Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why do we go to Church?

As I mentioned last month, this year we will always ask why we do what we do as an Orthodox Christian Church Community and as members of the Church. Last month I mentioned very briefly why the Church sponsors youth ministries. I will in other months be more specific about certain ministries like Sunday School, but this month I want to explain why we go to Church. If you are taking the time to actually read this month’s newsletter, chances are pretty good that you have attended at least one Church service this year.

Have you ever asked yourself why you woke up that Sunday morning and spent between one and three hours in the Church? Have you ever wondered why you didn’t just stay home and enjoy a quiet morning with your family? Have you ever asked yourself why the Church teaches you should be in Church EVERY Sunday? There are so many choices of other activities and reasons to NOT go to Church on Sunday, let alone on a weekday, you may have realized that in fact you haven’t gone to Church as much as you “should” because of any number of reasons.

The reasons many give for not going to Church vary, but with the exception of being physically ill, ALL REASONS for not going to Church are accepted because we have never realized WHY we go to Church in the first place. Here are some of the reasons many give when they don’t go to Church.
  • I don’t go to Church because it wasn’t important for my family when I was young.
  • I don’t go to Church because the Bible teaches we don’t have to go to Church to pray.
  • I don’t go to Church because I don’t have any friends there, and I don’t like going alone.
  • I don’t go to Church because I don’t like all the ethnic stuff.
  • I don’t go to Church because I don’t like the guilt trip the Priest gives in his sermon.

Coincidentally the reasons many give for going to Church are  opposite of the reasons NOT to attend.
  • I go to Church because my mother taught me to go to Church on Sunday.
  • I go to Church because the Bible teaches we should go to Church on Sunday.
  • I go to Church to connect with my friends and other family members.
  • I go to Church to connect with my cultural heritage (Greek, Romanian, Russian, Palestinian, etc)
  • I go to Church because I feel good when I’m in the Church.

So which of these reasons is correct? ..... NONE OF THEM....

We go to Church to be made Holy by God, and to grow closer to Him through Holy Communion. Jesus Christ didn’t established His Church to promote one culture above another. Jesus Christ didn’t establish His Church so we could have a warm fuzzy feeling inside while we hear a really good choir. If we go to Church FOR ANY OTHER REASON than to be made Holy by God, we will ALWAYS be disappointed and bored. We will ALWAYS want to be somewhere else on a Sunday morning, let alone during the week, unless we want God to make us Holy.

When we go to Church to be made Holy by God, then it won’t matter how good the choir sounds, it won’t matter what language the Priest uses, it won’t matter how many friends we see during coffee hour. After all, there will always be better choirs to hear and more friends to sit with. There will always be something on TV in the language we enjoy. But ONLY IN THE CHURCH can we be made Holy.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What unity is and what unity is not

I enjoyed a delightful breakfast this morning with a group of Christian clergy who had been gathered to discuss plans to improve our city. The program identified several urgent areas which needed attention in our city, one of which was racial tensions in our city. Racial tensions are nothing new in our southern city, but what struck me today was a confusion of a basic Christian ideal – the goal of unity.

I despise racism. Let me make the perfectly clear. I would love to wake up tomorrow in a world, let alone a city, in which racism did not exist. But I will not be choosing to participate in the group effort of the Christian clergy I met this morning. It isn’t because they want to end racial tension in our city, but because the group believes that an effort to end racial tension is a witness of our Christian unity.

There is just one thing wrong with that.....we Christians are not united. In 2012 Gordon Conwell seminary released a study which identified MORE THAN 43,000 Christian denominations. How can anyone honestly claim the Christian “Church” (the term is for another post) is united? There are more than 43,000 definitions of Who God is, why He came, what He accomplished, and what all that means for our salvation.

Shortly before His Passion, Jesus prayed for unity in the Church, “that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17.22-23) There is absolutely no way to understand that 43,000 denominations EACH teaching a different ‘truth’ about God, can be considered as the same unity that exists in the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity is united in essence and doctrine, in will and love. Jesus said, “He who has seen Me, has seen the Father.” (John 14.9) 43,000 denominations do not share essence, doctrine, will, and often hatred and judgment rather than love for each other; each Church professing they “have” the truth and others are the Church in name only.

As Orthodox Christians we take seriously Jesus Christ’s prayer for unity in essence and doctrine, will and love. This is why we do not share Communion with those outside the Church or who are divided from the Church. The Eucharist is the expression of our unity in Orthodoxy, but it is not a vehicle to achieve that unity. As Orthodox Christians, with communities on every continent on the face of the Earth, we are already united with people of all races in the Holy and Sacred Chalice during Divine Liturgy. The Orthodox Church has already conquered racism globally. We just have a bit more work to do locally in our individual willingness to embrace others in our Churches.

