Gratitude is more that attitude

November 27, 2016

 

good-samaritan

I had a chance to hear Fr. Valery Lukianov speaking to his family and friends about the Thanksgiving season. Fr. Valery has always been a very engaging speaker and this was another example. Among other things, he spoke of how we should be glad that the entire nation, Christian or not, took a moment to be thankful, to say thanks to God or to a friend or family member.  This caused me to reflect that Thanksgiving is a moment, for those of us who are Orthodox, to understand what it must have been like to live in an Orthodox country where feast days and traditions were largely shared by the entire culture.  I do hope that you had a wonderful Thanksgiving season with those that you love.

It would be a sad life to live it without gratitude and thankfulness. Yet, it is interesting that while we often feel gratitude for those who love and serve us, we are slow to thank them. Though they may be grateful, I have known men who rarely thank their wives, and I have known wives who rarely thank their husbands. I know of children who rarely thanked their parents, and parents who rarely thanked their children. The list could go on and on. Family and friends serve us because they love us, and they don’t do it to be thanked. Yet, if gratitude is rarely shown, that service becomes ever more difficult to give.   So, please: thank your priest, thank your parishioners, thank your parents, thank your children, thank your wife, thank your husband, thank the police, thank the military, and so on.

Above all, thank God from whom all blessings flow.

We need to go a little deeper. For those who follow Christ, gratitude is more than an attitude. As important as it is to express our thanks to those who have served us, giving thanks is more than words, more than an internal attitude. Allow me a personal memory. My brother and sisters and I thought to make Mother’s Day a bit more special than usual. So we planned breakfast in bed for mom and made some things to show how we were thankful for all that she did. Mom was happy and thanked us for the effort. Later, as we were talking, she reminded us that while she appreciated the effort, the best way to show our gratitude was to clean our rooms, pick up our socks, bring our dishes to the sink, etc., and on a daily basis. That lesson stuck with me, but I can’t say that I always followed it.

It is vital to a good life to feel gratitude and speak words of thankfulness, especially to God. Yet, I think God wants me to pick up my socks and bring my dirty dishes to the sink. I show my gratitude when I say my prayers as the Church teaches me. I show my gratitude when I pick up my dirty socks in confession. I show gratitude when I challenge my lazy and ungrateful flesh with fasting.  Above all that I could do, I show my thankfulness most when I stoop down and bind the wounds of those who have fallen by the wayside; when I anoint them with wine and oil; when I carry them to the Inn, provide for their care, and promise to return. Such an act shows that I am thankful, not just in word, or in attitude, but from the depths of my soul.

The Greek word for Holy Communion is ευχαριστία (eucharistia). It means “thanksgiving.”  So, every Sunday, we come to celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving (so does this mean turkey and dressing every Sunday?)  We come to express from the depths of our souls the gratitude and joy that we feel for all that the Lord Jesus has done for us. May we also give thanks for all that He has done through us to others and know the joy that in our gratitude to Him, we have picked up our socks and washed the dishes.

Happy Eucharist to you all.

 

The Preacher and Jerry Springer

October 29, 2016

springer

I don’t know if you ever watched the Jerry Springer Show on television.  It’s been on for many years and is still quite popular.  Basically, people come on the show to tell the world about their problems and sins. Most often, people tell about some affair with the love interest of a friend or relative.  It’s something of a public confession. Most of the time, the offended spouse or partner comes out, and it ends in physical violence. The audience roars in laughter and approval. Americans seem to love this kind of thing.

Here is one story that Jerry Springer would love. A preacher, a supposed man of God, had the audacity to sleep with a prostitute. He wanted her to stay with him, so he gave her a lot of money. They had two children out of wedlock. The prostitute was torn emotionally. She wanted to continue to sleep with her clients, but the preacher was a jealous man who did not want any rivals.  Knowing the kindness and generosity of the preacher, she wanted to remain faithful to him but she thought often about her lovers. The preacher promised that if she would just stay with him and be faithful, he would marry her, make her respectable, and give her many gifts.  What would she do? Who would she choose- her clients or the preacher? Yes, Jerry Springer would love to have these folks on his show.

