for logic, especially when it comes to Christian ideals. But hey....did you notice I had to use the term “Orthodox Christian” understanding of marriage? We can’t even say “Christian” anymore since a growing number of Christians are fleeing from the Holy and Sacred Traditions of the Faith.

But, more about why I am so upset about this article. First, by way of disclaimer, my parents never divorced, so I don’t have FRIST HAND knowledge of what it means to grow up in a broken family. BUT that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen the pain and struggle, especially of children, in the wake of divorce. One friend, speaking with someone who’s father had died said, “At least you have a grave to visit.” Her parents were divorced and what she had known as a father in her family was no longer a realty. Who would DARE tell her that her family was not broken?
In our fallen world, we are tempted to continually rationalize away the pain, struggle, and brokenness of the world. The result is a false sense of security that we are “wholesome” to borrow the hash tag from the Huffington Post article. If we are not broken, then we have no need for healing. If we do not need to be healed, then....who needs God anymore? But there’s one problem...


And when we feel the pain, which is quite real, we can’t reconcile the pain we feel with the lie that we are not broken. In the book “Generation Me” author Jean Twenge, points out that once we encounter the TRUTH that we are broken, despite the promises of society, we can’t cope.  One reason she offers for the large number of medicated and depressed young adults in America, is this often life-threatening realization that we have been lied to our entire life.

So, please....if you really love your friends and families who have struggled, are struggling, or will struggle, with divorce (or any other brokenness of our fallen human state)....please have enough love and compassion for them by telling them the truth. “Yes Johnny, the family is broken, but God still loves you, and the love of God can soothe any pain in your heart.” But...you have to admit something is broken before He can help.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Don't Allow Pain and Suffering to Distract You from God

Sometimes the pain of life can seem unbearable. Sometimes you are tempted to dwell upon your pain and suffering rather than the promise of God that you will live forever. The reality is, despite all the pain and suffering in this life, God promised that so long as you keep your focus on Him, you will not only be healed, but will live forever. Are you ready to trust God enough to not allow your pain and suffering to distract you from His promise?

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Irony of Osteen

In past couple of weeks Christians have been “jumping on the bandwagon” (including yours truly) and condemning recent remarks from Victoria Osteen about what’s “really” going on when we worship God. Major bloggers and Christian media outlets have included scathing remarks from fellow Christians calling the Osteens heretics and warning well intentioned Christians from following their ministry. But I find it more than a bit ironic that Protestants are warning ANYBODY about following another Protestant. I’m actually not surprised, THUS the title for today’s blog.

Several months ago I was having a discussion with a Lutheran Pastor (and friend) about a trend I found disconcerting. We were acknowledging that many Christians hop from Church to Church until they “finally find a Church” with which they agree. At the extreme pinnacle of this trend exists entire parishes that, if they find themselves at odds with the Pastor, whom THEY hired in the first place, they either fire the Pastor, OR leave to start their own Church. This was called, “The inherited sin of the Reformation,” by my friend, the Lutheran Pastor. My response to her was, “If you really believe what you are saying, that means you have to return to the Orthodox Church. You know that, right?” Of course she, a bit caught off guard by my boldness, did not agree with my conclusion.

The IRONY....

The inherited sin of the Reformation, a statement with which I can agree, carried to its logical conclusion is: Every Christian has the ultimate right to determine for themselves the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures and Faith of the Christian Church. This practice is what gives “legitimacy” to as estimated 43,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Take away the individual right to “your own” interpretation, and all you are left with, is the Orthodox Church. No surprise there.....

This is why I find it dripping with irony that ANY Protestant would dare suggest that the Osteens are heretics. By what authority does this condemnation rest? With their OWN private interpretation; thus the vicious cycle repeats itself with the number of denominations growing every day.

I have been asked why I am so worried about Joel Osteen and other like him. In short, my immediate concern is for those Orthodox Christians in my parish who “follow” Osteen and others, which allows the heresy to trickle into their own faith practice and ideals. It isn’t uncommon to find Orthodox Christians defending Osteen with comments such as, “His messages are GREAT! I follow him every day,” or “His is a great motivational speaker. God wants us to stay motivated, doesn’t he?” Well....yes and no. The sort of motivation God has in mind is for us to be motivated to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than building up riches. The Gospel is replete with references to sin in regard to focusing on the self. If motivation is focused on the self, it is not heavenly motivation.

So where do we go from here? We are called by God to test all spirits to determine if they are from God. How should we test them? Just like Saint Paul, the ancient Church, and every council since Pentecost. If a teaching is not totally consistent with the teachings of the Holy Apostles, it should be disregarded and avoided. As I like to say, if Saint Paul was required to verify his teachings with the Holy Apostles, and alter them where necessary, then so should we be required.