So my invitation to the city of Florence....come to Church, be Orthodox, and we will enjoy the unity that Christ calls each of us in our heart.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

You Can’t See God without a Little Planning

When Jesus was coming to town, Zacchaeus wanted nothing more than to see Him, but he was short a large crowd had surrounded Jesus. Zacchaeus knew that Jesus would pass by soon, and he had to come up with a plan if there was any hope of seeing Jesus. So he made a plan. He planned to climb a tree so, even if the crowd was large, he would be able to see Jesus. And Jesus took notice. “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19.5) His plan worked; he saw Jesus.

There will always be obstacles in your life getting between you and Jesus. We call those obstacles temptation and sin, but with a plan, you can overcome them, climb above them, and join Jesus in Heaven. When Zacchaeus acted upon his plan to see Jesus, he received something more. Jesus came and stayed with him, and we call that communion. Only when you make a plan to climb above temptation and sin will you be able to commune with God.

Today you have a chance to look ahead and make a plan to experience communion with God. Soon the Church will begin the season of Triodion and Great Lent, and unless you make a plan from now, you will find yourself too busy, with too many obstacles between you and God, to make the most of Great Lent. Consider this year your chance to climb the tree, and make the most of Great Lent so you can see God. Then when Pascha comes and God arrives, He will look at you and say, “I must stay in your heart today.” And you will welcome Him into your heart just as Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his home, but it will only happen with a little planning. So start planning.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Allow yourself to be tamed

Today’s Epistle Reading: St. James' Universal Letter 3:1-10 - BRETHREN, let not many of you become teachers, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.
When a wild horse is captured and tamed to accept a saddle and rider, we use the “broken” since the wild will of the horse has been broken to accept the will of the rider. The same could be said of Christians. As Saint James says in today’s reading, the tongue cannot be tamed since it is like a wild animal, yet we are asked to tame the nonetheless. The life of the Church to those who are wild can be equated to the work of breaking a horse. But for those of us who desire our will to be the will of God, the life of the Church is a blessing to tame our tongue. A horse fights against his trainer because he is both ignorant to the will of the trainer, and because he is wile. We are neither wild, nor are we ignorant to the will of God. And yet we fight the Church. Why?

Once a horse has been broken and has come to trust his trainer, the two build a life-long relationship of mutual respect and dedication. A loyal horse has been known to rescue his trainer from serious danger. Once we understand the Church desires only to train our soul to accept God’s will, then we can engage in a life-long relationship based upon respect and dedication, but our will must be tamed first. We can either fight our trainer (the Church), and suffer through the process, or we can embrace the Church and allow ourselves to be led to God. Thankfully we are not wild animals, but human beings who have been given free will be God. Unlike wild horses, God will not break our will, but invite us offer our will to Him.

Monday, January 25, 2016

What is a Theologian?

Today is the Feast of Saint Gregory the Theologian, so I thought I would add to our discussion about Orthodox terms with the question, “What is a theologian?” A “THEOLOGIAN” is someone who has studied God and, in most cases, has been given the blessing of the Church to TEACH about God. The Church takes her role as protecting the truth of God very seriously, so when someone is bestowed with the blessing to teach, it signifies a certain level of trust the Church has placed within the teaching of the particular person. The outward ‘sign’, or uniform of a theologian is the Rasson (the black robe with extra large sleeves warn while teaching) and is seen on clergy when they are teaching outside of a liturgical context.

In the case of Saint, the term Theologian can be equated in a simple way to the academic title of Doctor, and while it is not a complete parallel since there are many more academic doctors than there are Theologian Saints, the term is not bestowed lightly by the Church. In fact, only three saints have been given the ‘title’ theologian – Saint John the Evangelist and Theologian, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, and today’s Saint Gregory the Theologian. That isn’t to say the other Saints were not theologians and did not teach, as if deed they did. It is to show the special place within Church history of these three Theologian Saints.

While the term suggests a certain level of academic training, I can’t emphasize enough that a ‘true’ theologian isn’t someone who studies ‘about’ God, but actually ‘knows’ God intimately through prayer and communion. The more each of us grows in Communion with God, the more we each because true theologians – someone who knows God.

What Does it Mean to Call Yourself Orthodox?

What Does it Mean to Call Yourself Orthodox?
Most Orthodox Christians boast proudly about being Orthodox,
but many don’t fully understand what it means to be Orthodox. When we look at
the healing of the blind man found in Luke 18.35-43, we can identify three
characteristics that describe what it means to call yourself Orthodox.

