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Mission Monthly – January 2008

“If there were less of what seems like ease in our lives they would tell more for Christ and souls We profess to be strangers and pilgrims, seeking after a country of our own, yet we settle down in the most un-stranger-like fashion, exactly as if we were quite at home and meant to stay as long as we could. I don't wonder apostolic miracles have died. Apostolic living certainly has.”

Amy Carmichael, Missionary to India, +1951

It has been noted to me that there is a specific definition of the word “Apostle” and what it means to be one. It is an important teaching which defines the Lord's meaning essentially as membership amongst our Lord's twelve Apostles and the Apostle Paul. Exploring this definition can help us understand the continuity of the Church's apostolic ministry. Each time we recite the Nicene Creed we proclaim our Church to be, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” We proclaim to believe in the Church's authority in the practice of Apostolic Succession, the authority of the Lord's Apostles passed on from one bishop to the next in unbroken succession through the laying on of hands AND the spirit of sanctity accompanying the life of a true shepherd of the Church.

“An apostle is one who's sent” says the refrain of a children's song written by Kh. Gigi (Baba) Shadid. This accurate definition of the Greek word “apostolos” brings to mind the notion of the apostolic spirit of “being sent.” A more complete definition would also include that an Apostle is one who is sent by the risen Lord to “make disciples” and to “baptize” (Matthew 28:18ff). This is the calling of the “Apostles,” but what does it mean to be “apostolic” in the 21st century and to have the spirit of the apostolic ministry present in the ministry of the Church and in the lives of each of Her members?

I recently read that there are two fundamental characteristics of an Apostle's life: 1) love for God; and 2) a truly tender care for one's neighbor. These characteristics are demonstrated clearly in the defining moments when the risen Lord thrice asked the Apostle Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” Upon Peter's affirming response the Lord definitively commanded, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

“Do you love me more than these?” is THE question that has resounded through the centuries, as it did when it was first asked of St. Peter, like roaring thunder. For St. Peter it was the opportunity to free himself from the three-fold guilt he incurred when he thrice denied Christ. For each of us it is a bold reminder of what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, and the importance of our response in carrying on the apostolic ministry of the Church.

I find this to be one of the most trying facets of my life as an Orthodox Christian and Priest. I suspect each of us, assuming one is even thinking about life and faith in this way, and no matter what his vocation, would agree. How do we truly love and appreciate this life we have been given and yet not allow that love to eclipse the love we have for the One who has given us this life? Fundamentally Orthodox Christians are challenged by this question at virtually every moment of our lives. Starting with our love for God as expressed in the priority we make for worship, personal prayer, scripture and devotional reading, stewardship, and the turning away from every soul defiling influence; and finishing with our love for our neighbor as expressed in fellowship and in the way we serve others by putting first something other than ourselves (we can fill in the blank regarding the circumstances of our own life).

Amy Carmichael has made a very pointed observation here. The ease of life that has permeated modern society, including the Church, has greatly diminished the apostolic image of Christ for the world, as the power of the apostolic message has been made lukewarm at best by men's abandonment of the pursuit of heaven (or at best mingling a tacit pursuit of heaven with a vigorous pursuit of personal interest). Probably one of the saddest developments of this failure is that some Christians even equate God's blessings with the acquisition of material prosperity. I especially grieve for our youth who, while being presented with a skeleton of faith, have also been allowed (and maybe even encouraged) to mingle with the false standard of living proffered by the materialistic and sensual images of American society. Is it any wonder, as I mentioned in a recent sermon, that statistics show—even in our Orthodox churches—that only 1 in 10 of our children remain in the church (let alone take responsibility for the apostolic ministry of the Church) once they reach college age. Why should they when they've been allowed (again, “encouraged”) to feel “quite at home” in the world and have been shown little by way of apostolic conviction for living as “strangers and pilgrims.”