It might surprise you to discover that the preacher is the prophet Hosea.

Although this story can be found in the book of Hosea, it isn’t clear if it literally happened as some kind of prophetic sign, or is just an allegory told to make a theological point. Either way, what is the message of this story?  Hosea represents God and Israel is the prostitute; that is Israel constantly goes after the gods of other nations. Despite this sad situation, God tells Israel that if she will repent and return to Him, he will marry her, bless her and will proudly proclaim to the world that He is the God of Israel.  Would Israel remain with God, or go elsewhere? The history of Israel shows that this was not an easy choice for them. Sometimes they were faithful, many times they were not.

What does this story have to do with us?  Forgive me for saying this, but spiritually speaking, we are all prostitutes. We seek out other lovers for what we believe they can give us. We are torn in our hearts because we know how loving and kind and generous God is and can be.  We also know that He is a jealous God.  So sometimes we draw close to God, but most of the time, we pursue other gods. What are the gods that we chase after?  They are our ideals, passions, fantasies and desires.  Some of our gods are mental and some are physical.

Hosea shows us that despite this condition of being divided in our loyalty, God continues to loves us completely. He does not disdain us and would marry us if we would just repent and be faithful. To be married to God means that we will come to know real intimacy with Him. He will know us and we will know him in deep and abiding love. He will be our God and we will be his people.  How did Jesus put it? Eternal life is know the Father and the Son whom He has sent. We will know him, not just know about Him.

What will we do – continue to play the harlot and pursue our lovers or repent and be married? If we pursue other lovers, God will continue to love us, but eventually we will grow old. Our lovers will abandon us and we will be left alone. If we choose God, we will be blessed with a life of real intimacy and we will know that love forever.

It seems like a no-brainer, but we humans seem to love playing the harlot. Sadly, because of our divided loyalty, we may only know about the greatest love of all when we could live in that love and have it live in us.  You may feel ashamed because of your past unfaithfulness. Your past doesn’t matter.  God loves you and would marry you today. So, repent and come home. A marriage feast has been set for you and God will clothe you in a wedding gown of righteousness. He will make you beautiful beyond anything that you can imagine and he will be proud to claim you as His own.

So, what are you waiting for?

Enemies

October 16, 2016

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When you consider the things that Orthodoxy asks of you –fasting, prayer, church attendance, tithing, study, etc. – it’s a pretty demanding business. What else could anyone ask of you? Well, if you think these things are hard, listen to Jesus:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners    love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish.”

Love your enemies? Jesus must be kidding. In fact, He is not, and he put his words into practice, even to the Cross. Often,  I don’t love the people I call my friends. I don’t know how in the world I’m supposed to love my enemies. The word “enemy” means someone that I don’t like or actually despise. How am I supposed to love them?  What living person has no enemies?

A mafia boss on the island of Sicily was on his death bed. He called for the local priest to come see him and hear his confession. He had decided he wanted to get right with God before he died. The priest came and, before he began to administer the sacraments, said, “Part of getting ready to die is that you need to forgive all your enemies.” The mafia boss said, “Father, I don’t have any enemies.” The priest was surprised and said, “That’s amazing! After all the years of your violent and criminal life, you must have enemies!” The mafia replied, “No, Father, I really don’t have any enemies. I killed them all.” (Fr. Andrew Harman)

This isn’t what Jesus meant, but is there a way that we can come to love our enemies? Father Andrew Harmon, Pastor of St. Matthew Antiochian Orthodox Church, North Royalton, Ohio suggests the following:

  1. Pray –I wonder how often we think to pray for our enemies. Why pray for them? Mainly because only God can heal the wounds of the heart. In praying for our enemies, it may be our hearts that are healed.
  2. Thank God for something good about your enemy– We tend to think of our enemies as being devoid of anything good. The fact is that they are no more evil than we are, and we believe that there is some good in ourselves. Dwelling on what is good rather than what is evil may result in realizing that like our enemy, we are a mix of good and evil. Maybe it was my evil that contributed to the conflict. Maybe, in the remembrance of wrongs, I have forgotten the part that I played and have made my enemy to be more of a villain than they deserve.
  3. Shift your anger – One of the great roadblocks to creating peace is anger. Because of anger, we will not listen to any suggestion that reconciliation is possible. What does it mean to shift anger? It means to turn the power of anger against the root of habitual sin in our own hearts instead of outward against people who offend us. If we did this, we would soon be saints. Ask St. Moses the Black.

4, Treat them kindly – Finally, Jesus tells us that it is not enough to good to people we                   like. We must do something good to our enemies like turn the other cheek or walk                the extra mile.  We are to be like our Father who is good to the evil and well as to the              just; who causes the rain to fall on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous.                 So, Jesus said that we should be like Dad. In doing good things, we may find that we               will change a heart and gain a friend. We might discover the treasure of true                              humility.

In conclusion, listen again to St. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic:

“Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends. It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.”  (an excerpt)

Do good to your enemies. Be like your Father in heaven. Loving your enemy will change your life, and save your soul.

i no longer live

October 2, 2016

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i use to think that the Cross of Christ was something upon which we hung our sins so that we wouldn’t have to suffer for them later. That was a rather shallow view of it.  Jesus made it more -he said that we would have to deny ourselves, pick up a cross and follow him.  i realized that the Cross had to move from Calvary into my heart. Well, that has been a struggle because while my heart wants to live forever and is grateful for all that Jesus did for me, the heart also wants to pursue its own pleasures, dreams, and ambitions. To have the Cross in my heart and the self-denial that follows is directly opposed to the fantasies of my life.  For this reason, though sin is hard to bear, the Cross is very hard to bear.

In Galatians 2, St. Paul puts forward an astonishing idea. “i have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer i who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It’s one thing to believe that Christ died for me. Its another thing to say that i was crucified with Christ. St. John Chrysostom says that in these words he alludes to Baptism. In baptism, one dies to the old self and is freed from the tyranny of the past, the world, and one’s own ego. So many people struggle with themselves. They constantly complain about some failing, uncontrollable passion, a bad \attitude, being judgmental, etc. It disturbs them that these failings and passions never seem to change though they struggle mightily with them.

Imagine if there was no “i” in the equation. It is no longer “i” who lives. If there was no “i”, then there would be nothing for the devil to attack. There would be no uncontrollable passions, no bad attitudes. There would certainly be no despair and no fear. There would be no temptations. As the old saying goes, “a dead man cannot sin.”   Elder Porphyrios says the following:

“In the Church which possesses the saving sacraments there is no despair. We may be deeply sinful. But we make confessions, the priest reads the prayer, we are forgiven and we progress towards immortality, without any anxiety and without any fear. When we love Christ, we live the life of Christ. If, by the grace of God, we succeed in doing this, we find ourselves in a different state, we live in another, enviable state. For us there is no fear; neither of death, nor of the devil nor of hell. All these things exist for people who are far from Christ, for non-Christians. For us Christians who do His will, as the Gospel says, these things do not exist. That is, they exist, but when one kills the old self along with the passions and desires, one gives no importance to the devil or to evil. It doesn’t concern us. What concerns us is love, service to Christ and to our fellow man. If we reach the point of feeling joy, love, worship of God without any fear, we reach the point of saying, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me. No one can prevent us from entering into this mystery.”

How do we reach this state of joy, love, and worship of God without fear?

Foremost, it is with faith-faith that Christ died for me; faith that i no longer live; faith that it is Christ who lives in me; faith in all that he gives me so that He may live in me: Baptism, Holy Communion,  the Bible, the Church, confession, etc. Faith that he will never leave me, nor forsake me, no matter what i do or how many times i fall.

