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Mission Monthly – April 2005

“I do not think that the end of this present life is rightly called death. More accurately, it is deliverance from death, separation from corruption, liberation from slavery, cessation from turbulence, destruction of wars, dispelling of darkness, rest from suffering, calming of turmoil, escape from passions and, to sum it up, the termination of all evils. The saints who have achieved these things through voluntary mortification live as strangers and pilgrims in this life (Heb 11:13), fighting bravely against the world and the body and the assaults stemming from them.”

St. Maximos the Confessor

I remember once at St. Vladimir’s Seminary when Fr. Thomas Hopko spoke on the subject of death and dying. He made a statement which at the time sounded to me, at least initially, ridiculous and irreverent (as if I had any qualification to make such a judgment). I do not remember the exact quote but I remember the gist of it. He said, “Death is God’s mercy to us.” Needless to say, this one took time to digest. While I believe I am now grasping the meaning of this “mercy” I always appreciate reminders such as this as I personally wrestle with what it means to be a “stranger and pilgrim” in this life; a life that is filled with trial, tribulation and sin, yes, but also a life that is beautiful, fulfilling and bonded.

The relevance of this “meditation” stems from our present Lenten journey and the kind of thoughts that arise within me or from the questions of others about fasting, the mega-services of this season, Confession, etc… Why do all these things? I wish there were a simple answer, at least one that would address the correct answer while taking into consideration the variety of backgrounds, experience and previous instruction of those who ask. Even those of us who have been raised in the Orthodox faith often question the extremes of Orthodox spiritual discipline. It is no wonder that those outside of Orthodoxy may also have the same or even more difficult questionings.

One example of this came from a discussion I had some time ago with a Protestant pastor who simply could not ever see “denying” himself anything (as in the Orthodox fast) because that would be like denying the goodness of God’s gifts. It is a difficult discussion when the people involved come from completely different models of faith and instruction. From what I understand this man’s background would also never see death or anything related to it (suffering, etc.) as God’s mercy and ultimately for our salvation. This puts into question any kind of common understanding of what it means to “take up one’s cross.” Just think of what some might think about the idea of “voluntary mortification”?

Recently I was in a conversation that provoked me (in a good way) to think about my own attachments to the things of this life. I do love my life but I have to wonder how I would react to having even one blessing or comfort taken from me. What if something happened to my Vanessa or my Anthony, my health or my home, or if I was faced with the ultimate conflict of needing to face my own death in fatal illness? Am I truly ready to let anything or everything go? Consider the great prophet Job, as we heard in the Canon of St. Andrew; after God allowed the Devil to take away virtually every blessing of his faithful and holy life (children, home, health) Job sat on his dunghill of suffering and considered it a throne!

As we continue our journey to Holy Pascha let us continue to prepare as for death, that we might rise with Christ! What ever time I may have wasted, may God forgive me and help me to do better from this moment on. Spiritual warfare in the arena of this life—bravely taking on all matters of death, corruption, slavery, turbulence, war, darkness, suffering, turmoil, the passions and all evil—is required of each one of us. As Orthodox Christians we especially should understand, admire and emulate the characteristics of the truly brave, those who have gone before us and those today who understand and fight the world and the body and their assaults mounted against us. The practice of self-denial and discipline of this holy season is precisely the practice of this spiritual bravery in resisting our deep appetites and attachments for this world. Our life is Pascha! It is Resurrection! The end of life in this body is not the end of life; it is God’s mercy to us lest we should live dominated by evil forever. Sometimes it is hard to see this, especially on a beautiful early spring day like today; but let us keep our focus today and every day. The beauty and goodness of this world and all of God’s gifts are only veiled reflections of true life; which is God’s mercy and desire to set man free from the slavery of sin and death. Each of us in our own way understands the spiritual slavery and physical oppression of the body and the world. It would benefit us greatly to seek even greater understanding from the lives of our holy martyrs and great ascetics; those who bravely fought against this tyranny. Their victory, Christ’s victory, truly is our victory, and we seek it through our voluntary efforts to join them in this fight. With each new day, whether in the season of Lent or outside of it, let us seek to be brave in Christ and strangers and pilgrims in this life.

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Mission Monthly – March 2005

“The Kingdom of God is [within] you.”

St. Luke 17:21

At the top of Hill 17 at the Peninsula State Park golf course is an opening overlooking the beautiful waters of Green Bay. While on vacation last month as our final afternoon of sledding came to a close, and as I prepared to take my final run of the season, I took one more lingering moment to gaze at this breathtaking view. The depth and expanse of this horizon – like all horizons—revealed to me a sense of the divine, eternal and free, compelling not only to my eyes but to my inner man. When these moments inspire and sooth the inner longings of my heart, I am thankful to God who has created all things “both visible and invisible.” I am also cautious of these moments, fearing that I become more attached to the beauty of the natural world than to its reflection of God’s love and beauty. I then strive to give glory to the Author and Creator of all beauty and to seek a greater understanding of the purpose of His creation: to draw us closer to Himself.