If we are concerned about the witness of “apostolic living” in the world today where are we to begin but with ourselves? There are many possibilities for change and many sacrifices to be made. Beloved, this should be our joy as disciples of the risen Christ and should in no way be considered burdensome. We are especially privileged to be recipients of the fullness of Christ's apostolicChurch, and we are responsible for what we have been given. I do not believe that apostolic miracles and living have fully died; but if by chance we think we love God, and love not; if we think we tenderly care for our neighbor, and care not; if we think we have embraced the apostolic ministry, and embrace not; let us now rededicate ourselves to a TRULY apostolicway of life.

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Mission Monthly – December 2007

The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the God's song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works. What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature'. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant's food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Only Begotten Son, Who is before all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

For this is all my hope!This is my life! This is my salvation! This is my pipe, my harp! And bearing it I come, having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels sing: “Glory to God in the Highest,”and with the shepherds: “and on earth peace to men of good will.”

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Mission Monthly – November 2007

“Don’t Pre-celebrate Christmas.”

Fr. Andrew George (of the Greek Archdiocese)

The Nativity Fast (Advent Season), which begins for us on November 15 (November 28 old style), is a time for anticipating the “Good News” of the Lord’s Birth. As with all things in life, Scripture reminds us that we must be careful to be “in the world, but not of the world.” This is especially true of the celebration of Christmas. Many lament that the stores are decorated for Christmas from the end of October—an example of the overstressing and “early-stressing” of this great Christian Holy Day. But what do we do in our homes? I have noticed that on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, people begin to put up their Christmas trees and lights.

Our Orthodox Advent tradition gives us some guidelines of which many of us, perhaps, are not aware. Within this 40-day preparation period, a slow progression of events unfolds. This is seen in the general attitude, hymnology, prayers, and fasting practices which begin to intensify on the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6) and progress through the feasts of St. Spyridon (Dec. 12), St. Herman (Dec. 13), Prophet Daniel (Dec 17), and St. Ignatius (Dec. 20). This last feast is specifically called “the day of preparation.” What do you think this tells us? Add to this the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that begins on Christmas Day and runs to January 5, the day before Theophany, the next Great Feast. The “food fast” is most intense during the 12 days preceding Christmas, and there is no fasting during the 12 days after Christmas, not even on Wednesday or Friday! Again, what do you think this tells us?

It is interesting to note that, historically, we do not have an exact date for Jesus’ birth. The date of His Nativity was specifically selected by the early Church to coincide with pagan celebrations held in late December. These celebrations were riotous and foolish in nature, unbecoming for a follower of Christ. Thus, this date had a dual purpose: (1) to mark the Lord’s coming to earth as a man, and (2) to do it at a time which would help defeat an attitude and lifestyle which went against the Lord’s teachings. The early Church leaders knew that these Christians struggled with the temptation to return to their former ways. Once again, what would you think this tells us?

The Orthodox tradition is clearly not to “pre-celebrate” Christmas, but rather to withhold the celebration until the designated time. Once it arrives, we are to celebrate it joyously, not with overly riotous activity as did the pagans. Some 40 or 50 years ago here in America, people decorated their Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. Slowly, through the influence of merchants and media, we started to put up our decorations and trees earlier and earlier each year. As a result, we take them down earlier and earlier, not waiting for the Theophany observances of January 5-7, which are specifically part of the 12 day cycle beginning of Christmas.

Every year, there are more and more parties held during the height of the Christmas Fast, instead of during the festive period from December 25—January 7. On the day after Christmas, we hear people say, “Christmas is over,” and the Christmas trees are put out on the curb. Since they have pre-decorated and pre-celebrated and feasted, in their minds, “it is over”—when really, it should be just beginning.

I offer the following practical applications of our Orthodox theology and practice:

  • Do decorate, but don’t pre-decorate. Use the December 6-20 guide as a starting point.
  • Do celebrate, but don’t pre-celebrate, use the December 25-January 5 timeframe for your festivities.

The Scriptures instruct us: “In all things, be not like the pagans, but rather calm, joyful in praise, and giving of love to glorify Christ who came for us.” Since we Christians are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” we are to transform the world and not have the secular world transform us. Secularism has crept into our Christmas observances. It is up to us to purify the celebration. This begins with our families, our households, doing the more proper and fitting things and, by example, teaching others to do likewise. I urge you to plan for a Christmas observance that will hold true to our Orthodox view and pattern for celebration.