Then we reach this state by theosis, by the process of salvation. By the Holy Spirit and the grace given to us, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. We embrace the disciplines of faith, not to gain God’s favor nor do we do them to keep the rules. We do them so that we can reach that state of being where we know, and no longer doubt, that i no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

Finally, it is by love that we come to the place where we are not only made in His image, which all people have. We attain his likeness as well. Since God is love, to look like Christ is to look like love itself. Love compels us to pick up his cross and follow him. It is by love that I am crucified to the world and the world to me. It is love that makes the “i” go away. Then on Judgment Day, when God looks at me, it is not “i” that he will see. It is Christ in me that He will see.

 

Learning the language of Faith

September 18, 2016

learning-a-language

A child developmental psychologist once stated that if you don’t believe that a baby is a genius, then try learning a language. Having worked on Spanish for many years, I know this to be true. One of the first things you learn are commands – come, sit, sleep, eat – just to mention a few. Babies begin to learn language in much the same way. I think dogs learn from commands as well.

In I Corinthians 16, St. Paul gives us some simple commands. By these, we might begin to learn the language of Faith. The commands he gives are watch, stand, have courage, be strong, and love.

Watch

This might seem like an odd command to start with, but in fact it is very important. The Lord taught that the servant of the house should watch for the master’s return, and not fall asleep. He also said that if we know that someone is coming to rob us in our home, we would watch for them so that we could catch them. So, are we awake and watching, or are we asleep? What are we to watch? We are to watch and guard the mind so that thoughts do not steal our minds from us. We are to watch and guard our senses so that our passions do not use our bodies against us. We are to watch and guard the heart so that it doesn’t become hard and unfeeling. We are to watch and guard our soul so that the devil doesn’t steal it from us. We are to watch the world, so that we know what is coming. Finally, we are to watch for the coming of the Lord, so that we never lose hope. Yes, to watch is a very important command.

Stand in the Faith

Even if we are watchful, we know that the unexpected happens and we cannot escape it. It is surprising then that when it happens, we are shocked. Depending on what happens, we can lose faith. Let me give you an example. The Fathers teach us that we should keep before us the remembrance of death. This remembrance is not meant to depress us, but it helps us to be free from fear and from foolishness. Death should not surprise Orthodox people. Yet, I have seen Orthodox people lose faith when they lose a loved one. It is at the very moment of death that we should stand strong in the Faith. We certainly weep and mourn, but we do not mourn like those who have no faith. St. Paul knew what was coming for the Christians of his time, so he commanded them to stand in the Faith.

 Courage

Courage is a theme that you find in many movies old and new. What is taught in these movies is that courage does not mean a lack of fear. In fact, courage is at its best when something is done despite the presence of overwhelming fear. The courage of the martyrs of the past inspire us, but they make us wonder how they faced such hatred, pain, and terror. Did they feel fear? I think they did, but it did not make them deny Christ. We witness courage in the martyrs of the Islamic yoke and we marvel at it. Could you and I have such courage? I think we could, but we don’t have to wait for martyrdom to know it. We need courage to live as a Christian where we are. We need the courage to witness to our faith in a way that is loving, but does not compromise the truth. We need the courage to live this witness in a way that others can see a Faith that is genuine. If the world becomes more secular, it will take courage to do this.

Be Strong

St. Paul commands us to be strong and I don’t think he meant for the Corinthians to go to the nearest YMCA. Of course, physical strength and good health are a wonderful gift, but I think St. Paul is talking about spiritual strength. If we feel weak and lacking in spiritual strength, how do we get it? The answer is the same as it is for the body – we must exercise. Scientists tell us that if we don’t get off the couch and exercise, our physical future is grim. Spiritual laziness will also kill us. The Church has given us exercises to do, not to make God love us, but so that we might get spiritual muscles. Our exercises are fasting, prayer, studying the scriptures, attending services, doing good deeds, etc. Failure to exercise spiritually means that we will have no strength when the time of struggle comes to us.

