Shacks

July 1, 2018

I sat in my New Testament class wondering about this professor. He was talking about how Jesus had committed an ethical flaw. He cast the demons into the swine and the swine went mad and ran down into the sea and drown. What was the ethical flaw? Well, the swine belonged to someone and so they lost their herd and their income. Well, I couldn’t let that stand, so I raised my hand and said to the professor that he was mistaken. In fact, Jesus had given the owners a whole new industry. What was that? Deviled ham.

I’ve often heard converts who are preparing for Orthodox baptism say that as they get closer to the ceremony, life seems to get really difficult. Friends and family begin to express serious doubts and some become hostile. Work or school becomes more difficult. Physical ailments become more acute. Doubts about Orthodoxy abound. The list can go on and on, but it is a real spiritual opposition.

I remember having the same experience before my baptism. It was like walking into a strong wind. You lean forward and your legs work hard. Most of the time you move forward, but sometimes the wind is so strong, you stumble back a little. Why is it such a struggle and where does this wind of opposition come from?

The Orthodox believe that there is an invisible world, and that part of that world is evil. This belief is mocked in our culture and it’s not kosher today to speak of Satan as a personal force of evil. Yet, Satan is not omnipresent or omnipotent. In fact, Satan is limited, but is effective in the midst of those limitations.

Let me ask you – have you ever had a direct and personal experience of the devil? I’m not talking about the experience of temptation that we all have, but a face to face encounter. We read about it in the lives of the Saints, but we rarely hear of it now except in Hollywood movies about so called exorcisms. Even with the excesses of Hollywood, spiritual evil seems to be able to fragment so that it can be in many places. Demonic presence and possession can be a real thing.

Now don’t panic. I have this conviction that most of us will never have a direct experience of the devil or of demons. We simply are not holy enough. I think God, by the grace of His Spirit, shields us from any direct encounter. He knows that in our state, we would fall to pieces or be easily tempted if we had a more direct encounter. Of course, we all have indirect encounters with evil through suggestions of disobedience, lust, and willfulness.

This leads then to a final conviction. Direct encounters with the devil or with demons will depend on what you are doing.  For example, when he notices that you trying to build a spiritual life, he becomes interested. If you do well in building your spiritual house, the he starts to worry and he begins to take a more personal interest in you. If you are building well, you become a threat to him, so it is time to come and test what you have built. When you attain a more perfect state, then the full battle is on. Here, God knows that you are ready to fight and stand against all spiritual evil and nothing will move you or frighten you into submission. You have reached spiritual maturity. You are a friend of God. You are a saint.

Let’s examine then how well we build our spiritual house. We have the material:  faith, hope, love, patience, forgiveness, etc. We have the tools: knowledge, Liturgy, prayer, fasting, etc. With this material and these tools, we can build a spiritual life that is like a fortress that cannot fall or be shaken by any demon, devil, or temptation.

This being the case, it is amazing then that so many of us live in spiritual shacks. God would have us in mansions, and although He is the finisher of my faith, he leaves the building to me. Take heed, my friends, and build well. The devil does not sleep and will even live in pigs, if he has to.  We can’t afford to sleep either or we may find ourselves among the pigs going insane!

Transformer

June 16, 2018

The Fathers say that despair is a great danger to spiritual life. Once you fall into it, it is very difficult to climb out. It frequently comes up in confession, and as a spiritual advisor, it is one of the most difficult spiritual states to cure. The Fathers called it “acedia.” (Pronounced “ah see dee ah”) Today, we call this passion “despair.”

How does this passion work in us? The first temptation is disappointment -we feel with certainty that nothing has gone as we wanted. The second temptation is irritation and anger- we wonder why has God done this to me? Disappointment comes upon us and turns to a sorrow that deepens into despair. This entire process is fueled by an inner voice that says, “I deserved better. If God really loved me, he would not have let this happen. ” Profound sadness convinces us that there is no hope. When hope is gone, there is only despair.

I have rarely met anyone who, once they came to know Orthodoxy fully, abandoned it because their theological studies proved the Faith to be wrong. However, I have known Orthodox people who have lost their faith in God because they felt cheated of the things that they had wanted. In their despair, they quit their spiritual disciplines and soon the light of faith and hope was gone, and they left the church

Obviously, the cure for despair is hope. Hope and despair cannot exist in the same space. Yet, you might protest: “How can I have hope? After all, I’ve been profoundly disappointed and how can I believe that it will be any different in the future? Hope, like all things important, is something that is gain and not simply given to us.