Yes, I do love the horizon. I am always inspired by a view of the expanse of sky: sunny, cloudy or filled with night stars. I remember feeling this as a kid while camping, hiking or just laying in the sun at the city pool. I remember in college sitting on the edge of the bluffs overlooking the city of LaCrosse and the Mississippi River. I remember the night sky at Camp St. Nicholas in Frazer Park, California in the mountains above (and out of the smog of) Los Angeles (there one might feel as though they were truly living among the stars). I have always been freed by such “heavenly” visions, where my inner man is momentarily unchained by an uninterrupted line of sight, leading at least to the feeling of being free from earthly constraint.

I was again intrigued by these thoughts while on vacation, but I am also intrigued by these thoughts as I prepare for the season of Great Lent. From the extreme of looking so far outward, soon we will be asked to turn our outward, earthly gaze to the extreme of the inward horizon of the heart where the only true sense of freedom can and should dwell. What will we find there? We must wait and see. However, I do sense a level of excitement coming from the people of this community. How could I have ever imagined as a boy or young man that one day I would be a priest of a community that actually looks forward to Lent? I am so thankful though I digress.

Consider for a moment the examples of some of our great monastic saints. In particular I recall St. Seraphim of Sarov after he was no longer able to live alone at his wilderness hermitage and moved back to his monastery, where he lived virtually alone in his monastic cell for many years, rarely ever leaving or seeing anyone. His only earthly “horizon” was the interior of his tiny cell; it was there, the tiniest of earthly space, where he entered a true heavenly horizon. Through this voluntary “confinement” (and years of consistent effort) he was able to receive a complete connection with God; becoming by grace, as the holy fathers tell us, what God is by nature.

It is important to note that these thoughts are in no way a condemnation of the world as “bad”. St. Seraphim certainly did not see sunsets and starry skies as “bad!” Rather we make ascetic effort to deny ourselves earthly pleasure in expectation of heavenly pleasure. Spiritual discipline is not about escaping the world as the agent of sin, but rather learning proper usage of the world as an agent of grace.

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature”(2 Peter 1:3-4).

At the Divine Liturgy on Pascha we hear the beautiful passage of St. John’s Gospel proclaiming the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God and how His own people did not receive Him. This choice of darkness over light, of falsehood over truth, of sin over virtue, of death over life still faces us today. At this time of lent we make special effort to increase our devotion while restricting our foods, entertainment and non-essential activities, not necessarily because they are bad (though in some cases this may be the case), but rather that greater meaning might be given to all that is good and consequently that we might live more fully with Christ, in Christ and for Christ. While we wrestle with “thorns and thistles” for our daily bread (Genesis 3), so too we wrestle with our sins in pursuing the Bread of Life.

Yes, I will probably always love earthly horizons but as I grow older (and hopefully wiser) I am learning how those moments, though beautiful, can only provide momentary freedom, while the true freedom of the “heavenly” horizon is gained only through the “sweat of [the] brow” (Genesis 3). So I choose to limit my horizon this Lenten Spring that within my heart, rather than by something external, I might experience the Kingdom of God in our midst.

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Mission Monthly – February 2005

“God forgives. We must remember this and learn to forgive ourselves.”

Unknown (from a recent reading)

The Scribes and Pharisees fiercely challenged Jesus when He “forgave” the sins of the paralytic(Mark 2:1-12). “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they asked. In a round about way, as we are told by patristic commentators, this very question is a direct confirmation of Who Jesus is: the Incarnate Son of God. Because of their own spiritual blindness the Scribes and Pharisees did not recognize the Savior; yet without even knowing it, and by the healing which Jesus performs after forgiving the paralytic’s sins, they confirm Jesus to be the very God Whom they refused to recognize.

God forgives! This fact is the basis of salvation, both in the Word which God has spoken and in the action of His Death and Resurrection. We hear many references as to “why” God became incarnate on earth; maybe none more poignant than when the angel spoke to Joseph as he agonized over the discovery that his betrothed was “found to be with child.” The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [Savior], for he will save his people from their sins” (St. Matthew 1:20-21).

Yes, God’s forgiveness in Christ is complete, unconditional and without question. I have heard it said that God forgives even the sins which in His foreknowledge only He knows that we have yet to commit. This is a great and profound mystery of our life in Christ, one that each of us must be convicted of if we are ever to make progress in our life of repentance. Why do we struggle with repentance? In

St. Peter’s second letter we find an explanation for our own spiritual blindness.“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins (2 Peter 1:3-9).

