Friday, March 31, 2017

God does what we cannot

In many ways we understand that as human beings we are limited in our ability to live as God desires us to live. Every day we are faced with temptations which, against our weaknesses, cause us to sin. We awake wanting to not sin, and sleep having asked for forgiveness for the sins we committed that day. Saint Paul expressed this well when he said, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” (Romans 7.15)

Thankfully, God has accomplished what we were unable to accomplish. As we hear in today’s reading from Genesis, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his. Although Abraham was willing to obey, God did not force him to sacrifice his son. Instead, God sacrificed His own Son for us. This is what we are preparing for during Great Lent. God accomplishes what we are either unwilling or unable to accomplish.

He even fasted forty days and forty nights, so when you think the Great Fast is too difficult, remember Jesus Christ has already accomplished what we were unable to accomplish. The rest we can do if we want. We just need to find the desire to follow God, and Great Lent is meant to help us discover and perfect that desire to follow Jesus Christ. Hang in there; it’s almost over. Great Lent will be over in one week. Then we will celebrate the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday before beginning Holy Week.

Today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 45:11-17 (RSV) - Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: "Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?  I made the earth, and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.  I have aroused him in righteousness, and I will make straight all his ways; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward," says the LORD of hosts.  Thus says the LORD: "The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia, and the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over to you and be yours, they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying: 'God is with you only, and there is no other, no god besides him.'"  Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior.  All of them are put to shame and confounded, the makers of idols go in confusion together.  But Israel is saved by the LORD with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.
 Genesis 22:1-18 (RSV) -  After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I."  He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."  So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.  On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.  Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you."  And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father! "And he said, "Here am I, my son." He said, "Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"  Abraham said, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So they went both of them together.  When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.  Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.  But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I."  He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."  And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."  And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice."
 Proverbs 17:17-18:5 (RSV) - A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.  A man without sense gives a pledge, and becomes surety in the presence of his neighbor.  He who loves transgression loves strife; he who makes his door high seeks destruction.  A man of crooked mind does not prosper, and one with a perverse tongue falls into calamity.  A stupid son is a grief to a father; and the father of a fool has no joy.  A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.  A wicked man accepts a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice.  A man of understanding sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.  A foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him.  To impose a fine on a righteous man is not good; to flog noble men is wrong.  He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.  Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. He who is estranged seeks pretexts to break out against all sound judgment.  A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.  When wickedness comes, contempt comes also; and with dishonor comes disgrace.  The words of a man's mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream.  It is not good to be partial to a wicked man, or to deprive a righteous man of justice.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Interceding as a Servant of God

When the ones we love are in trouble we do whatever is within our power to help. We reach out to those who are in a position of authority attempting to convince those with authority to help our loved ones. This ancient custom of intercession is common even today. I would guess that you would be able to recall at least once in your life when you have interceded on behalf of a friend or loved one. Have you ever interceded on behalf of a stranger?

In today’s reading from Genesis we find a true servant of God. When Abraham heard of the plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he was felt compassion for the people. Abraham didn’t think it was fair that God would destroy an entire city based upon the sins of a few. He went to God and entered into a dialogue (intercession) hoping to save some. He did this not because he knew the people per se, but because he loved them as a servant of God. We are told this story because Abraham’s story was not a coincidence.

When we see the actions and love of Abraham we should consider him as a foreshadow of Christ. Just as Abraham interceded with God to save the people from destruction, Christ works to save us from destruction.  Abraham did not rest until He was convinced that his intercessions would save the innocent people. Neither does Christ ever stop working on our behalf. Although Abraham’s intercessions did not ultimately save the city, the efforts of Christ’s love has saved us from death.

The next step is for you to be like Abraham, who was like Christ. As part of your Great Lenten journey, I invite you to work for someone else’s benefit “just because” you are a servant of God. There are plenty of people suffering at the hands of other sinners. Not much as changed in that senses. Innocent people are still suffering because a few sinners. Abraham never gave up and neither should you.

Today’s Old Testament Readings
Isaiah 42:5-16 (RSV) -Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  "I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to graven images.  Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them."  Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants.  Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the top of the mountains.  Let them give glory to the LORD, and declare his praise in the coastlands.  The LORD goes forth like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes.  For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant.  I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.  And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.