So where does that leave Osteen? It is obvious his teachings are not Orthodox. At the very least, Orthodox Christians should avoid paying ANY attention to him and his false teachings. At the most, we should help our friends, if we indeed love them, to step away from his incorrect teaching of the Gospel of Christ. In the end, we will all be accountable to God for our teachings and beliefs. Otherwise, God is going to cal to us, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” (Revelation 3.16 – more irony......the opposite result of John 3.16) 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rollercoasters and Incense

The other day, while discussing the painful reality that so many Orthodox Christians “just don’t enjoy being in Church” I was asked an interesting question. “Father, if you ask children which they would prefer, going to the amusement park or doing homework, which one do you think they would choose?” OF COURSE they would choose the amusement part, so would I. The problem with this question, all too common to the struggle of Church attendance, is a false option. Let me explain...

There is a campus (they don’t use the term perish) of New Spring Church in Florence that after only six years (the same tenure of my time in Florence) has grown to over 2,000 every Sunday. They are currently building a brand new multi-million dollar church complex that literally dwarfs the bank next door. The Worship experience of this particular Church has become quite popular in Evangelical Protestant circles, with rock music, light shows, no dress code expectations, and a sermon. BUT.....there is no preacher in Florence. That’s right; the “featured” sermon is ON SCREEN from the mother campus elsewhere in South Carolina. Others have characterized the Sunday worship as attending a concert. So, it should come as no surprise that youth (and adults who wish to pretend they’re still youth) flood in from all directions to attend a weekly “free” concert.

And there lies the false choice. Orthodox worship is NOT a rock concert. It is NOT a light show. It is NOT even a sermon, though we do preach. But the false choice is much more than just the style of worship. Orthodox worship is HEAVEN ON EARTH, where we are graced to physically become one with God through the Holy Eucharist. Orthodox worship is directionally opposite from this form of Protestant Worship. What do I mean by directionally opposite?

Where we as Orthodox direct our attention, characterized in the fact that the celebrant clergy FACE THE ALTAR, is toward God. Protestant worship is directed inward toward the self. We speak to God. We sing to God. We bow to God. We worship God with the proper understanding that we are in the presence of His glory. Protestant worship speaks to the heart and, by design, seeks the rush of adrenaline, which explains the “I just FEEL good when I leave that Church” emotion of Protestants. What examples do we have to follow?

Moses hid his face. Exodus 3.6
Isaiah cried out in fear. Isaiah 6.5
John the theologian fell to the floor as though he were dead. Revelation 1.17

Orthodox Christian worship is based upon this example of humility in the face of God. And YET, we are allowed to approach the chalice standing face-to-face with God to receive His most precious Body and Blood into our very bodies. Orthodox Christian worship is a foretaste of how God is being worshiped in Heaven as witnessed by Prophet Isaiah and Saint John.

They didn’t see rock bands. They didn’t see light shows. Of course this should be obvious, but they DID see an Altar, golden candles sticks, smoldering incense, majestic robes, pious processions, praiseful singing, and bowing....lots of bowing. These are the characteristics of Orthodox Christian worship, as they were Jewish worship before us, SO THAT we can prepare to spend eternity doing the same thing in heaven.

Life isn’t about feeling the rush of adrenaline storming down the hill of a rollercoaster. Life IS about preparing to worship God in Heaven. Worship isn’t about feeling the rush of adrenaline during a rock concert. Worship is about offering God incense and bowing at His glory before the His Altar.

Rather than asking our children if they would prefer the adrenaline of an amusement park to homework, maybe a better question would be, “Do you want to be with God?” If so.....forget the rock concert and go to Divine Liturgy. The real problem is that most Orthodox Christians are still comparing the “fun factor” of our worship to the excitement of Protestant worship. And that’s just a false choice.

It’s time to exchange rollercoasters for incense.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

You Can’t See Heaven if You Stare at the Earth

Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3.12) When Christ speaks about earthly things, He is speaking about the things that give us pleasure, in other words our passions. For example: if we focus upon our material wealth, we are focusing upon earthly things rather than heavenly things. Jesus said, we can’t successful accomplish both. So......we have to make a choice.

Jesus also said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (John 3.15) When the Jews were bitten by the serpent, they had to believe in the power of God enough to stare UP at the golden serpent and all it represented, and they would be healed. If we want to have everlasting life, despite the biting pain of life’s struggles, we have to believe in the power of God enough to stare UP at the Cross of Christ and all it represents. So.....we have to make a choice.

Jesus again said, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3.17) When we spend our time staring down rather than UP toward God, we can’t see His Cross. When we spend our time staring at the wounds of life rather than UP at the Cross of Christ, we can’t see Christ calling us to heaven. So....we have a choice to make.

Which way will YOU look?