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Mission Monthly – February 2006

“You should not wait until you are cleansed of wandering thoughts before you desire to pray. If you only begin on prayer when you see that your mind has become perfect and raised above all recollection of the world, then you will never pray.”

St. Isaac the Syrian

Being distracted in prayer is something we all must battle against. I had recently been meditating on this when I came across this quote from St. Isaac the Syrian. I am greatly encouraged by his words and I hope you will be as well.

The universal battleground of “wandering thoughts” is probably at Church during the Divine Services, especially during quieter moments when Psalms are being read, or when we are singing something so familiar that one is able to do so and still find himself thinking about something completely different. As we approach the beginning of Great Lent I cannot help but think of the Great Compline service with all its psalmody. It is a very challenging service not only because of its length but even more so because of our need to do battle, maybe even violently, with our “wandering thoughts.” It is the wisdom of the Church to place these services at the beginning of our Lenten fast to rigorously challenge us to defy the disquietness of our lives.

This effort is a great and holy work; a point that can never be forgotten as man faces the reality of his disquieted life. I know how easy it is to become discouraged and tempted to “wait” before beginning the divine work of each days walk with God. From the beginning of the Evil One’s reign his intent has been to embarrass man before God and ultimately destroy him by exposing and subjecting man to his fallen self. All sadness in society is built upon the reality of this subjugation; seen today in the many over-extended aspects of our lives. With evenings spent visiting on the front porch all but gone, our fast paced society leaves little room for clarity of time and thought; and whatever time is left over we usually find ourselves spending it in distraction and escape, rather than in quiet renewal and refreshment in the Lord.

I cannot remember if it is from an old poem or maybe a song, but I am recalling this verse, “Run with winged feet to the Lord.” Whatever the source, its message of urgency is worth emphasizing. The ease with which one might slip into a “waiting” mode: “I’ll go to church next week,” “I’ll start reading my bible tomorrow,” “I’ll get back to my prayer rule once things slow down,” “The next time I have a few minutes I’ll call Father about my struggles,” is an indication of a lack of movement towards God. It may also be an indicator of fear, doubt, or laziness. The important point here is that it doesn’t matter what the reasons are for one’s lack of movement; rather that we must absolutely put an end to putting off whatever necessary movement lay before us.

The truly beautiful aspect of this very common struggle is how God responds and welcomes our effort; in fact, effort is all He requires of us—not success, just effort! If we do not make the effort, as St. Isaac said, “Then you (never) will” Are we silly enough to think that God is unaware of our distracted state? It is time for is for us to realize that whatever state we are in it is God Who is allowing it, and He is allowing it for one reason: our salvation! Can’t we see the absolute pride in our lack of movement and the ease of our excuse making? It would be my guess that God is much more disappointed in our lack of effort than our lack of faith. But let us never conclude that any of God’s disappointment could ever be equated to a lack of love. God’s unconditional love is always revealed when we seek it, and together with our efforts, in God’s time, our lives will be made right! Is there any greater hope than this? There certainly is no hope in the all-subjugating realities of this world! God’s grace is always present and offered, but He also awaits our synergy, our desire, or effort. When we do battle with our distractions, over time, we will see how God’s victory can completely become our own; and there will be no more waiting, except in eager anticipation of the next time we will come before God in prayer.

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Mission Monthly – January 2006

The Nativity and Epiphany:

The fullness of celebrating the coming of our Lord

By Father Nicholas Speier

In approaching the Christmas Feast and celebrating the beginning of the New Year (2006) we recall that the historic Christian center of this time of year is Epiphany (Theophany). The Church in her wisdom has placed these feasts together so we might experience the fullness of celebrating the coming of our Lord.

The Nativity of our Lord is a feast of joy, but at Epiphany the joy is greater still. In the stable cave we see God becoming man and sanctifying humanity, and we see His humility and His love for us. But at Epiphany we see the greater work of sanctifying all of creation in the baptismal water. We know from our reading of the Gospel of St. John that Christ came to save not only man but all of creation.

The Nativity has the angel proclaiming glad tidings, but at Epiphany the forerunner prepares the way. At His birth Christ brought us the message of peace on earth and good will toward man, a true sign of His condescending love. But at Epiphany we see the forerunner preparing the way for all humanity to walk in peace and good will. For God not only wants us to know about life in Him but to live our life in Him.

