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Mission Monthly – November 2004

“Within the total human community, there is a community which alone is capable of grasping our transcendent vocation. This is the church, a chosen community, whose members are not chosen for privilege but for duty.”

Courage to Pray by Metropolitan ANTHONY Bloom

Words have value and can be used in ways which enrich or discourage. Here Metropolitan ANTHONY has declared a very powerful, profound and mysterious statement. Some might be offended by this statement. I am not. Rather, I am greatly challenged to understand and ultimately live out this high calling, this “transcendent vocation.” As children of God and of His Church it is our primary vocation to be uniquely called out through faith to make God truly present in the world through our intercession (prayer, contemplation, action).

In the Divine Liturgy, immediately following the consecration of the Divine and Holy Gifts, the priest says this prayer: “And again we offer Thee this rational worship for all those who in faith have gone before us to their rest: forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit which has completed this life in faith.” Here the Church commemorates all those faithful men and women who in their “dutiful” lives fulfilled their “transcendent vocation.” Here the Church proclaims within her own worship the expectation placed upon those who through the Church, and the Cross, as St. Paul says, “are being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18).

Initially, it was the comparative use of the words “privilege” and “duty” that captured me. Metropolitan ANTHONY’s conclusion is very clear. There can be no notion of rights, dispensation or partiality in our life in Christ. I am reminded of this passage from Scripture, “Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (St. Luke 17:7-10). Unfortunately the social climate of our day places so much emphasis on the issues of self-worth, self-esteem and self-affirmation that many people are more often filled with feelings of rights and privileges than any sense of duty, obligation or preparedness.

One might expect this sort of thinking in a worldly setting, but in the Church the ideas of privileges or rights are not a part of our salvific, hierarchical order. Duty and responsibility are at the very foundation of servanthood, and we are servants of Jesus Christ. What did St. Paul mean when he said, “Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal. 6:17)? He is speaking here of his (and ultimately our own) participation in the Cross of Christ, as he then adds, “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (v.14).

Once again we are directed to contemplate the Incarnation and the Cross of Christ. We are directed to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” We are directed to examine our beliefs, opinions, priorities, choices, commitments, decisions and actions to see whether or not they conform to the standards of Scripture and Tradition. We are directed to assess our lives by the measuring stick of accountability and repentance, which St. John Chrysostom considers to be our primary duty as Christians. According to St. John, without repentance, there is no membership in the Church (from The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, translated by Gus George Christo). What? I thought “love” was the only basis for a relationship with God? Yes, but what is “love”? Quite simply, love is the Cross. Love is self-denial (1 Corinthians 13), actively learned by humility and obedience, which then cultivate repentance. Listen to what St. John further said about repentance: “It is a weapon against the devil, the means for remission of sins after baptism, a medicine for spiritual wounds and a medicine of piety, a physician sent by God, the means of entry into sainthood and heaven, a change of will and a means of re-entry into Christ’s flock, and the eliminator of the breach between God and man.” Repentance is required of both sinners and righteous men and is wrought by fasting, prayer, weeping for one’s sins, almsgiving, worship, reception of our Lord’s Body and Blood and other “dutiful” means. Truly, there is an inseparable bond between repentance and our life in the Church.

Some might say that seeing our lives in Christ as “duty” is too severe or even “un-Christian”. Maybe if we said it this way, “The only privilege in the Church is not the privilege of honor but rather the privilege of repentance.” Repentance is indeed a privilege; it is our humble and joyful response to the One who has loved us and saved us. We who confess Christ must embrace the duties of righteousness and the innate sacrifices therein by which we will then understand what it really means to “love.” The more we are able to actively conform our lives to the “transcendent vocation” of the Kingdom of God, the more our lives will be transformed into the image of God and only then will we reflect the words of our Lord who said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16).

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Mission Monthly – October 2004

“Let us then give exact heed to the words (of the Gospel), and let us not cease to unfold and search them through, for it is from continual application that we get some advantage. So shall we be able to cleanse our life, so to cut up the thorns; for such a thing is sin and worldly care, fruitless and painful. And as the thorn whatever way it is held pricks the holder, so the things of this life, on whatever side they be laid hold of, give pain to him who hugs and cherishes them. Not such are spiritual things; they resemble a pearl, which ever way thou turn it, it delights the eyes.”

St. John Chrysostom, Commentaries on the Gospel of St. John

It would seem obvious, this challenge issued by our holy father, St. John Chrysostom. Maybe he could have said it more simply, “Read your Bible!” Which ever way it is said, however, there can be no mistake about the fundamental importance of the Bible in our lives.