Love

The last command is love without which all the rest is fruitless. It is love that compels me to watch. It is love that makes to stand. It is love that gives me courage. It is love that gives me strength. It is love that makes me study. It is love that moves me to pray. It is love that gets me to Church. It is love that moves me to fast. It is love shows me the needs of others and moves me to help them. Love teaches me the language of Faith because faith works through love.  Love is the beginning and the end of it all.

And with that, I will end.

 

In God we trust – all others pay cash.

July 24, 2016

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I find myself amused and a little irritated when it is suggested that clergy and/or churches and/or Christians should be “apolitical.” Usually this is not clearly defined, but you get the idea that (wink, wink) we all know what that term means. In fact to be alive is to be political. Now if I leave this without further explanation, then I am guilty of doing what has always irritated me. So, let me expound on the idea.

If by the term “apolitical” we mean to say that we should not align to one candidate or party, or demand that the Faith adhere to only one party, then I would agree that we should be apolitical. However, it seems to me that what is often meant when the term is used is that we should remove ourselves from the political realm and never be involved, but be ready to stand with any victims. If this is what is meant, then I disagree with the idea.

Some parts of the Book of Revelation are difficult to unpack, but one thing seems to be clear. Since, according to St. Paul the spirit of Antichrist is in the world, Revelation points out that this spirit seeks to incarnate itself in political systems. These systems then persecute the Church.The history of the Church is rife with examples of what happens when the political system becomes anti-Christ and oppresses the Faith. Revelation then serves as a textbook of how this evil incarnates itself and how God brings judgment upon it. Every time the spirit of Antichrist incarnates in political systems, we are again in “end times.”

The ancient Church recognized that it existed in “the fullness of time” and this meant among other things that while the Roman state was a persecutor, the Pax Romanum allowed the Church to grow and spread throughout the empire. In like manner, the civil religion of America, begun by our Founding Fathers, provided a type of Pax Americana, a political state that allowed Christianity to spread and grow (and not Christianity alone). This reality should not be taken to mean that America was free of error, stupidity, hubris, persecution, racism, and other moral evils. Far from it.

Though critics and scholars will argue about it,  it is the feeling of many that beginning in the 1950s,  the erosion of this American civil religion began. During the time of the Obama administration,  talk about the end of American Christianity has increased and it is maintained that we are in a post-Christian era. This may be true if the civil religion has become more antichrist. Today, fighting against this new civil religion seems ever more hopeless. One reason is that the power behind it uses terms that are  hard to argue with – inclusion, equality, fairness, equal protection, liberty, etc. Who can debate with such ideas especially since they were the foundation of the original civil religion? In the hands of the spirit of antichrist, these ideas now leverage God from the public sphere.  Laws have developed that muzzle free speech by upholding political correctness.

This trend bodes ill for the Church. The time has come where some already walk  a martyrs path  (recent Supreme Court decisions as an example). So far the martyrdom is financial lawsuits, and  we should remember Lyndon Johnson’s law that threatened the loss of tax exemption for churches if ministers spoke politically from the pulpit.  This law has been challenged unsuccessfully as a violation of the First Amendment and it seems unlikely that the law will be overturned. This process continues with law suits against individuals who refuse to serve those whose lifestyles are opposed to their Faith.

I am sure that the martyrs of the Communist yoke, the patriot saints of Greece, the victims of the Holocaust, etc. would advise us to be anything but apolitical.  I agree that concerning the upcoming election,  it is unbelievable that with millions of American citizens, these are the only two candidates that we could find.  However, I tend to ignore personality traits as a key to my choice of candidate. This can be difficult because in the political arena, character assassination is paramount over substantive issues. What I try to discern is who will further the spirit of antichrist (even unknowingly) and who will not.