Genesis 18:20-33 (RSV) -  Then the LORD said, "Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know."  So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the LORD.  Then Abraham drew near, and said, "Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"  And the LORD said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake."  Abraham answered, "Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.  Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there."  Again he spoke to him, and said, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it."  Then he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there."  He said, "Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it."  Then he said, "Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."  And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
 Proverbs 16:17-17:17 (RSV) - The highway of the upright turns aside from evil; he who guards his way preserves his life.  Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.  It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.  He who gives heed to the word will prosper, and happy is he who trusts in the LORD.  The wise of heart is called a man of discernment, and pleasant speech increases persuasiveness.  Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it, but folly is the chastisement of fools.  The mind of the wise makes his speech judicious, and adds persuasiveness to his lips.  Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.  There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.  A worker's appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on.  A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.  A perverse man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.  A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good.  He who winks his eyes plans perverse things, he who compresses his lips brings evil to pass.  A hoary head is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.  He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.  The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the LORD. Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.  A slave who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers.  The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tries hearts.  An evildoer listens to wicked lips; and a liar gives heed to a mischievous tongue.  He who mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.  Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of sons is their fathers.  Fine speech is not becoming to a fool; still less is false speech to a prince.  A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of him who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.  He who forgives an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter alienates a friend.  A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.  An evil man seeks only rebellion, and a cruel messenger will be sent against him.  Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs, rather than a fool in his folly.  If a man returns evil for good, evil will not depart from his house.  The beginning of strife is like letting out water; so quit before the quarrel breaks out.  He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.  Why should a fool have a price in his hand to buy wisdom, when he has no mind?  A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New Name New You

When someone chooses to become a member of the Orthodox Church, it is common to change names. This very ancient tradition can be seen in today’s reading from Genesis. Abram became Abraham. Other examples include Saul who becomes Paul, and Simon who becomes Peter. Admittedly not all believers in the ancient world changed their names, but that does not take away from the profound meaning of those who did change names. This custom has been a part of the Church since the first days and continues until today.

The basic meaning behind the name change reflects the new life now realized in the Church. Saul for example converted from being the great persecutor of the Church to become the great missionary of the Church. This drastic change is very noticeable in the monastic tradition when someone “leaves” the world behind to join the new community. The new life deserves a new name.  In a similar way, when someone becomes Orthodox, especially as an adult, it makes sense that a name change would be in order.

If we embrace our relationship with Christ, whether through infant baptism or adult conversion or baptism, our life is expected to change. If we consider that in our baptism we die to the world to live in Christ, then this tradition might make more sense. There is one thing missing in the modern usage as I have experienced it (albeit on a limited basis) with conversion stories. Most people receive a new “Orthodox Name” which they use during Holy Communion and other sacraments, but maintain their original name in their daily life. I would suppose that if we fully accepted the concept of a new life, then we would use the new name in every aspect of our life. To do otherwise would be risking a dual personality. Either we have a new life or we don’t.

Today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 41:4-14 (RSV) - Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am He.  The coastlands have seen and are afraid, the ends of the earth tremble; they have drawn near and come.  Every one helps his neighbor, and says to his brother, "Take courage!"  The craftsman encourages the goldsmith, and he who smoothes with the hammer him who strikes the anvil, saying of the soldering, "It is good"; and they fasten it with nails so that it cannot be moved.  But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off"; fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.  Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish.  You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all.  For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, "Fear not, I will help you."  Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you, says the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
 Genesis 17:1-9 (RSV) -  When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.  And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly."  Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,  "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.  No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you.  And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.  And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."
 Proverbs 15:20-16:9 (RSV) - A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish man despises his mother.  Folly is a joy to him who has no sense, but a man of understanding walks aright.  Without counsel plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.  To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!  The wise man's path leads upward to life, that he may avoid Sheol beneath.  The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but maintains the widow's boundaries.  The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the LORD, the words of the pure are pleasing to him.  He who is greedy for unjust gain makes trouble for his household, but he who hates bribes will live.  The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.  The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.  The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the bones.  He whose ear heeds wholesome admonition will abide among the wise.  He who ignores instruction despises himself, but he who heeds admonition gains understanding.  The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honor.  The plans of the mind belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.  All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit.  Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.  The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.  Every one who is arrogant is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.  By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil.  When a man's ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.  Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.  A man's mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I Can’t Believe in “a” God who...