This present commentary is on the very last verse of the Gospel of St. John which says, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”(21:25). St. John Chrysostom addresses the very core of our relationship with both the living and the written Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is beautiful to contemplate the “many other things” in the life of Jesus which we do not know about; this alone should inspire us to search holy scripture regularly and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, be guided “into all truth” (John 16) beyond even the written Word.

I do not know of any believer who does not wish to be given insight into the mysteries of God. Gifts such as these can be personal or given to the Church as a whole; they can come through prayer and contemplation, through the reading of holy scripture or other holy writings, through a certain joy or a certain struggle, through interpersonal relationships, or they may simply come as unexpected gifts. As blessed as these gifts may be, St. John is teaching us that we should (and will) simply “delight” in basic faithfulness to that which is practical (scripture reading, prayer, Liturgy, etc.). God, in own His time, will give us those things which are mystical.

Regarding the sinful tendencies of mankind, it is said that, “There is nothing new under the sun.”While I would agree that y’s violence, immorality and lack of faith really aren’t any different than any other era, I have often heard it argued (and would tend to agree) that the sins of today are founded much more deeply in an insidious self-justified humanism. I have heard self-proclaimed humanists contend that the era between the 5th century and the 14th century Renaissance, when the Church held great influence over society, was a dark period in the history of man. It was during this time, Byzantium’s “Golden Era”, that the great theologians, theological debates, hierarchy, monastics and spiritual directors gave life to the fullness of faith, confirming the incarnation of God in Christ and founding the conciliar Truth of Orthodoxy; determining for those who follow Him a way of life which is the narrow way of the Cross, structured in Truth, joy, discipline and the denial of self. It was during this time in history that humanists claim man’s potential was severely suppressed by the Church’s “irrational” notion of sin. The Renaissance that would immerge out of Italy and the Western empire would be considered a victory for humanists, an age when men began to wiggle out from underneath the weight of the Church. The 14th century set in motion man’s search for freedom from any authority other than himself, including (and maybe especially) the Church. Modern society, with the exception of a few “uncivilized” countries, is a product of this period of “enlightenment” and some might even argue that it is the ultimate conclusion. Few would ever argue that ideologies of humanism (self-determined truth & moral relativism) have not greatly affected modern society. It should also be said that unless we are careful (for no one is completely immune to the allure of humanism) the subtle influences of humanism may even creep into the Lord’s Church; some might argue that in certain circles it already has.

A short meditation such as this only skims the surface of this vast topic. My main point is to say that we must be keenly aware of the moral and theological climate of our world. We must continually open our minds and hearts to God’s Word and to the life of His Holy Church, while being especially cautious regarding the Lord’s and our own “interpretation” of “sin and worldly care”. The Church and holy scripture give us clear boundaries and a prescribed way of life while humanism, man measuring things by his own standards, is a growing and powerful influence. As Orthodox Christians in the world we must be aware of this battle waging in our hearts. Jesus told us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21). St. John Chrysostom tells us that hugging and cherishing the things of this life will only bring pain and fruitlessness. There is so much to learn and so much beauty to behold, but we must choose to make “continual application” of our life in Christ, of those things which are practical, if we ever hope to gain this “advantage”, to be free from the thorns of sin and self-determination, and to truly delight in the mysteries of God.

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Mission Monthly – September 2004

“I, personally, have sought with my poor mind the answer to the question, ‘What is life?’ and have found none. Still, reading over and over again in the Holy Scripture, I have found Christ saying: ‘I am the Life’. So that’s all I know”

Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love

I love our family vacations! This year I even took a nap on the day before we were to come home. Our days were filled with activities, and though the weather wasn’t “ideal” the cool temperatures kept the flies and mosquitoes away and the occasional rain helped to keep the dust down. Even our annual “Spy vs. Spy” act with the raccoons was not as taxing this year. It was a complete time of (re)creation.

During this time of rest I often found myself often considering questions about life and its meaning. I suppose living virtually outdoors for a week does provide a context for this sort of questioning. At first glance one can see without any trouble how we take indoor plumbing and conditioned water entirely for granted. Convenient food preparation and a level sleeping surface could be two other “luxuries” that we might not fully appreciate. While these themes could provide enough food for thought, this year I noticed something even more striking while observing the basic rhythm of life in the camp grounds. People who camp really seem to live by the setting and rising of the sun. Sure there were lanterns and campfires to illumine the evening landscape, but other than the occasional sound of human voices things got pretty quiet within an hour or so after darkness set in. A couple of times I think I may have even gone to bed around ten o’clock, while staying up later on other nights almost seemed forced. There was no artificial light to turn on, no television to watch, no phone calls to make, no e-mails to send, only basic needs to attend to and what appeared to be an enthusiastic desire of most campers to start their new day with the most basic of concepts: a good nights sleep.

