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Mission Monthly – June-July 2007

“The grace of the Spirit has enlightened the Apostles of Christ; He has fearfully come down from heaven and set them on fire.”

Tuesday Matins of Pentecost Week

We are indeed blessed to have a longer Apostles Fast this year. Practically speaking, it is simply impressive that Orthodox Christians are directed to make a serious fasting effort to begin the summer. In the land of baseball, bratwurst and the Beach Boys, where “feeling the good vibrations” of summer is the norm, we're being charged to do what? In America? Right!!!

I must honestly admit that the old man in me looks with a hopeful eye to next year's Church calendar, hoping that the month of June isn't solid pink like it is this year! Whatever it may be, the length of the Apostle's Fast is directly related to the date of Pascha. When Pascha falls after late April there will be little or no Apostle's Fast; however, when Pascha falls in early April we could have four to five weeks of fasting leading up to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th. This year we have four weeks, and while the old man in me struggles, the new man in me sees the self-centeredness, immoderation and immodesty of our “good vibration” society and recognizes with full conviction the absolute and urgent need for fasting. For this particular fast challenges head-on the passionate nature of summer and the spirit of this world, which can be summed up by a quote from a popular contemporary pop-culture artist (whose name slips me at the moment),“All I want to do is have some fun.”

Last month I wrote about what it means to be a Christian. To whom do we look to find the greatest examples of those who have followed Christ? Without equivocation we look to the saints; most especially to the most holy Theotokos, St. John the Baptist and to the Holy Apostles, led by the foremost of the Apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It is almost beyond comprehension when we consider how the Lord chose His Apostles, His beloved. It is even more awe-inspiring when we contemplate the response of these simple but zealous men and how they ended their earthly lives: Peter was crucified upside-down.

Andrew was crucified. James was beheaded.

John the Theologian died in a wondrous way.

Philip was crucified. Matthew was burned by fire.

Bartholomew was crucified, then flayed and beheaded.

Thomas was pierced with five spears. Thaddeus was crucified.

James the Son of Alphaeus was crucified.

Matthias was stoned, then beheaded with an axe when dead.

Simon the Zealot was crucified. Paul was beheaded.

How is it that these simple men became so holy and selfless?—By the grace of the Holy Spirit. It was grace that prepared them to hear the Word, it was grace that sustained them in their time of fear, and it was grace that eventually rooted within them, on the great day of Pentecost, all that is True, leading them on the irreversible course of apostleship as ambassadors and witnesses to the kingdom of God.

“Come, follow Me” is all Jesus said to these men and they literally dropped what they were doing and followed Him. Our God's invitation is indeed compelling. Nevertheless it took great courage for these men to do what they did, believing the radical story of the remarkable carpenter from Nazareth. Time with our Lord would eventually smooth out the rough edges of any misunderstandings, as these simple men learned little by little that the good news they were hearing had but one purpose: to bring salvation to man through love. These men, like many who heard Jesus speak, had a keen intuition in recognizing the authority in Jesus' words. It didn't take them long to discern the contrast of their God's teaching to the darkness of sin and the hopelessness of death in the world. And though eventually the Disciples of Christ would have to learn, “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), with great faith, they set their faces towards their own “contending”, wholly devoted to live and to die for the sake of the Gospel.

It is in this light that each of us must look at our own invitation to follow Jesus. Is there an intuition or discernment within us to recognize the authority of Jesus' words? Do we see the spiritual warfare that intensely assaults our lives in this world? Do we understand the love that has been extended to us by God who sent His Son into the world to die for us in order that we might live in newness of life? Do we believe, as obedient followers of Jesus, that we also have been called to love as He loved, and that for the sake of this call we also must be ready for our own “contending” against sin, evil and death? Hopefully the answers to these questions are, “yes” and hopefully we are actively seeking the apostolic life to which we have been called.