Have you ever heard someone make this statement? I’ve heard many “endings” to this statement with a wide range of emotions being attributed to the god in whom someone chooses to believe. I have always found it ironic that anyone would think God could be limited to conform to our personal demands. Even if God could be limited to our demands, who would ever want to believe in a god so easily manipulated?

In today’s readings from Isaiah, God challenges us right off with the question, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” A god that can be shaped to fit our personal whims, is an idol, not God. Our God on the other hand, is the Creator rather than a creation. He “alone does wonders” as we sing in the great prokimenon of Pentecost.

If you have found yourself wanting to limit God to fit your standards, take a moment and reflect on today’s reading from Isaiah. Great Lent is about, as I mentioned yesterday, preparing to encounter God at Pascha. I would be a shame if you were looking for the wrong God, and missed Him at Pascha. It has happened before. Many religious elites at the time of Christ, even though they knew the Scriptures including today’s reading from Isaiah, still did not recognize Him because they were looking for the wrong God. Don’t make the same mistake.

Allow the Church life of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, the Mysteries, reading the Scriptures, and attending Church services help you realize who God is, so you won’t miss Him this year at Pascha.

Today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 40:18-31 (RSV) - Thus says the LORD: To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?  The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.  He who is impoverished chooses for an offering wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skilful craftsman to set up an image that will not move.  Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.  Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.  To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? Says the Holy One.  Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.  Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hid from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"?  Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
 Genesis 15:1-15 (RSV) -  After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."  But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?"  And Abram said, "Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir."  And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir."  And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."  And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.  And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess."  But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"  He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon."  And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away.  As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him.  Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.
 Proverbs 15:7-19 (RSV) - The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the minds of fools.  The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.  The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.  There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way; he who hates reproof will die.  Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD, how much more the hearts of men!  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.  A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.  The mind of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.  All the days of the afflicted are evil, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast.  Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it.  Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.  A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.  The way of a sluggard is overgrown with thorns, but the path of the upright is a level highway.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Preparing to Encounter God

As I have often commented in the past few weeks, the Great Fast is all about preparing ourselves to encounter God. This week the readings from Genesis continue the story of Abraham (formerly Abram) as he prepared to encounter God. God promised Abram that his descendants would be so numerous they would not be able to counted, and He promised Abram that as far as he could see, he would be the master of everything. That must have sounded quite intimidating, but Abram immediately moved his home to the place where God planned their encounter. It is at the Oaks of Mamre that Abraham would encounter the Holy Trinity. It is this encounter, by the way, the Church considers as the “authentic” icon of the Holy Trinity. We call it the Hospitality of Abraham.

But before Abraham could host the Holy Trinity, he first had to trust God enough to move his tent on nothing more than a “few words.” Today we refer to this as a promise, but Abram had to move on faith in a vision of a God with whom he had very little experience. Nonetheless Abram stepped out of his comfort zone and put God’s words to the test.

God has made you a promise too. His promise is for you to enter the kingdom of heaven, and live forever in His loving embrace. Like Abram we have limited direct experience with God, but we still need to respond. As we walk together for our fifth week of Great Lent, I invite you to consider that while you may not have extensive personal experience with God, the Church knows His intimately. Every time we read from the Holy Scriptures, Old Testament and New Testament, we are reading about that experience. The Church knows it isn’t easy to always trust God. Through prayer and fasting and reading the Holy Scriptures, you can learn from personal experience that God has prepared for you to have an encounter with Him. I hope you’re prepared!

Today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 37:33-38:6 (RSV) - "Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it.  By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the LORD.  For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David."  And the angel of the LORD went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.  Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home and dwelt at Nineveh.  And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, slew him with the sword, and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.  In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, "Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover."  Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the LORD, and said, "Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in thy sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.  Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:  "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life.  I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.