A. We must always be aware of our surroundings.
B. We must have a proper understanding of the Holy Scriptures
and the Teachings of the Church
C. Our Faith must be reflected in our life.

Unfortunately many Orthodox Christians are blind to the
opportunities to receive God’s blessings, some even rejecting Holy Communion.
Others allow non-Orthodox Churches to influence their understanding of the Holy
Scriptures, so they cannot recognize God’s grace when they see it. And too many
never allow the way they live to reflect the truth of their Orthodox Christian

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Were you in Church today?

Thousands of Orthodox Christians were unable to attend Divine Liturgy today due to a bad winter storm. Thousands were denied the ability to receive the Grace of God because they were unable to attend Divine Liturgy. At best they sat at home WATCHING on their computer screens one of the many Divine Liturgy LIVE STREAMs available throughout the Archdiocese. If you don’t live in the Central Atlantic States or the New York area where snow forced many Churches to close today, did you take the opportunity to attend Divine Liturgy?

When so many are unable to receive Holy Communion, it becomes imperative for those who are able to attend Divine Liturgy to make every effort to attend Divine Liturgy and receive Holy Communion. Where were you today? Did you take the opportunity to receive the grace of God in Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion, or did you choose to stay home? The early Church felt it was so disrespectful for people who were allowed to receive Holy Communion, but refuse to either properly prepare or simply reject the grace of God in the Eucharist, that they were penalized with a penance of temporary excommunication. The Church took seriously the order within the Church.

How could someone who COULD receive Holy Communion REFUSE Holy Communion when so many others, whether out of penance or because they were not members of the Church WANTED to receive but were FORBIDDEN? Where were YOU today?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Holy Canons as Guide Posts

Today’s Gospel Reading: Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-5 - At that time, Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  And the Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?"  And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?"  And he said to them, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath." Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.  And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come here."  And he said to them, "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?"  But they were silent.  And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, "Stretch it out," and his hand was restored.
The religious elite were always out to trap Jesus in breaking the Law, but the Author of the Law can never break His own Law. The reason they were not successful was because they never fully understood the Law in the first place. For many of the elite the Law represented chains and oppression rather than freedom and grace.

I often find the same true of Orthodox Christians. The rules of the Church, what we call the Holy Canons, are meant to free us and bestow grace in and through our lives. They are meant to lead us to a Christ-filled life, and away from the fleshly life. Naturally if we prefer the flesh, we will consider the Holy Canons as limiting and oppressive, especially living in a so-called free society. HOWEVER...if we seek the Lord, we will appreciate the Holy Canons as guide posts (a better translation of Canon than rule) in our journey to Christ.

Whether the Holy Canons require fasting or forbid fasting, it is to guide our proper understanding of fasting and the proper place it has in our salvation journey. Whether the Holy Canons forbid or allow Holy Communion, it is to inspire our soul to desire communion with God rather than the world. The religious elite of Jesus’ time could not understand the difference, I pray we are able.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Do You Have the Proper Understanding of Scripture?

In the Gospel we hear of a blind man who knew Jesus even before he ever met him. The story goes, “At that time, as Jesus drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging; and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by." And he cried, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Luke 18.35-38) According to Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in his Commentary on Luke, the blind man must have know the scriptures about the coming of the Messiah. How else would he have known to call Jesus, the Son of David? How else would he have known that Jesus could heal his blindness? They didn’t have Lasik surgery back then. He knew his scriptures, but so did the Pharisees and they rejected Christ. What is the difference?

It is possible to know the words of the Holy Scriptures without knowing their proper meaning. The devil has the Bible memorized, so obviously memorizing the words (with or without chapter and verse numbers) is not enough to prepare your heart to receive Christ. We must understand the proper full meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and the only way to learn them is from the Church. The reason for the Sunday sermon each week isn't to provide good moral teaching. The Sunday sermon is meant for us to learn the Orthodox Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures AS HANDED DOWN through the centuries.

How we understand the Scriptures will have an effect in how we understand God and His plan for our salvation. If we have an incorrect understanding as the Pharisees did, then we run the risk of rejecting Him and following our own (or others’) interpretation of what it means to be saved. The blind man knew properly the Holy Scriptures, and worshiped Him. Let’s follow the blind man and be properly prepared to receive Christ.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Do we even NEED God anymore?