We all experience disappointment, tribulation, tragedy, and loss. No one is exempt.  We are like the Three Children who stand in the midst of the hot fire. The Bible says that when they came out of the fire “not a hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them.” How is it possible to go through such tribulation and not even smell like the smoke of bitterness?

St. Paul who experienced all of these things, tells us how these difficult life experiences can be transformed.   Above all else, we must understand the power of our salvation.  Grace brings us peace with God, and it is this grace that transforms our life experiences. St. Paul even says that because of this grace, we glory in our tribulations. How can anyone glory in disappointment, tribulation, tragedy, and loss?

Glory and joy are possible because Grace can transform these bad life experiences so that they produce something quite valuable. Let’s follow St. Paul’s words carefully: “tribulation produces patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.”  With Grace, each difficult life experience produces something stronger until we finally obtain the prize of hope. This hope is not wishful thinking, but is the result of Grace transforming the difficulties of life. With hope, we know no shame and no despair because the love of God is shed into our hearts.

Tribulations and tragedies will always come. The winds and waves of tribulation beat against everyone’s house. Will the house stand or fall? It all depends on the foundation of the house. If the foundation is hope then no wave or blast of wind will bring it down. We will know this hope if we realize that salvation is not just some state that we have attained. The grace of salvation is a transforming power that even turns the tragedies and tribulations of life into hope. With hope, nothing can prevail against us.

Stinking Feet

March 24, 2018

Have you ever had dirty feet? I mean feet so dirty they smelled bad?

I had just moved into my first dorm room. I was excited to meet my roommate. He had already moved in and as it turned out, he was an athlete and a really nice guy. He went off to practice while I got settled in. He returned after dinner and when he took off his tennis shoes, I thought I would die. I could understand since he played football, but I wondered what he would do about the smell. Well, he did nothing and seemed oblivious to it. He went to bed early, but I found it hard to get to sleep. Not wanting to make waves, I gave it a few days to see if there would be any improvement, but there was none.  Finally, I went to the dorm manager and asked to be moved. When he asked why, rather than complain, I took him to the room. When he stepped in, it only took a moment until he understood my problem. Since then, I’ve smelled bad feet, but never any as bad as that.

Of course, I’ve had dirty feet, and sometimes they smelled, but I’ve tried to keep them clean and fragrance free. I’ve done some foot washing for other people (the children, of course) and some of it was done in church. I’ve even had my feet washed in church. It is a humbling experience.

Like the Great Host, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Like all things that he did that night, Jesus showed that he was doing more than simply washing feet. First, he showed that leadership always meant service. Then, He was making the bond of love between them even stronger than before.  That being so, I reply as Peter did: Lord, don’t just wash my feet. Wash my hands and head and all of me.

In the culture and time of Jesus, a host would give water to his guests so that they could rinse their feet.  Palestine being a rather dusty place, you wouldn’t want to have your guests to come to the dinner with dirty feet. Also, since the sun could dry out your scalp, the host gave oil for this. Failure to do these things demonstrated the either the host was a poor host, or he held some hidden animosity against you.

Jesus had been invited to the house of a Pharisee to eat, but the host did not show the proper hospitality. Jesus could have been offended, but he was not. Yet, a woman came who not only fulfilled proper hospitality, but went beyond it.  Instead of water, she washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointed his head with oil.  To such a display of love and repentance. Jesus said to her what we all long to hear from Him: “Your sins are forgiven.” This was the Lord’s way of washing her dirty feet and anointing her head.

On the fifth Sunday of Lent, we remember another woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. Her name was Mary and she spent 40 years in the deserts of Egypt weeping in repentance. The Lord Christ washed her dirty feet and gave her purity of heart and union with Him.  The history of the Faith is filled with many who found the same state of grace.

My feet are dirty. The waters of Baptism washed them clean, but I am afraid to say that I have often jumped into the mud puddle.  I would certainly wash His feet with my tears of repentance so that I can hear him say again that my sins are forgiven. I don’t doubt that they are, but I would still love to hear His voice. He is always willing to wash my feet for He is the true Servant.  I know this by faith but I would love to hear his voice again. As a pastor in the Protestant church, I heard many ask me if God was angry with them or how could they know that they were saved. These worries came from people who had made a confession of faith, been baptized, and who had demonstrated their faith and trust in Jesus. I did my best to assure them.