Genesis 13:12-18 (RSV) -  Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, while Lot dwelt among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom.  Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD. The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever.  I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.  Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you."  So Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the LORD.
 Proverbs 14:27-15:4 (RSV) - The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may avoid the snares of death.  In a multitude of people is the glory of a king, but without people a prince is ruined.  He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.  A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.  He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him.  The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing, but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity.  Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding, but it is not known in the heart of fools.  Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.  A servant who deals wisely has the king's favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.  A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.  The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.  A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

God will raise us up!

When we arrive at that moment in life when we just don’t think we can make it any longer, then we turn to God. Just when we think there is no hope for us, then we realize that we can’t do it without God. God is always willing to raise us up, but He will wait for us to come to Him. There is just one problem. Until we learn to admit we need God we can’t, and probably won’t, bring ourselves to God. Through the prayer and fasting of the Great Fast we discover that with God, and only with God, we can accomplish anything....but most importantly He will raise us up to heaven.

We Need God

We all like to think we are more capable than might be the case. We are raised with the expectation that we will not be burden to our parents, the society, or the Church. We are expected to learn from our mistakes and become stronger. But the truth is, sometimes we just don’t have it takes to get something done in the way we would like, or in the way it is needed. At those times, we either give up completely and admit defeat, or we finally turn to others and seek advice and assistance. Sometimes we even must totally give in to allowing someone else the complete control to finish what we started. The whole thing can be a bit frustrating, so most of time we just keep trying quietly without admitting we can’t do something.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Church highlights this exact scenario in our spiritual life. There was a man whose son was so sick, even the Holy Apostles couldn’t heal him. He finally brought his son to Christ begging, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” (Mark 9.22) The father must have been at his whit’s end for him to approach Christ. He finally had to admit defeat and ask God for help, and God gave the father what he was lacking.

Jesus said, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9.23) Once the father could admit he needed God, then God was able to heal the son. It wasn’t until the father believed his son was dead that Jesus reached out and acted. “Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.” (Mark 9.27)

The same is true for your spiritual journey to heaven. Only when you can finally admit you can’t get to heaven without God will you ever really be on the right path. The Great Fast is an opportunity to admit defeat and turn to God. It isn’t a sign of weakness that you admit you can’t do it without God. In fact, it reveals great spiritual strength that you realize that only can give to you what you lack. What do we lack?

Some people think they lack the strength. Others think they lack knowledge. Still others think they lack opportunity. When it comes to getting into heaven we all lack one thing. We lack God. When we admit that we need God, He gives us strength, He gives us knowledge, He brings us opportunity to meet Him. The Great Fast is about coming to terms with needing God. We do that through increased prayer, increased fasting, increased almsgiving, and increased participation in Church services. These all have one thing in common. They help us realize that we need God in our lives.

Here are today’s readings:
Epistle Reading: St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews 6:13-20 (RSV) - BRETHREN, when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore to himself, saying, "Surely I will bless you and multiply you." And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. Men indeed swear by a greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.

Gospel Reading: Mark 9:17-31 (RSV) - At that time, a man came to Jesus kneeling and saying: "Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able." And he answered them, "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me." And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, "How long has he had this?" And he said, "From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us." And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again." And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, "He is dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting." They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have any one know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Without today there is no Tomorrow

Today the Church commemorates the Feast of the Annunciation, the day the Church remembers when Archangel Gabriel told the Panagia (All Holy) Virgin Mary she would give birth to God. In Greek the day is known as Ευαγγελισμος which translates as “Good News”. Thus the coming of God in the Flesh is Good News for tomorrow.

Although there is no direct connection to the Feast today and the Great Fast in terms of timing for the Feast, for me it is a pleasant coincidence that half-way through the period dedicated to preparing for Christ’s Passion, we are reminded of His coming in the Flesh. After all, if He had not come in the flesh in the first place, there would be no Passion. If there had been no Passion, there would be no Great Lent, and without Great Lent, today would just be another day for us to awake, go to work, and worry about tomorrow.

Thankfully God did come in the flesh. Thankfully He did hang on the Cross and die for our salvation. Thankfully He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. Thankfully we are preparing during the Great Fast so we could share the same Good News with others. So enjoy today and remember tomorrow is another opportunity to prepare for God.