Though it sounds pessimistic, I do concede that given what I have said, there may be little or no difference between the two candidates. Both may be equally compromised by the political machinery. A saying in the Liturgy makes this point: “Put not your trust in men in whom there is no salvation.”  Think of that before you pull the lever in the voting booth.

I am not telling you how to vote. I am telling you to drop the illusion that you or any of us can be “apolitical.”  As an old professor use to say, “You pays your money and makes your choice.”  Just realize that after the choice, there will be more to pay, and the payment may be great.

Like Solomon, pray for wisdom and vote wisely.

Working Man

July 17, 2016

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We recently had another record Power Ball lottery. I believe the cash prize was almost half a billion dollars. With that kind of money at stake, many people who never buy a ticket are greatly tempted to do so. It’s easy to dream of how nice it would be to pay off all of our bills, help family and friends, and never ever worry about money again. On the negative side, you discover that winning the lottery often did not result in a fairy tale life of financial freedom. You read stories of divorce, murder, drug abuse, broken families and even poverty.  We are sure that such things would never happen to us, since we are kind, generous, and loving Orthodox people. This feeling flies in the face of the many warnings that our Lord gave about wealth –something about a camel.

Which is better – a paycheck or a lottery cash prize? I’m not talking about the amount of money I earn versus the money that the lottery offers. I could never earn that much in several lifetimes. What I mean is how you obtain the money. A paycheck is the result of your labor. A lottery cash prize is the result of other people’s labor.

The reason that I bring this up is that in Romans 6, St. Paul uses this idea of wage and free gifts to talk about salvation. He says that sin pays a wage and the payment is death, but that eternal life in Christ Jesus is a free gift. This turns things upside down. I thought that I had to work for eternal life, now I hear that it is a free gift. Quite the opposite, I am working for sin, and all that I will get for it is death. This is foolishness! Why in the world would anyone work and sweat and toil for death, when there is a free gift of eternal life? Well, look around and take notice. Most of the human race is working and toiling and fretting to receive a reward. Little do we know that we work for sin and will be paid the wage of death. Like all work, wages are paid often, and death comes to us, but only in part. Full payment will come later.

How is the gift of salvation free? Well, a true gift is given simply out of love for the one to whom it is given. If there is any sense of obligation, then it is not truly a gift. Jesus Christ was a pure and absolute gift, given because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. You and I did nothing to deserve it. In fact there is nothing that we could have done to be worthy of such a gift. All we have to do is receive the gift and eternal life is ours.

I realize that for the Orthodox, this may sound a bit like Protestant theology which is sometimes characterized as “believe and receive.” How is salvation free, when we talk a about the importance of prayer, fasting, study and church attendance as essential for the attainment of holiness? The Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” and holiness seems to take a lot of work.

Let’s review.  We work for sin and receive death as payment. Fair enough because what else could sin give us really? On the other hand, we receive a free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus, but we have to work for it.  Clear as mud?

It’s simple really. If someone gives me a gift, no matter how wonderful it is or how thankful I am, it will not change who or what I am. I did nothing to earn the gift and other than gratitude, nothing more is expected. For the gift of salvation, I could not pray enough, fast enough or come to church often enough to deserve it. This is what is meant by the idea that we are not saved by our works. The Father loves us freely and gives good gifts to His children. Yet, with such a gift, is nothing expected of me? I am grateful for the gift of salvation, but is that all that is required?

The gift of salvation is not one to be placed on a shelf or even in a place of honor. This gift is meant to be actualized and put into operation. When we unpack this free gift, we find wonderful things. We find forgiveness and everlasting love. We find the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We find truth. All the things needed are there to free us from our slavery to sin and death. To attain this freedom, we must place these spiritual tools in our souls and bodies, and use them to attain holiness.