Beloved, the same Spirit that enlightened the Apostles and “set them on fire” is present with us today calling us to faith, to obedience, to the arena of spiritual warfare, to a self-sacrificing standard of life and love. As we journey through this Apostle's Fast, preparing ourselves to celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul, we are once again preparing ourselves to respond to our Lord's invitation, His calling to the apostolic ministry of God's Church. To be a Christian is fundamentally apostolic, our failure to live up to this calling is a distressing sin. Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37-38). This is something for each of us to measure ourselves against, and to make changes where changes need to be made! The Apostles were considered insane and foolish by the standards of the world; but to us they are heroic men whose lives, and deaths, are to be honored and emulated. They responded with self-abandonment and soulful-longing, with endurance and eloquence, with tears and uncompromising courage, with the commitment to love and the readiness to die. And for their response they received the fulfillment of our Lord's promise, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).

This is the season of Apostolic renewal; let us “Look carefully then how [we] walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

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Mission Monthly – May 2007

“What are Christians? Christians are Christ-bearers Who is a Christian? A Christian is a man who lives by Christ and in Christ.”

St. Justin Popovich

Beloved! Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

As we continue to proceed through this beautiful season of Holy Pascha my prayer for each of you is for an enduring sense of our Lord’s Resurrection in your lives! Whatever burdens you may be carrying, may they be lightened by the easy yoke of Christ! Whatever joys you may be welcoming may you ever see their source in the eternal love of God for His creation! It is also my prayer that each of us continue to grow in understanding the serious nature of bearing the name, “Christian!”

I received an e-mail recently which included graphic details of three Christian men in Turkey who were brutally tortured for simply leading bible studies. Reading the grueling details of the inhumane acts of disembowelment, dismemberment—slow deaths where they were forced even to watch their own gruesome ends—and eventual decapitations, left me sick to my stomach, to say the least, and broken hearted over the senseless brutality that can dwell in the hearts of men.

I share this with you, not to cast a shadow over our current celebrations of Pascha, our Bishop’s visit and our parish’s tenth anniversary, but rather to give these celebrations an even greater context in defining who we really are as Orthodox Christians! What does it mean to be a Christ-bearer? This question may best be answered “apophatically,” meaning to answer the question by saying what a Christ-bearer is not. A few things a Christ-bearer is not: one who openly sins and does not repent; one who denies that the pathway to heaven is through the carrying of the cross; one who mocks basic Christian virtues such as modesty and chastity by practicing just the opposite; one who worships God “his own way” and rejects the rich heritage of Christian Tradition which has clearly revealed “right worship”; one who legalistically holds to the teachings of the Church but neglects the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith;”; one whodoes not show love for God and for his neighbor.

It is just as difficult, in this context, to then answer the question, “Who is a Christian?” There are many people in the world today who call themselves Christian, and in our case, “Orthodox Christian.” But dare we say that everyone who calls themselves such actually is? The truth of the matter is—and this is something that each of us should and must be concerned about if we are to ever take seriously this very personal claim—that not everyone who calls themselves a Christian is in truth a Christian. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21). Unfortunately many churches today are filled with people who do not really want to follow the way of life of the Gospel. And why? Because it requires an uncompromising zeal for self-denial. Simply put, way too often people want the comfort of knowing that God is there for them without the personal dedication of being there for God.

Who, therefore, is a Christian? St. Justin defines a Christian as, “One who lives ‘worthily of God’ (Col. 1:10) by living according to the Gospel of Christ.” He goes on further to say, “Life according to the Gospel, holy life, Divine life, that is the natural and normal life for Christians. For Christians, according to their vocation, are holy: That good tiding and commandment resounds throughout the whole Gospel of the New Testament. To become completely holy, both in soul and in body, that is our vocation. This is not a miracle, but rather the norm, the rule of faith. The commandment of the Holy Gospel is clear, ‘As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct’ (1 Peter 1: 15).”

I am deeply challenged by these words as I’m sure you are as well. As we continue through this holy season of Pascha let us set out each day not only to remember the words, “Christ is Risen,” but also to embody their meaning. “Christ is Risen!” leads men to the faithful enduranceof unspeakable torture as described above. “Christos Anesti!” leads men to the faithful seeking of the way of the Cross in the midst of a society that teaches and promotes virtually everything contrary thereto. “Christos Voskrese!” leads men in the active pursuit of all the virtues, but especially to the virtues of chastity and modesty in a sexually charged society where adultery, fornication, pornography, deviant sexuality and sexual addictions are horrifically common. “Al-Maseeh Qam!” leads men to honesty and integrity in all things, and the humility to be corrected when necessary. “Christ is Risen!” leads men away from the base, material existence in which our world is mired and towards a heavenly existence where, in the words of St. Justin, “a man knows that a true man is true only in God, when on earth he lives by heaven that our task is to make ourselves heavenly and to fill ourselves with the Risen Christ.” Beloved, let us seek to be the bearers of the Risen Christ, authentic and sincere, remembering the words of our holy patron,

St. Ignatius of Antioch, “We have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians.” Beloved,

Christ is Risen!

