Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dr. David C. Ford's Review of Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex by Fr. Philip LeMasters

Especially in light of the vast confusion about gender issues in our contemporary society, I believe this very excellent book needs to be read by everyone - and especially by Orthodox pastors, to help guide them in their ministry to their flocks.  It presents the clearest understanding of marriage as being only ever possible between one man and one woman that I've ever seen. It also beautifully explains why marriage is the only proper, secure, mutually enriching setting for sexual intercourse, in which deeply meaningful spiritual as well as physical oneness can be experienced.
 Fr. Philip bases his presentation upon a profound understanding of the Orthodox sacramental worldview, in which every dimension of the material realm is inherently good, even after the Fall, because it's all been made by our All-Gracious LORD Who loves mankind.  He bases his very positive understanding of marriage, including marital relations, in this context.  So how much more profound and awesome is the Orthodox understanding that for Christians, every marriage is called to be a living image of Christ's love for His Body, the Church - with husbands and wives giving tender self-sacrificial love to each other in ways that reflect how Christ loves His Church and gives Himself for Her.
An extra bonus in this book is the best explanation I've ever seen for why our Church does not and cannot invite non-Orthodox Christians to partake in the Eucharist.  An exceptionally clear explanation of the Orthodox understanding of birth control within marriage is also given, including a very balanced and insightful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman Catholic approach to this issue.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Temple of the Rich Fool: Homily for the After-Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2: 14-22
Luke 12: 16-21
            Have you ever thought about the similarities and differences between barns and temples? Usually when we think of barns, we think simply of places to house farm animals or to store crops.  We normally do not think of them as having much spiritual significance. The rich man in today’s gospel lesson thought of his barns only in terms of his business, which was so successful that he looked forward simply to relaxing, eating, drinking, and enjoying himself.  Unfortunately, he did so to the point of making his possessions an idol.  He was rich in things of the world, but poor towards God.  He was ultimately a fool, for he based his life on what was temporary and lost his own soul.  His barn became a temple only to himself.

            We live in a culture that constantly tempts us to follow this man’s bad example.  More so than any previous generation, we are bombarded with advertising and other messages telling us that the good life is found in what we can buy. Whether it is cell phones, clothing, cars, houses, entertainment, food, or medicines, the message is the same:  Happiness comes from buying the latest new product.  During the weeks leading up to Christmas, this message is particularly strong.  We do not have to become Scrooges, however.  It is one thing to give reasonable gifts to our loved ones in celebration of the Savior’s birth, but it is quite another to turn this holy time of year into an idolatrous orgy of materialism that obscures the very reason for the season.
            We are not really near Christmas yet, as Advent just began on November 15.  Today, as we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, we are reminded of the importance of preparing to receive Christ at His birth.  Instead of looking for fulfillment in barns and the money they produce, we should follow her into the temple.  Sts. Joachim and Anna took their young daughter to the temple in Jerusalem, where she grew up in prayer and purity in preparation to become the living temple of God when she consented to the message of the Archangel Gabriel to become the mother of the God-Man Jesus Christ.   The Theotokos was not prepared for her uniquely glorious role by a life focused on making as much money as possible, acquiring the most fashionable and expensive products, or simply pleasing herself.  No, she became unbelievably rich toward God by focusing on the one thing needful, by a life focused on hearing the word of God and keeping it.

            In ways appropriate to our own life circumstances, God calls each of us to do the same thing.  And before we start making excuses, we need to recognize that what St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians applies to us also:  “[Y]ou are no longer strangers and sojourners, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  In other words, to be a Christian is to be a temple, for the Holy Spirit dwells in us both personally and collectively. The only way to become a better temple is to follow the example of the Theotokos in deliberate, intentional practices that make us rich toward God, that open ourselves to the healing and transformation of our souls that Christ has brought to the world.  We must participate personally in His holiness if we want to welcome Him anew into our lives at Christmas.    

            The rich fool became wealthy by investing himself entirely in his business to the neglect of everything else.  In contrast, the Theotokos invested herself so fully in the Lord that she was able to fulfill the most exalted, blessed, and difficult calling of all time as the Virgin Mother of the Savior.  In order for us to follow her example by becoming better temples of Christ, we also have to invest ourselves in holiness. The hard truth is that holiness does not happen by accident, especially in a culture that worships at the altar of pleasure, power, and possessions.  So much in our world shapes us every day a bit more like the rich fool in our gospel lesson, regardless of how much or how little money we have.  Many of us are addicted to electronic screens on phones, computers, and televisions.  What we see and hear through virtually all forms of entertainment encourages us to think and act as though our horizons extend no further than a barn.  In other words, the measure of our lives becomes what we possess, what we can buy, and whatever pleasure or distraction we can find on our own terms with food, drink, sex, or anything else.  We think of ourselves as isolated individuals free to seek happiness however it suits us.  No wonder that there is so much divorce, abortion, sexual immorality, and disregard for the poor, sick, and aged in our society.   Investing our lives in these ways is a form of idolatry, of offering ourselves to false gods that can neither save nor satisfy us.  The barn of the rich fool was also a temple, a pagan temple in which he basically worshiped himself.  If we are not careful, we will become just like him by laying up treasures for ourselves according to the dominant standards of our culture and shut ourselves out of the new life that Christ has brought to the world.  