The Orthodox call this “theosis.”  It is a pilgrimage of transformation and it is a journey that we must not stop. The journey begins with a free gift, but the giving is just the first step. The Master said, “I am the Way….”  and those who have received the gift walk in that way.  As we walk, freedom becomes ever more powerful until we reach the end. What is the end of it?  Paul puts it this way: ” the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.  Sanctification is another way to speak of the journey to holiness and the end of holiness is eternal life.

A wage or a gift.  When it comes to money, I think I prefer a wage over the lottery. When it comes to salvation, I think I’ll take the gift. Then I’ll be a working man for holiness.

For the peace from above: Liberty and freedom

July 3, 2016

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Every July 4, we are reminded of the history of this country and its struggle for freedom. We hear the music, see the parades and fireworks, and watch our fellow citizens celebrate. The Orthodox appreciate the freedom that this nation offers for the practice of our Faith. Certainly, the saints of Russia, especially those who suffered under the communist yoke, would have felt blessed to have the religious freedom that we have. We appreciate that our freedom was obtained by the blood of many heroic martyrs whose sacrifice lifted the hand of tyrants and enemies from us. Every Orthodox, if they are able, should visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and spend a few moments in silent respect for their sacrifice. We should all celebrate the 4th of July (in our Orthodox fashion).

July 4 is also challenges the Orthodox to question the role of the Faith in American society. What is it that we have to offer?

Before I offer an answer, I want to say that nothing in Orthodoxy is opposed to the ideas of liberty and freedom. The American people are diverse and so equal treatment under the law is an important American virtue. As American Orthodox, we would never infringe upon the rights of others. However, we also ask that our right to live as we see fit should also be respected. It can be a complex legal issue on a national scale, but it is important that we stand by our principles and strive to prevent the law from being used against us.

In answer to the question of what Orthodoxy has to offer, I could talk about many things. However I think that there is one thing that is fundamental. It is an insight – the essence of true liberty and freedom is peace. If peace is absent, then freedom and liberty are fake. Peace is more than the absence of adversity and trouble. Jesus said, “My peace I give to you,” and St. Paul said that there is a peace that passes all understanding.  The people to whom these words were said would be people who would face torture and death, but they would face it with peace.

I did a word search of the Divine Liturgy of St. John. The word “peace” appears 41 times in the litanies and prayers. This shouldn’t be surprising since in the Bible (depending on the version you read) the word appears from 200 to over 400 times. What is this peace that passes all understanding and is the essence of liberty and freedom?

Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” A slave is never free unless he/she is able to break the chains of servitude. Many today think that they are free because the can do whatever pleases them. They do not understand until it is too late that they are really slaves to something that will ultimately kill them. How many stars, musicians, and trend setters have to die before we understand this? “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  As Orthodox, we are challenged to show to slaves what real freedom is.

How is true freedom realized? The Master instructs us: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is His truth that frees us. Our personal license is not real freedom if we are still slaves. The teachings of the Lord free us from the power of sin, so that we might experience real freedom. It is not enough to hear the words, we must abide in them. The words must live in us and we must live in them.

When we hear the Beatitudes, I am afraid that the words fall upon our deaf ears. What the Lord says seems so foreign to us. It may be because we are still slaves. All of the virtues that the Lord invokes – meekness, poverty of spirit, hunger for what is right, purity, etc. – are the living reality of someone who has been set free from the slavery of sin. Slaves to sin will not be meek or merciful. Slaves will not seek what is right or strive for purity.

This is what we have to offer to America – real freedom and liberty. They are virtues that go down to the very core of our being and frees us from a slave master that would destroy the world through us and lead us all to death. We offer Jesus Christ, the real Jesus, to America. It is not the Jesus of TV preachers and prosperity hustlers. It is not an American Jesus, but One who died to free us all from sin, and calls us all to follow Him.

It is a high calling that we Orthodox must answer. Surely, it is a narrow road but the Orthodox must strive to walk this narrow road of the Faith. Maybe then, being free from the slavery of sin, we will be able heal the great multitudes as the Lord did.