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Mission Monthly – October 2007

“Well done, my good children. Hospitality is one of the first Christian duties. The beast retires to its shelter and the bird flies to its nest, but helpless man can only find refuge from his fellow-creature. The greatest stranger in this world was He that came to save it. He never had a house, as if willing to see what hospitality was left remaining amongst us.”

The Vicar of Wakefield

Hospitality has been on my mind as of late—most likely due to all the planning surrounding Rachel and Miguel Angel's wedding and the coordination of hospitality for the many out of town guests. Much was brought together in preparation for this beautiful day, and many were involved in providing a warm welcome to both personal and cultural strangers. And in the end, after the hospitality was extended, we found that we are not really strangers after all, but truly brothers and sisters in Christ.

Every October we are asked by the Archdiocese to remember our youth and to rededicate ourselves to the sacred ministry of raising God-pleasing children, in the hope and manner that the children entrusted to our stewardship will grow to be God-pleasing men and women. While this seems a most obvious goal for any Christian parent, Godparent, Grandparent, and other relatives and friends, I am skeptical that many today—even Orthodox Christians—are convicted and willing to enforce the needed direction and consistent discipline to accomplish this end. I know this is a delicate subject, and as a father of one and the father of many I can attest to the fact that there is little if any consensus on Orthodox Christian child-rearing; it is not my intention here to present a “one right way” to raise children.

The burden of our youth is one that has weighed heavily on my heart since our Lord mercifully woke me up from spiritual slumber during my college years. I was lulled asleep by many of the same forces that are acting upon our youth today; only today I believe these same forces are exponentially stronger. What words would one use to describe today's youth culture: active, entertained, scheduled, busy, electronic, comfortable, self-interested, passive, amoral, sexual, a-religious, carefree, moody, bored, disconnected, materialistic, impatient, segregated, lonely, ambivalent, ambitious? What is most intriguing to me is the passivity with which many adults today—even priests—demonstrate in detecting and fighting against the negative influences of “youth culture” attacking our own children! One priest with whom I had a challenging conversation many years ago told me that I shouldn't worry so much about our kids when they quit coming around late in high school and through their college years. He concluded by saying, “They'll come back when they get married and start having children.” I still feel sick when I think about the spiritual ignorance and irresponsibility of this attitude!

As a parent of a six year old I have a long way to go before it can be determined whether or not I have “managed my household well and kept my child submissive and respectful in every way” (1 Timothy 3:4); I am aware that the challenge before both Kh. Vanessa and me, like all parents, is a great one! Nevertheless there are a few points of child-rearing that I believe can be stated clearly: 1) I cannot be afraid that my child might resent me when I demand certain things of him or discipline him with love. 2) Prayer is more effective than words, action more valuable than intention. 3) Children have the capacity to achieve very high standards of expectation, and we sell them short every time we compromise because we do not want to press them or because we're exhausted from all of e's demands. 4) Children should never be allowed to use the word “bored” and we have a great responsibility to keep them engaged and far from the temptations of despondency and laziness. Isn't it interesting how these points pretty much require constant parental involvement and vigilant leadership?

There are many starting points to nurturing this right spirit in our children, but I believe thatpractical, hands-on serving may be the most beneficial, especially the virtue of hospitality where our children are taught directly how to come out of themselves by serving others. “He who grasps that charity is an active virtue, not a passive one, and begins to fulfill it after this manner, will soon find that heaven and earth reveal themselves to him in many colors. He will soon come to know both God's charity and man's. Charity is the striking of stone with stone that always produces a spark. He who strikes this blessed spark and he who receives it will both feel God's presence with them. At that moment, they feel God's caressing hand on both their hearts” (St. Nikolai Velimirovic).

