Friday, November 28, 2014

"Taybeh Continues to be the Light" by Maria C. Khoury, Ed. D.

As I woke up to heavy rain and severe wind storms in one of the highest mountain regions in Palestine, I gave glory to God  to be alive for another day and continue to keep my hope that all people of this region will learn to love humanity.  The only good thing about the dense fog in front of me is that I could not see the illegal Israeli settlement outside my kitchen window.  Settlements on the West Bank have been a huge big obstacle to any frozen peace agreement for twenty years between Israelis and Palestinians.  As the harsh weather and tough political conditions continue to be at an all-time high, I was grateful for friends around the world who prayed for a peaceful day (November 25th) during the opening of the new Taybeh Winery introducing for the first time, Palestinian boutique wines.  We were lucky the storm arrived at night after having a successful and historic making day with many local and international visitors.  All of our friends in America are celebrating a Happy Thanksgiving and we are truly thankful for having a peaceful day.  Glory be to God for all things!
As a collaborative celebration, the Belgian Consul General in Jerusalem selected our tiny village to celebrate for the first time in Palestine the King’s Day, a type of national day for Belgium traditionally held in Jerusalem  by the consulate every year during the fall with the actual birthday of King Philip being November 15th.  However, as more countries around the world are officially recognizing Palestine, we felt this decision to host the King’s Day celebration was a personal support and solidarity of our existence.  The Taybeh Golden Hotel, under construction for many years, finally opened its door to welcome many dignitaries including the Palestinian Prime Minister and the American Consul General in Jerusalem along with the ambassador of Turkey and Japan and many other leaders including the Greek Consul General.
The Taybeh Winery, on the street level of the eighty room Taybeh Golden Hotel is a dream comes true for Nadim Khoury, the co-founder of Taybeh Brewing Company along with my husband David.  My nephew Canaan, Harvard class 2013, returned home to Palestine to become the new winemaker and manage the winery following his dad’s footsteps in challenging times with Roberto, an Italian wine maker using all state of the art equipment from Italy. 
The grapes from Taybeh and the surrounding towns of Aboud and Birzeit were crushed August 2013 and bottled recently in the “Nadim” label for Merlo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.  “Nadim” in Arabic means “drinking companion;” what the family thought is a perfect name for the new wine to enter the international market with a distinctive Palestinian identity.  This last harvest, white grapes from Hebron were also crushed and will be bottled in the spring for what we expect to be a delicious Sauvignon Blanc.  The 2013 Grand reserve Cabernet Sauvignon reserve is aging in French oak barrels and hopefully will be bottled just in time for Christmas.  Although the website and many things are still under construction, everyone felt it was a historic day in Taybeh with the Belgian celebration and the introduction of the new fine boutique Palestinian wines. 
We are trying to do some good things under terrible conditions and reflect that Palestine has a civilization of culture, art, music and not only a great micro-brewed beer for twenty years but now a boutique wine too and a theme hotel to go with it.  We were honored that some of the well-known Palestinian artists Nabil Anani and Tayser Barakat loaned their exquisite art to be displayed during the opening. Suheil Zayad from Birzeit played the oud all evening while Joseph Doughman from Bethlehem played the Saxophone during the day.
As Jesus blessed the water to wine in Cana more than two thousand years ago, I surely hope all the heavy rain will be a blessing for our water shortage.  As Fr. Louis from Birzeit Latin parish said, “Taybeh is the new Cana,” because it serves as a light in the region that has so much darkness today across the board, politically, emotionally, culturally, intellectually and even with tough weather conditions.  But it was a glorious day to have our parish priest, Fr. Daoud Khoury offer a prayer  in an ecumenical blessing with representatives from the Russian, Coptic Patriarchate and His Eminence Archbishop Aris Shirvanian from the Armenian Patriarchate with Archbishop Joseph-Jules Zerey from the Greek-Catholic Patriarchal Exarchate of Jerusalem.  Father Jack and Fr. Aziz, our local priests also gave their blessing.  Pray with us for better times in Palestine so we can see the end of military occupation in our lifetime. However, in the meantime, Taybeh welcomes you not only for the Taybeh Beer tour which might include an interview with the only female who brews beer in Palestine, Madees Khoury but an eye opening experience at the Taybeh Winery also.  “Eye opening” because Palestinians are normal people like you and me.
The beautiful Bible verse in John (2:1-11) says that “ what Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and  his disciples believed in Him.”  We too, here on the ground in Palestine believe in miracles and hope the world will believe we are human as all people of the world.  And, the best is now coming from Taybeh.  Happy Thanksgiving!  Give thanks in all things. (1 Tim. 5:18)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Alternative Christianity: Orthodoxy and the Mainstream Church