As a matter of fact, Orthodox Christians can hear His voice. We hear them from the voice of our priest when, at the end of confession, he tells us that because of our repentance, our sins are forgiven. How wonderful to hear this. Yet, to be authentic, we must do our part and wash the Lord’s feet with our tears, tears of real contrition and sorrow. My spiritual father would always ask me if I felt any sorrow for my sins. I did, but maybe not enough to really change my life.

Some may object that the priest does not have the right to say this. The Pharisees present at the dinner said the same in their hearts: “Who is this that forgiveth sins also?”  It takes a bit of theology, Scripture, and history to explain this, but there is one Scripture that is most relevant. In St. John, chapter 20, the Resurrected Lord comes to the disciples, breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. Then he says, “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosever sins ye retain, they are retained.” This ministry was given to them, and they passed it on in the priesthood by “the laying on of hands.”  It is the Lord’s way of washing our dirty feet.

Are your feet dirty? The Lord will gird himself and wash them if you will let him. But will you wash His feet with your tears? It’s up to you. I will say that if you wait too long, your soul will begin to stink like my athletic roommate’s feet.

Please, don’t wait that long.

I’m OK. You are not OK!

January 28, 2018

Anyone who has ever attended an Orthodox service knows that repentance is a big deal to us. All one has to do is try to count the number of times that we say “Lord, have mercy” in the services. While this is true in every season, the time of Lent surpasses them all. It is the season of repentance. To help us prepare, the Sundays prior to Lent emphasize the nature and importance of repentance. Last week, we heard the story of Zacchaeus. We were taught that repentance is more than feeling sorry for what we have done. We receive Christ and there is a restoration, not only in ourselves, but in the wrongs we have done to others. When Zacchaeus promises this restoration, Jesus says that now he is a true son of Israel.

Today, in the Gospel reading, we hear again about the Publican and the Pharisee. What can we learn here?

Here is the basic truth of this story. The reason why our repentance is shallow and doesn’t change us is because of our attitude. I can sum that attitude in this simple phrase: I’m Ok and you are not OK.

I’m OK

The Pharisee had a feeling that he was Ok with God. He had his list: I fast, I attend the temple, I tithe, I am a righteous Pharisee, and so on. Based on his list, he believed that he was OK. Jesus didn’t say that his list was untrue.  Not all Pharisees were bad hypocrites. Jesus often met and ate with them.

Whatever his status, I shouldn’t think too hard about him. After all, I have my own list. I’ve been married for 43 years and love my wife. I’ve loved my children. I’ve been a priest for almost 25 years, and a protestant minister for 20 years. I’ve made sacrifices-financial, emotional and spiritual. I spent a lot of time helping others. I lead mission trips and taught Bible studies, etc., and etc.  My list is true, and I know I have some passions that I should get rid of, but really they are small compared to others on the list. What more could God want of me. I am basically an OK guy. Right?

Maybe you have your own list of what makes you feel like a good man or woman. Maybe, I’ll get you to write a list for homework. But wait, Father. I know I’m not that good. You know too, Father, because I come to confession every week. I don’t think I’m so good. In fact, I think I’m a pretty bad sinner. Surely this sermon isn’t for me! Well, if I had real sorrow for my sinfulness, maybe then I would truly repent and like Zacchaeus, I would change myself. My spiritual Father would always ask me if I felt sorrow for my sins. Yes, I did, but not enough sorrow to actually change myself.  The sorrow never comes because after all, I’m really just an OK kind of guy. Right?

There is another way to measure how shallow our repentance truly is, and it has to do with our attitude and judgment.

You’re not OK!

The proof comes when I make a judgment: You’re not OK. When I compare myself to you by how you look, or how you dress, or by how you think, or by how you behave in Church, or by any other “standard”, I prove that I think much of myself because I think so little of you.  I’m am chanting with the Pharisee: I thank God that I am not like you. I’m OK and you are not OK.

With this attitude, my words of repentance are false and shallow, no matter how many times I say “Lord, have mercy.” I will never know the real power of repentance to change my life.

The publican had no time for such judgment. He could have said, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not a hypocrite Pharisee over there.” No, he was too busy looking at himself and measuring the condition of his own soul. The result: Jesus said that he left the Temple justified and Pharisee did not.

It’s simple: judge not, lest ye be judged; or, don’t measure how OK you are by how not OK someone else might be.

Lent will teach us how important repentance is to salvation: Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. Let’s open our ears and hearts to the season of Lent.