There was one other strain of thought that touched me deeply while I was on “vacation” this summer— I didn’t seem to be getting any “rest” from the convictions of deeper thoughts. Although we lived in a tent, swam, biked, hiked, enjoyed camp fires, played games, went sight-seeing, read, cooked and ate under the open sky (and I even played golf a couple of times), there was no rest from thinking about life and its meaning. I wasn’t seeking rest from this but when someone says their going on vacation to “get away from it all,” doesn’t that mean getting away from it ALL? I am not sure if, while on vacation, I have ever experienced such a strong, lingering vigilance. I don’t think this means that I wasn’t vigilant before, I was just more aware of it this time.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Co. 13:11). I wonder if this vacation “vigilance” is part of growing up. I wonder if resting the body and mind is different than resting the soul. I believe we can say with absolute certainty that we never take a vacation from our life in Christ; and yet because of our weakness there is still a need for complete rest. I can only come to one conclusion: while vacations may help us rest our bodies and minds, only our life in Christ can bring rest to our souls. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (St. Matthew 11:28-29). Any one of us would be “missing the mark” if we ever tried to find meaning for our lives in anything other than in Christ. I am thankful for the rest God gives my body tired by labor. I am thankful for the yoke of Christ which brings rest to my soul.

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Mission Monthly – August 2004

“And I know well, that to many I seem over-minute in busying myself about these things; I shall not however refrain from this. For the cause of all our evils is this, such faults as being at all counted as trifling, and therefore disregarded.”

St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew

St. John Chrysostom is given such high regard in the overall consciousness of the Church that one cannot help but be intrigued when he himself anticipates criticism over something he is writing. One thing I believe about St. John from reading many of his Gospel commentaries is that he had a deep knowledge of human nature. I have also concluded (for the sufferings he endured for Christ, the Church and for his congregation) that he was a shepherd with a deep love for his flock that is rarely matched.

So what was the “minutia” for which St. John was preparing himself to be criticized? Believe it or not, it was for comments directed towards the fashion of women’s footwear. I suppose that St. John was able to anticipate all the questions as to why he would be concerning himself about such a thing. I believe I can hear people today with the same wonder. What I want to make perfectly clear regarding St. John’s words is that they are motivated out of nothing less than love, as he hopes above all hope simply to bring guidance and sanctity to his people as they navigate the dangers of social currents.

I will write more about his specific comments in a moment. Let us first take of a look at St. John’s particular commentary on Matthew 14:14-22, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand men (“besides women and children”) with the five loaves and two fishes. St. John is taking note of how the people, both Jesus’ disciples and those who sought after Jesus to hear his words and to be healed by him, were so deeply engrossed in their seeking after Jesus that apparently no one remembered to bring food. For this St. John applauded the people who laid aside their “earthly cares” in favor of seeking after the Word of God. St. John was not decrying the fact that people have needs in this world. He certainly was astute enough to know what constitutes man’s basic needs. This is just another example of St. John’s consistent effort to pastor the Church in ways that are “profitable to us.”

Every Orthodox Christian should desire guidance like that of St. John’s (although in his day he himself was exiled five times, where he would eventually die, for his exhortations to the Church). There are times when his words soothe and other times when they exceedingly challenge. We should neither seek only the former nor run from the latter, for in all things we should again desire that which brings us spiritual profit. In this instance, for example, he is pressing the issues of luxury and extravagance, the “parent(s) of all diseases and sufferings,” and is trying to help us see the differences between needs and wants, the necessary and the unnecessary, that which is helpful and that which is hurtful. It would benefit each of us to ask ourselves this question, “Am I able—on my own—to see the differences between these polarities in my life?” I believe that all of us could use some help with this discernment and should welcome spiritual guidance in seeking only after “that which is needful.”

Why did St. John revile the fashion of women’s footwear? Though there were several critical reasons, the following two comprise his main emphasis: 1) the possibility of “pervert(ing) men to the gestures of women” and of causing women, in the awareness of their own sexual attractiveness, to become “wanton;” and 2) the money spent (vainly wasted) in acquiring stylish fashions is a serious “neglect” of the poor. St. John accords such people the stark accusation of being “void of virtue.”

