Monday, August 29, 2016

State Law vs Religious Law

Our final “Ask Father” sermon for the season answers the question, “What is our Church view on the state law and our religious law?” During election season the balance between Church and State is often brought into the highlight. It can be a bit confusing navigating between the issues to determine if we as Orthodox Christians are obligated to follow the State or follow the Church. A brief study of the words of Saint Paul (Romans 13.1-7) helps us see the governing authorities have an obligation as well, to defend goodness. There might reason to ignore certain laws, but that does not eliminate the consequences. The end has a bonus question, so watch until the end!


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is there ANYTHING to be Thankful for?

Life can be tough. In fact, it WILL be tough as God said to our ancestors in the Garden:
To the woman He said: "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you." Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it': "Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3.16-19)
With a guarantee from God Himself of struggle and pain, it can be difficult to find something for which we are thankful. Day after day we go to work (not surprisingly called ‘the grindstone’) and we are faced with unrealistic challenges from management, self-serving competitiveness in our coworkers, and we all know at least one of the ‘can’t follow the rules’ type of customers who take their bad day out on us. Everywhere we turn, life continues to throw us a curve ball, so we ask ourselves, “Is there ANYTHING to be thankful for in this life?”

Tomorrow is Sunday, and the Church celebrates the Divine Liturgy, during which time we are invited to receive the Holy Eucharist (Holy Thanksgiving) and live in communion with God. Divine Liturgy is the ultimate expression of thanks we offer to God as Orthodox Christians. But when we can’t find something for which we are thankful, Divine Liturgy can become a thankless experience. And nobody enjoys a thankless experience. No wonder so many people are bored during the Divine Services of our Church. To help you be thankful tomorrow I have offered this VERY limited list of things for which you might be thankful. During the Divine Liturgy we give thanks for blessings seen and unseen, so I will list a few ideas (just to start you off) in both categories.

Seen Blessings
  • New Job you’ve been waiting for
  • Good health report
  • Healed from a sickness or disease
  • A family member or friend was ‘saved’ from a tragedy
  • A long-term argument/feud with a family member or friend was healed
  • The birth of a new child in your family
  • The engagement or marriage of a family member or friend
  • You got engaged or married
  • You discovered you’re pregnant and you and your husband are happy
Unseen blessings (these can be difficult to find)

  • You survived another week in a dead end job – at least you still have a job
  • You don't have a job - at least there is still food in your pantry 
  • You have a job interview next week 
  • You received a poor health report, but the prognosis is good
  • You survived another week of chemotherapy
  • You were delayed leaving the house on errands – when you passed that dangerous intersection you realize you would have been ‘that car’ if you left on time
  • Your home burned down – your entire family is safe and staying with friends
  • You discovered you’re pregnant and you’re not married – your decide the give birth and your boyfriend is willing and able to help with raising the child 
In a world so preoccupied with physical and emotional comfort it can be really difficult to be thankful for struggle, but struggle reminds us that we are sinful and in need of repentance. What I pray you understand more than anything else with today’s post is that we should be thankful for the chance to repent before it is too late. No matter what the struggle, at least we are still alive and can repent from our sins, even though our sins may not have caused the exact suffering we endure. Every day God allows us to live is a day He allows us to repent, and THAT day is worth giving thanks for during the Divine Liturgy.

Maybe this list can give you an idea about how you can be thankful to God. So find the closest Orthodox Church and make plans from now to be in Church Sunday morning. You can give thanks to God in person for the blessings seen AND unseen in your life.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Separation of Church and State

It’s election season! You can’t turn on the radio or the internet without being bombarded by political commercials or arguments. There is no secret that many of the issues that plague our society are based on morality, and that morality often pits Church against State in the courtroom and congress hall. This week’s “Ask Father” sermon addresses the questions, “What is our Church view on the state law and our religious law?” This question is especially poignant considering the recent legal battles about sexuality and the public square.