Happy New Year

December 30, 2017

 

2017 was quite a year.  I could go down a list of both the joys and the sorrows we have experienced, but it would take most of the day. Every New Year’s Eve, we wonder what the New Year will bring. I think that this time the question seems a bit more poignant. With so many uncertainties, we wonder if there will be any happiness, any security, or will we even survive the year that is coming? Of course, life is always uncertain and death and misfortune can come to us anytime and often when we least expect it. 2018 will not be different. To face of these uncertainties, we humans have chosen to celebrate. We celebrate by going to parties, or being with friends and family, or we watch a ball drop, or we just go to bed and sleep.  We celebrate to give thanks for the last year, but we also celebrate as a way of setting the stage for the coming year.

All around the world, there are traditions that we observe to bring us luck for the New Year. In the South, we eat black-eyed peas, hog jowls, and collard greens on New Year’s Day. We sing Auld Lang Syne, we kiss, and we eat grapes, shoot off fireworks. In Denmark, they save old plates and break them on New Year’s Eve.  In South America, the color of your underwear worn on New Year’s Eve will determine your luck in the New Year.  In Japan, they ring bells 108 times.  In Switzerland, they drop ice cream on the floor.  In some Peruvian villages, both men and women have fist fights so that they can start the New Year with a clean slate. In France, they eat pancakes.  In Thailand, they smear each other with grey talc and throw buckets of water at each other. In Ireland, they throw bread at the walls to drive way evil spirits. In South Africa, they throw old furniture out of their windows. In Puerto Rico, they throw buckets of water out of windows. In Scotland, the first person to cross a threshold should have a gift in hand for good luck.  In Estonia, they eat seven full meals for good luck. Well, I could go on and on.

These traditions are fun, even if a bit superstitious. I would like to think that we celebrate not from fear but from faith, but I’m not so sure.  Yet, whatever fears the past year has given us, we should enter the New Year with faith.  Faith gives vision. The book of Hebrews says that by faith, Abraham, while dwelling in tents, looked for a city, not built with human hands, but built by God. His life was a journey towards that city. Faith gives courage because Abraham was not mindful of the country through which he was passing, a journey filled with adversity. Faith gives strength. By her faith, Sarah had the strength to conceive and deliver a son despite her old age. By faith, the Forefathers and the Saints of the Church faced adversity and death and overcame them all, even if they did not escape them.

Faith does not mean that we think we will have a year free of adversity. Adversity will come whether we have faith or not, but faith will determine how we face that adversity. Adversity can be small and of little consequence, or the adversity can be large and overwhelming. Without faith, even small adversities can harm us and large adversity can kill us financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While faith does not mean freedom from adversity, it is an attitude, it is a rock, a foundation, upon which the winds and waves of adversity have little or no effect. Jesus said that the wise build on this foundation because the waves of adversity crash against every house. One house falls and one stands. The only difference between the two is the foundation.

I am no prophet. I cannot tell you how life will be in 2018. I do hope that if you celebrate tonight, it will be a celebration of faith and hope. Our faith is in the Lord Jesus who is the King of Kings. Our hope is in the fulfillment of the promise of the Prophet that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Christ, and He shall rule forever.

Maybe 2018 will be that year. That is our faith and our hope; for then, love and faithfulness will meet, and righteousness and peace will kiss.

Happy New Year!

St. Consumo

November 25, 2017

I was walking around a big store in July, and I wondered how they made enough money to keep the staff around. There was almost no one in the store at that time. How could they keep the doors open?  A store clerk asked if I needed any help and so I asked her about it. She smiled and said that magical word – Christmas. She went on to relate that the store did 40-50% of their business during the Christmas season. So, if business is down during the holidays, then there is big trouble for the company.  With that in mind, things like Black Friday and putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving began to make some sense.

Even so, it seems sad that it is this way. I think about Scrooge and the fact that the night before Christmas day was a time to go to midnight mass or service (hence the name Christ-mass). Then on Christmas day, the shops were open and food and presents were purchased.  Decorations were put up and trees dressed and parties and banquets were held. (There was no long and concerted decorating before hand.) How long did they celebrate? See the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for an answer.  I heard or read somewhere that in Russia, gifts were given on the Feast of St. Nicholas, so that Nativity (Christmas) would be a time to be in Church. I cannot speak for all cultures, but for the one that I live in, all of these things are gone or have mutated. What is the force behind these changes?

The force behind this change is commerce, and this force has its own icon. It is the smiling face of “St. Consumo” (Santa Claus -The name of St. Consumo was first given to me many years ago by an old friend. Where he got it, I do not know).  Of course, St. Consumo is often referred to as St. Nick and in this we can see the confusing

transformation from this

to this .