It certainly is not easy to hear these things, yet let no one among us think they are above such accusations. Maybe it isn’t shoes in our day but certainly there are areas of our lives where we are immodest or selfishly indulgent! I believe St. John would say something like this, “Why do you cast your whole soul into the mire of extravagance? Why be anxious about things that are dust? Do you not see the vanity of this madness? That which you waste could be such a blessing to the poor, but tragically it has become a millstone around your neck. Where your modesty could be a support to the overcoming of passions, your vanity has become a stumbling block of lust. Why do you constrain yourself to the things of this earth when God has given you eyes to see the heights of heaven?” I have no question that this great pastor wants nothing less than to set God’s people free from their bondage to earthly cares. May we all have the courage to welcome and seek his “minutia” so that God, Who is greatly glorified in His Saints, may sanctify and transform our lives into His image by His grace and by our willingness to change.

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Mission Monthly – July 2004

“So compare your soul with the life of Christ; and as you set your face before a mirror, set your soul before the mirror of the immaculate life of Christ, and take every care to correct and go after whatever you may see that is opposed to it. If you do so, then I assure you that day by day you will become better, for it is impossible for him who looks often into that immaculate mirror not to correct himself.”

St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

We are a people accustomed to having choices: Do this. Buy that. Listen to this. Look at that. Eat this. Touch that. Go here. Go there. Think this way. Believe in that. Look like this. Act like that. Play this. Work at that. Sometimes our choices are limited or restricted by circumstance, and sometimes we have no choice at all; but even in these situations our free society affords us opportunities to (self) determine how to proceed. I tend to believe that the freedom of self-determination is such a huge part of our lives, whether as individuals or as a nation, that we simply take it for granted. I suppose we may notice when it is threatened and feel the imminent need to defend it, but as a forty three year old American this freedom is all I’ve even known. Although I know I take it for granted, the thought of having this freedom taken away or of living in a totalitarian state is very sobering. I am thankful for those who have paved the way for my freedom and for those who defend it today. Freedom is a good thing to defend, and by the grace of God we are free to do it!

It is this very freedom that essentially affords us the opportunity to “go after” whatever we want. And while we are governed by laws of both God and man, intended to elevate man to the fundamentals of higher ideals and to protect society and its members—assuming a man stays within the limits of these “laws”—our freedom is so great that “the sky’s the limit!” From my earliest memories of home life, public education, athletics, music, hobbies and interests I was taught to “go after” whatever it was—the only thing holding me back being my own lack of motivation. I was taught that even a lack of natural ability could be overcome with perseverance and practice. The general conclusion is this: we are free to achieve, with enough determination, whatever we set our minds to.

In terms of worldly achievement, there may be nothing wrong with certain pursuits as long as a man is indeed governed by Godly Truth and moral absolutes. The governing spirit of God should then guide him in a good and holy direction. But, having briefly traced the ideas of freedom and choice and the unique opportunities we have as citizens of a free society to “go after” the things of this world, my question is are we are willing to use this same freedom and motivation to “go after” the challenge given by St. Tikhon? His challenge is direct: to set our soul before the mirror of the pure life of Christ, be willing to see things in ourselves that are “opposed” to the Word and Law of God, and “go after” the serious work of bettering ourselves.

When I was a freshman in high school I worked for hours and hours learning how to smoothly make a left-handed lay-up in basketball. When I was a sophomore my attention turned to perfecting the “up and under” move. All my work paid off when in my senior year I was voted my team’s most valuable player and earned first team all-conference honors. Yet while I have put hours of effort into sports, music, gardening, golf, “theology and religion”, I know that I have not put nearly enough time or energy towards the kind of self-examination St. Tikhon is directing us towards. WHY NOT? WHAT COULD BE MORE IMPORTANT? While there may be specific reasons (dare I say excuses) in each individual’s life I also believe there is a general reason why we all struggle to zealously make this effort. I believe the main and very real reason why free men are not ready or able to freely seek to “set their souls before the mirror of the immaculate life of Christ” is because to do so most likely means giving up some of the freedoms we so freely enjoy; especially in those grayer areas of life where even some of the good things we do or enjoy may not be for the best or for our salvation.

In this land of freedom, choice and opportunity, there is no more important time than now to face the responsibilities inherently present in our freedom. Truly there is no freedom without responsibility, and as members of the Orthodox Church we should realize this most keenly of all. While this could be seen as negative or as somehow denying the “self” God created me to be or the world God gave me to enjoy, I am deeply convinced that the promises of God run powerfully through our willingness to resist those things within ourselves which oppose the God-centered life we are all called to live. The sacrifices we make while perfecting the image we see in the mirror can only lead to a fulfillment of life beyond any imagination. And while these sacrifices may be painful and take time to yield their harvest, we have the most certain consolation and hope that day by day a better person will be seen in that mirror—a person who truly reflects the precious image of Christ.

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