Monday, February 23, 2015

Come into the Common Place of Our Heart

On the threshold of Great Lent, the Church calls us to the high calling of forgiveness, but many of us do not fully understand that forgiveness isn’t something we do to others; it is something we experience with others. When we invite others to share the common space of our heart, we share a divine experience following the example of Christ. We cannot fully experience Great Lent without first allowing others into our heart. It is this shared experience that draws us closer to God and each other. It is the common experience we call Orthodox Christianity.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Forgiveness isn’t an Action; Forgiveness is an Experience

The Gospel lesson for the final Sunday of the Triodion, known as Forgiveness Sunday, begins with the words, “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) With these words, the Church crosses the threshold of Great Lent urging us to experience the freedom that is forgiveness.

When we normally think of forgiveness, we think of an action that WE do for others. We normally think of forgiveness as a “one-way” street from one mind to another. But a “one-way” street leaves no chance for returning to our heart for the healing that is only possible with genuine forgiveness. It isn’t accidental that the Greek word which has been translated as forgiveness, “συγχωρώ” means, “to come in together into our heart,” and requires a relationship between two people. By necessity it is an experience made possible when two people agree to enter into a common place of the heart.

In the moment we decide to allow others to join us in our heart, is the moment that we truly live as Christ, Who welcomes us not only into His heart, but into His Divine eternal embrace. When God chose to forgive us, He invited us “to come in to His Being” and experience the most intimate reality of His love, because forgiveness isn’t an action. Forgiveness is an experience.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Courting Jesus

Each year for 48 days every Orthodox Christian experiences Great Lent and Holy Week, but most do not know what it is, let alone how to make the most of it. For many Orthodox Christians, Great Lent and Holy Week is nothing more than several weeks of longer (and more) Church services and a special diet. In fact, for most Orthodox Christians, other than Divine Liturgy being longer on Sundays and the Priest constantly droning on and on about Great Lent in his sermons and the announcements after Church, we would hardly ever notice a difference between Great Lent and the rest of the year. But I am convinced that much of this would change if we had a better understanding of what Great Lent and Holy Week actually was all about, so I wanted to take a few moments to answer this very important question, “What is Great Lent and Holy Week”?

Historically, Great Lent and Holy Week developed in the early centuries of the Church for two main purposes; a few days to prepare for the celebration of Holy and Great Pascha with intense prayer and fasting, and 40 days to prepare for baptism with intense prayer, fasting, and learning. Eventually the two merged together to form a longer period of 48 days we now know as Great Lent and Holy Week. But almost everyone in the Church is already baptized, so why does the Church continue this practice of such a long period of intense fasting and prayer? What are WE preparing for?

The answer rests in the prayers of the services for this period. In the ancient Church, Christians believed that Christ would return immediately, so the few days before Pascha, is a period to prepare to welcome Him back, and therefore prepare for the final judgment and paradise. You will notice in the hymns especially during Holy Week, this idea of being vigilant waiting for the return of Christ is written throughout the services. So Great Lent and Holy Week is a period during which time we prepare ourselves to greet Christ and be forever in paradise with Him.

I might compare it to a courting relationship. We spend several weeks getting to know more about Jesus Christ by praying, fasting, and helping the poor (all things He commanded us to do in life), so that when He returns for us, we will be ready for our marriage to Him. We will know Him, and we will be comfortable in His presence. Can you imagine marrying a person you have never met? Even in past centuries when arranged marriages were common, a bride and groom would spend time courting, to learn about each other.

So this year, during our Great Lent and Holy Week experience, I invite you to spend time “courting Jesus” and getting to know more about Him. You can learn “everything there is to know” about Jesus in His Church – reading His Word, fasting, serving others, attending Church services – otherwise spending time with Him, lest we forget that He has promised to be present in the Church for us to encounter Him.

You may have already been baptized, but do you know everything there is to know about Jesus? Are you prepared to spend all eternity married to Him? Great Lent and Holy Week are for you to get to know Jesus; don’t waste another opportunity!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

It Doesn’t Matter WHAT You Serve....It Matters WHOM You Serve

On the Third Sunday of the Triodion, known as “Judgment Sunday,” the Church offers us a glimpse at the future judgment. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25.31-32) At that moment, we will not have any other opportunity to prepare ourselves. We will not have any other opportunity to correct any mistakes. At that moment, WE WILL BE JUDGED! The Judgment is coming, and cannot be avoided.

Thankfully, Christ has already given us the criteria He will use in our judgment. We will be saved from eternal torment based upon whether or not we have served Jesus Christ by serving OTHERS. Thankfully, Christ has already helped us understand, that when we serve OTHERS, we serve Him. Thankfully, Christ has already made clear for us, that it is only when we can see Him in the hungry, naked, thirsty, stranger, sick, and in prison, that we can be saved from eternal torment. Thankfully, Christ as prepared us now, because we won’t have time later.