The Nativity has blood spilt, as Bethlehem wails in her childlessness, but at Epiphany this water gives way to many sons. As Christ is born, this world begins its rejection of the Savior to end at His crucifixion and death. But at the Baptism of Christ we see that His presence can not be stamped out. He is forever making things new through death and resurrection and the new children of God entering the Kingdom through Baptismal water.

At the Nativity, the star proclaims Christ to the Wise men, but at Epiphany the Father reveals Christ to the whole universe. Mary and Joseph quietly come into Bethlehem and Christ is born of her amidst a few, but now at Epiphany the Father’s voice declares to all men, angels, and all creation that Christ is the Beloved and only begotten Son of the Father.

As we can see, the two feasts together help us to experience the fullness of the coming of our Lord. They emphasize his humility in lowering himself to save us, His beloved. The two feasts declare to us, beyond doubt, God’s great love for mankind and all creation. He did not wait for us to make things better or right, but He came to us in our distress to save us and to save this world. May the depth and joy of these celebrations lift our spirits so we may rejoice with the angels and all the saints at the coming of Christ our Lord.

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Mission Monthly – December 2005

“Take great care of your children. We live at a time when much freedom is given to the expression of thought, but little care is taken that thoughts should be founded on truth. Teach them to love truth.”

Elder Macarius of Optina

The Elder Macarius died in +1860. I wonder what he would think about the freedom of thought and expression given to children (and pretty much everyone) today, almost a century and a half later. The spirit of the Renaissance undoubtedly affected Russia but I doubt it took as much of a toll on the Russian culture as it has in the West and in America, where now the entitlements of personal freedom have all but rooted out Truth as “absolute” in the broader scope of societal thought. It seems as though truth only exists today where one chooses, based on emotion rather than on tradition; what is true for me today or even this very moment, based on how I feel. If I we were to translate the Elder’s final admonition into today’s language of relativism it would say, “Teach them to love themselves.” Well, I think that we as a society have come close to perfecting an adherence to the standard of self love. Sadly, the ground upon which this kind of thinking stands is as precarious as the human condition.

One of Jesus’ most difficult sayings that non-believers struggle with (and I dare say even some Christians who fall into the temptations of relativistic faith doctrines) is, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The infamous words of Pontius Pilot uttered just before “he handed [Jesus] over to [the Jews] to be crucified” echo throughout the ages even to our own day, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Simply put, Jesus is the Truth and consequently the rock upon which all of life is founded. Generally, Christians—and especially Orthodox Christians—should understand this very well, at least in theory. What it means, however, in terms of how we choose to live may be quite different from our intellectual understanding.

My wife often encourages me not to get too “lofty” in writing these little meditations. Today I really want to follow her advice and put into the simplest of words what the Elder Macarius has said in admonishing us to teach our children to “love truth”. I believe he is simply telling us to love the person, Jesus. What greater gift can we give our children, and ourselves, other than a child-like love for Jesus?“Not a far-off God, a cold abstraction, but a warm, breathing, spiritual Presence about [our Lord’s] path and bed—a Presence in which he recognizes protection and tenderness in darkness and danger, towards which he rushes as the timid child to hide his face in his mother’s skirts.” (Charlotte Mason)

The time of our Lord’s Nativity is an excellent time to wisely nurture this uncomplicated love. It begins with the ease of loving the little Baby born in Bethlehem. In folk songs we sing about Him, about the angels who proclaim Him, about the world who receives Him, and about both the simplest and the wisest of men who were the first to hear the glad tidings of joy. Our church hymns portray this unpretentious love in richness and eloquence, “What shall we offer to Thee, O Christ, for that Thou didst appear on earth as a man for our sake? Verily, every individual of the creatures Thou didst create shall offer Thee thanksgiving. The angels shall offer Thee praise; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds; wonder; the earth, the cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we men, a virgin Mother. Wherefore, O God before the ages, have mercy upon us.” (From the Apostika of Christmas Vespers)