Every mainstream should have an antithesis.  This is not to be combative or dismissive to the denomination that left.  Had it not been for the African-American Baptist Church, I probably would have never been born, much less born again.  I think the black church of the various denominations and non-denominations are able to lead souls to salvation as the final Judge looks beyond nation, race, and other factors we consider important in the world.  Even though the Orthodox Church maintains the doctrine handed down by Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church Fathers; God looks at the heart of people and decides who will enter paradise and who will be condemned.
While Paul went to Greece, Matthew went to Ethiopia
Yet, every mainstream needs an antithesis to reach the unreachable, refresh the burned out, and cause those who are complacent to rethink where they are and what they believe.  In music, punk and hip-hop were the underground movements that challenged the rock and r&b industries.  Were it not for these movements, all forms of American music (I dare say even country, jazz, and others) would have lost the cutting edge of creativity that encouraged kids to pick up guitars and mics rather than guns and needles.  Rock would have become an empty shell of its self and reduced to background music for elevators.  R&B would have continued as a disco ball to be kicked around by anyone who wanted to make a quick hit for the money.  Thank God for bands like the Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and the Clash.  Praise Jesus for Kool Herc,  Afrika Bamattaa, and Grand Master Flash.
The Ancient Faith in North America
I believe the mainstream of African-American Christianity (American Christianity in general, for that matter) has become way too comfortable and predictable.  Many of us, especially in rural and small town areas, go to the churches our families have always gone to.  Those in urban and suburban areas tend to flock to wherever our friends go, whatever congregation has the ministries that meet the needs of our family, or whoever’s preaching and teaching “feeds” our souls.  The churches boast great singing, a powerful sermons, and fellowship with other believers.  Compared to the cesspool of modern society, the mainstream of the black church is a great place to be.
Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King during the Selma to Montgomery March
But, one property of a flowing river is that it cuts through and erodes the banks and goes to new territory.  If a body of water is not flowing, there is the risk of stagnation.  While winds and rains may offer refreshment to a pond that doesn’t flow, it is still going to lose oxygen and gain no further places to run.  I mean no one any insult.  But, in some ways, this is where the modern African-American church is today.  It is bordered in the same circle with no new flow.
Fr. Maximus Cabey of St. Matthew’s Orthodox Church, Green Bay WI
Almost every choir is singing the latest gospel hit from the radio.  Nearly every preacher is using the same catch phrases in sermons to motivate (if not pressure) congregations to stand up and shout.  As soon as a few of the more well known ministers start a new trend, the old ones are quickly abandoned as “God has shifted us in a new direction.”  Some choir directors and pastors have even been guilty of bringing so much of the secular world into worship that some in the community can’t tell the difference between the church and the club (sometimes the same people attend both).  There are some ponds that are healthy.  There were some talented rock and r&b musicians.  And there are some modern churches that are full of the grace of God.  But, without the flowing stream, without the punk and rap, without some sort of alternative to what is very familiar and has over-saturated the church, I am afraid it will grow stagnant and die.
Pascha (Orthodox Easter) celebrated in Jerusalem with the Holy Fire
In punk, guitarist went back to the simple three chords and made music that nearly anyone could play.  DJ’s searched for any old record of any genre for the “break beats” to keep the party going.  When a stream cuts through a bank and exposes more land to new waters, both aquatic and terrestrial life benefits.  I believe more African-American Christians should pick up the oldest witness of our faith, dive through the wealth of its practical and spiritual wisdom, and cut through our old boundaries and give new life to ourselves and all who are around us.  I think more of us should become Orthodox Christians.
Bob Marley converted to Ethiopian Orthodoxy before his death
We have plenty of Christians and Churches who have brought into the idea of needing some sort of emotional or exiting release as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  I am in no position to question anyone’s motives.  But, the fact is that such outburst can be faked.  People can be pressured to act like others around them.  And what of those who don’t and choose not to praise as loudly and outwardly as others?  Should they be looked upon as “not having the Spirit?”   It may be that people are dropping out of church because they want a faith that will not judge them negatively for not “shouting” as a definition of worship (whatever happened to “Be still and know that I am God?).  Those who feel and have come to believe the Christian journey need not be defined by such worship should be encouraged to explore the Orthodox Church.
Despite persecution, the Coptic Orthodox of Egypt continue the faith of St. Mark
In slave religion, our ancestors could not have simply waited until Sunday morning to “get their praise on” in order to make it through another week in the cotton and tobacco fields.  They had to have practiced some sort of regular prayer, even under their breath so that the slave masters and overseers didn’t know what was going on.  The worship in the “hush-harbors” could not have been too exuberant and loud all the time as this would have alerted the oppressors to what the slaves were doing.  In Orthodoxy, every Christian is taught to develop an individual discipline or “rule” of prayer.  Some choose to keep “The Hours,” others carve out time morning, noon, and night.  All are encouraged to use the “Jesus Prayer” throughout the day.  “Hit” Gospel songs come and go very frequently.  Yet the practices of prayer in the Orthodox Church have proven timeless.  This is a very good option for African-Americans (and everyone else as well).
The Russian Kursk-Root icon of Mary
Often, what we see before us is what we put our minds towards.  There is no doubt as to why sexual and violent images are often used in the media these days; to sell products.  And few will argue that these images have a negative effect on society.    Orthodox iconography is known for its simple beauty and spiritual depth.  These are not idols of worship.  We honor those represented in the wood and paint for the godly lives they have led and the stories of the Gospels they highlight.  If a pornographic image is imprinted in a man’s mind, he will look at women the wrong way.  But, if a holy image of Jesus, Mary or another saint, or a biblical scene is imprinted in his mind, he is far more likely to think of the will of God.  In a world that is full of negative imagery, Orthodox Christian icons are examples of something better.
The Ancient Faith is for all people
There is a need for an alternative to every mainstream.  Orthodox Christianity offers a deeply spiritual and undeniably historic home for those of us who are looking for something different. Come and see for yourself.