Today’s Gospel Reading: Luke 6:17-23 - At that time, Jesus stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all.  And he lifted up his eyes on His disciples, and said: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.  Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven."
I often wonder if the ancient world had the many medical technologies and drug advances that we are blessed with today, if people would have even felt the need for God. Today’s Gospel reading is another example of crowds gathering around Christ to be healed. Most of them never knew they would receive anything more than physical healing. If people could have approached their village doctor and received a prosthetic limb, would the lame have approached God? If people had a local optometrist, would the blind have ask Jesus for their sight? If Jerusalem had an oncology department, would the woman with the flow of blood ever have reached out and touched the fringe of His garment?

 If God is nothing more than a healthcare professional, then science and technology have made our need for Him obsolete. Don’t get me wrong, science is a great gift of God, and I would never suggest otherwise, but we can’t ignore that it creates a false sense of security among human beings. If there is no perceived “need” that cannot be met by either popping a pill, or calling the nearest university research department, what is left that draws us to God? the constant longing for eternal life inherent in the human soul the cause of our, at times, neurotic obsession with curing illness?

These are the questions that sometimes land in my mind as I review and prepare for various classes and sermons. This coming Sunday’s Gospel lesson is about a blind man who is healed and follows Christ worshiping Him. When we are healed by our doctors, do we go to the Church and light a candle and thank God? Have we forgotten that every perfect gift is from above? (James 1.17) Do we even NEED God anymore?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pride can be a Dangerous Thing

Since yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I watched the movie Selma last night and was struck with a strong sense of pride. During a moment of intense struggle between whites and blacks in the South, Greek Orthodox Archbishop IAKOVOS participated in the March on Selma. His involvement was depicted also in the movie. My personal pride peaked while I watched the scene which depicted a brief dialogue between MLK and IAKOVOS.

MLK: “You came!” (smiling and embracing)
IAKOVOS: “You called, and I came.”

What struck my pride was that this was the ONLY interaction between MLK and other religious leaders that the movie chose to depict. I have no idea what other interactions MLK had with national religious leaders that day, but I was quite proud that the movie’s director felt strong enough sense to include the brief interaction. There are many possible reasons for the director’s choice, but I don’t want to dwell on that. Instead, I want to consider the role pride plays in how I watched the movie last night, and how Greek Orthodox Christians react to the, now famous march and presence of IAKOVOS on the cover of Life Magazine, story.

At the time, many Greeks were very upset at the decision of the Archbishop to participate in the march. Several of his advisors at the time advised the Archbishop not to participate, but he insisted. Following the march, many Greeks turned against the Archbishop and several protests took place among southern Greek communities.

Fast forward to 2016 and almost every Greek publicly announces that OUR ARCHBISHOP marched with MLK, with puffed up chests and pride. Admittedly, I doubt most people who speak proudly today were active in the Church fifty years ago, but what changed? Is the pride I felt last night based upon the same aspect of pride for those who boast today, 50 years later? I must admit my pride was based upon the director’s choice to include what otherwise would have been insignificant piece of film that would have not affected the movie in any way if it ended up on the cutting room floor. My pride seemed to be generated by the presumption, on my part, that the director recognized the value of the original interaction, if it actually historically occurred in the first place. My Archbishop was bold enough to stand up to his own advisors and many within the Church for the truth of the Church – all people should be treated with dignity. I was thankful for his boldness.

But what causes a population to protest against their archbishop one year, and then fifty years later with pride proclaim how proud they are of their archbishop. The only difference between today and fifty years ago is the public perspective on the situation. So long as other Americans were protesting the march, the Greeks felt pressure to protest as well. They felt they could not risk gaining the reputation of being pro-black in the South. I can’t ignore that organizations such as the KKK burned crosses in many front yards, not just black front yards, and many of those yards were Greek!  The 1920’s must have been fresh in the mind of Greeks who had only recently (by the 1960’s) raised their own stature among America’s elite white class. Today with very few exceptions, the March on Selma is considered an important turning point in race relations. Now from the comfort of social acceptance many Greeks find themselves able to show pride in their Archbishop.

One thing still sits uneasy in my the pride of today and the protest of yesterday the same issue? Are we just trying to stay with the majority in an attempt to be seen as normal? Are we simply not willing to stand up for what is right, whether or not the elite white class agree? What do we really have pride in; the boldness of an archbishop or the acceptance of the elite? Pride can be a dangerous thing. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

To Be Made Well

The Church does a wonderful job teaching what we should and
should not do in our daily lives. But when we fall short of the Church’s
teachings, many of us are too ashamed or feel shunned, to even approach the
Church in repentance. What’s worse, when we finally repent, many of us continue
on our way without returning to God to thank and worship Him, and we remain
sick in our sin. Whether our own shame or the shunning of others, we must fully
repent and return to God to thank and worship Him. When we fully repent, then
we will hear the words, “Your faith has made you well.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Role of Spiritual Discipline, what we call Ascesis

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the memory of the father of monasticism, Saint Anthony the Great. To perfect his calling of dedicating his entire life to Christ, Saint Anthony lived in the desert as an ascetic in response to Christ’s challenge to “see all that you have and give to the poor.”(Matthew 19.21) Saint Athanasios knew him personally and considered his love for God second to none, and that God’s grace filled his life. When we consider the life of Saint Anthony, we understand the spiritual benefit of the ascetic life, without necessarily spending our life in the desert.

