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Mission Monthly – June-July 2008

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have to come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

The Gospel of St. John 6:68-69

I attended the Monona Memorial Day parade with Anthony and a few others from church. After two (long) hours of floats, marching bands, candy throwing and advertising, I can honestly say I was notably impressed by the outward show of patriotism that was created by the hundreds of people, under the sentry of dozens of American flags lining the street, seemingly united in celebration to honor those who have defended our freedom and “American” way of life. I was, however, also saddened; knowing the difficulties and disunity our country is going through spiritually, politically, economically, morally, environmentally, revealed to me the superficial side of this “parade”. The above words of the Apostle Peter, and the context of this conversation, came to mind and reminded me that as thankful as I am to be American, being an American does not answer the most important questions of this life or the life to come. In an odd way this Memorial Day reminded me why I am a Christian. I would love to further meditate on this but the following words of Archimandrite Sophrony from his book, His Life is Mine, capture many of my thoughts:

“The world continues to flounder in the vicious circle of its material problems—economic, class, nationalistic and the like—because people refuse to follow Christ. [So many people] have no wish to become like Him in all things: to become His brethren and through Him the beloved children of the Father and the chosen habitation of the Holy Spirit. In God’s pre-eternal Providence for man we are meant to participate in His Being— to be like unto Him in all things. By its very essence this design on God’s part for us excludes the slightest possibility of compulsion or predestination. And we as Christians must never renounce our goal lest we lose the inspiration to storm the kingdom of heaven. Experience shows all too clearly that once we Christians start reducing the scope of the revelation given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit, we gradually cease to be attracted by the Light made manifest to us. If we are to preserve our saving hope, we must be bold Genuine Christian life is lived ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.23), and so can be continued in all places and at all times since the divine commandments of Christ possess an absolute character. In other words, there are and can be no circumstances anywhere on earth which could make observance of the commandments impossible.

“In its eternal essence Christian life is divine spirit and truth and therefore transcends all outward forms. But man comes into this world as [a blank slate], to ‘grow, wax strong in spirit, be filled with wisdom’(cf Luke 2.40), and so the necessity arises for some kind of organization to discipline and co-ordinate the corporate life of human beings still far from perfect morally, intellectually and, more important, spiritually. Our fathers in the Church and the apostles who taught us to honor the true God were well aware that, though the life of the Divine Spirit excels all earthly institutions, this same Spirit still constructs for Himself a dwelling place of a tangible nature to serve as a vessel for the preservation of His gifts. This habitation of the Holy Spirit is the Church, which through centuries of tempest and violence has watched over the precious treasure of Truth as revealed by God. (We need not be concerned at this point with zealots who value framework rather than content.) The Church’s function is to lead the faithful to the luminous sphere of Divine Being. The Church is the spiritual centre of our world, encompassing the whole history of man. Those who through long ascetic struggle to abide in the Gospel precepts have become conscious of their liberty as sons of God

“In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself. His Being now for us is the First Reality, incomparably more evident than all the transient phenomena of this world. We sense His divine presence both within us and without: in the supreme majesty of the universe, in the human face, in the lightning flash of thought. He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of His creation. He fills our souls with love towards all mankind. His indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart. And in the hours when His imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die. We know this with a knowledge impossible to prove in the ordinary way but which for us requires no proof: since the Spirit Himself bears witness within us.”

In truth Memorial Day is nothing more than a “transient phenomena of this world.” I can think of no better time to be reminded of these important thoughts as we celebrate Pentecost and the calling of the Apostles, and us, to the only life that is True: as Christians seeking to “become conscious of [our] liberty as sons of God.”


Mission Monthly – May 2008

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Christ is Risen! Christos Anesti! Christos Voskrese! Hristos a înviat! Al-Masih-Qam! Cristo ha resucitado! It is a joy to come now to this time and place, a chance to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection. It’s been a long journey; but whether it was long for those who did start in the beginning or those who are just starting now: Blessed Feast! Let us enter into the joy of our Lord. In the journey of Lent we go through many hills and valleys. I’m sure all of us will have our own stories to tell. But really they’re all hills because we’re already high on the mountain top. It’s just a matter of degrees. When you’re above the tree line you’re always above the tree line. When you’re in the Kingdom of Heaven, you’re in the Kingdom of Heaven whether you’re having an up day or down, whether you are winning in your spiritual battles or whether the evil one may be getting the upper hand, we are always in the Kingdom of God, present in us. Our Lord said that to us and we believe His word.