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Mission Monthly – April 2007

“Love shares the good with another not by dividing it with him, but by identifying itself with him so that his good becomes my own.”

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

Every year during Great Lent, as I am blessed to carry out my most “fulfilling” task as priest—the hearing of Confessions, there usually arises a common theme which our Lord seems to ask me to speak about with His beloved who have been given to my care. This year the theme that has been most powerfully present in the Confessional conversation has been the true meaning of loving others . For those of you reading this who had one of these conversations with me I sure you remember what I am writing about.

The most important aspect of love and the ability to love, I believe, is founded on the understanding and belief that all of life is interconnected, man with man, man with nature, and nature within itself. Creation is a system of life in which all living things are bound. It is this connectedness that forms the demand for a certain action among God’s rational creatures that is defined as love. In this view the most unloving thing a man can do is cut himself off from other men and be concerned only for himself. It is most interesting that only man can make the free choice of self(ishness). In the Akathist of Thanksgiving we hear, “Nature responds to [God’s] law, but I do not.” That which is of nature and lower forms of life are not given the gift of free and rational thought, therefore it is only man who can choose to disconnect himself from God and from the rest of creation (or so he thinks).

I do not want to say too much about the disconnectedness of modern society. There is much already written about this by both religious and secular observers. Suffice to say there is widespread agreement that within modern society and man’s pursuit of a material standard of living there has been much harm done to his ability and willingness to love. In fact, this probably was my main point in those many Confessional conversations: we as a society and each of us individually, at one level or another, suffer from a lack of love; meaning that most of us really struggle with identifying, as Thomas Merton states above, with the state of anyone or anything other than ourselves.

Certain biblical passages come to mind as I ponder this fundamental definition of love. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (St. John 15:13). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (St. Matthew 19.19). And maybe most importantly, “We love, because He first loved us”(1 John 4:19). From childhood we move from dependence to independence and as we grow we learn more and more to give and to sacrifice. We are taught to acknowledge the other but even more importantly we are commanded to completely identify with the other as with my own life. If we ignore this commandment the other is seen at best as only an inconvenience and at worst as a burden.

We live in a climate of self-determined ambition, which is a product of sin and the result of a lack of true love. This was the very subject vividly discussed in so many Confessional conversations this Lent because people are hurting! This is the most amazing fact to which we all are at least partially (and tragically) blinded. We are hurting and unfulfilled in our isolation: spouses from each other, parents and children from each other, extended family, friends, and co-workers from each other. And why, because we have been deceived into adopting a virtually singular material existence, an almost “every man for himself” mentality. This unfortunately leaves very little emotional time or room for one another, let alone an ability or willingness to identify with and love one another.

One cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us as Christians to make this pursuit of love our first and foremost priority. We have not been set in this life simply to pursue our own interests and secure our own wellbeing! This is one of the most important lessons we learn from our Lord Who became incarnate for our sakes, to die, and by His death to defeat death and sin for us. The love of God for His creation and His complete identification with us *save sin* is the perfect image of what our life is to be in this world; and one of the reasons why we suffer is precisely because we reject this image and choose our own isolated image—life disconnected from Life (which cannot be life)!