Some believe that as Christians we are obligated to obey the State, no matter what law is passed. This is based upon the misunderstanding of the Scriptures. Saint Paul commanded, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13.1-2) But you can’t stop with this verse. Here is the entire passage:

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” (Romans 13.1-7)

Read from a distance, the entire passage speaks about fighting evil, not blind obedience to authorities. The key to understanding our role as Orthodox Christians as members of society is two-fold. First we must live in a respectful manner, always committed to treating others with the Love of Christ. This is what it means when Saint Paul says, “Do what is good.” It is NEVER evil to love your neighbor. It is ALWAYS good to treat each other with respect even if we have differing opinions. Secondly, not that it less important, but equally important, as citizens of the United States we are obliged to participate in the civic process of determining laws and public morals that help to create a stable and good society.

There will be times when the State Law and the Church (or religious) Law are in conflict, such as with the recent debates on sexuality. When such issues arise, it is our duty as followers of Jesus Christ and members of His Holy Orthodox Church to be the voice of Christ in a Changing World. This in fact was the theme of our most recent Archdiocese Clergy-Laity Congress. But being the voice of Christ does not mean forcing others into compliance. Each human being has been given the freedom to choose a life devoted to God or against Him. How can we be the voice of Christ?

We speak the truth in love, and allow each person to freely choose to obey Him or deny Him. But this NEVER means that we as Orthodox Christians have the obligation to follow a State Law that violates the Law of God. But neither does it mean we are free from the political consequences and social pressure to endorse the evil that some may convince the State is instead good. We must never forget that we too have the freedom given to us by God to follow Him or deny Him, and no State can take away THAT freedom.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why Does the Church Have Community Gatherings?

What are community gatherings? I’m talking about luncheons, dinners, dances, and other holiday celebrations like New Year’s Eve and Mothers’ Day.

I hear from fans all the time about the “good old days” when communities gathered for Nameday celebrations AS A COMMUNITY when “The Georges” would all get together and sponsor a celebration. Communities gathered for picnics and enjoyed each other’s company at parks. Those days are long gone, but the communities are still there? What happened to the community gatherings? They lost their purpose. Community celebrations became fundraisers and obligations rather than fellowship. Even Sunday coffee hours can become a burden to convince families to host something simple so members could connect as friends “over a cup of coffee and a cookie” before returning to another work week.

But human beings need fellowship in order to be human. When God created man, He said, “It is not good that man should be alone,” (Genesis 2.18) and He created woman. He created humanity in the image of God, in community. Even the Greek work άνθρωπος (anthropos) is a reference to man and woman “face to face” or άνο-τρόπος. The truth is WE NEED FELLOWSHIP to be human. Humans must live IN COMMUNITY.

But Churches are not just any community. They are Orthodox Christian Communities dedicated to living together AS Orthodox Christians. Community life is important, not because it is fellowship, but because it is Orthodox Christian fellowship. It reinforces the Orthodox Christian lifestyle that we each struggle to live. It is easier to be Orthodox in a community than to be Orthodox alone. Even hermits belong to a community and regularly join each other for fellowship during critical times of life. When the Orthodox Community gathers, it fasts together, it prays together, it laughs together, it cries together, it celebrates together. It does all these, and more, AS ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS, helping each other to become more and more like God in our lives.

I said recently, “We don’t need the Church to have a party. We have Church parties so we can be Orthodox and still celebrate without forgetting who we are as Orthodox Christians.” It is too easy to forget who we are outside the Church. It is just easier to fall into temptation outside the Church. Saint John Chrysostom even encouraged fellowship AT CHURCH because it would help believers fight the temptations of the world.  He said, “The meetings there are far more pleasant than those which take place in marts and fairs. The people themselves also will be more respectable.” (Homily 18 On Acts)

So the next time you read about a Church gathering in the Sunday bulletin, I want you to think about how the gathering will help you be Orthodox. Whether it is senior citizen brunch, GOYA bowling, or Philoptochos Dinner, always remember it is about being Orthodox Christians TOGETHER! Then....make plans to join the community in fellowship AND faith.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Two Voices

This week’s “Ask Father” is a follow-up to last week’s “What is God’s Plan?” Following last week’s answer I was approached by several people challenging my position on God’s plan. Since I always want to maintain a dialogue about the teachings of the Church, this week I will pause our “Ask Father” series and address some of follow-up issues that several have mentioned.