It’s hard to imagine one “forgetting” that he’s been forgiven. After all, isn’t that what we are all seeking, a relationship with a merciful God? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen Christians or Christianity ridiculed because of people’s perceptions that our God is an “angry” God. God gets blamed for so many tragedies: natural disaster, man’s inhumanity to man, corruption, illness, death… “How can a good and loving God allow that?” Personally I am tired of these kinds of questions which ultimately reveal the ignorance and hardness of heart of the questioner. God allows all things because God is the God of Love and of True Freedom. Man has free will and God is not going to force men to obey Him. Our free will is tainted with the scars and inclinations of original sin; and the creation, fallen because of man’s sin, “groans in travail” (Romans 8:18-26) until all is restored again in the second coming of Christ. Tragedy certainly is not God’s fault, nor is it God’s fault when a man rejects his own higher calling to a life of repentance and virtue.

Any man who desires a relationship with our Good and Merciful God need only do one thing: seek Him! The problem is that there are requirements to this relationship and a man must be willing, essentially, to be forgiven. This man must be willing to walk the narrow way (a way which seems to be getting narrower every day as the world becomes every day more brazen). Are we willing to remember God’s love and forgiveness each time we face temptation? Or is it too easy to forget and self-centeredly enter again into sin and passion?

Beloved, God does forgive us everything. Let us remember this forgiveness not so that we can insensitively go out and sin again, but rather that we accept this forgiveness, forgive ourselves, and be transformed to the glory of our Good, Merciful and Loving God.

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Mission Monthly – January 2005

“Prayer is the most creative activity of man.”

Sister Magdalen, Conversations with Children

I remember one of the first things I read about Orthodoxy was a book or booklet called,The Art of Prayer. It has been such a long time since I read it that about all I can recall is its title and the impression it made by its name. I do not recall being impressed in a way that drew me into prayer as an “artful” expression of creativity. In fact, when in my early twenties I began praying as Orthodox Christians are instructed to pray, what I recall is feeling that there isn’t much creativity at all in the action of Orthodox prayer. Everything was practical and “set” in its order. Virtually all the words were given to me. All I had to do was pray them; how much creativity does that take? I considered the “art” of praying to be mostly about the discipline or rule of prayer, or maybe about the style of the words being prayed; I did not think of prayer in any terms of personal creativity.

As a person with somewhat of artistic nature I believe I have some understanding of creativity. In general I’ve felt that creating something involves starting with nothing, just an idea, a blank sheet of paper, and the willingness to explore. Art, writing, and music are probably the most obvious examples of creativity, but there are also the many examples of science, technology, economy and even athletics that involve great works of creativity. Names like Shakespeare, Mozart, Edison, Pasture, Gates, and Jordan all are associated either with classic or contemporary creativity; and in general human terms, we all stand in wonder of their achievements. And yet here Sister Magdalen tells us that prayer is the most creative human act of all.

I am also a person who at various times of my life might have been considered “outdoorsy”. One great memory I often recall is when in my early thirties I spent many hours cycling the back roads here in Madison and where I lived in Ohio. The area surrounding the Akron/Canton water reservoir just blocks from where I lived was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever enjoyed. Most of us have had moments of deep appreciation for nature. My hours on a bicycle in Northeast Ohio were some of the most beautiful nature moments of my life, continually filled with amazement at God’s creativity. Whether spring, summer, fall or winter; whether morning, afternoon or evening; whether sunny, cloudy, wet or dry, this was a beautiful place, filled with all the “diversity of color, taste and fragrance”, where one had to conclude that there is a God.

These were very personal moments revealing so tangibly the absolute, personal nature of God. The personal nature of God is very important as we explore the creative aspects of prayer. Orthodox Christian prayers, though “set”, are not words that are said or chanted with any sort of inanimate or vague “target” in mind. Our prayers aredirected to the One, True God, Eternal and Ever-lasting, the “Maker of all things both visible and invisible.” Our prayers are a response to God’s invitation into His life, the Life of the Holy Trinity, and if prayed with a heart of love and a soul of humility and repentance, indeed one will be drawn into that holy, life-giving place. Here is where we find the answer to our question, “How is prayer creative?” In human terms, it is so much easier according to one’s ability to invent or discover something, to sing a new melody or draw a new line, to innovate a new gymnastic element on the balance beam or put a ball through a hoop, than it is to enter into the Life of the Holy Trinity, the Creator of all things created!

These are awesome thoughts. I confess that even in my own life they sometimes seem so awesome that I wonder if it’s even worth my trying. I confess that sometimes when I read about how some of our great and holy Saints prayed, and how deep their communion was with God, I wonder if I am even in the same Church with these great men and women. Well, I know these thoughts to be temptations of the evil one who tries to keep men away from God. And I know that God does not hang unreachable goals in front of His children as some sort of cruel joke. The truly awesome thing about this is that prayer does draw us into the very Life of God; and God, being the Creator of creativity, is the very Life to which we are being joined and this life is a (new) creation in and of itself.

