Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Thank You

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

God Provides What We Lack

Friday, April 24, 2015

Has Pascha Changed the Way You Live?

A couple weeks ago we were blessed to come together and celebrate another Pascha – the Feast of Feasts – the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We prayed, we sang, we lit our candles, and we feasted. But has your life changed at all? Other than spending a few hours in Church during Holy Week, is your life different this month than it was last month? If the answer is, “NO,” then you’re missing something in the celebration of Pascha.

As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ, the Eternal Incarnate Word of God, took on human flesh, lived as a human being for thirty-three years, was crucified, died and was buried, and was RESURRECTED on the Third Day – all so that death no longer had any power over the rest of us humans. This is the Good News that we sing at every service for forty days after Pascha.

Christ is Risen from the dead
By Death trampling upon death
And to those in the tombs
He has granted life!

For the first Christians, this Good News gave a new hope that life, despite its challenges (and there are many) is greater than what we experience on Earth. Life begins here on the Earth, but last for all eternity (thanks to Pascha) with God in Heaven. This new hope changed the way the first Christians lived their daily lives. It changed the way the first Christian interacted with other members of society. It changed the way the first Christians understood the Love of God. Has it changed you?

The Christian Way of Life, the Orthodox Way, is a life dedicated to living in total communion with God AT ALL TIMES. It is a life in which God’s love shines in the way we interact with others. Do we guilt, shame, force, or otherwise trick others into certain behaviors or situations? God would never use guilt or shame to force us to love Him. OR do we show respect for the freedom of others and live OUR lives honoring God. Do we share our financial blessings with those who are in need? Do we share our time with others who are lonely? Do we share our knowledge with others who are struggling? The first Christians were known for the love and assistance they shared with others, including the very enemies who were killing them.

The first Christians lived a life that was radically different than at any other time in human history BECAUSE of Pascha, and the hope that the Good News offered. The Good News hasn’t changed....has it changed you?

The Woman is the Neck

In the now famous scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mrs Portocalos proudly announces, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” We may laugh at this “truth” of marriage, but the important role of women in the life of the Church should not be underestimated. It was the women who remained faithful until the end at the Tomb of Christ. It was the women who carried the Good News of the Resurrection to the Apostles. And it is the women of the Church that have continued throughout the centuries to “turn our heads” so we could hear the Word of God, and help to keep our hearts pure.

If you doubt the importance of the role of women in the Church in spreading the Gospel of the Resurrection, you only need to return to midnight on Pascha. The Church hears the Good News that Christ is Risen from the Myrrhbearing Women. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” (Mark 16.7) Many of us also can remember our mothers and grandmothers bringing us to Church as children. They were “turning our heads” toward a life in Christ. Were we listening?

On the Thirds Sunday of Pascha, the Church reminds us of the important role pious women played in the initial Good News of the Resurrection. They were the first evangelists in the truest sense. It was only because the women “turned the heads” of the Apostles that they gained enough courage to go to Galilee and see the Lord for themselves. They were listening.....are we?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Proper Christian Witness/Martyrdom

This week's Bible study included a discussion by Saint John Chrysostom on what it means to be have a proper Christian witness, martyrdom and persecution. Follow the link below and be prepared to think...

This week's topics address the following issues:
  1. Glorify God and accept that you have received a gift to witness to others
  2. Nothing can harm the body, just the soul
  3. Spiritual persecution is worse than physical persecution
  4. A few earnest faithful are of greater value than many lazy faithful
  5. One/few can save many through their faithfulness

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Christian Way of Life

 Did you know each week during Bible Study, Saint John Chrysostom includes ethical teachings inspired by the Holy Scriptures? Here is the discussion from this week's Bible Study.

This week's topics addresses these issues:
  1. You have obtained forgiveness, don’t waste it on sinful living
  2. There is great power in Baptism to make a new man
  3. The Christian life is not an impossible commandment of God, IF we desire to live it.
  4. We should maintain the proper perspective on various lifestyle limitations. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Do You Love Church; or do you enjoy gimmicks?

Orthodox Christians have just completed the holiest week of the year. Holy Week and Pascha has truly been a spiritual journey as the Church reflects upon the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry while remaining vigilant to His promised return. Services throughout Holy Week are filled with rich symbolism and often evoke deep emotions in worshipers. Today is Bright Monday – the second day of Pascha, and for those who made the most of last week, not only are you a bit tired; you are also most likely feeling a bit of “Church withdrawal” after such an intense spiritual week in Church. But what is it that you are missing – Church or gimmicks?