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10.10) This quote from our Lord is often used to claim that God wants us to live comfortably and without struggle. Jesus was not speaking about life as the world knows it. He was comparing Himself to the enemy. Here is the full quote:

“Then Jesus said to them again, "Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10.7-11)

There are two voices in the world – the voice of God and the voice of the enemy. The abundant life that God promises is eternal communion with Him in Heaven. There can never be anything more abundant than God’s loving embrace for all eternity. Christ left a voice, HIS voice – The Church, when He returned to His Throne. Any other voice seeks to steal and kill and destroy. But we don’t have to be afraid.

A world without fear is not the same as a world without struggle and suffering. Consider the story of Peter walking on water. The disciples were in the middle of the sea “tossed by the waves” when they saw what they thought was a ghost. They were terrified when Jesus said, “"Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." (Matthew 14.27)He did not say, “Ok, I’ll make the waves go away.” He did not say, “Just believe in me and everything will be smooth sailing.” Peter said, “"Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." (Matthew 14.28)

This story is really important to understanding the difference between what the world calls an abundant life and what God calls an abundant life. During the entire time Peter was on the water, the waves were beating against him, but as Peter set his eyes on Christ, he walked out on the stormy waves. It wasn’t until Peter took his eyes of Christ that he began to sink. So long as Peter focused all his attention on Christ, he never noticed how the waves were beating against him. He struggle was bearable because his eyes were on Christ.

God’s plan isn’t that the waves don’t come, but that we can live focused on God and not take notice of the waves. Any voice that says “LOOK OVER HERE! I can teach you how to avoid the waves,” is a voice that is calling your attention away from God and toward the waves. Just as Peter sank when he noticed the waves, you will sink if you focus on the waves rather than God.

Friday, August 12, 2016

What is God’s Plan?

Living in the Bible Belt, it has become a daily experience it seems to hear the phrase, God has a plan for you. When good-intentioned people say this, they usually are trying to comfort a friend or family member who is in some sort of transition. A lost job, a serious illness, or even some tragedy, nothing seems to be beyond a friend using the phrase, “It is going to be ok. God has a plan for you.” Let me just say, I REALLY DON’T LIKE this saying, and it is definitely NOT Orthodox.

In this week’s “Ask Father” series we will answer the question, “What is God’s plan?” Every day we are faced with choices, some life-changing, when we deeply depend upon understanding that God does indeed have a plan for us. The problem is contemporary American Christianity tends to view God as handing out material blessings in exchange for our loyalty. This also is NOT Orthodox. We can never forget that God said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) Clearly He couldn’t have meant that His plan was to shower us with material blessings.

The proper understanding of God’s plan is crucial to our relationship with Him. If we constantly look to God as the bestower of material blessings, we will doubt Him when those blessings do not come at our requested time. The truth is God’s plan has NOTHING to do with material blessings and EVERYTHING to do with eternal comfort embraced by His unending love. How we choose to accept His plan will not only impact how we live now on Earth; it will affect how we experience His love in Heaven.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Let’s Face it.....Liturgy is EVERYTHING

This December will mark twenty-three years in parish ministry, both lay ministry and ordained ministry, and I continue to find the same root disease in the Church. People just don’t like Liturgy. It’s boring. It’s too long. It’s old fashioned. It’s in a foreign language. I’ve heard them all! What I also hear over and over again is complaints the Church isn’t doing enough to retain members. There aren’t enough activities. There aren’t enough volunteers. There are enough resources to pay the bills. I’ve heard those too!

Alone, these complaints are nothing more than excuses, but combined they reveal the real disease. When you begin to remove the layers of these excuses, you arrive at the true irritant. Most people want to be entertained in life. Everything must be fun. Even education has become “fun” with computer games replacing multiplication tables. Teachers, thinking they are helping children learn, cry out, “Learning must be fun, or they will tune out!” Everything is a game. One popular children’s program created the “Clean up” song.... “Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up. Clean up, clean up, everybody does their share.”

The problem with the ‘everything has to be fun’ model of child rearing is that the fun eventually runs out. Eventually you just have to be willing to clean your room. Eventually you just have to learn your math tables. The same applies for the Church. Eventually you have to want to be in the Church for Liturgy. You can’t pass out basketball trophies to forty year-olds in an attempt to lure them back to Church. The best performing students are the students who love to learn. So....the best performing Christians are those who love Liturgy. Let me explain.