For an Orthodox Christian, the loss in this transformation is great and the true story of this great man, St. Nicholas, is hidden and forgotten.

Sometime ago, I read an article about how the Jews stole Christmas. At first, I thought this would be some anti-Semitic work, but it wasn’t that at all. The author confirmed what I had noticed when I walked around the malls after Thanksgiving when the work of St. Consumo begins in ernest. I listened to the background music and rarely did I hear a hymn or carol that spoke directly about the birth of Christ. What I heard was the great songs written  by talented composers and are played so often that these songs have become the new traditions of the season (Songs like “Silver Bells”, “I’ll be home for Christmas”, “White Christmas”, and so on). These songs are wonderful pieces of music and many of them were written by Jewish composers not in some secret attempt to steal away the message of Christmas, but to catch some of the emotional and romantic aspects of the season. Now they have become the hymns of St. Consumo. The process has continued with new Consumo hymns like “Jingle Bell Rock” and sadly “Grandma got run over by a raindeer.”

All these kinds of things (Like refusing to say “Merry Christmas”) makes us think that there is a war on Christmas. Clearly, the commercial force is not intentionally anti-Christian, but for us there is another power behind the commercial force and this force is orchestrating the problem and creating a sense of war. Of course, the secular world knows nothing about this and laughs at the very idea.

What confuses us is that if there is a war, why are there  positive things about the present situation? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with giving gifts to people you love or receiving gifts from them. Those who follow the “Old Calendar” have the chance to return to the traditions that I mentioned before. We can give gifts on St. Nicholas day and even on December 25 (New Calendar) if we wish, and then on January 6-7, we can come to Church and celebrate the Nativity without any emphasis on buying or giving gifts. Since January 6-7 is actually December 25 on the old calendar, some Orthodox wait and give gifts after the Church services have ended.

Decorations and Christmas trees are beautiful to see and I am glad that at least for the present, the season is still called Christmas.  There is joy in the air, a sense of anticipation, and many participate in organizations that feed the poor. Families gather together and even speak words of forgiveness. Stores who employ thousands of people are able to raise enough money to pay their employees when the lean summer months come to pass.

All this happens in a fallen world where St. Consumo seems to reign and so it can confuse us all. What can we do? With respect other religions and if they have legitimate celebrations during this time, I am happy to say Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, or even Happy Holidays. But I also have the right to say and to hear Merry Christmas.  I should work to be sure that to my family and especially to my children, St. Nicholas is never absorbed into St. Consumo.  I will enjoy giving gifts, but may I never think that this is the reason for the season. May I never forget the poor. May I never be Scrooge.  May I always sing “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” more than “Silver Bells” or “White Christmas,”   though I will sing those too. Though it be a powerful struggle, may I fast in preparation for Nativity and anticipate the birth of my Savior more than the giving of gifts.  I understand what St. Consumo represents, so may I never allow him to dominate my world.

I’ll end with this story. Once Matushka Elisabeth asked me what all children will eventually ask – is Santa real. Is he alive? I told her the story of St. Nicholas and then I asked her, “When you are with Jesus, are you alive or dead?” She responded that you were alive. I told her that Nicholas was a saint and so he was with Jesus. Therefore, is St. Nicholas alive or dead?  She responded that he was alive and so very real. “Now,” I asked her, “does he come down chimneys?”  No, he doesn’t because he is so much greater than St. Consumo.

Merry Christmas to all of you and may the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ bring light to all the dark places of the world and in our souls. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The Wasteful God

October 29, 2017

Waste! How we hate the word and the action. We work hard for what we have and we don’t like to waste it. So, we tell our children to eat what’s on their plate and not waste food; or we tell the wife to turn off the light when she leaves the room; or we hate the waste that is the hallmark of our local, state, and federal government. Most of all, it saddens us when it seems that someone has wasted the life given to them, and we even are haunted by the thought that maybe, in some way, we have wasted our life.

Now, I am not encouraging waste, but I want to share a simple, but profound insight with you: God is a wasteful God. This seems to be a terrible thing to say about God, but we find this truth portrayed in the parable of the sower which is found in St. Luke, chapter 5. Jesus explains the parable to his disciples. A farmer goes out to sow seed. Some falls by the wayside and is trampled down, some falls on rocky ground and dies for there isn’t any moisture, some falls among thorns and is choked out, and some falls on good ground and takes root and grows to be fruitful.