Here are today’s reading:
Epistle Reading: St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews 2:11-18 (RSV) - BRETHREN, he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I, and the children God has given me. Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
 Gospel Reading: Luke 1:24-38 (RSV) - In those days, Elizabeth the wife of Zacharias conceived and for five months she hid herself, saying, "Thus the Lord had done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men." In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you! But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.      

Friday, March 24, 2017

Why the Old Testament?

I was asked why the Church is reading from the Old Testament during Great Lent so today’s Daily Lenten Journey will be a quick Bible study lesson. First we should know the Orthodox Church does not ignore the Old Testament as some may think. While it is true that during the “regular” year we read daily from the New Testament, it is not true that the Church ignores the Old Testament. Using what the Church calls the Lectionary, the entire New Testament is read each year with the exception of Revelation. Originally this was also the case with the Old Testament. This practice has fallen out of use centuries ago and we are not quite sure as to the complete structure of the Old Testament Lectionary, but the Old Testament is in fact read quite a bit in the Church. In today’s usage the Old Testament is used primarily through the Psalm which have been called the hymnal of the Church. The Psalms are used as glue throughout the worship and prayers of the Church. In addition to the Psalms, the Church turns to the Old Testament at certain major Feasts such as Christmas and Theophany.

During Great Lent however there is a noticeable shift in the daily readings. Rather than a Gospel and Epistle reading during the week, the Church instead turns to Isaiah, Genesis, and Proverbs. There are two things to consider about the increased presence of the Old Testament during Great Lent. First is the Old Testament prepares our heart for the coming of Christ. Since Great Lent itself is a preparation for the coming of Christ in Holy Week and Pascha, it would seem quite appropriate that the readings would support such a journey. I pray this has been noticeable in our Daily Lenten Journey as I have been attempting to connect the readings to our specific preparation for Pascha.

The second reason we find Old Testament readings is a bit more eclectic. If we embrace the traditional nature of the Church, we can appreciate that the “more holy” a season or day might be, the more the Church would turn to her older traditions. In this context we could consider every time we find the Old Testament readings on the Church calendar we can presume that particular day or season is consider an older tradition which the Church desires us to pay closer attention. So....Great Lent is a more spiritually intense and holy season. Therefore the Church returns to an older practice of reading from the Old Testament.

Here are today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 29:13-23 (RSV) -  And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid."  Woe to those who hide deep from the LORD their counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?"  You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay; that the thing made should say of its maker, "He did not make me"; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, "He has no understanding"?  Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest?  In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.  The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.  For the ruthless shall come to nought and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off, who by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right.  Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: "Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale.  For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.

Genesis 12:1-7 (RSV) -  Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves."  So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions which they had gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.  Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Proverbs 14:15-26 (RSV) - The simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going.  A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool throws off restraint and is careless.  A man of quick temper acts foolishly, but a man of discretion is patient.  The simple acquire folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge.  The evil bow down before the good, the wicked at the gates of the righteous.  The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.  He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but happy is he who is kind to the poor.  Do they not err that devise evil? Those who devise good meet loyalty and faithfulness.  In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to want.  The crown of the wise is their wisdom, but folly is the garland of fools.  A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer.  In the fear of the LORD one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What do you desire?

There is an old Greek saying for birthdays and feast days, “May you receive your heart’s desire.” On the surface this may seem trending toward the selfish ego with which we all struggle. I often write about leaving our own desires behind. Christ even says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself...” We just hear that on Sunday? So why would today’s reading include, “A desire filled is sweet to the soul,” if we are supposed to deny our desire?

The truth is our desire in fact does fulfill our heart. The solution isn’t to avoid desires, but to have the proper desires. Today’s reading from Proverbs also says, “But to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools,” suggests that we are fool if our desires favor evil rather than God. Our heart will always think it has been fulfilled no matter what desire is met if the desire emanates from our ego. That sort of fulfillment though is short lived.