As Orthodox Christians our entire “Purpose Driven Life” (to borrow a phrase from a popular Protestant pastor) is to become one with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, what we call Theosis, or Sanctification/Divination. The Sacraments, the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, prayers, fasting, almsgiving; are all meant to shape our soul to become more like God. At the core of the entire process is Holy Communion which takes place during the Divine Liturgy.

Consider the typical Church dinner-dance, the Church family getting together for fellowship. It is supposed to be a joyous celebration, but one group complains that the party has to end too early “just because” there is Liturgy the next day. Another group complains the cocktail hour had to begin too late because “it had to wait for Vespers” to finish. A third group arrives late after eating dinner at a fancy restaurant, and leaves early to “go out to the night club” for the rest of the evening. A fourth group, enters the Church for Vespers, lights a candle and venerates the Holy Icons, and then after Vespers makes their way to the Church hall for the dinner and a bit of dancing. Which group do you think considers the Church dinner-dance a success? For three-fourths of the Church the event was nothing more than an excuse to complain.

Now fast-forward twenty years. Which group do you think is still involved in the Church? Correct! The group that attending Vespers was the only group that was not continually searching for “more fun” and eventually found it outside the Church. You see...the Church CAN NEVER compete with the world in the business of fun. For the Church, Liturgy is our business. It is the only thing we do “better” than the world, and it is the only ‘activity’ that will keep someone connect to the Church. Let’s face it...Liturgy is EVERYTHING!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Questions and Answers: Too Many Translations

With over one hundred translations of the Bible into
English, it can be daunting task for even the most serious Christian to choose.
A wealth of vocabulary of the original can create a variety of translation
options which is understandable. However the American trend to alter
translations to suite a personal or Church agenda is dangerous and we do well
to avoid such editions. Since the Holy Scriptures are central to understanding
our relationship with God, it serves our soul well to use caution and faith in
choosing just the right translation.

Friday, August 5, 2016

What’s in a Translation?

As a continued effort to answer fresh and important questions about the Church, this week’s question is central of understanding our relationship with our Lord. We all know, or at least we should know, the New Testament was originally written (with the exception possibly of the Gospel of Matthew) in Greek. We also know most of the world does not speak Greek, so the Church has been translating the Holy Scriptures into local languages since the earliest days of the Church. Form the moment of Holy Pentecost, the Church has always presented the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the language of the people. As Saint Paul said, “For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10.13-14)

So you don’t speak Greek and you want to study the Holy Scriptures? All you have to go to a bookstore or online and buy a Bible right? But which Bible should you buy? There are so many to choose from, you don’t know where to start! You aren’t imaging things. In fact there are over 100 DIFFERENT English translations of the Bible in use today. Why so many? How do you pick? Does it even matter? That is the essence of this week’s “Ask Father” question.

The Church has a great deal to offer in this discussion, since the Holy Scriptures are have been established, written, authorized and interpreted by the Church. It is virtually impossible to create a perfect translation from one language to another. Cultural understandings and vocabulary are drastically different from one time to another and from one place to another. That has always been the case, even when the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew to Greek more than two hundred years before the Birth of Christ. Is there a right or wrong translation? That, all depends on the motives of the translators. Motives are EVERYTHING when trying to sort out a translation of Holy Scripture.

Monday, August 1, 2016

He never said it would be easy...just blessed

He never said it would be easy...just blessed

Today's Gospel Reading: Matthew 10:16-22 - The Lord said to his disciples, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved."

It never ceases to amaze me just how many Christians think life is supposed to be easy "just because" they carry a membership card to a Church. Blessings from God bear eternal payoffs, not earthly. Something worth remembering in today's secular environment.

Can we pray for non Christians?

This week’s “Ask Father” sermon asks the question, “Can we pray
for people who are not of the Christian faith, for example for the healing from
a sickness?” Although the simple answer is, “yes,” there is a great deal more
on the subject of prayer that can and should be said. Prayer in central of our
Orthodox Christian life, so this week’s episode of Be Transfigured will discuss
the “Who, What, Where, When & Why of Prayer.”