So, how is God wasteful? Well, the seed is the Word of God. The seed that falls by the wayside are people who hear the word, but like birds coming in and eating seed, Satan takes the seed away. The seed that falls on rocky ground are people who hear the word and even rejoice in it, but it doesn’t take root. When the heat of temptation comes, they wither and die. The seed that falls into the thorns are people who allow the cares, pleasures and temptations of life choke out the fruitfulness of the word. Finally, there is good ground and the seed is able to take root, grow and become fruitful. Jesus explains that the good ground are those who have an honest and good heart and bring forth the fruit of their faith with patience.

So, how is God wasteful? Well, think of this fact: there are four pieces of land, but only one plot is productive. That means that God wasted three-fourths of his seed. Three-fourths! What a wasteful God! Yet, the Father continues to throw out the seed despite the fact that three-fourths of it will not produce. This shows the absolute abundance of God’s grace to us.

To be honest, sometimes my heart is not receptive to the seed. Sometimes, I let the cares of life take away what was given to me. Sometimes, I’m just plain hard-hearted. Occasionally, my heart is soft and receptive and I prosper. Here’s the thing – whatever my situation, the wasteful God continues to sow his seed on me. I thank God that in his love for me, he never gives up no matter how much I waste.

I have heard confessions for 25 years. People come with all kinds of spiritual, physical and emotional situations and states. Often, because of habitual sin, folks are depressed or worried that their lack of progress has made God turn against them, or they are just completely unworthy. What can I say or what advice can I offer.  There is a theme that I work around all the time: trust in God’s grace.

The Saints convey this message all the time. The spiritual fathers counsel this all the time. They tell us to never despair and never give up, no matter what we say or do, or fail to do. They had a sense of the depth and scope of the grace of God and they bet their life on it.

Let’s work hard to make the ground of our hearts soft, and tend the plants of grace with patience. Maybe we should take the hint and become like God -wasteful in the love we show to our spouses, to our children, to our neighbors, to our brothers and sisters in the Faith, and to the world.  Even more, may we never believe that our sins are greater than God’s grace, for this will certainly choke out the seed. Remember and cherish this word: God is wasteful!

Thank God!

The Unavoidable Law of Life

October 6, 2017

(though this is written for the Church, the law of life applies to all, believers and non-believers)

Here is an easy rule to understand: “He who sows sparingly shall reap sparingly; and he which sows bountifully shall reap bountifully.” St. Paul will also summarize: “As you sow so shall you reap.” We might put it this way: you only get out what you put in. Now I understand that we have had several decades of TV preachers who have taken these ideas to proclaim what we might call the “prosperity gospel.” They have used this idea as a fund raiser and it has been quite successful. Sadly, by focusing on money and the promise of a prosperous lifestyle, they have missed the real richness of these words.

Now let me speak as a man, though these ideas can apply to women as well. I have always been amazed how some men sow sparingly when it comes to their wives and children. Some men have been misers when it comes to love and affection. Men seem to believe that because they work and are faithful, and mumble a rare “I love you” that this should be enough for any woman. I have counselled with women who were starving to death for meaningful affection and conversation. I have known children who grew up with an emotionally distant Father whose attention was difficult to obtain or was unwanted because attention was not given “with a cheerful heart.” There are even some Orthodox men who do not pray with their wife and children. Sadly the day comes when these men are surprised by broken marriages and distant children who leave the Faith. Then the law becomes clear to them: what you sow is what you reap. If they had sowed abundantly, they would have had abundance in their family life and in their emotional, spiritual, and intimate life.

As a priest, I have been amazed at how some people sow so sparingly when it comes to the health of their own soul.  We believe because we are Orthodox and have been baptized that this should be enough for the Lord. We are spiritual misers. Prayer is an occasional nod to God. The Bible is rarely read and never studied and we know little or nothing about the Saints who surround us. Confession is rare and when done is poorly done. We do not prepare for the Eucharist and fasting is haphazard. Sadly, when the day of testing and adversity comes, there is no strength of soul. We are saddened at our weakness. The law then becomes clear to us: what you sow is what you reap. Had we sowed abundantly in spiritual things, we would end our days in spiritual fatness and no adversity would be able to overcome us.