Maybe Christmas can be a time—a time simply to learn about loving Jesus. All romanticism aside one asks this question, is it possible to simply be drawn to the person of Jesus? He is the Truth, certainly theologically, but even more so in the personal way in which He intends to touch and warm the heart of every man, woman and child. His Truth is the word and action which sets us on the course of true freedom and reconnects us to our true selves, to each other and ultimately to Life itself. Nations and men, economies and commerce, families and individuals are in chaos from the horrific, post-modern advancement of the disconnect between God and man, and between men and each other. I believe this is because our society is not founded on Truth and combined with the century’s old social erosion caused by the exaltation of the self. These two ruinous indulgences have further left man isolated and paralyzed in the throws of self-love, consumed by our own consumption and filled with pride, envy, fear and anger. “A paralyzed mind will always find some foolish reason not to go after truth” (St. Nikolai Velimirovic). The answer is right before us as we ask why the Orthodox Church prepares us to celebrate our Lord’s Holy Nativity with prayer and fasting rather than with celebration and festivity; it is to help us prepare to meet Jesus by putting aside any paralysis of self-love and seek only that which is true… and simply learn to love Jesus. Beloved, Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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Mission Monthly – November 2005

“The liturgical service takes place on earth, but it belongs to the realm of heavenly realities. In fact it was not instituted by a human being or an angel, but by the Spirit Himself, so that those who are still living in the flesh should think of performing the service of angels. Oh what mercy, oh what love of God for human beings! Christ, who is seated with the Father in highest heaven, is at that moment grasped by the hands of all and does not hesitate to give Himself to anyone who wants to embrace Him and be bound to Him.”

St. John Chrysostom

The word “institution” is one which arouses either feelings of security and stability or feelings of scorn and suspicion. This can be challenging for those of us who belong to the “institutional” Church of Christ; be it with our own experiences with things “institutional” or with the open ridicule we receive from cynics and critics.

Theologically it is relatively easy to discourse on heavenly realities expressed in the revealed Word: worship, hymnography, iconography, and the architecture of the Church. But because man is in the world and many times more connected to the world— even theologically—than to heaven, it seems that for many it is not only difficult to believe that God could become a man, it is consequently difficult to believe that God’s Church could be anything other than a “man-made institution”.

For practical reasons the Divine Liturgy is presided over by the local priest assigned by the bishop to represent him in his absence. (I pray that as we grow as a community in a strong diocese led by a strong diocesan bishop, we may come to know even more completely the fullness of worship when the hierarch is present.) The Hierarchical Divine Liturgy begins with the deacon saying to the bishop,

“Bless Master, it is time for the Lord to act.” With these beautiful words time as we know it is suspended and we enter the eternal, heavenly place of worship. The bishop, the icon of Christ Himself, then proclaims, “Blessed is the Kingdom” and the faithful exclaim “Amen!” This blessing is nothing other than the pronouncement that we are no longer gathered around an earthly table, in an earthly building, but rather around THE heavenly altar upon which lay the Word and Lamb of God; and together with the Angels and Saints, we too proclaim, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabbaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!”

Our “understanding” of the mystery of this worship has no bearing on its truth and power. All who are present—and one might assert even the whole world—are swept up in this Divine Action. Each of us, whether named or not, are offered to God in the action of the Liturgy. The prayers following the consecration of the Holy Eucharist state this clearly, “Furthermore we offer unto Thee this our reasonable worship on behalf of the whole world” The most powerful work of this Divine Action, therefore, is not what we are doing but rather what is being done to us in the service and participation of the Liturgy as “the work of God’s people.”

There can be no doubt that the Church is “institutional.” The worn-out question so often asked is, upon what institution is it founded: the institution of heaven or the institution of men? We have very specific instructions from Scripture in the Old Testament about how God is to be worshipped. The Old t’s Messianic fulfillment in Christ led the Apostles and their successors to the beginnings of worship as we know it today. Scripture and Tradition did not create that which is eternal; rather they harmoniously reveal that which is heavenly by the grace and action of the Holy Spirit. How could it be any other way? Would God Who loves us and offers Himself to us and Who, “is grasped by the hands of all and does not hesitate to give Himself to anyone who wants to embrace Him and be bound to Him” leave us to figure it out for ourselves?

Though it is not commonly known or practiced the following prayer is to be prayed by all who enter God’s House, “I will come into Thy house in the multitude of Thy mercy; and in fear I will worship toward Thy holy temple. Lead me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make Thy way straight before me, that with a clear mind I may glorify Thee forever, One Godhead in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.” God’s holy tabernacle is heaven itself and it is towards this that we move and enter not only in the service of the Liturgy but even as we enter the church building itself. This is God’s great love and mercy for us, and is why we must make every effort to present ourselves faithfully, regularly, timely and modestly. There are many acts of devotion that we must “again and again” put into practice if we truly care to be “bound” to Christ, but there is none like the worship we are called to in the heavenly “institution” of God’s Holy Church.