The Greek word, ‘ασκησης, can be translated as, exercise, and when used in the spiritual sense refers to various disciplines or practices that help shape our soul and guide our journey closer to Christ. Saint Anthony lived a life of prayer and fasting with only the most basic food, but not all Christians need to leave the city and live in the desert to life a life dedicated to God. By prayerfully being guided by our spiritual father, the spiritual disciplines of the Church – prayer, fasting, almsgiving, the sacramental life – we can grow closer to God.

Just as living in the desert brought grace to Saint Anthony, following the daily disciplines of the Church, will help you not only grow closer to God, but His Grace will also grow. Who knows....maybe someday the world will remember your grace-filled life and dedication to God. It all begins with spiritual discipline and ascesis. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Venerating Peter's Chains

Today’s Epistle Reading: Acts of the Apostles 12:1-11 - ABOUT THAT TIME, Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church. The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, "Get up quickly." And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, "Wrap your mantle around you and follow me." And he went out and followed him; he did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him. And Peter came to himself, and said, "Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting."
Today the Church venerates the very chains that held Saint Peter in prison. Some may wonder why the Church would venerate anything physical let alone prison chains. The Book of Acts teaches that even the shadow of Saint Peter was known for its healing miracles. “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.” (Acts 5.14-16) If Peter’s shadow, why not the chains which participated in his miraculous release from prison?

To this some may argue that the various stories of handkerchiefs and shadows are legends that cannot be proven. Others would say that it is only the power of God that heals. It is true that ONLY the power of God heals and performs miracles, but history and the Church has witnessed that God often works His miracles through these holy objects. If venerating these holy objects helps us experience God’s grace, which He brought into creation through His Baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit, then may it be blessed by long as we never lose sight of the FACT that it is faith in God that accomplishes any good thing. Remember it isn't about being right; it is about being healthy.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Don't be right; be healthy

Today’s Epistle Reading: St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians 5:22-26; 6:1-2 - Brethren, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.  Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
I was having a conversation the other day about the sad reality that there were over 43,000 denominations of Christianity. I was told by a Protestant Pastor that the many, VERY MANY, denominations was no different than the four Gospels. I couldn’t disagree more, so I called a friend of mine who used to be a Protestant Pastor, but now serves as a Greek Orthodox Priest. He said something that really made sense to me.

Protestants want to be right. Orthodox want to be healthy.

Looking at today’s Epistle reading, we see the goal of a healthy Christian life – the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We also see the symptoms of an unhealthy Christian life. Upon our Baptism, we Orthodox believe that the Holy Spirit bestows these gifts, and it is for us to maintain and nurture them. We maintain the gifts through the life of the Church, a life that has been perfected through centuries of holy men and women we call saints – the Fathers and Mothers of the Church.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Beware the devil's pride

Today’s Gospel Reading: Luke 4:1-15 - At that time Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command the stone to become bread." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'" And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I will give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'" And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" And Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.

If today’s Gospel reading teaches us anything, it is that we should NEVER underestimate the pride and cunning agenda of the devil. The devil very well Who Jesus Christ was when he tried tempting Him. The devil’s pride was so strong, that he for a moment thought that the Immortal Son of God, of one essence with the Father, might somehow fall to pride as the angels once did. Now those angels are dark demons enslaved to the devil, rather than freely serving God. What will your response be when the devil tempts you to bow down and worship him rather than serving God? If you think you are beyond the devil’s temptation, go back and read today’s Gospel lesson again. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Pride takes its toll

Today's Epistle Reading from the

Acts of the Apostles 18:22-28

"IN THOSE DAYS, when Paul had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time there he departed and went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples. Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesos. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus."

You ever wonder why so many denominations exist in the Christian Church? If every Christian Leader followed the example of Apollos in today's reading, and allowed the Church to teach them to teach "more accurately" there would still be one single Church. But alas, pride takes its toll on the Church. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

What is a Cenobiarch?

On any given day the Orthodox Church commemorates a number of saints. Today, among others, the Church commemorates Theodosius the Cenobiarch. You can find a bit more about him here, but it occurred to me that the Church uses terms that many hear or read without understanding. When the term goes undefined for us, the beauty of understanding can be totally lost. The Church uses terms to help us, not hinder us, so I decided to very briefly define the term. Sure, if you go to the link for Saint Theodosius, you will find the same information, but you may not, so here it is...