            We cannot control the larger trends of our society, but we can control what we do each day.  During this Nativity Fast, no matter the circumstances of our lives, we can all take steps to live more faithfully as members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.  In other words, we can intentionally reject corrupting influences and live in ways that serve our calling to become better living temples of the Lord.  Yes, we can stop obsessing about our barns and enter into the temple of the one true God. 

The first step is to set aside time for prayer. If we do not pray every day, we should not be surprised that it is hard to pray in Church or that we find only frustration in trying to resist temptation or to know God’s peace in our lives.  We also need to read the Bible.  If we fill our minds with everything but the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the Saints, we should not be surprised that worry, fear, and unholy thoughts dominate us.  Fasting is also crucial.  If we do not fast or otherwise practice self-denial, we should not be surprised when self-centered desires for pleasure routinely get the better of us and make us their slaves.  We should also share with the poor.  If we do not give generously of our time and resources to others in need, we should not be surprised when selfishness alienates us from God, our neighbors, and even our loved ones. This is also a time for humble confession and repentance.   If we refuse to acknowledge and turn from our  sins, we should not be surprised when we are overcome by guilt and fall into despair about leading a faithful life.  No, the Theotokos did not wander into the temple by accident and we will not follow her into a life of holiness unless we intentionally reorient ourselves toward Him.

None of us will do that perfectly, but we must all take the steps we are capable of taking in order to turn our barns into temples.  Remember that the infant Christ was born in a barn, which by virtue of His presence became a temple.  The same will be true of our distracted, broken lives when—with the fear of God and faith and love—we open ourselves to the One Who comes to save us at Christmas.  The Theotokos prepared to receive the Savior by attending to the one thing needful, to hearing and keeping His word.  In the world as we know it, that takes deliberate effort, but it remains the only way to be rich toward God. And that is why Christ is born at Christmas, to bring us into His blessed, holy, and divine life which is more marvelous than anything we can possibly imagine.  As the Lord said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”     



St. Vladimir's Seminary Appeal Will Aid Suffering Syrian Christians

[SVOTS Communications / Yonkers, NY] When Patriarch John X (Yazigi), Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, visits the United States this fall, he will receive not only warm wishes but also a charitable gift from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. The gift, intended to aid suffering Orthodox Christians in Syria, will be presented to His Beatitude in December and will represent a tithe (one-tenth) of the Seminary's #GivingTuesday appeal.
"Life has a deeper meaning than fighting crowds on Black Friday or scouring the web for the best deals on Cyber Monday," said seminary Chancellor/CEO The Very Rev. Dr. Chad Hatfield. "That's why St. Vladimir's is participating in #GivingTuesday, a national day of charitable giving.
"Four generous donors are heavily supporting this effort, in matching five-to-one any charitable donation given that day, so a $10 gift will transform into a $50 gift, and a $100 gift will transform into $500 gift," explained Fr. Chad, "and these donations will provide not only for our seminarians but also for our suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East.
"Our seminary community felt impelled to share whatever is given to us with the Orthodox Christians in Syria, in light of their horrific plight," he continued. "So, on December 2nd, whatever monies come in, we're going give a full tithe to His Beatitude John X, who realistically will know how to distribute these funds 'at ground zero' so to speak. With each of our four generous supporters matching up to $5,000, it would be within reason to expect that we could potentially take in $25,000 on that day, with $2,500 going to our brothers and sisters in Syria.
"Right now, we're asking Orthodox Christians in the U.S. to get help us get the word out on their social media networks, throughFacebook (Twitter, and Instagram," Fr. Chad concluded, "and to stay in the loop about this venture by signing up for #GivingTuesday emails."
Patriarch John X will visit the U.S. to preside at the enthronement of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. Events related to the enthronement will take place during the weekend of December 5 through 7, 2014, at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Time Management: an Orthodox Perspective

By Albert Rossi, PhD and Julia Wickes, MA

The first thing to say, from an Orthodox perspective, is that there is no such thing as time management. We don’t manage time. Time manages us if we allow the Lord to have a place in our schedule.

Whose time is it?