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Mission Monthly – October 2005

“A time of trial is beneficial to everyone: the diligent are tried so that their wealth may increase; the lax, so that they be preserved from harm; those spiritually asleep, so that they may prepare themselves for watchfulness; those who are far from God, so that they may approach Him; those who are God’s close associates, so that they may come closer to Him in freedom of speech.”

St. Isaac the Syrian

“A time of trial is beneficial” Undoubtedly there are many who view this kind of thinking as absurd, or even those who see it as just another ploy of “the church” to keep people under control. They ask why being put to the test would be considered in any way beneficial; and yet it is often these same people who trumpet the virtues of courage and perseverance in the challenges of business, academics, athletics and the like. As a priest I am blessed with the honor of helping to support and guide people during times of various testing. Because of this privilege I find myself often meditating on the meaning of trials and tests – and the hypocrisy of seeing spiritual trials as absurd and worldly trials as honorable.

I played organized sports from a young age, going on to letter in varsity athletics in high school and college. I’ve heard many “Go get ’em!” speeches. I’ve had many victories and more losses than I care to admit. I’ve been recognized and awarded for my effort and performance and I’ve been harshly reprimanded for my failures and laziness. I value my experience, be it the conditioning of my body, the discipline of teamwork or the challenge towards personal excellence. If this was all I knew I believe I would be more impressed when I hear sports analysts tout the courage of athletes who rise above adversity. However, the world of sports is vastly bigger than my experience and I must admit how tired I get of hearing sappy praise heaped upon the athlete who leads his or her team to victory despite an injury, illness or personal tragedy. A very close friend of mine once had the opportunity to attend the alumni dinner of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He was shocked to see many of those men of heroic esteem now old before their time and crippled from years of bodily abuse in pursuit of professional football excellence. These men subjected themselves to a time of trial and in one way or another they succeeded, and the athletic world has elevated them to the status of legend. These “tests” and other worldly trials are seen as completely normal and even desirable. I suppose because worldly success generally brings honor within one’s lifetime whereas the trials mentioned by St. Isaac, even if there is “success”, generally are inconvenient and do not offer “honor” in this world. I may have gleaned a few lessons from my athletic experience, but pretty much all that remains from those days is a body suffering from the chronic pain of injury and a few dusty awards and memories.

Please forgive my meandering down memory lane. The point I am trying to make is really quite simple. It is frustrating to see within myself and in many people various levels of blindness in not accepting the need and benefit of spiritual trials— of entering the arena of Christian life with the discipline of an athlete so that we might fully live God-centered lives! It is so much easier to take on an athletic challenge, or a project at work or home, or the pursuit of a diploma or degree. Consider how many of our young people “take a break” from the life of the Church during their college years and how this is somehow acceptable because of their “honorable” pursuit of education! Or how our even younger children are asked to sacrifice ongoing Sundays for the sake of athletic tournaments, again for an “honorable” cause!

St. Paul even uses the example of athletics to describe a faith-centered life. “Do you not know that in a race all runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:24-25).

The saddest aspect of our blindness is how often we settle for the “perishable” over the “imperishable”. When I see myself or others so eager to take on the challenges of personal interest and yet so reluctant to take on the challenges of repentance—acknowledging our failures in loving our spouses; respecting our parents; forgiving those who have hurt us; showing compassion to those who are suffering; sharing with those in need; living with strong morals; striving for regular worship, prayer, stewardship, fasting and scripture reading; and so on— I ask myself, “Can’t we see where the real challenges of life are to be found and be assured of the benefits we receive from taking them on?” Truly there is no greater challenge than that of spiritual warfare, and the true mark of a man is to forsake his natural inclination to “perishable” ambition. But this requires a willingness to see, and if we cannot see then a willingness to do the things necessary to acquire true vision.

St. Paul said, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). As Christians we will not be crowned unless we willingly share in the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. What this means is that we must actively seek the path of our salvation and never shy away from our spiritual trials or view them as absurd or meaningless. Rather our trials to live and follow faithfully the commandments of our Lord must be seen as the way for each of us to enter into the greatest challenge of life: to die with Christ so that we might live with Him, forever.

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