Fortunately for us God sometimes intervenes to keep us from fulfilling our heart’s desire. In today’ reading from Genesis we hear, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Once again, as God had done in the past, we were saved from ourselves when God destroyed the Tower of Babel. Since our desire would have been dangerous to us, God keeps our desires from being met. Yet another benefit we gain from fasting....we learn to step back from our desire. Have you been taking advantage of the Great Fast to learn to control your desire? Be warned....your desire filled is sweet to your may just be headed to your own Tower of Babel.

Today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 28:14-22 (RSV) -  Thus says the LORD, you scoffers, who rule this people in Jerusalem!  Because you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter"; therefore thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: 'He who believes will not be in haste.'  And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter."  Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through you will be beaten down by it.  As often as it passes through it will take you; for morning by morning it will pass through, by day and by night; and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.  For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.  For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim, he will be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon; to do his deed - strange is his deed! and to work his work - alien is his work!  Now therefore do not scoff, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord GOD of hosts upon the whole land.

Genesis 10:32-11:9 (RSV) -  These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.  Now the whole earth had one language and few words.  And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."  And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built.  And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."  So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Proverbs 13:19-14:6 (RSV) - A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul; but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools.  He who walks with wise men becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.  Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous.  A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous.  The fallow ground of the poor yields much food, but it is swept away through injustice.  He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.  The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want.  Wisdom builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down.  He who walks in uprightness fears the LORD, but he who is devious in his ways despises him.  The talk of a fool is a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them.  Where there are no oxen, there is no grain; but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.  A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.  A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Promise is not a Contract

All this talk about promises this week and it makes me wonder if there were any reason God would break His promise. In our human experience people break their promises all the time. One reason is because one person in the relationship doesn’t live up to the bargain. Since one person broke their promise we feel there is no need for us to maintain our promise. The truth is, this is a contract relationship rather than a genuine promise. When God makes a promise, He is not limited to whether or not we uphold our end of the bargain.

Take Noah in today’s reading as an example. As soon as stepped out of the Ark we hear of hem getting drunk and losing control. One might expect that God would go back on His word after Noah’s behavior. The Scriptures just finished calling Noah righteous, and today we hear of him cursing his own family. Where is the righteousness in cursing your family?  Every time we turn around humanity is cursed from within, but not from God.

God is steadfast in His promise to rescue us from this fallen world. Nothing we can do, nothing YOU can do, will make God break His promise. When God makes a promise, it isn’t a contact, it is a promise. That shouldn’t give us license to act ungrateful. But it should remind us that God’s love for us is worthy of our love in return. Take a moment this week and think how you might be able to express your love for God. As Orthodox Christians we express our love for God in the way we treat others. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love Me more than these......fee my sheep.” (John 21.15) Today is a good day to feed someone.

Here are today’s Old Testament Readings:
Isaiah 26:21-27:9 (RSV) -  For behold, the LORD is coming forth out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed upon her, and will no more cover her slain.  In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.  In that day: "A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!  I, the LORD, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest any one harm it, I guard it night and day;  I have no wrath. Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would set out against them, I would burn them up together.  Or let them lay hold of my protection, let them make peace with me, let them make peace with me."  In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.  Has he smitten them as he smote those who smote them? Or have they been slain as their slayers were slain?  Measure by measure, by exile thou didst contend with them; he removed them with his fierce blast in the day of the east wind.  Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altars like chalkstones crushed to pieces, no Asherim or incense altars will remain standing.
 Genesis 9:18-10:1 (RSV) -The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan.  These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent.  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.  Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers."  He also said, "Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.  God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave."  After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years.  All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.  These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood.
 Proverbs 12:23-13:9 (RSV) - A prudent man conceals his knowledge, but fools proclaim their folly.  The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.  Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.  A righteous man turns away from evil, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.  A slothful man will not catch his prey, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.  In the path of righteousness is life, but the way of error leads to death.  A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.  From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.  He who guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.  The soul of the sluggard craves, and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.  A righteous man hates falsehood, but a wicked man acts shamefully and disgracefully.  Righteousness guards him whose way is upright, but sin overthrows the wicked.  One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.  The ransom of a man's life is his wealth, but a poor man has no means of redemption.  The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked will be put out.