Christ is everything, including the giver and owner of our time. He is the Way we format our schedule, the Truth about the meaning of time, and the flow of Life that moves us through time.
C. S. Lewis makes a profound point about time. He says that we usually regard time as our own. We start our day with the curious assumption that we are the lawful possessors of an upcoming twenty-four hours. With that hazardous assumption we then plot a matrix for our day, filling in time slots with tasks or restful moments. We might hope that we are managing our time in a way that will somehow please God. But when we begin with the assumption that time is ours, inconveniences and unexpected interruptions become intrusions into “my time.”
By contrast, we can begin with the assertion that time is not our own. Time belongs to the Lord and He has a plan for time that He desires us to accept for our own peace and joy.

Adjusting our expectations

Those who are trying to use their time to do the Lord’s will must begin every day, and every moment, with Jesus Christ. One question might be, “Lord, what do you want me to do, now?” But an even better question is, “Lord, what doyou want to do through me now?” This takes the emphasis from the ego and places it on the Lord.
If we believe that God has a plan for each moment, we can then be sensitive to each moment as it unfolds in unexpected ways. When we receive each moment as from the Lord we will begin to experience our time on earth as a series of small deaths and resurrections.
Every loss is a gift that God gives us so that He can give us more. It might be saying goodbye to high school or college days, a move from the old neighborhood, the loss of a job, the loss of physical or mental health. We might lose loved ones through separation or death. In degrees, the reactive thought might be, “This is the beginning of the end.” A more truthful thought would be, “This is the beginning of the beginning.” Death is the beginning of a new relationship with Christ, a fresh beginning of an entirely new life. Each loss and little death is a new beginning towards our ultimate beginning—heaven.
As we adjust our expectations time takes on a new meaning.

Sacrament of the present moment

Simple awareness of the presence of God is the power within the present moment. The present moment—now—is the only place where God is. He discloses Himself through the reality of the present moment. Nowhere else. This is a mystery we can participate in by simply trying to be aware of His presence.
Awareness, conscious contact with God, is the key.

The Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret

An Orthodox morning prayer by Metropolitan Philaret says: “In unforeseen events let us not forget that all are sent by Thee.” Here it is helpful to refine exactly what is meant by the idea that God sends all moments. God did not send terrorists to fly planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Rather, God allowed terrorists to fly those planes. What, then, is implied by the all in Metropolitan Philaret’s prayer? An Orthodox perspective would say that events outside ourselves are subject to God’s allowing will, and moreover are beyond our understanding. However, by faith we believe and confess that God sends all of the events that pertain to us. All events in our day, even those that we anticipate in a human way, can legitimately be described as “unforeseen,” because they bear a divine potential which is not revealed to us in advance. But even “unforeseen events,” in the most mundane sense of the term—the unforeseen phone call or the inconvenient request—can take on a new meaning, simply because our time is not our own.
Our freedom consists in embracing all that happens to us, exhaustion and all, as a blessing in divine disguise.

Making the most of time

There is a paradox inherent in the Orthodox approach to time. We do not “manage” our time yet we must be prudent and skillful in the way we use our time. We must plan without being a slave of our plans. So, we are back to basics. We need to allow the Lord to flow through us all the time, as best we can. Sometimes we must use the present moment to plan for tomorrow and the long-term future. But, again, it is the Lord doing the planning through us. When we finish the planning we can’t obsess about it or allow the plans to become larger than life. We must be stable in the present moment and flexible enough to change plans as the Lord directs, at a moment’s notice. One saint said she wanted to be a ball on a table top in the hands of the Lord, allowing Him to move her anyway He chose, for His pleasure.
The truth is that we have all the time we need, and abundantly more, to do all that the Lord has us on the planet to do. He gives us our tasks and ministry, and resources with sufficient time. “And my God will supply your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19)
We, however, often have other ideas. Enter stress and dissatisfaction. We make our own stress, in large part.

Ready for virtually anything

We can only be ready for virtually anything if we know what else we have to do and choose to not do. Then we can do or not do what appears in the moment, based on a deep intuition of what the Lord is calling for now. All too often we walk through life responding to the “latest and loudest” voice clamoring for our attention.
David Allen in his interesting book, Ready for Anything, emphasizes a few key points. We need to have some system where we have written down everything we need to do. These are called projects, anything that requires more than one step to accomplish. We also need a list of next action steps, those things that can be accomplished in one action. These next actions can be grouped into categories that make life better organized. We might group together all the next actions which require a computer, or the phone, or when talking with my boss. Then, when we are at the phone or have a slice of free time, we will know what calls we might or might not make on the spot. All this helps us think less about what we need to do.
The brain is a fine instrument for creative thought but a poor container to remember all the outstanding commitments and projects that are ours. When projects and next actions are written down, and backed up, in some trusted system, we can allow the system to remember for us. For computer users, an external hard drive can serve as a trusted backup system. For those who prefer pen and paper (and this number is growing), a copy should be made of all that is written down. A backup is necessary because we must feel free from the possibility that we wrote down everything we need to do and that list got misplaced, or thrown out with the trash, or mauled by a well-meaning pet.
The idea is to free our mind from worry about commitments we have made with ourselves and others. Then we can use our brain for other things. If we try to keep our commitments in our head, like a computer with too much in the memory, the entire system slows down.
We need to take copious notes and be willing to process and organize these notes at least weekly so we have more freedom in the way we use our time.
To be free in the Lord requires that we are as free as we can be from internal baggage and preoccupation. David Allen calls this “Mind like water,” that is, a mind ready to receive the next pebble thrown in and naturally allow the ripples to move out.