Sister Magdalen goes on to say, “By prayer we are in direct contact with out Creator, and we freely open ourselves to be re-created, to become, as St. Paul said, a new creation (Gal. 6:15) We are on the way to becoming truly personal when we pray, ‘Our Father’ Christian prayer is not a ‘spiritual exercise’; it is always hypostatic, a meeting between persons, divine and human. Prayer involves all of our being; [through prayer] each one can meet the Other.”

In this way every man, woman and child can be truly “creative” and deeply personal. In this beginning of the new year let us resolve to seek this challenge of true creativity. No one has ever said that prayer is easy, but it has been said that it is often easier to do anything else than to pray. Maybe it can be the awareness of this fact alone that will lead each of us to a greater desire and effort to respond to God’s invitation to seek the height of creativity—prayer.

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Mission Monthly – December 2004

“The dogmas of the faith, faith itself is revealed to us, and none of us doubts it; but the confession of faith must be in godliness. ‘No one is good save God alone’—this is to hold what is God’s in honor. It is the Divine that must be our concern; it must enter into all sides of our life—personal, family, public.”

The last Optina Elder Nectarius

Compartmentalization is a big word, while it is something that is firmly entrenched in the psyche of the American mind. As a social norm it allows a man to segregate his beliefs, his words and his actions in such a way that inconsistent and conflicting messages can be justified in virtually any context. I am reminded of the comedic line made famous by entertainer Billy Crystal, It’s better to look good than to feel good.” As Orthodox Christians we should be acutely aware of the danger of “appearances” and in today’s climate we should find ourselves challenged by it on a daily basis. Our life in Christ is continually calling us to wholeness and constancy in every context, in our beliefs, our words and our actions. In this world, however, our lives are not always held to such a high standard and we are often afforded the freedom to justify just about any word or deed that may come from the different “compartments” of our lives, even when they directly contradict one another. I recently heard a news story about some “good” kids in college who were caught cheating on their exams and whose only regret was that they got caught. They felt perfectly justified in calling themselves generally “good” kids and yet felt no guilt whatsoever about cheating after all, “everybody does it.”

The moral and ethical scandal which tainted the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency is one of the best known examples of this ideological crisis. Here is a man who, while serving in the most powerful leadership position of the entire free world, considered that his personal life had no bearing on his public service—and consider how many supported him in this! Out of humility and good will, let us leave all judgment to God, but let us never stop asking for His mercy! And then let us ask Him to help us understand how harmony of faith and life are the very essence of Orthodox Christianity! This should be obvious, but the challenge lies in really living itwithout compartmentalization!

Let us compare the Orthodox Christian “theocracy” of Byzantium and Russia with the “democracy” of America. Can you imagine the ideology of separation of church and state ever existing in the social fabric of the Byzantine Empire or of Holy Russia? While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, the mutual inclusion of faith and public service actually upheld a high level of accountability and the potential for societal success. With Christ at the head, the Emperor and the Patriarch were both “ordained” to lead society in a cooperative and responsible manner. Faith standards, moral codes and government ethics were to be upheld by all: Patriarch and King, priest and layman, every man, woman and child.

At the height of these two societies faith and culture were virtually indistinguishable. The life of the Church was at the core of the life of all society. Of course the reality of sin marred the great potential of these societies, but there was also great holiness that resulted from the very fiber of this social order. To get a better sense of this read the great Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fedor Dostoevsky. In it you will see a not-so-fictional society trying to make sense of God and itself, not in the abstract but in coursing through the very real events of life, family, vocation, education, politics, etc.

The idea of separating character from behavior is new to world history. Even the framers of our own n’s democratic constitution had very high moral expectations for a successful, self-governing leadership. They did not seek to separate faith from government; rather they wanted to assure that government would in no way interfere with a man’s right to worship as his conscience dictates. While this doctrine may have some flaws from an Orthodox Christian perspective we do affirm that our founding fathers understood that a man’s system of belief is at the very core of his character and behavior.

In essence, this is yet another ploy of the evil one who from the beginning tempted man to deny his very nature. Individuality was both a cause and a result of Adam’s disobedience and man has been warring with this disease ever since. Our life in the Church is one that constantly challenges us not to be separated from God or from one another, nor are we to be fragmented within ourselves.

The Elder Simeon prophesied when the baby Jesus was presented to the Temple saying, “This Child is set for the fall and rising of many” (Luke 2:33-35). Indeed it is so. For those who hear His word and “do it” there will be a “rising” of wholeness stemming from God’s inclusion in every aspect of life, and a completion of self that will be a fulfillment of our high calling to the royal priesthood of believers. For those who “do not” there will be a continuing fall and fragmentation that will be the tragic manifestation of man’s sin against his very nature created in God’s holy image.

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