As we travel through Lent and through so many things, especially liturgically celebrating the prayer of the Church, coming frequently to hear the Word proclaimed: be it in the reading of Psalms, the singing of special hymns, the reading of prayers petitioning God for mercy again and again and again, one would maybe ask the question: is it all worth it? Not that I am unrealistic but sometimes I think if it were worth it every service would be filled like this service. But we have other things to do. And it’s fine, I guess. We do pray for those who are absent from services for causes worthy of a blessing. It’s up to us to determine whether our “causes” really are worthy or if we are just being lazy. Because the problem isn’t so much about whether or not we attend ten services or twenty or one, it’s not about checking them off the list and getting a gold star. It’s about connecting. It’s about connecting with the Risen Christ. It’s about connecting with God, every day, so that when we are facing life’s greatest trials, life’s greatest temptations, that our faith is interwoven tightly within the very fabric of our nature. Because we live in a world that wants to compromise every other step, a world that wants to tell us, “Oh don’t worry about it. Take care of your own business. God understands. And, oh by the way, if you feel like falling to temptation easily, you’re only human. God understands.” This is a deception, beloved. God does understand, of course, but we cannot take it casually. We cannot take our daily decisions casually. We cannot take our faith casually. We cannot assume our love for God is solid. There are plenty of examples in the Scripture where we hear of people who thought they were doing okay but it turned out they weren’t. And how many of us here feel that secure? I know I don’t. I know God loves me and I know God has saved me, I know God is still saving me, and I know have a lot of work to do.

So this Lenten journey has to have a purpose. This coming all this time to this night when it’s easy to be filled with joy, and easy to get “into the mood” with all the candles. Everything looks good in candle light. But that’s not our faith. Our faith is not just about emotions. How do I feel today? Do I feel like believing in God? Do I feel like loving my neighbor? Do I feel like doing the right thing? Our feelings confuse us all the time. And in a world where light is dark and dark is light, where up is down and down is up, where right is left and left is right, how are we going to trust our emotions; especially if we haven’t submitted them completely to the will of God? Orthodoxy is about doing not about feeling. When God grants us feelings, a sense of His love, it’s mystical. It isn’t goose bumps you get when you hear a beautiful song on the radio, or a sunset. It’s about getting yourself up and praying, getting yourself up and worshipping, getting yourself up and reading your Bible, getting yourself up and serving your neighbor, getting yourself up and coming out of yourself and not just existing in the drama of your own mind. What problem do I have to deal with today? Oh gosh, gosh, gosh, there’s always something. Well maybe those [things] are legitimate, but often times we exaggerate and as soon as we exaggerate we’re like the man in the mirror who when he sees his face and then he turns away he forgets what he looks like. He forgets his name. Like a ship out on the ocean without a rudder, tossed by the waves and opinions of the day. There is a purpose in submitting ourselves to the will of God in the life of the Church: t’s to form us into God-pleasing, God-loving people. Very practical. Not legalism, ritualism, or anything. It’s here: subdue the flesh, subdue the mind, corral our opinions, teach us how to be humble, and be ready to serve the living God.