Push pause

Time Management
To let the Lord work through us means that we give him space, and, of course, time. All too often we act reactively. Our responses often take the form of a stimulus-response reaction. Too many times we want to say, “Yes” to all the requests that come our way, and they all may have great merit. But then, one can get so overloaded and overburdened. However, it is not always easy to discern to what we should say “yes” or “no.” It does require growing closer to the Lord, to hear His voice and His direction. Often, we do not go in the direction to which He has pointed. However, we take comfort in the knowledge that He is the Great “GPS”. He is always ready to “recalculate” and reroute us.
One handy suggestion is to push pause as often as we can. We can pause between the stimulus and our response, thereby gaining perspective. The pause itself is usually sufficient to break the reactivity cycle. We can become aware of something else going on besides the unconscious reaction. This is a fine opportunity to try to remember that we are in the holy presence of God.
A way to gain more conscious contact with God is to gently and quietly say, “Jesus.” His holy Name is an expression of belief, adoration, expectation of salvation and unity with Him and all the members of His body. His name is sacred and is a power He asked us to use. “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23) We need to know that when we use His Name we are acknowledging that we are his disciples. We pause and say His Name, as an act of obedience and surrender of the present moment. We can match this with an awareness of our breathing, centering us more inside our body.
We can simply say the one word, “Jesus,” to transfigure what is in front of us, or in our minds. The name Jesus can be a filter through which our thoughts, words and deeds have to pass to be freed from their impurities. Needless to say, this is severe spiritual warfare. It requires a forgetfulness of the self, a dying to the negative thoughts the ego wants to indulge.


Time manages us because the Lord lives within the time He gives us. So, it is He, through the reality we call measured time, who manages, leads, nourishes and strengthens us. We don’t live life. Life lives us.
Time is our friend, not our burden to endure. We need only remember that we are in the holy presence of God. We can pause and say the Name of Jesus, thereby bringing us into His very life within us. While on earth we have an opportunity to “sanctify time.”
Dr. Albert Rossi is a clinical psychologist who teaches classes in pastoral theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He has a bi-weekly podcast called Becoming a Healing Presence on Ancient Faith Radio. Julia Wickes earned a master’s degree from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and currently lives in St. Louis, MO.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Christlike Foolishness of Fellowship with Sinners: Homily for the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist in the Orthodox Church