Allow me to explain the term gimmicks in this context. Many, if not all, Orthodox Churches (I can only speak to the American religious context here) over the years have included special events, such as Communion breakfasts, Holy Friday retreats, even “reenactments” at the Tomb of Christ often include young girls or women “acting” the role of the myrrh-bearing women at the Tomb. These events are meant to “attract” youth to Church, while teaching about the events that lead up to the Passion of Christ. I use the term gimmicks since these activities are not actually part of the ancient liturgical patterns of the Orthodox Christian Holy Week. They have been added into an already intense week of prayer, fasting, confession and Holy Communion. I refer to them as gimmicks since they are designed to “get them to Church” SO THAT hopefully they will gain an appreciation for the awesomeness of Holy Week. After twenty-four years of Holy Week ministries (both as a lay youth director and now ordained Priest) I have noticed that the long-term result has been less than positive.

As the youth “age out” of such events, many stop attending the very services in which the gimmicks were included. Reflect for the moment on Holy Friday “Retreats” in your own experience. These retreats normally conclude with the “Taking down from the Cross” Service on Holy Friday afternoon. The youth who have been at the retreat all day gather around the Cross of Christ, many times even helping the Vespers by holding white sheets and throwing flowers on Christ’s Tomb, and “participate” in Church. Parents and grandparents are “gleaming with pride” that their kids are “in Church” for Holy Friday. They even used special excuse letters from the Priest at school so their children’s absences were not held against their status are star students! Now “look around the Church” and reflect on all the generations of youth who had participated in such events of the decades. Where are they now? I would suggest that if they are not in Church, then the gimmick didn’t work.

The rich liturgical traditions of the Orthodox Christian Holy Week are filled with deep meaning and are themselves designed to cause reflection and commitment, but they can become quite boring in today’s modern fast paced, high tech, entertainment driven, short attention span society, which is why the gimmicks have been added in the first place. They were never meant for harm to the Church. I get that, I really do. But did they have their affect? Do our youth learn to love Church or just the gimmicks?

For Orthodox Christianity to be a long-lasting lifestyle, it must be loved. Orthodox Christianity isn’t easy. It isn’t casual. It isn’t entertaining. It most definitely is NOT fast paced or for the short attention span. It IS holy. It IS deep. It IS about learning to love spending time with God. So do you love Church or the gimmicks? Only Church will keep you close to God for the long term. Eventually every Orthodox Christian needs to learn to “just enjoy worship in Church” or they will spend a lifetime seeking out new and more creative gimmicks. Of course this phenomenon is not limited to Holy Week, as many Churches feature “youth Sunday” where the teens serve as ushers, youth choirs sing the liturgical responses, and the Priest teaches a “youth” sermon. These all have the same purpose of Holy Week gimmicks, and if we are being honest, have had the same long-term result....nothing.

Disclaimer: You may currently be attending a Church which has solved this dilemma. If that is the case, BRAVO! For the rest of us, let’s learn to love Church!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Holy and Great Thursday – The Eucharist

Just before Jesus offered Himself for His creation, He made a new covenant with us. We call it the Eucharist, which means Thanksgiving, since it is modeled after the Thanksgiving Offering of the Old Testament. I have discovered that many people don't realize that there were SEVERAL covenants which made up the Old Testament. Take a few moments this afternoon and read Genesis, which we have been reading throughout Great Lent. Pay attention for the practice of offering God a sacrifice AFTER He had rescued His people from danger. You will find something quite interesting....It may just bring a new appreciation for the Eucharist.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Holy and Great Wednesday – Humility or Hubris?

During the third Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week, the Church offers a poignant look at two individuals and challenges us to consider with which we associate. The entire evening is dedicated to the image of total repentance and humility of the sinful woman juxtaposed with the sin of Judas.

Here is “one of my favorite” hymns from last night’s service as translated by Fr Seraphim Dedes, available on his website at: http://www.agesinitiatives.com/
When the sinful woman offered the fragrant oil, then the disciple made his agreement with the transgressors of the Law. She rejoiced in pouring out the costly oil, and he lost no time in selling off the priceless One. She acknowledged the Master, and he was becoming estranged from the Master. She was emancipated, while Judas became a slave of the enemy. How dreadful was his rashness! How great was her repentance! Grant me this repentance, O Savior who suffered for us, and save us.

As you can see from the touching hymn, WE are called to imitate her repentance while avoiding his sinful pride. Are you filled with humility or hubris? Holy Week is your chance to figure it out!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Holy and Great Tuesday – Are you wise or foolish?

On Holy and Great Tuesday, the Church calls our minds to the parable of the Ten Virgins, half are wise while the other half are foolish. We are challenged by the Church to contemplate with which group of virgins that we can relate? BOTH the wise and foolish were waiting attentively for God. BOTH the wise and the foolish were sitting in the darkness, a dangerous and frightening place, anticipating greeting the Bridegroom. Only the wise, though, were prepared to greet Him, while the foolish did not fully anticipate what was needed for them to be prepared. They didn’t have enough oil for the lamps, and while they went to buy more oil, the Bridegroom came and they missed Him. They were locked out of the banquet, never to be allowed in.