Repentance from this grave sin is paramount and requires our immediate and vigilant attention. It requires our worship, our prayer, our discipline, our gratitude, and our total conviction knowing what God has done for us and what life is truly meant to be. And it requires our response, the difficult response of learning to love one another, as we have been loved by the One Who is Love, and Who has loved us completely, in life, in death, and in Life! Beloved! Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

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Mission Monthly – March 2007

“But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face…”

Matthew 6:17

(After many inquiries about this year’s first Presanctified Liturgy pot-luck dinner reading, the following is adapted from the Homily of St. Nikolai Velimirovic on the Gospel of Cheese Fare Sunday, Matthew 6:14-21)

This is the meaning of the words “anoint your head”: bridle and restrain your inner man from every evil, and incline him to everything that is good. This is the meaning of the words “and wash your face”: cleanse your body from the committing of every sin, every impurity and every evil. Keep your senses from everything that is superfluous and dangerous. Restrain your eyes from constantly wandering through the diversity of this world; restrain your ears from listening to anything that does not serve the soul’s salvation; restrain your nose, lest your soul inbreathe the smell of this world that turns quickly to a stench; restrain your tongue from talking too much, deceit, and from unseemly speech; restrain your stomach from craving much food and drink; restrain the whole of your body from becoming over-refined and demanding of you more than it needs for survival. Along with this, restrain your hands and your feet from taking you into sin, into the abuse and torment of others, into foolish merrymaking, into godless amusements, into immorality. In contrast, make your whole body into a true temple for your soul; not a wayside tavern, where criminals gather to share ill-gotten gains and plan new attacks, but a temple of the living God. This is the fasting that leads to salvation. This is the fast that Christ teaches, a fast free of hypocrisy, a fast that drives out evil spirits and brings man a glorious victory and many fruits, both in this life and the next.

It is important to note here that Christ speaks first of the head and then of the face—first of the soul and then of the body. The hypocrites fasted only in the body, and showed this fasting to men by bodily means. In contrast to this, Christ puts interior fasting in first place: that of the soul, and then the outward, bodily fasting, not in order to undervalue bodily fasting—for He Himself practiced bodily fasting—but to begin at the beginning: first to purify the source and then the river; first to cleanse the soul and then the soul’s mirror. A man must first strive to make fasting his own, in his mind, heart and will, and then fulfill it willingly and joyfully in his body. And so bodily fasting should be joyful, not sad. This is why the Lord uses the words “anoint” and “wash”; because, as these give pleasure and joy to the physical man, so fasting—of both soul and body—must give pleasure and joy to a man’s soul. For fasting is a weapon, a very powerful weapon, in the battle against the evil spirit. How could a Christian not rejoice when he arms himself by fasting against his soul’s most fearsome opponents? How could his heart not rejoice and his face not be radiant when he sees in his hands a weapon from which the enemy flees in confusion? Gluttony makes a man gloomy and fearful, but fasting makes him joyful and courageous. And, as gluttony calls forth greater and greater gluttony, so fasting stimulates greater and greater endurance. When a man realizes the grace that comes through fasting, he desires to fast more and more. The graces that come through fasting are countless. By fasting, a man lightens both his body and his spirit from the weight of darkness and grossness. His body becomes light and vigorous, and his spirit bright and clear. By fasting, a man lifts his soul above its earthly prison and penetrates through the darkness of animal life to the light of God’s Kingdom, to his own true homeland. Fasting makes a man strong, decisive and courageous before both men and demons. Fasting also makes a man generous, meek, merciful and obedient.

By fasting, Moses was made worthy to receive the Commandments from God’s hands.

By fasting, Elijah closed the heavens, so that there was no rain for three years; by fasting, he called down fire from heaven onto the idol-worshippers, and by fasting made himself so pure that he was able, on Horeb, to talk with God.

By fasting, Daniel was saved from the lion’s den, and the Three Children from the burning fiery furnace.

By fasting, King David lifted up his heart to the Lord, and God’s grace descended on him and he sang the sweetest and most surpassing of prayers that any man, before the coming of Christ, has ever raised to God.

By fasting, King Jehoshaphat crushed his enemies, the Ammonites and the Moabites (II Chronicles 20:23).

By fasting, the Jews were saved from persecution by Haman, the imperial deputy (Esther 4:3).

By fasting, the city of Nineveh was saved from the destruction that the prophet Jonah had prophesied for it.

By fasting, John the Baptist became the greatest of those born of woman.

Armed with fasting, Saint Anthony overcame all the hordes of demons and drove them from him. What? Only Saint Anthony? An uncountable army of Christian saints, both men and women, have purified themselves by fasting, strengthened themselves by fasting and become the greatest heroes in human history. For they conquered that which it is most difficult to overcome—themselves. And, in conquering themselves, they conquered the world and Satan.