1 Corinthians 4:9-16
St. Matthew 9:9-13
            Most of us do not want to play the fool, to appear to others as though we have lost of our minds and should not be taken seriously.  As we begin the period of the Nativity Fast, however, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ brought salvation to the world in what appeared to most people at the time as an unbelievably foolish way. When the eternal Son of God became a human being, He was born in the humble setting of a barn to a virgin mother.  We have heard the story so many times that it no longer shocks us, but imagine how it looked to the leaders of the Jewish people at the time who wanted a powerful, respectable political and military leader as the solution to their problem of being occupied by the Roman Empire.  They also expected their deliverer to be a strict teacher of religious law who would bring earthly blessings upon the righteous and judgment upon Gentiles and sinners.    
            No, Jesus Christ did not fit their expectations either at His birth or throughout His public ministry.  On this feast day of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, we remember that He called Matthew, a tax collector, to be His disciple.  As we remember from the story of Zacheus, tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Romans, collecting more than was required from their own people and living off the difference.  Righteous Jews viewed them as a traitors and thieves and would have nothing to do with them.  No one would have expected the Messiah of Israel to call a tax collector to follow Him as a disciple, but that is precisely what the Lord did.  If that were not foolish enough, He also ate with tax collectors and sinners, which in that time and place was away of participating in their uncleanness.    In the eyes of the Pharisees, Christ defiled Himself and broke the Old Testament law by doing so.   For the Messiah to act in such ways was worse than foolishness; it was blasphemy and a sign that He was not a righteous Jew, let alone the one anointed to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham.    
            In response, the Lord made clear that His apparent foolishness demonstrated a much deeper wisdom than that of His self-righteous critics.  He said that sick people, not healthy ones, are in need of a doctor’s care.   He said that He came to call not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.  Think about it for a moment.  Who requires healing, the sick or the well?  Who needs to repent, those who are already faithful or those who are not?  Christ quoted the Old Testament (Hosea 6:6) in reminding His opponents that God desired mercy and not sacrifice.  In other words, He related to others in ways that embodied the divine compassion toward corrupt and broken people.  He came to help and heal them, to help and heal us.  As so many of the Old Testament prophets proclaimed, religious ceremonies are worthless for those who refuse to show God’s mercy to the human beings they encounter every day.  That is precisely what Jesus Christ did in associating with tax collectors and sinners in a way that made Him look like a fool in the eyes of many.
            Saint Paul wrote about the ministry of the apostles that they were fools for Christ’s sake.  Before Christianity was popular, established, or well-known anywhere, they left everything behind for a ministry that led to poverty, persecution, and death.   Like the countless martyrs of Christian history throughout the centuries and in places today such as the Middle East, the apostles certainly appeared as fools to the vast majority of people in their time and place.  Why risk your life for the memory of an obscure Jewish rabbi?  Why not burn some incense to Caesar, convert to the religion of a conquering foe, or join the Communist Party?  Why throw your life away for the sake of this foolishness about Jesus Christ?
            It is easy for those of us who face no real persecution for our faith to romanticize the plight of the confessors and martyrs who suffer and die for the Lord.  It is more difficult, however, for us to recognize that Christ calls us to be fools for His sake in our lives and our culture every day.  He scandalized the self-righteous by calling St. Matthew to follow Him and by associating with people of bad reputation.  Christ did not endorse their sins, but He risked His own reputation in order to lead them to repentance and healing.  He showed them the mercy of God by calling them to a new life.  Likewise, it may seem foolish to some when we show hospitality, kindness, and friendship to the tax collectors and sinners of our day, to those whose behaviors and styles of life are quite different from the paths to holiness that we seek to pursue as Orthodox Christians.  Judging and condemning particular people for any reason is never our place; when we do so, we judge and condemn only ourselves for our pride and self-righteousness, for being like the Pharisees who criticized Christ for keeping company with disreputable people.  
            Let’s be clear.  The point is not to abandon the teachings and practices of our faith or to say that all ways of living are equally good and holy.  The Lord called His disciples to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, and He expects the same of us.  Part of that righteousness, however, is not to abandon human beings, our loved ones, friends, and acquaintances, when they lose their way and even when they make terrible decisions about how to order their lives.  Christ calls us to treat others as He treats us.  Our Savior looked like a fool to many when He kept company with people known to be sinners, and we should not be afraid to follow His example in order to maintain relationships that serve as signs of God’s steadfast love to broken and confused people whose burdens we never know fully.  If they do not experience a measure of the love of Christ through us, then where will they experience it?  If they know Christians as those who want nothing to do with them, they will likely never be drawn to the healing and life of the Kingdom.  Why would they?  What good news do we offer by abandoning them?
Of course, we must be careful not to get in situations that we cannot handle.  Sometimes relationships end or become so unhealthy that we have to abandon them for the good of all concerned.  Those are extreme circumstances and we need to be careful in them.  But when it is possible to overcome the stereotypical distinctions between the righteous and sinners of our day in order to show Christ’s compassion even to the most unlikely people, we should not refuse to do so for fear of looking foolish. The Lord certainly had an unlikely circle of acquaintances and we should not be afraid to follow His example.  
            In order to have the spiritual strength and clarity to discern how to become a healing presence in relation to other people, we all need the spiritual disciplines of the Nativity Fast, such as prayer, fasting, repentance,  generosity to the needy, and reconciliation with enemies.   Yes, these also appear foolish to our culture, especially in a time of year so focused on self-indulgence and material possessions.  And here is the great irony, for this season is fundamentally one of preparation to receive Christ Who, both at His birth and throughout His ministry, looked like a fool according to the conventional religious stands of His day.  But through what appeared to be foolish, He made—and continues to make-- saints out of tax-collectors,  prostitutes, adulterers,  murderers, Gentiles, and other unlikely characters.  So in the weeks before Christmas, let us embrace our calling to live in what may seem to be foolish ways that will draw others to the celebration of the birth of the Savior not only on December 25, but in their hearts and lives every day of the year—no matter who they are and no matter how seriously they have lost their way.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Traditional Sexuality, Radical Community" by Corey Widmer
I looked nervously across the table, fidgeting with my coffee cup. Do you realize what you’re asking of me? he questioned. We’d been meeting for more than an hour, talking about his struggle with same-sex attraction and his decision about whether to enter into a more intentional relationship with his boyfriend. He’d been part of our church and community group for a couple of years, always intelligent and effervescent, exhibiting many marks of a mature Christian. Yet my friend’s dark internal struggle had finally reached its culmination, and here we were together in a coffee shop, grappling with the reality of his decision.
Do you realize what you’re asking of me? I did. I was asking him not to act on his same-sex desires, to commit to a celibate lifestyle, and to turn away from an important romantic relationship. Yet as I reflect on that discussion, I now realize I didn’t fully understand what I was asking of him. I was asking him to do something our church community wasn’t prepared to support. I was asking him to make some astonishing and countercultural decisions that would put him out of step with those around him. In many ways, I was asking him to live as a misfit in a community that couldn’t yet provide the social support to make such a decision tenable, much less desirable. No wonder he walked away.
Several years have passed since that conversation, but it’s convinced me of the vital relationship between sexuality and ecclesiology. There are many churches like ours that believe there are two possible paths for followers of Jesus to live obedient sexual lives: heterosexual marriage and sexual abstinence. But among churches that are committed to a biblical sexual ethic, there are few, I’m afraid, that make living out that ethic possible for the average person dealing with same-sex attraction.
I’m now convinced any church that holds a traditional view of sexuality must also foster a radical practice of Christian community in which living out a biblical sexual ethic becomes possible and even attractive. 