In [Saturday morning’s] Old Testament readings there was a particular one that jumped out. It was when Abraham was told by God, after he went through this whole process of prayer, hope, waiting, God finally sends his son, Issac. And Abraham loved Issac. But then God said, “Abraham, I need you to kill your son. I need you to show me your love.” And Abraham, a faithful man, was going to do what he was told. And this was the line that caught me in the reading, “[God said,] ‘for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'” He didn’t hold it back. He was aware of where that gift came from, and he knew that if the Giver wanted it back he’d better give it back, if he was to remain faithful to understanding where his own life came from. He did not withhold the gift. This is our great challenge in a materialistic, self-centered, highly motivated and ambitious society, where people want to acquire security, purpose, a future – that we don’t forget where those gifts come from. That we don’t forget God; the One who gave us life itself. Abraham was ready to sacrifice the thing he loved the most. This is the most amazing thing. For many of us, we’re hesitant to give away our old clothes, the ones we haven’t worn for fifteen years, because of some memory attached to them. I’ve got a couple of those in my closet. But how are we ever going to get to that point of life where our faith is solid, founded, purposeful and we understand where life has come from and where life is going—that God has created, God will give, God will take away. Ours is just to be faithful, to live according to His commandments and to trust that everything we will ever need will be provided for us. Certainly we have to work hard. Certainly we have to be responsible in this world. But if we forget, then maybe our love for God isn’t quite what we thought it was and it’s time for us to repent. But our repentance is not without purpose and hopefully the joy we feel tonight, and I feel it, I do not know about you, that it’s something real, something permanent, something inspiring, something life changing to bring us back in accord with the way of God in whatever way we may be missing the mark.

So this is our Lenten journey, not simply to come to “the nice night of good feelings” but to come to the life of change, of faith, and love for God, and in the most practical of ways, loving our neighbor, serving our neighbor. I’m so happy to see this crowd tonight. Often times after the [procession] people go, so thank God people stayed; there must be a reason for that. I think the world is telling us something and people have a sense that things aren’t right out there. The answers aren’t in the world. The answers aren’t in our passions. The answers are in our Church, in our faith in God, in our unity of community of believers coming together to worship, praise and honor the very Creator of our lives. So let us celebrate this gift, our “Christ is Risen.” Our lives are transformed. We have been given the invitation to the Banquet Table. Let us not go away hungry because of our pride, because of our confusion. But let us come and eat with joy, for indeed this is our Savior’s pleasure that we might be with Him always, to the ages of ages. Christ is Risen!


Mission Monthly – April 2008

“It was through victories in small things that the fathers won their great battles.”

St. Peter of Damascus

Kh. Vanessa and I were speaking about this important subject at the beginning of this Lenten season. We needed to come to a common mind over a matter of child rearing that affirmed our mutual hope of raising our child in virtue and holiness. The question that was being discussed was how scrupulous we as parents should be in affirming or correcting specific behaviors in our children. My initial thoughts were less confined to any minutia for fear of becoming too exacting of every little detail of a God's behavior. Kh. Vanessa's thoughts leaned more towards the unwavering commitment to consistency in “training up our child in the way he should go” in the everyday, little things, in the very spirit of what St. Peter of Damascus is telling us.

The more I think about it the more it makes sense, and it applies to most all of one's disciplines. One does not start off being great at anything: music, sports, science, art, etc.. It requires often painstaking effort to make progress in any discipline (most often by being shown what we did wrong in order to learn how to do it right!).

I had originally intended to write this meditation on the will of man and man's need to renounce his will should he ever hope to fulfill God's will in his life. I am seeing how lofty a goal this may have been and am now seeing this as a more practical topic. The disciplines of music, sports, science, art, etc. are important individual talents and interests in our lives, but of far greater importance is the struggle-intensive development of virtue and godly character. It is the things we most often confess that concern me—the failures we all experience when facing provocations and temptations to sin. And it is the development of serious and sober strategies that we Orthodox Christians in modern society can and must implement to affect progress towards winning the “great battles” of our individual lives, and even those of our generation.

I believe one of the greatest of the small battles we face, like my own inclination above, is how closely to evaluate, and ultimately classify, the minutia of our lives. I have heard that in some monasteries novice monastics make daily confession of not only their behaviors but also of their thoughts. In discovering this I had a strong sense that what many people might consider to be “minutia” is absolutely NOT trivial in the pursuit of spiritual discipline and of repentance. Generally speaking it sounds like we must start getting more specific if we ever hope to truly confront and ultimately defeat the adversaries of virtue and righteousness.