I have been amazed at how little we sow in each other. We believe that because we see each other on Sunday, it should be enough to call ourselves “the Church.” Clearly, the Eucharist is, among other things, an expression of our unity. How then is this unity lived out on a daily basis? Imagine that on the day of your marriage, you turned to your spouse and said that from that moment on, she would only see you every Sunday! Oh, Sunday time together would be happy, but that would be all. How long would this marriage last? So, let me ask: when is the last time you had another Church member to your house for tea, especially those that you don’t know so well? When is the last time you saw a member under a burden and tried to shoulder that burden with them? Well, if I only see people once a week, I won’t know what they struggle with anyway. There are times when I need help, but there are no volunteers. Everyone is too busy. Then the law becomes clear: what you sow is what you reap. I sowed little in the lives of my brothers and sisters and I did nothing to strengthen the bond of love between us. Now there is little to reap.

I have been amazed at how little we sow in our Church. We believe that because we drop in a few dollars this is enough. After all, there are others who are better off financially, so let them carry the budget. We know there is a trapeza, but we bring no food. We know there is clean up to do, but we are busy with our own affairs or have to leave early. We know that our children need a Sunday school, but we couldn’t volunteer to help with that. There are bathrooms and floors to clean, but that is not for us. Though it is better to give than receive, we come to Church not to give, but only to receive. We sow sparingly and then wonder why our Church seems small and weak. We face the law: if you sow sparingly, you will reap sparingly. If we would sow abundantly, our Church would grow in abundance.

I would add one other thing. If we sow little back to the world, then we will never know abundance. By this I mean that we as a Church must engage with the people around us. What Jesus said to the disciples applies to us: we are to be fishers of men. Any Church that does not cast its nets into the world will surely perish. We can be misers who think that all of this is just for us, and if anyone just happens to walk through the door, then good for them. No, this mentality is called “fortress Orthodoxy.” We raise our flags, but do not venture out as we wait for the casualty reports. No, we cast our net by being living witness present among the people of the community around us. We do this by making ourselves known by community events, acts of charity, and being where the people are in soup kitchens and ball games and work. If we sow sparingly in this, we will reap sparingly. We will be shocked or saddened when the doors close.

Perhaps all of this seems a bit “preachy.” Well, blame on St. Paul. I would only add what he felt obliged to add. All of this is to be done, not out of compulsion or obligation, but with a cheerful heart. How do we get a cheerful heart? In part because we do all of this not to be successful or even happy (as the world thinks of what happy means). We do it for Him which means we do it for love. Wherever there is real love, there is real joy. It is true that if we cast our nets, someday the number of fish we catch will amaze us. If we sow well, someday we will feast with those who sit in the Kingdom of God where the sound of their festival is never ending.

Aquila and Priscilla

September 2, 2017

You will have to forgive me because what I am about to tell you, I learned this many years ago while I attended college. Therefore, I can’t give you a reference. I do know that I heard this in a New Testament class.

There is a professor who has so completely studied Rome in the first and second centuries, that he knows each section of the city, who lived in them and on what street. His insights has helped to illuminate some of the references to the early Christian communities that existed in ancient Rome. His knowledge of Latin and Greek is profound. He even knows what names were given to the various levels of society and what names were not allowed to slaves or the lowly and poor.  These insights help us to understand who Paul is greeting in Romans 16.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house.”  Let’s see what the professor’s insights can tell us about these two and their house church. Priscilla was from a rich family on the posh side of town. Their estate was by the river and the family was prominent. Apparently, she had created a bit of a scandal because she married a slave. How do we know? Well, Aquila was a slave name. Excavations of the family estate revealed some interesting things about their “house church.” On the grounds of the estate, they recovered the bones of slaves, the bones of merchants, the bones of professionals, the military, and even the bones of the elite and senators. Those from the lower classes lived in the house church. After breakfast and morning prayers or liturgy, they would go to work, or to beg, and then would return for the evening meal and prayers. When they died, they were buried on the grounds, with no consideration for their station in society.

There were other house churches in Rome and each faced its own kind of difficulties. For example, there was a group of men called “the brothers”, who lived in a very bad part of town. It was so bad that even the Roman soldiers hated going in to it. The people were packed into high rises, three stories tall. On each floor, the rooms were separated by cheap cloth curtains. It was a veritable fire trap and there was no sanitation. You can imagine how difficult it was to live there. Yet, despite this sad situation, the brothers lived there and witnessed to their faith and love.  Thinking on the situations that these Christians faced, you can understand St. Paul’s words to Christians: “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, and be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” He was speaking not only to individuals but to the communities of which they were a part.

What can we learn from this?