Thick Communities as Alternative Plausibility Structures

More than two decades ago sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” to describe the sociocultural systems of meaning, actions, or beliefs that are basic to community life and tend to remain unquestioned by individuals in a given society. Had you told someone 50 or 100 years ago not to have sex before marriage, even if he transgressed he’d still agree abstinence “makes sense” and is “the right thing to do.” This idea was an axiomatic part of his plausibility structure, his shared sense of meaning with the broader culture. 
But today, what the church affirms about sex and sexuality is so radically out of step with what’s commonplace in the culture that we cannot expect anyone to innately “get” the Christian view. Our beliefs are no longer part of the cultural plausibility structure. Yet the church often puts the demands of Christian sexual discipleship on individuals without creating social conditions to make those demands possible and attractive.
I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive.
I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive. If a gay friend is going to embrace a life of chastity for Jesus Christ, she must be able to look into the future and see not only the loss and pain but also the possibility that a real fulfilling life can be lived. If we don’t work at this task, if we don’t create the kinds of communities in which the countercultural lifestyle we’re advocating is supported and upheld, we’ll continue to see people choose plausibility structures that make more sense and have greater support from the culture.
For this change to happen churches have to be actual communities, not just buildings people enter once a week. Jesus calls individuals into a new family that lives out the joys and demands of the gospel together, bearing burdens and cheering one another along the Calvary road. Jesus even promises that those who take up the hard demands of following him will be given a new community to support the consequences of the losses they endure:
Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life. (Luke 18:29–30)
Christ’s consolation to those who follow him isn’t new religious activity; it’s a new family.

Bearing the Cost

Do we realize what we’re asking of our friends with same-sex attraction? One the one hand, God is asking of them the same thing he’s asking of us who are heterosexual when we start following Jesus. He’s asking for every part of our lives to come under his lordship, including our sexuality. If we’re single, that means committing to sexual abstinence or chastity.
Those of us who are heterosexual must realize, however, that even though God is calling us to the same thing (chastity), our LGBTQ friends will experience this calling differently. When heterosexuals commit to chastity, they do so knowing they may meet someone, get married, and be able to have sex. When those tempted by same-sex attraction commit to chastity, though, they’re doing so knowing that unless God changes their sexual desires, they may never know the intimacy of a sexual relationship. That realization can be devastating, and too few heterosexual Christians have gone to the depths with a friend into that experience. Bearing this pain with another is part of creating a social environment where the possibility of this kind of life isn’t a horrific prospect.

Two Scenarios

The sexual demands of discipleship will become more plausible and practical to our gay (and straight) single friends if they see everyone in the community taking seriously all the demands of the gospel, not just the sexual ones.
Imagine two scenarios for a friend we’ll call Bob. Bob is gay. He’s just become a believer in Jesus and is now coping with the idea that Jesus may be calling him to live a life of chastity. He has one Christian friend, Steve, who initially invited him to church. Steve’s a nice guy, is married, has three kids, is wealthy, and seems very happy. As Bob struggles with the prospect of chastity, he cannot help but feel it’s unfair that he was born with same-sex attraction while Steve happened to be born straight and pretty much has a perfect American life. If this is the only Christian environment Bob knows, he likely won’t choose the way of Jesus.
Now picture the other scenario. Bob’s been introduced to Jesus by a community group at the invitation of a colleague. The group shares deeply and vulnerably, confessing sin and praying for one another. As Bob struggles with the prospect of chastity, he looks around the group and sees ways others in the group have embraced hard things because of the gospel. At least two other singles in the group are straight and have also embraced chastity. There’s a married couple who are honest about their struggles and failings but committed to not leaving each other despite the immense pain. Another person wasn’t willing to participate in the fraudulent activities of her company, and lost her job because of it.
In this scenario the demands of Jesus don’t lessen for Bob, but he does look around and see he’s not the only one being asked to lose certain things for the gospel. He sees a mixed community of married and single, same-sex attracted and straight, all bearing their crosses together and helping one another bear those heavy burdens. Our gay friends must see a church community in which all of us—not just those who battle same-sex attraction—are facing the demands of the gospel and the struggle against sin. 