The continued challenge will be that while it is important to be specific in examining the small things we do not want to dwell on them obsessively. In our day to day movements we must be ready to act sincerely, to be aware of the outcomes of our actions, and to never forget that the very reason Jesus came was to forgive us and to reconcile us to Himself. We can never allow forgetfulness of this to prevent us from attending to simple strategies and obedience in the small things. Beloved, I believe with all my heart that victory in great battles is never far from anyone. It's as close as Christ is to all of us. The question is, how or whether we are committed to this closeness in return, as St. John Chrysostom said, “to contribute our fair share” in cooperating with God in the work of our salvation!


Mission Monthly – March 2008

“If man cannot go to the desert, then the desert can come to man.”

Carlo Carretto, The Desert in the City

About a year ago Dr. Bradley Nassif, professor of New Testament at North Park University in Chicago, came to UW-Madison to give a talk to the OCF entitled, “Desert Spirituality for the City.” Dr. Nassif spoke at length about deficiencies within the historical church which led to the rise of monasticism in Palestine and the deserts of Egypt. Instead of a more inspiring and practical instruction about the lives of those who fled to the desert, we heard about men who were simply escaping an “increasingly secularized Church” following the Edict of Milan and the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313. Historians have shown that early monasticism was indeed a movement stirred by (St.) Constantine’s Edict, but it cannot be underemphasized that the great monastic elders fled to the desert motivated even more so by an uncompromising intent to personally respond to the challenge of the Gospel!

To many today life in the desert, or monasticism, is as great a mystery as ever. If one is able get beyond the temptation to judge whether or not the “desert” is a place where the Gospel can actually be lived, the next temptation might be to think of the desert as a self-determined experience, subject to our own ambitions, as if God were simply a broker of “higher understanding.” The spirituality of modern man and the alluring philosophies of the New Age demonstrate this by making “spiritual experience” all about “me.” This human-centered attitude would be considered sacrilegious to the desert dwellers where God alone is the One Who is worshipped, adored, and served with complete self-abandonment! The desert dweller did not flee to the desert merely to escape nominalism or to find knowledge or self-fulfillment but rather, with humility, to die to himself, often times with ruthless and “violent” sacrifice (consider the great repentance of St. Mary of Egypt), “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This extreme humility is a vexing dilemma to the modern man of high (or low) self-esteem, where humility is either a foreign concept or a contrived self-depreciation. Humility in the desert is the complete opposite; it is God-centered; it is the experience of being loved, and in so being, learning to respond as an unworthy slave to a benevolent master who treats his slave as a friend. It is rooted in the deepest understanding of the words of our Lord, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me For what can a man give in return for his life?”(Mark 8:34-37).

What is it about the desert that provides the setting for such uncompromising courage? Some might say it’s the solitude and others the silence. Solitude and silence, but especially silence, also perplex modern man who not only craves distraction but also considers it normal: in our homes, in our cars, at our workplace, in the store, and now on our “person.” Where is our solitude? Where is our silence? Silencing the mind and heart, and the mouth, and time spent alone with God are critical to successful battle in the arena of spiritual warfare. For example, the saying “If a man cannot understand my silence he will never understand my words” might very well sum up how man is to seek God.

The journey of Great Lent is a journey to the desert; it is a journey leading each of us to grow in the challenge of our own uncompromising response to the Gospel, principally in preparation to enter into and celebrate the Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ but also for the whole of our lives. But since we cannot actually go to the desert the question remains, “How are we to bring the desert to us?” Maybe the answer lies in realizing that the desert in reality dwells silently in each of us, arousing a man’s conscience to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”(Mark 12:16). In this way maybe we can reduce the plurality of our lives; and with single-minded conviction arise moment by moment from our spiritual dullness, bless ourselves with the sign of the Cross and say, “Help me, Lord, today, to make a good beginning.”


Mission Monthly – February 2008

“If a deformed and extremely ugly soul has suddenly willed to do so, it can change itself, it can ascend to the summit of beauty and again become comely and graceful; if it again grows careless, it can again be swept down into the utmost ugliness.”