A cenobiarch is the leader of a cenobitic monastery. That doesn’t help much. I was taught as a little boy that you were not allowed to use the word in its own definition. So was is a cenobitic monastic? Cenobitic monasticism is communal by definition. It was what most of us think of when we think monastery. A group of monastics living together, working together, praying and worshiping together, separated from the daily life of the world, so they can commune with God. Cenobitic monasticism is different from other forms such as hermitages which are lone monastics that only come together for communal worship, and then only at certain times.

When a saint bears the title Cenobiarch, that means they were a leader of a cenobitic monastery or group of monasteries, so the title also teaches us that the saint was respected and trusted by others to help them find Christ.

The more we know about terms, the more we understand what the Church is trying to teach us, so now you know a bit more about why Saint Theodosius should be studied and trusted. Every bit helps. By the way....Saint Theodosius the Cenobiarch is “important enough” a Saint to be included in the Proskomede Prayers (Prayers of Preparation) for Holy Communion, offered before every Divine Liturgy. 

Follow the Light

As the Church celebrates the Feast of Epiphany, Light has
come into the world to lead us out of darkness. The problem is that the world
is filled with obstacles that obscure our view of the Light, and we often find
ourselves lost in the darkness. Thankfully God has provided us with His Church
to help remove the distractions and obstacles so we can see the Light and
follow the light. Having Light shining in the darkness only helps if we can see
it, but if we don’t follow the Light of the Church we will remain in darkness
and lost forever. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

We Have Seen the Light

In every Divine Liturgy, following Holy Communion, we sing the hymn, “We have seen the Light, the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we now have found the true faith, by worshiping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.” This declaration of faith is a confirmation that Jesus Christ is the same Light that God has promised His people. We hear in the Gospel that Jesus traveled to Galilee after John the Baptist was arrested. There is a direct reference to Jesus, Who is the Light, being seen in the darkness. This was prophesied by Isaiah (see Isaiah 9.2)

We live in a world surrounded by darkness and temptation, no differently than those in Galilee at the time of Christ or Isaiah. With the celebration of the Feast of Theophany (God Revealed), the hymn from the Divine Liturgy makes more sense, but only if we allow the Light to illuminate our path. Having light shine in the darkness only has value if it leads out of the darkness. This was beautifully expressed during our candlelit celebration for Theophany last week. The Altar was filled with light while the faithful were in darkness with lit candles symbolizing the Light in the darkness. As we approached for Holy Communion, we approached the Light and left the darkness behind.

With the New Year and New Year Resolutions still lingering, we have an excellent opportunity to act upon the words of Christ. The Gospel sets a beautiful image set in Galilee, as a light in darkness. Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4.17) Now is the perfect time to follow the Light out of the darkness. Start the New Year with repentance and leave the darkness behind. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

God has something better planned for you

Have you ever heard this statement when you are feeling down about something in your life? I have and I’m getting sick and tired of hearing it, not because I don’t believe it, but because I do. Allow me to explain..

In my conversations with many people who use this phrase, they are sure God means, “Don’t worry honey. I have something better coming your way. Any day now you should be receiving my blessing and you will be really pleased.” Then they go on through life expecting that something great any day, but any day never comes. They are never satisfied.

God DOES have something better planned for us, but it isn’t in THIS life. Once we realize the something better is eternity with Him, we will finally stop looking around every corner for raises, better health, a nicer home, or friendlier friends. Once we realize what God meant when He said we had to be willing to lose our life in order to gain it, THEN we will live at peace.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Baptism is not mere Pretense

Today’s Epistle Reading: St. Paul's Letter to the Romans 6:3-11 - Brethren, all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.  We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.  We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For he who has died is freed from sin.  But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.  For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.  The death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Living here in the ‘Baptist South’ I am often confronted with the notion that Baptism is merely an outward act of obedience and confession, and that no actual grace is conveyed. Additionally I am told that there is no ontological change in Baptism. We must be baptized, that much is agreed, but what exactly takes place during that Baptism, at least here in the ‘Baptist South’ continues to be a point of contention.