With Great Lent only one week away, the Church is calling us, and calling us loudly; to remind us that we have only the time we are alive in which to prepare for the judgment that is coming. Great Lent is an opportunity for us to prepare for judgment with devout prayer, fasting, repentance, and serving OTHERS. Great Lent is a time for us to realize that it doesn’t matter what you serve, but WHOM you serve.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Absolute Freedom

Saint Paul reminds us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” (1 Corinthians 6.12) In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we hear of a father who allows his youngest son to waste his inheritance on loose living with harlots until the son was completely broke and starving. While the son took advantage of his father’s generosity and wasted his life and fortune, the father never stopped loving his son and never stopped waiting for his return. It wasn’t until the son “came to himself” (Luke 15.17) and returned home in repentance, that the father was able to restore the son to his original glory. How many times do we take advantage of the freedom that God has given to us? How many times do we find ourselves living a life that God would not approve? Until we can return to Him in repentance, He cannot save us. Absolute freedom can be a dangerous thing.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Don’t Confuse Permission with Approval

On the second Sunday of the Triodion, the Church calls our attention to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the beauty of repentance. In the story, just to remind you, the younger son felt that he deserved his inheritance early, before his father’s death. He approached his father and said, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” (Luke 15.12) The father gave the son permission to take his inheritance and journey “to a far country,” in which he wasted every last penny on sinful living. In the deepest depth of sin and despair, the son realizes his mistake and chooses to return to his father and beg for a job. The father not only welcomes him home, he, “had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15.20)

While the son was away, the father waited and watched for him to return. He had given his permission for the son to leave, but never approved of the life the son had chosen to live. That is the love of a father, who knowing certain choices are wrong and dangerous, still allows his son to walk away from him. All the while, the son, thinking he was free from his father’s control, lived according to his own choices. But the father, while not approving of the son’s choices, never gave up hope for the son’s return.

God give us the same permission to live according to our choices. He doesn’t always approve of those choices, but He allows them hoping that we will choose to return to Him, as the Prodigal Son returned. With the coming of Great Lent, we are given an opportunity to CHOOSE to return to God’s way of life, and be restored to our original glory. But before we can return, we must first realize that just because God allows us choices, doesn’t mean He approves of the choices we make.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

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Church as an Opportunity Rather than an Obligation

With the coming of Great Lent in February, it brings along with it, the sense of obligation to God and His Church. During the weeks of Great Lent, the Church invites us to increase our daily prayer, increase our fasting, increase our reading of the Holy Scriptures, increase our assistance to the poor, and increase our participation in the Divine Services of our Church. To assist us in responding to these invitations, the Church provides us with daily fasting guidelines, daily Scripture readings, daily Lenten prayers for the home, and additional, almost daily services in the Church.

All this increased spiritual involvement is supposed to draw us closer to God, but oftentimes the actual result is that we are pushed further from God. We end up at the end of Great Lent, after weeks of hearing the Church invite us to “dig deeper into our souls” and discover the great love that God has for us, feeling exhausted rather than refreshed. We feel limited by the Church rather than free. We feel as if the Church has beaten us down rather than lifted us up. Why do we feel this way?

After twenty centuries of guiding her faithful through Great Lent, the Church’s way of life has been met with a sense of obligation rather than opportunity. The way of life of the Church has been seen by most as forced upon the people rather than welcomed by them, and the result has been for most faithful to reject the way of life of the Church. We choose freedom rather than obligation.

You will hear many faithful complain that the Church expects too much of her people, but in reality the Church INVITES her faithful to the journey that is Great Lent. You will hear many faithful complain that the Church limits our life too much during Great Lent, when in reality the Church FREES us from the slavery of the flesh and worldly passions. You will hear many faithful complain they “have” to go to Church, when in reality attending the Divine Services FREELY is the only genuine worship of God. You will hear many of the faithful speak of obligation to the Church, when in reality the entire way of life of the Church is an OPPORTUNITY to draw closer to God.

Fasting is an OPPORTUNITY to rededicate your entire body to God.
Reading the Holy Scriptures is an OPPORTUNITY to hear God speaking to your heart.
Prayer is an OPPORTUNITY for you to speak to God.
Helping the poor is an OPPORTUNITY to share the love you have for God with others.
Attending Divine Services is an OPPORTUNITY to leave the world behind and enter Heaven.
Great Lent is an OPPORTUNITY rather than an obligation.

I invite you to welcome the OPPORTUNITY of Great Lent this year and draw closer to God. You might even thank me for it later.

Thank God You’re Not like Those Sinners

Where ever you look, you are surrounded by sinners. You spend your days fasting and keeping all the “rules” of the Church, and every night you thank God that you’re not like those sinners you know it the world. Did you ever stop to think, YOU might be sinning? Did you ever consider the YOU were the one that needed to repent? As the Triodion period begins, and Orthodox Christians begin to prepare themselves for the coming of Great and Holy Lent, the Church reminds of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. One went home justified, and I’ll give you a wasn’t the one who kept all the rules.