I am still very hopeful that the generations placed in our care can be raised in faith and remain faithful their entire lives. Our dedication to this divinely consecrated ministry, as 19th century author, Charlotte Mason, put it, is as important as that of the bishop! Ours is an inspired work of inspiring our children to the love of God and neighbor, and to recognizing the beauty of this world and this life—not in the base allurements of sensual materialism, but rather in the heights of heavenly brilliance! Ours is the inspired work of helping our children understand God's hospitality towards us, and to nurture in them a thankful response and a conviction to love! May the virtue of hospitality be more diligently sought after by each and every one of us, for the love of our neighbor, for the sake of our children and for the glory of God!

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Mission Monthly – August-September 2007

“We should live through difficulties and tragedies and see them all as opportunities for prayer, for approaching God. That's the secret: how the man of God will transform everything into prayer. St. Paul means this when he says, 'I rejoice in my sufferings,' in all the tribulations he encountered. This is how sanctification takes place. May God grant this to us. I ask for this fervently in my prayer.”

Elder Porphyrios

Recent events of tragedy and suffering in the lives of those close to my heart have affected me deeply. These words are not specifically intended for them, but they are felt as a general and loving response to the inevitable question, "Why?" I believe it takes a certain understanding of the development of our contemporary social climate in order to answer this question.

I do not believe my generation is interested much in suffering. The generations that have given rise to modern and post-modern societies have had a different aim in mind: material security and ease of life. And thus one of the greatest tragedies of the individual experience of tragedy in the post-modern society is that many of us today are completely unprepared to suffer even to the smallest degree.

It has been twenty years since my last living grandparent passed away. I believe they lived in a time prior to the combustible engine, electrical power grids, penicillin and indoor plumbing. My father’s parents were children whose older relatives fought in the American Civil War and my mother’s parents lived under the Turkish occupation of the Balkan states. They all lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. These and other experiences of my grandparent’s lives lead me to believe that they probably were not na•ve about life’s difficulties and would rarely if ever ask the question "Why?" regarding the suffering of their lives.

I do not claim that my grandparents and their generation possessed a great piety or faith. In fact, to some degree, I would lay the blame for some of the ills of post-modern society at the feet of the generation from which modern society emerged. I wonder sometimes if the generation that somewhat innocently sought "a better life" for themselves and their children would do things differently if they knew that the ease and comfort which they sought would eventually spoil their children and rob them of their ability to appreciate the freedom and convenience to which they’ve been born? I wonder sometimes if from their graves the knowing and unknowing architects of pre-modern and modern societies at all regret opening the door to unprecedented social self-indulgence and a soul-corrupting inability to suffer?

It would be wrong for me to place a value on suffering for the sake of suffering. Perverted, self-inflicted suffering is not of God in any way. The value of suffering can only be found in how a man responds when suffering’s inevitable nature reveals itself in his life. The question I would raise here is, "Am I prepared?" And for all of us, "Are we prepared?" As Christians we have a hierarchy of three points of history which carry great meaning. Preeminent 20th century Orthodox theologian, Fr. George Florovsky, focused on these three points in his famous book, "Creation, Fall, Redemption." The fall of Adam introduced into the world the inevitability of suffering. As Christians we must understand and accept this, and as Christians we must know and engage in the life of Christ which prepares us for it. How wonderful it is when a Christian seeks answers to his most intimate questions from the only Source where answers find their true meaning: in Christ. And why in Christ? Because it is only in the Cross-bearing redemption of Christ that life as we know it can be understood. When we form our lives in this way, with prayer and cross-bearing courage, our approach to God will be the cause of our sanctification and the transformation of our suffering into comfort, our sorrow into joy, our death into life!

I offer this brief reflection as an encouragement to our growing ability to respond to suffering with faithfulness. Being prepared is our greatest challenge because it requires us to choose—right now– to reject the soul-corrupting ease and self-indulgence presented to us as normal in our sensual and materialistic post-modern society. Ease and self-indulgence are the devil’s "cement overshoes" which keep us affixed to this earth and unable (or unwilling) to accept our heavenly calling as cross-bearers for the Kingdom of God. May God grant us the ability to "rejoice in our sufferings" that indeed our sanctification may be complete!

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