The Orthodox Church takes seriously the call to a New Life In Christ once we are baptized. It is the new life that frees us from the burden of sin and death. If Baptism is merely an outward act of obedience, it is nothing more than pretense. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Learning from the Church Calendar

Today’s Gospel Reading: John 1:29-34 - At that time, John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John bore witness, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God."
The day after the Feast of Theophany the Church commemorates the Synaxis of Saint John the Baptist, the Prophet and Forerunner. You can always tell what the Church teaches about a saint or feast by the way the calendar fluctuates. For example, yesterday was the Feast of Theophany and even though it was a Wednesday, it was a fast-free day. Compare that with the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos, another of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church, but if the Feast happens to fall on a Wednesday or Friday, the fast is only lightened (fish and oil are allowed) but not eliminated. There are many other ways to understand the Church teachings by interpreting the services used to celebrate the feasts. Take notice of the Scripture readings and hymns and you will better understand the expression of the Church.

For example, since today the Church honors the memory of Saint John the Baptist, who lived a life of total humility and always turned attention toward God rather than himself. It speaks volumes that the Church highlights a Scripture reading in which John the Baptist positions himself was not even knowing who Jesus was until AFTER the Baptism. YET.....moments before actually baptizing Jesus, he said, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” (Matthew 3.14) It seems clear that John the Baptist knew who Jesus was. They were cousins after all. So was this false humility?

There was never any false humility in John the Baptist. In today’s reading, true to form for the Baptist, our attention in turned toward God’s revelation of Jesus rather than John’s rank. We can be assured of John’s greatness by focusing on the words of Christ Who said, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11.11) What better way to celebrate the greatest humble man than to emphasize God’s revelation rather than his greatness! The Church is filled with examples of such nuances in the services and calendar of the Church. In this new year I encourage you to make more effort to pay attention to the Church calendar and learn from the choices the Church has made in our celebrations.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Gift of Grace in Water

When Jesus entered the Jordan River to be baptized by John,
it wasn’t He who was blessed, but creation. Ever since the beginning of time,
God has given us His creation in order to glorify God and to assist us to live
in Communion with Him. The Feast of Theophany celebrates the revelation of the
Holy Trinity at the Baptism of Jesus Christ, and the gift of grace present in
the water of the Jordan River, and by extent all of creation. This gift of
grace is extended through the Great Blessing of the Waters by the Church each
year during the celebration of Epiphany, and distributed throughout the
Community as a blessing for all to share. (This sermon was offered during a candle lit Liturgy for Theophany, the Feast of Lights.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Seeing God in 2016

Saint John said in his Gospel, “No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1.18) That HAD BEEN true until God revealed Himself in His glorious incarnation. Not since Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden had a human being set his eyes upon God. All that changed with the Christ’s Holy Nativity.

Beginning today, the Church celebrates Theophany (God Revealed) and the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For just over thirty-three years the world was able to set their eyes upon God in the Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. For us as Orthodox Christians, this is fully expressed in our Holy Tradition of Icons which depicts Christ, but not the Father nor the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is often (such as the Icon of Theophany) depicted as a dove and the Father as a “ray” from Heaven.

But how do we see God now in 2016? Each human being is created in the image of God so that is one place to start. When you look at your fellow humans – friends, family and foe – consider that you are looking at the image of God. Another way we see God is in the Church. The Church mystically is the Body of Christ present in the world, continuing the work that He began. When you participate in the fullness of the sacramental life of the Church – Holy Water blessings, assisting the poor, worshiping in the Church as a community, receiving the sacraments, and in the love the Church presents to the world.

The world is filled with pain and suffering, and if the work of the Church is to continue the work begun by Christ, then it is also the work of the Church to be a light in the darkness and a refreshment to those who thirst. When the Church DOES this work, the Church allows people to see God, and ALL THIS because the Holy Trinity was revealed to us on Theophany at the Baptism of Christ.

Monday, January 4, 2016

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Humility Prepares the Way for Christ

When the Holy Trinity was about to be revealed to the world,
God did not send a king, a governor, or an emperor. He sent a man of incredible
humility. John the Baptist expressed his humility by declaring, “There comes One
after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop
down and loose.” (Mark 1.7) He knew he was not worthy of God, but still God
referred to him as the greatest woman ever to be born of a woman. (Matthew
11.11) If you want to prepare your heart and soul for Christ, consider the
humility of John the Baptist.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Show us also Your Divine Theophany

On Christmas Eve during the Royal Hours of Christmas, a special prayer service offered on Christmas Eve morning, we sang the following hymn:

Today He who holds the whole world in His hand is born from a Virgin. (3)
He who in essence is impalpable is swaddled in rags as a mortal. God who established the
heavens of old in the beginning is lying in a manger. He who rained down manna for
the people in the wilderness is breastfed with milk. He who is the Bridegroom of the Church
is summoning Magi. And He, that Son of the Virgin, is accepting their gifts.
We adore Your Nativity, O Christ. We adore Your Nativity, O Christ. We adore Your Nativity, O Christ.
Show us also Your divine Theophany