Honor Singleness, Demystify Marriage

Another way we can create healthy countercultural plausibility structures is by removing marriage from the idolatrous pedestal on which it’s often placed. At times marriage, and the presumed sexual joy therein, is cast as such an objective for Christians that it starts sounding like the supreme goal, surpassing Jesus himself. Talk about “family values” cements this idea, suggesting God’s basic desire for human flourishing is for you to be married and start a family and, if you’re not experiencing that, then hurry up and try.
But the great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, isn’t describing love between husbands and wives or parents and kids but love between Christians in a church community. The Bible sees the church, not the nuclear family, as the primary level of relationships in our new kingdom life.
Further, we must return the New Testament’s high honoring of the single life. Whenever we treat singleness as a “second tier” calling or minor league to marriage we’re communicating to our single brothers and sisters that they’re experiencing less of the full human experience. This is obviously not the case. Jesus was single, and he was the perfect human. Paul advocated for singleness and even dubbed it a “higher calling” than marriage: “He who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Cor. 7:38).
Imagine a community in which many celibate singles, both same-sex attracted and straight, are taking full advantage of their singleness as they live the life of the kingdom together. Imagine a community in which sex and marriage are seen as good gifts but not ultimate gifts—indeed, things a follower of Jesus can live without. In such a community, the possibility of a single life of chastity wouldn’t be the fate worse than death it’s sometimes portrayed to be.
In short, we should not call our single friends to sexual abstinence until we create the social environments (plausibility structures) that make such a life meaningful and viable.
We should not call our single friends to sexual abstinence until we create the social environments (plausibility structures) that make such a life meaningful and viable.

Embrace a Theology of Unfulfillment

Whether it’s shopping, sports, jobs, or sex, Western values encourage people to discover what they really want and go for it. Sadly, the church often coopts this narrative and makes it part of our own. God has given me these desires and wants me to be happy, and God helps me get what I want. At times it’s difficult for us to understand why Scripture might prohibit our desires, since this completely contradicts the cultural plausibility narrative we often embrace.
But when we read Scripture we see a theme of unfulfillment, incompletion, and brokenness everywhere. “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,” Paul writes, “groan inwardly as we eagerly await for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Or elsewhere: “For this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). This is the normative Christian experience— to live with incompletion, unfulfillment, and an awareness that the gospel’s imperatives will challenge and frustrate our natural impulses in many ways.
If we’re going to summon people to sexual chastity, we should be welcoming one another into a community in which we are all wrestling with unsatisfied desires that will only fully and finally be met in Christ. Such a community will help create a plausibility structure in which our same-sex attracted friends living with daily unfulfillment see that they are not the only ones.

No Magic Bullet

I realize what I’m proposing here leaves many unanswered questions. The church’s social arrangements aren’t the only factor that will enable us to live faithful sexual lives, for even the best Christian community will utterly fail without the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit at the center. I’m simply trying to make the case that we cannot espouse the historically Christian view of sexuality without also embracing a radical view of community that makes the biblical ethic viable, practical, and plausible. Self-denying sexuality needs robust ecclesiology. To do one without the other is to continue to inflict pain on the LGBTQ friends we’re inviting to follow Jesus.
May we create communities as Jesus did—communities in which all sorts of people with all sorts of pasts are welcomed and given the support they need to follow him together until the day we see him face to face.
Corey Widmer serves as associate pastor of Third Church in Richmond, Virginia, and cofounder and pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic congregation in the East End of Richmond. Corey, his wife, Sarah, and their four daughters have been part of a community development effort in East Richmond for the last nine years. Corey is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Princeton Seminary, and is currently a PhD candidate in theology. You canfollow him on Twitter.

Homily on St. Nektarius the Wonderworker of Pentapolis: The Importance of Commemorating and Asking for the Prayers of the Saints of the Orthodox Church