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Mission Monthly – February 2007

“This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures.”

St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians

Every facet of the Orthodox Church is founded, whether explicitly or implicitly, on the Holy and Eternal Word of God. The Scripture as we know it is the written Word, but yet we know there is more to the Word than only what is written. The familiar end passage from the Gospel of St. John states, “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” (St. John 21:25). While in a finite way I suppose it is theoretically possible, however unlikely, that every spoken word and action of Jesus’ earthly life could have been recorded; in His eternal nature, however, there would be no way to “contain the uncontainable.” The written Word truly is only the smallest of records of God’s revelation of His Divine Life to His creation; and yet, it is absolutely fundamental to our life in Christ and His Church. It is not surprising, therefore, that the lack of knowledge of this Word would be “the cause of all evils.”

If one were to label a possible single deficiency in the regular devotional lives of many Orthodox Christians it would be a lack of knowledge of Holy Scripture. It would be ridiculous to say that Orthodox Christians have no knowledge of Scripture—certainly those Orthodox Christians who regularly attend services above and beyond Sunday Liturgy. The broader worship of the Church is filled with Scripture: the Psalms, Old Testament readings, the Epistle and Gospel readings and the multitude of prayers which directly quote Scripture. Vespers, Matins, Divine Liturgy, Great and Small Compline, Akathists, the Hours—all are filled with the richness of Scriptural content. Even those Orthodox Christians who generally attend only Sunday Liturgy are exposed to much Scripture. Yet whether or not one is frequently attending the various services of the Church these can never be a substitute for the direct knowledge one gains from the regular (daily) reading of Holy Scripture.

I suppose it would be a fair question to ask why some Christians do not read Scripture. Some might answer that they just don’t have the time, while the honest would probably answer out of laziness. Some might answer that they are doing alright without it, while the honest would probably answer that they are afraid to face the Truth of what they might see in themselves. St. John of Kronstadt asked it in this way, “Of those who do not read the Gospel, I would ask: Are you pure, holy, and perfect, without reading the gospel? Is it not needful for you to look in this mirror? Or is it that your soul is so deformed that you fear to look upon your deformity?” Some might answer that it’s just too hard and they don’t understand it, while the honest would say their lack of understanding is a result of neglect.

Another obvious question to ask would be how serious is the lack of Scriptural knowledge in causing evil. I remember a deep impression made upon me several years ago when reading “The People of the Lie” by psychologist, M. Scott Peck. This book probed the essence of human evil from cases Dr. Peck encountered in his psychiatric practice, vivid incidents of evil in everyday life, and also from examples of social evil drawn from events and periods of historical human madness. I clearly remember his definition of evil as simply “the absence of truth.” It is in this context that I can truly understand how a lack of Scriptural knowledge can be the cause of all evil. Scripture is Truth and so a lack of the knowledge of Scripture can also be considered a lack of knowledge of Truth; and the lack of knowledge (or absence) of Truth, according to M. Scott Peck, is evil.

It is expected of unbelievers to be more inclined to question and even oppose the Word though we know for certain that evil is not a monopoly held by unbelievers. The Devil himself “believes” in God and even quoted the word to the Word (St. Matthew 4:3-10), and yet his “lack of knowledge” of the Scripture is evidenced by the war he has raged against God ever since he deceived himself into believing he could be “like God” (Isaiah 14:14).

It is not my intention to prove anything here. I believe we are all well aware of the fundamental importance of reading and knowing the Scripture. Maybe this little reminder is to reiterate the urgency with which we need to address the matter. Our world needs the Truth: church life, public policy, the work place, our schools, intercultural relations, neighborhoods, families and each and every one of us. So many basic truths have been called into questions that many (even many Christians) believe there is no such thing as absolutes. This lie has only led our world into seemingly irreversible violence and virtual moral collapse.

In the grand scheme of things there may not be much that any one of can do but in this I am reminded of the words of Mother Teresa, “Do small things with great love.” The attention each of us gives to the Word of God will help even if it only brings the warming presence of Christian zeal into the circles of our tiny existence. Each of us can help deter this “cause of evil” and who knows how far the ripples may spread. The tiniest pebble in the largest pond could be enough to change the world, one heart at a time, starting with our own.

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