St. John Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instruction

Freedom is a topic on which I rarely tire contemplating. I am deeply grateful for the freedom our American forefathers have established. It is a freedom paid for with generations of conviction and blood, and I can barely fathom any other way of life. Despite all the past and present errors of our government and institutions, American citizenship is still one of the most widely sought after privileges in the world. And why is this? Because of freedom!

Here is a brief description of those who sat near me on the airplane during my recent return trip from Texas: a man covered with tattoos and adorned with earrings; two men in camouflage who talked hunting and sports the entire flight; a girl who looked like she was returning from Woodstock; a man who looked the part of a modern day socialist, who uttered no words while keeping his nose in a book about the Russian revolution; an obvious weightlifter; a couple who did not stop talking about their pleasure trip to Corpus Christi; several business people who kept their eyes glued to their computer screens; and me, an Orthodox priest. Ah, freedom; and this is the country we live in, Christian and non-Christian alike. Our greatest blessing, however, is the freedom to worship God, or not, without interference; a freedom which should never be taken for granted! Which begs the questions, “What, as an Orthodox Christian, am I doing with my freedom, religious or otherwise?” and “How am I to understand the spirituality of my free will within the context of a free society?”

St. John has placed here an amazingly high value on free will and freedom of the soul! In saying that a soul can “change itself” he in no way diminishes the role God’s grace plays in this transformation. In seeking a broader understanding of St. John through his writings I believe we can say that he would never teach anything contrary to this; rather, God’s grace is a basic assumption. However, as Dr. Paul Harkins, translator of Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instruction, states, “In many places Chrysostom maintains the freedom of man and the primacy of the will and free choice in the work of conversion and salvation.”We see this emphasized in a homily St. John preached during Holy Week. He declared that too many catechumens hesitate to take the step and receive baptism saying, “If God wills it, He will persuade me and I will be converted.” To this St. John replied,“You are right to call on the will of God. This is clear: He wills all men to be saved, but He forces no one. Hence, it depends on you to see that God’s will is fulfilled.”

Ultimately my thoughts turn to the all-important point of how each of us must choose to choose the process of transformation and enter seriously, strictly, and joyfully, into believing the dogmas of the Church, fixing them fast in our minds, that faith may be manifest in us, shining in the brilliance of our best manner of Christian life. We must all admit that certainly there are times when there appears to be a disconnect between what we profess to believe and our actual manner of living. This of course is nothing other than sin; however, the disconnect that exists today goes even deeper. It is such that even though one’s mind may understand the rational difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, light and dark, one’s heart may be far from the readiness to make Godly choices. It is this lack of readiness that I fear most in my life, in all our lives, as we are faced day after day, hour after hour, with the false notion that there are no boundaries to our freedom and that we will be fulfilled by all manner of vain and sensual pursuits. How can a sinful soul, even with a rational understanding of what is good, ever “change itself” when it is surrounded by and maybe even immersed in vain sensuality? I am always amazed when I hear of an alcoholic who just decides and succeeds to quit drinking, or a smoker who just decides and succeeds to quit smoking, or an obese person who just decides and succeeds to quit over-eating. Could we say this is possible for overcoming any particular sin? I believe it is, but it is me, us, who have to choose to do so!

Some might argue that the societal freedom we enjoy is detrimental to the soul’s free ability to choose a Godly way of life. Sadly we see this played out more often than not in the lives of today’s youth when they reach the age of independence and fight more to preserve their freedom to do what they want to do: be with friends, go to movies, play video games, talk on the phone, hang out, rather than preserve the Godly lives their parents have tried to instill in them throughout their childhood. But in all fairness it is not just the youth; adults struggle too in choosing the strict courses of faith. The old saying, “You are what you eat.” can be applied to all areas of our lives; “We are what we choose.” The fact is that we are free and that God forces no one! His will has already been fulfilled in the sense that all that is necessary for our salvation (transformation): His death, His Resurrection, His grace, His Church, has been made available to us. If this does not truly persuade us then our societal freedom is truly a detriment and we are in trouble, because now is the time for us to care—and to choose!