May every 4th of July remind us of true liberty and freedom!

“He who the Son sets free is free indeed.”

Happy 4th of July!

 

Stumbling into Zion

May 8, 2016

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Please check out the website at:

http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/category/clergy/

It is an autobiography in three parts.

Comments are most welcome.

Grace and Peace,

Fr. John

An adulterous and sinful generation

April 2, 2016

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Beatnik, hippie, baby boomer, yuppie, Generation X, millennial – these are terms used to describe the generations that have come into existence since I was born in the 1950s. Sometimes a generation would accept the title and wear it as a badge of honor. Other times, the title was rejected. Jesus used a title to describe his generation – adulterous and sinful. Could this description be applied to the generations that exist today?

Jesus wasn’t simply describing the sexual ethic of his day when he uses the title “adulterous.” Adultery was a reality  (as illustrated by the woman that the people wanted to stone because of adultery), but I think the Lord was also using the term in a much broader sense. To understand this, we need to look to the prophets.

God said to Hosea, “Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord.”  Note that God defines harlotry or adultery as “departing from the Lord.”  Sexual adultery is surely condemned, but it is spiritual adultery that concerns us. If it is true that departing from the Lord is spiritual adultery, then this present generation is most certainly adulterous and I am an adulterer too.

What does it mean to depart from the Lord? The sad way of adultery gives us a clue. Adultery is not solely driven by physical lust. It is not just a reality when physically consummated. While desire is involved, adultery begins as “an affair of the heart.” In these days of social media, married men and women check into websites where they can engage with someone. In this forum, they share thoughts and feelings that should only be shared with their spouse. If they still have any love for their spouse, the result is a divided heart.

We adulterers love God with a divided heart. Speaking to the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said “…these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me.” We remove or divide our hearts from God to pursue other lovers. God is a jealous God who wants us to love Him with will all of our heart. It always has been and always will be a matter of the heart. The Master described it when he said that all of the Law and the Prophets rested upon this – that you love the Lord your God with all your heart.

Don’t be confused about this. Does it mean that if I love my spouse, I am not loving God with all of my heart? Does it mean that if I love my friends that I am not loving God with all my heart? Does it mean that if I love the beauty of creation or of art or music that I am not loving God with all of my heart?  The answer to all is no. After all, Jesus also said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. He did not see this as a division of love. Here is the point: only when I love God with all of my heart can I love others fully with no sense of divided loyalties. There is no division or competition in true love. However, when I love God with only part of my heart, then all other loves are adulterous.

The Greek language is helpful here because while we have one word for love, Greek has many words. The word that applies here is “agape.” It means unselfish and sacrificial love and it best describes the love of God. God is love and creation was an act of love. The giving of the law was an act of love. The sending of the Prophets was an act of love. The Cross was an act of love. The creation of the Church and the Scriptures was an act of love. Surely, in the face of this kind of love, we should love God with our whole heart.

Given how we think of love, there is a possible problem. Is love a matter of how we feel, so love for God is also a matter of feeling? It is wonderful to feel love, but it has to be more than that.

In his teachings and life, the Lord shows us what agape is and how it is to be expressed.  It can be felt but it is more than feelings. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Each time, after Peter replied that he did love him, the Lord said “feed my sheep.” If you love me, do something!!!Agape was supremely displayed on the Cross. It was shown in the martyrs, apostles and prophets.  It is unselfish love shown not just by words and feelings but by deeds.

How do we live in this adulterous and sinful generation? We stop being adulterers. We no longer live with divided hearts and loyalties. We must regain an undivided heart. How is this done? Since the Cross was an act of love, the Lord invites to share in this love. It means we must do something: pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow Christ. This command seems burdensome and hopeless to a divided and adulterous heart. To an undivided heart, it is a call to love itself.

May the God of love draw us to the Cross for it is the only cure for an adulterous and sinful heart.