 Ephesians 5:8-19  
Luke 8:41-56 
              It is hard to learn how to do anything without a good example of how to do it. Teachers, coaches, managers, and others who give us assignments often have to model how to do what they ask of us.  Without clear examples, most of us will not succeed in getting the job done. That is why it is so important for us to study the lives of the saints, the great examples of what it means for Christians to live holy lives.
            Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate St. Nektarius of Pentapolis the Wonderworker, who exemplifies St. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians to “walk as children of light” and to do “what is pleasing the Lord” with purity in the midst of a corrupt world that is so full of darkness and temptation.  St. Nektarius was a Greek born in the middle of the 19th century.  He became a monk, a priest, and ultimately a metropolitan.   Despite Nektarius’  childlike innocence and humility, his rapid rise to prominence in the Church roused the jealousy of others who were not so virtuous.  They made false accusations against him, which resulted in his losing his position and being unable to find suitable work.  So he accepted the humble place of a provincial preacher, led a theological school, and gave generously to the needy even as he lived in poverty.  He oversaw the building of a women’s monastery, provided  spiritual direction to many, and devoted himself to intense prayer during which he was sometimes seen elevated above the ground.  His personal holiness was such that his prayers healed the sick, cast out demons, and ended a drought.   The saint’s enemies continued to circulate vicious rumors about him, but Nektarius never defended himself and instead simply forgave them.   His relics were found to be incorrupt after his death, and sicknesses of all kinds—especially cancer-- have been healed through his intercessions.
            We certainly ask righteous people we know today to pray for us because we trust that God will hear their prayers.  That is a good and ancient practice.  In the same way, asking for the prayers of saints such as St. Nektarius is an intrinsic part of the Christian life.  The word saint means “holy” and the saints are those in whose lives the holiness of God is powerfully evident.   They are now part of that great cloud of witnesses that inspires us to run the race in obedience to Jesus Christ. (Heb. 12:-1-2)  As described in the Book of Revelation, they intercede for us around the heavenly throne.
            Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and the saints’ physical remains or relics are often incorrupt or preserved from decay.  Their bodies manifest the holiness evident in their lives, which is why the bones of the prophet Elisha raised a dead man in the Old Testament.  (2 Kings 13:21) Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched St. Paul healed the sick and cast out demons in Acts. (19:12) Remember that Jesus Christ rose from the dead with a glorified body.  Our hope for life eternal is the resurrection of the whole person—body, soul, and spirit.  So it should not be surprising that the physical bodies of holy people are often conduits of our Lord’s blessing to the rest of us who also have physical bodies.  That has been the experience of the Church since the very beginning of the faith.
            To remember and honor the saints, as well as to ask for their intercessions, is ultimately to give thanks and praise to God, for their great virtues are His gifts.  If we want evidence of the truth of the Gospel , of our hope to participate personally in the holiness and eternal life of our Lord, we should look to the saints, whose lives are truly living icons of His salvation.  They are like our hall of fame, the greatest examples of what it means to be fully open and receptive to God’s presence and power in our lives.  Like the Thetotokos, the greatest of the saints, they always point to Christ, inviting us to give ourselves to Him.  As we say so often in our services, “Calling to remembrance our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.”  The saints are certainly not distractions from faithfulness to the Lord.  The very opposite is true, as they inspire us by their examples and prayers to take up our crosses and follow Him, even as they did.
            We need that inspiration because, as St. Paul reminded the Ephesians, it is so easy to be spiritually asleep.  It is so easy to fail to be alert to the temptations all around us and especially that we have allowed to take root in our hearts due to our own laziness.  Even as the person who has drunk too much wine tends to let his guard down and find it hard to control himself, we too easily become drunk with our own passions or self-centered desires.    We too often think, act, and speak foolishly, participating in “the unfruitful works of darkness” because they are popular, appealing, and all too familiar.
 If we define a good life by what is celebrated in popular culture--in movies, television, music, the internet, advertisements, or what most think of as the “conventional wisdom”—we will be lulled into thinking that we are doing just fine spiritually no matter we believe or how we live.  If we pay too much attention to popular versions of religion in our culture, we will hold ourselves to no higher standard than whatever makes us momentarily happy or serves whatever political agenda we may like.  If we fill our minds with graphic images of sex and violence in the name of entertainment, we will no longer consider a life of purity to be desirable or even possible.  The more comfortable we become with gratifying every desire, the more we will excuse ourselves from pursuing holiness in the relationship between man and woman as though that is somehow outdated and irrelevant.
That is precisely why we need to remember the saints, not as distant historical figures, but as fellow members of the Body of Christ, as our friends and personal examples, as holy people for whose prayers we ask every day of our lives.  If we hold ourselves to the standard that they set in faithful service to Jesus Christ, we will be less inclined to let ourselves off the hook by having expectations no higher than those of our darkened and corrupt world.  When they become our spiritual companions, we will be less likely to think of ours as a lonely and impossible path.  Every temptation we face, they faced.  Every virtue we seek to cultivate, they developed in their own lives.  Every pain or difficulty that we encounter, they know.   They are examples of how to live faithfully in a world where there is nothing new under the sun.  
We should commemorate St. Nektarius of Pentapolis the Wonderworker by living as he did in faithfulness to our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us wake up spiritually and “walk as children of light,” refusing to conform ourselves to the darkness and instead keeping our eyes on the prize of finishing the race.  The saints have shown us how to do that and now they cheer us on to victory through their intercessions.  As Orthodox Christians, we must take full advantage of their example, their intercession, and their companionship.   They are shining lights of what it means to be truly human in Jesus Christ and they invite us to join them.  By God’s grace, we can.  The only question is whether we will choose to do so.