The Bridegroom is Christ, and the banquet is Heaven. We are the virgins waiting for Christ in the dark and dangerous world. Are you prepared to greet Him, or have you left matters undone? Are there sins for which you have not repented or confessed? Are there relationships in which you are not “on speaking terms”? Are there matters of your soul for which you are waiting for “some unknown future moment” when you have more time to address them? Are you “living life now” because you have plenty of time later when you get older to prepare to die? THESE matters represent the oil for your candles. When you leave matters undone, for later attention, you will find yourself “without oil” when Christ returns. You will be left out simply because you left for later that which you should have done NOW.

Holy Week is about preparing your soul to encounter God. He is returning someday, “as a thief in the night” and we do not know when to expect Him. At that moment, it will immediately be too late to attend to any unfinished matters for your soul. At that moment, you will either be welcomed into the Banquet or be locked out for ever.

The ancient Church took this issue seriously, and truly believed Jesus would return while they were still alive.  We, on the other hand I fear, have become lazy in our waiting since He hasn’t returned in some 2000 years. However, this might be the year He returns. This might be the year the Bridegroom comes to claim His Bridge, the Church. OR.....this might be year you go to Him. Why risk not being ready? Why risk being one of the foolish virgins, locked out of the Banquet. No wonder they are known as foolish...

Monday, April 6, 2015

What king do you seek?

Holy Week is a chance to respond to this very important question. Many of the Jews were seeking a military king who would rescue them from the Romans. Many of us seek a king who will force others to believe and act as WE think they should. Christ is not this sort of king. Christ is the King of Peace. He came to walk with us in our battle against sin. He came to walk with us in our struggle. When the Jews realized Jesus was not THEIR sort of king, they turned their back on Him. What will you do when you realize He is not YOUR sort of king? What sort of king do you seek?

Holy and Great Monday – Are You Bearing Fruit?

At the first Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week, the Church brings our attention to two stories about fruit. In the first story, we hear of a fig tree which is not bearing any fruit. “And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again." Immediately the fig tree withered away.” (Matthew 21.19) In the second story, we hear of a landowner who planted a vineyard and lent it out to others to manage until his return. The story tells of what will happen to those who do not properly manage the vineyard. “They said to Him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons." (Matthew 21.41)

In both stories we are warned that bearing fruit matters in our spiritual life. The Church is often referred to as a vineyard, and we are the tenants. We are also the fig tree which is called to bear spiritual fruit in our own lives. Last night during the Bridegroom Matins, we heard, “The Synagogue of the Hebrews by Christ to the fig tree, devoid of spiritual fruits, and He withers it with a curse. Let us flee from a similar fate.” (from the Synaxarion of Holy and Great Monday)

Holy Week is about being vigilant for the return of Christ, but it isn’t just about waiting. It is about be spiritually prepared for the judgment of His return. We will be judged based upon the fruits of our labor. Have we been vigilant and properly managing our spiritual fruits? NOW is the time to take oftentimes painful look at our fig tree and ask, “Are we bearing fruit?” NOW is the chance to reverse the curse, prune the vine, nurture our soul and be prepared to present our harvest to the Lord.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Is Jesus Christ YOUR King?

It was just six days before His death when Jesus entered Jerusalem to claim His victory. It was six days before the crowd would chant “crucify Him!” It was just six days before the crowd would pledge their allegiance to Caesar crying out, “We have no king but Caesar!” It is difficult to imagine what goes through someone’s mind when they seemingly “switch sides” in just a matter of days. The days between Palm Sunday and the Crucifixion are days of turmoil, deceit, and good ole fashion “back room politics” which creates a tidal wave of public emotion. Was Jesus their king or not? Of course, He was and still IS.

You might sometimes wonder how you might react to such political pressure. Would you be strong enough to go against the crowd and remain loyal to Jesus Christ? Holy Week is an opportunity for you to test your loyalty to Jesus Christ. Just as in the days before Jesus’ Passion, society today is filled with a tidal wave of turmoil, deceit and politics that is meant to distract you from the truth of Who Jesus Christ is, God Incarnate! How will you fare this week?

Each evening this coming week, the Church has invited you to put the world aside, enter a dark Church and spend time at the side of YOUR King as He prepares for His final battle against death. Each evening this coming week, the Church has invited you to declare your loyalty to Jesus Christ AS KING, and commit to spend time in Church. Each evening this coming week, YOU have a chance the stand up for your faith in Jesus Christ, by being willing to politely decline other invitations for your time, so that you can be in Church.

Each evening this coming week, YOU have a chance to declare YOUR KING. Will it be Caesar or Jesus Christ?