Christmas has always been celebrated as part of the Feast of Theophany, and yet many of us pay little attention or make little effort to attend services for Theophany. The Feast in which God for the first time reveals Himself as Trinity is one of the greatest moments in human history. It is during the Feast of Theophany the Church extends the blessings of God to the entire created world. When Jesus entered the Jordan River to be baptized by John, He sanctified all of creation by His presence in the water. The Church continues the work of sanctifying creation when we celebrate the Great Blessing of the Waters on Theophany. Through the blessing of the waters, our homes, businesses, our own lives and the entire world receives the blessings of the Jordan – the blessings of God.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Self-Esteem VS Humility

Today’s Epistle Reading: St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews 5:4-10 - BRETHREN, one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee"; as he says also in another place, "Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek." In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
There is a great difference between genuine Christian humility and what the world calls self-esteem. I have often thought, and taught, that we can create our own depression be falling trap to the world’s definition of self-esteem. The world, because it is fallen and based upon the fallen passions which are self-oriented, teaches that we should strive to always think positive thoughts about ourselves, sometimes to the denial of truth. Popular expressions such as, “You can accomplish whatever you want, so long as you work hard,” or my least favorite, “You can be whatever you want. Just put your mind to it.”

THIS IS A LIE, and when the lie is proven false (when we can’t accomplish something or be something JUST because we want something) we get depressed. The depression creates low self-esteem, as defined by the world, and we begin to think we are unworthy of love and blessings. We sink lower and lower until eventually we lose hope. All this depression could have been avoided by having genuine Christian humility. Before I continue, please understand I am not addressing chemical depression. Chemically induced depression is quite real and can paralyze a person for no good reason. I am addressing what more commonly could be called “the blues” which is not treated the same, but I will leave chemically induced depression to be discussed by medical professionals. I believe other forms of depression are created when we believe the lie the devil has told us rather than the truth which is revealed by Christ.

Tomorrow in the Gospel lesson for the Sunday before Epiphany we will hear directly from Saint John the Baptist’s lips what genuine Christian humility sounds like. “"After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1.7) Saint John the Baptist, whom Jesus Christ said there was no other man greater who had been born of a woman, felt himself unworthy to even untie the sandals of Jesus, a job normally reserved for the lowest slave. How can a man greater than any other man consider himself unworthy of the work of the lowest slave?

Saint John the Baptist understood genuine Christian humility, also described by Saint Paul in today’s Epistle reading. “One does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God.” It wasn’t that John the Baptist wasn’t great, because he was. He understood honor and blessings are not to be taken, but offered by one who is greater. This was no false sense of humility, as many express in today’s world. Many today have the pretense of humility while secretly believing themselves to be worthy of praise.

So how does genuine Christian humility protect against depression? When we believe the lie that we are great and can accomplish whatever we desire, and then fall short of our desires, depression is the result. However when we understand our own shortcomings and that we should never take honor with pride to ourselves, and then fall short, we are better equipped to accept our shortcomings.

In this New Year, I invite you to embrace the humility of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul, rather than the lies of a self-oriented worldly self-esteem. Then be thankful for your blessings and understand your shortcomings. You will have more peace and well on your way to Live A New Life In Christ.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year - 2015 Top Ten Videos

Happy New Year from Be Transfigured Ministries. In the spirit of year in review, we are please to share our 2015 Top Ten Video Playlist for your enjoyment and edification. May 2016 be blessed by God. We at Be Transfigured Ministries pray the new year will inspire you to Live A New Life In Christ.

2015 Top 10 Blog Posts - Happy New Year!

Based upon page views,here are the top ten posts viewed in 2015....Sort of a year in review...

  1. An Unhealthy Heart is not Healthy - Originally posted July 8, 2014
  2. Why Bother? - Originally posted July 2, 2015
  3. A Warning for Christians - Originally posted January 17, 2015
  4. Do not Let Your Good be Spoken of as Evil - Originally posted December 12, 2010
  5. Everyone is Welcomed by God - Originally posted January 16, 2015
  6. An Elderly Joseph, the Virgin Mary and Sexuality - Originally posted December 7, 2015
  7. Why Last Night’s Prayer at RNC by a Greek Orthodox Bishop Didn’t Give Me “Warm Fuzzies” - Originally posted August 30. 2012
  8. RSVP Please - Originally posted December 12, 2014
  9. Do You Love Church or Do You Enjoy Gimmicks? - Originally posted April 13, 2015
  10. Do Not Allow Fear to get between you and God - Originally posted July 7, 2015