It seems to me that in our present religious culture, community is a secondary concern (or maybe even farther down the list.) Many go to Church and attend every Sunday, but they avoid or even oppose activities and programs that are designed to build community. You hardly ever see them a trapeza, or bible study, or fun evenings.  Certainly, caring for my own salvation is my highest priority, but the first century Christians knew that if they were to be successful in life, in faith, and in witness, they needed the protection of the Christian community.

To be a community means to share a life together. I realize that this goes against the Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett fantasy of self-sufficiency, but this is part of the problem. The idea of sharing a life with someone else outside of our immediate family seems anathema to us. Now, we do not have to recreate the house church of Aquila and Priscilla, nor do we have to live in the poor side of town in humble dwellings, but our need for community is just as profound.

The Church that formed after Pentecost (Acts 2) shows us what is needed. They were committed to the teachings of Apostles (Bible Study), in the fellowship in the “breaking of bread” (Communion), they had all things in common (a shared life) they went daily to the Temple (regular attendance), they went from house to house and ate with gladness and simplicity of heart (a shared life), praising God (Worship). We know from other sources that the Christians did acts of charity for the poor of Jerusalem. The result was that they found favor with the people, and the “the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved. Later, community would help them face persecution.  When they found themselves in poverty, the larger Christian community would extend help to them, and St. Paul would collect funds for them.

I would contend that if we don’t strive to realize each part of this, then our experience of community is skewed and our experience can be deadly. Again, it does not mean that we have to recreate the exact way in which the early Church lived their life in the Spirit. Sadly,  I have known many who began with love and faith and zeal, but were later shipwrecked in part because the full experience of community was absent (some even called it abuse.) Large or small, the size of the Church and the membership did not matter.

So, talk with your brothers and sisters and include your priest. Talk about community and how we can growth together in faith, hope, and love. Invite others, even if they seem prone to be absent, to enter into the conversation. Someday (and now it seems more likely than ever before), the world will again wield the axe of bitter persecution. When that happens, we will need, our children will need, and our grandchildren will need the community of the Holy Spirit if they hope to survive.

If you think that a greater sense of community is too hard to attain, then let me leave you again with St. Paul’s admonition: “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, and be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.” To this I will also add his words: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

You Stink

August 18, 2017

I was sitting in the hallway waiting for my wife to get off from work. I heard someone coming down the hall, but then I had an unusual experience. Before this person turned the corner, I could smell her. When she turned the corner, it was a supervisor who smiled and said hello. I responded nicely but wondered at how such a nice woman could smell so bad. Later, my wife told me that the supervisor loved ramps, and ate them almost every day. (a ramp is a wild strong garlic). Now the fragrance was seeping through her skin and preceded her by a few feet! I thought that she must never get sick. No virus could stand to come near. I know that you’ve had the experience of sitting next to someone who hasn’t had a bath in a long time.  You don’t want to be judgmental, but you wonder if the problem is financial, social, or mental.

When I watch movies about past times –long before soap, shampoo, or toothpaste-I wonder how people kissed or were intimate or social. My mom said that in West Virginia, miners would wash regularly, but it wasn’t until they started using deodorant, that the smell worsened. You may know about the pilgrimage to the church of Santiago de Compostela. On the great feast day, hundreds of pilgrims would fill the church. A huge censer was swing through the Church and it was said that this was done to cover the smell of the unwashed pilgrims.

Despite personal rituals of cleanliness, in the past people had their own peculiar smell and they could be known by it. With modern chemistry, all of our natural smells have been eliminated. We now add perfumes and colognes to make an impact. I’ve had some people walk by whose use of perfume or cologne hit me like the woman eating ramps. You wonder if they had bathed in it.

Here is what I want you to remember: Orthodox Christians are supposed to stink.

“Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.”  2Corinthians 2.

Though us, God diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge. Talk about aroma-therapy! We are to stink with the smell of truth! What do people smell when we walk around the corner? Certainly, if they smell our human nature, it can turn them off, but it’s more than that. St. Paul says that when the fragrance of the Gospel is present to people, some smell life and some smell death.   The Gospel is life to those who are being saved and it is death to those who are perishing. So, it shouldn’t surprise us when we diffuse the fragrance of God’s truth, some people rejoice while others hold their noses in disgust.

Sometimes, in Orthodox literature, you read about the “fragrance of holiness.” So now you know that it has nothing to do with our personal hygiene, but with the spiritual smell of the knowledge of God. The saints reeked of it.  During the services, when the censer comes around and you smell the fragrance, remember the “fragrance of His knowledge” that is to be “in every place.”

So, do you stink? I hope so.