The Season of Advent: How are We Called to Respond?

By His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph
Advent 2014
Greetings and Blessings to the Members of the Antiochian Women, The Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Fellowship of St. John the Divine, Teen SOYO, and all of the beloved faithful of this archdiocese.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight the paths of our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers the following as one of the definitions for the word “prepare”: “to make yourself ready for something that you will be doing or something that you expect to happen.”
How appropriate it is to focus on the word “prepare” as it relates to the goal of the Advent Season. We are called to prepare ourselves to meet Jesus Christ Himself, the Incarnate God. We are called to remove ourselves from the distractions and unhealthy lifestyles which characterize our material existence. We are called, during a season when our culture calls for indulgence in material things, to reject this indulgence, and focus on our spiritual health.
The quote given above from the Book of Isaiah is of course the prophecy of the ministry of John The Forerunner, who came to prepare the way for the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. On another level, it is a call to each of us to prepare ourselves for the “way of the Lord”. What is this “way of the Lord”?
The quote above gives us a strong clue in the text “make straight the paths of our God." The implication is that we have caused our path to become “crooked,” and not straight. Something that is “crooked” can be said to be dishonest, or tainted, and this is exactly what we wish to avoid in our lives. The Advent Season is a time for taking that which has been tainted, and reaching out to the Lord to make it straight and pure.
The entire message of the bible is a message of the call by God to His children to be reconciled to Him, and to be united to Him in love. This effort passes through the judges, kings and prophets of the Old Testament where God, through these holy people reaches out to His children. The ultimate outreach from God to His people is the Incarnation of God as man, embodied in the nativity of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ in the Flesh. God chooses to come into this world in partnership with His creation. He chooses to come as a humble babe in the cave, born to the Theotokos, so that humankind could share as intimately as possible in His coming. The question for us is this: Will there be room in the “inn of our hearts” for Him to lay His head, or will the “inn of our hearts” be filled with carnal things and clogged with passions so that there is no room for the Lord?
It is clear then, that there is only one appropriate response for us to the incarnation of God in the flesh, and that is a response of a loving child who returns their loving Father. A response which offers up to God the only thing that we can offer, and the only thing that He asks of us. That is the offering of ourselves, which requires a change in heart, a radical departure from all of the things of this world which separate us from God. A departure from all of the things which prevent us from fulfilling our ultimate destiny, that is to strive to “be perfect just as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Therefore my beloved in Christ, I ask you to join me in this Advent journey which will culminate in the Nativity of Christ. I ask you to join me in resisting the ways of our secular culture and to utilize this season to cleanse, renew and restore our souls and our hearts. I ask you to join me in waiting patiently for the time of this season when we will indeed leap for joy at the coming of the Lord. I ask you to simply open your hearts to God so that He may fill them with the peace, love, and joy that can never be taken away, and that we may worthily exclaim “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!”
Originally published in the Fall 2014 Newsletter, Antiochian Women, Diocese of Los Angeles and the West

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Choo-Choo Church: Train Brings God to Siberia"

An Orthodox priest rings a set of bells after baptizing a baby on board a train carriage that operates as a mobile church, bringing religion to remote parts of Russia.
The Doctor Voino-Yasenetsky Saint Luka train travels annually to distant settlements in the Krasnoyarsk and Khakassia regions of Siberia.
Alongside the mobile church, the train also transports medical personnel and equipment, offering free consultations to about 200 patients a day in places where hospitals and clinics are scarce.
Image: An Orthodox priest baptizes a baby at a church inside the Doctor Voino-Yasenetsky Saint Luka train at a railway station of DivnogorskILYA NAYMUSHIN / REUTERS
An Orthodox priest baptizes a baby at a church inside the Doctor Voino-Yasenetsky Saint Luka train, at a railway station in Divnogorsk, outside Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, on May 26, 2014. The train was named after Russian surgeon, Orthodox bishop and Gulag prisoner Valentin Voino-Yasenetsky.

— Reuters

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.