Wednesday, October 31, 2012

News from Christian Palestine: Dr. Maria Khoury's Speaking Tour

Dear Friends of Saint George Taybeh,

Praying and hoping all of you are safe and having a blessed day especially
everyone living in the East Coast following the news of Hurricane Sandy.
I hope to be in the Boston area myself  and promote especially 
"Christina Goes to the Holy Land." Thank you if you recommend this book 
to your local Sunday school programs since its very educational about the sacred
holy sites and walks the footsteps of Christ.  

I have listed general locations at the end of this email
where I will share my reflections as an Orthodox Christian and mother living
in Palestine where currently it is the olive picking season.  There is no place in the world
where land is so important and here in Taybeh we have over 30,000 olive trees to be picked.
That means most people, like my husband, wake up at 5 am to pick olives with their workers.

In other communities international and local activists are helping the farmers 
especially since there are many incidents where Israeli settlers prevent local people
from reaching their own farmlands and a great loss of Palestinian farmland because of
the Apartheid Separation Wall.  It is a bit outrageous to keep telling you the same old story
year after year.  

Please forgive me, also, because the other day you got
one of my personal emails that was not meant for the mailing list.  
Sorry I pushed the wrong button. 

Making this message longer I wanted to make sure you have heard that The Israeli authorities
held the exams send by the College Board for weeks, not releasing the tests to the offices of AMIDEAST in Ramallah

What do you think Israel is gaining by not allowing Palestinian students to take the SAT's?
with the love of Christ, maria

“Bless your persecutors; never curse them, bless them… Never pay back evil with evil… 
Never try to get revenge… Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good.” 
(Romans 12:14-21).

Tree of Life Conference
 "Education: How Can We Embrace Our Common Humanity?"
Full details:

SATURDAY, NOV 3:   9:00 am Christ Episcopal Cathedral, Springfield, MA
SUNDAY, NOV 4:  1:30 pm First Congregational Church, Old Lyme, CT 
MONDAY, NOV 5:  5:30 pm Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT
WEDNESDAY, NOV 7:  6:15 pm Westminster Presbyterian Church, West Harford, CT

SATURDAY, NOV 10: 6 pm, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA
SUNDAY, NOV 11: Liturgy/Sunday School at Holy Cross, Williamsport, PA
SUNDAY, NOV 11: 7 pm, Holy Trinity Church, State College
MONDAY, NOV 12: 7 pm, Holy Cross, Williamsport, PA
TUESDAY, NOV 13: Noon, St Tikhon's Seminary, South Canaan, PA
TUESDAY, NOV 13: 7 pm, Holy Annunciation Church, Berwick, PA

SUNDAY, NOV 18:  Liturgy/Sunday School St. George Cathedral, Springfield, MA

SUNDAY DEC 1:   12:00 to 2:30 pm St. Irenaeus Institute Family Advent program at
                                  St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, St. Louis, MO

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Susan Haikalis Elected President of OCL

Susan Haikalis
Susan W. Haikalis of Walnut Creek, California was elected President of the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) at their 25th Annual Conference in Washington DC this month.
Ms. Haikalis is a convert to Orthodoxy and has been involved in a number of groups supporting Administrative Unity of Orthodox Jurisdictions in the US. She participated in Boston with the original GOAL organization and has actively participated in attending OCL meetings for the past 15 years both contributing to discussions and educational programs as well as supporting her husband, Peter Haikalis, in his own leadership in OCL. Ms. Haikalis strongly believes that achieving administrative unity with Orthodox Jurisdictions in the US is critical for the survival of Orthodoxy for our children and future generations.
Ms. Haikalis has served on the Ascension Greek Orthodox Cathedral Philoptochos Board and as a Vice President of the Cathedral’s Parish Council. She has served on the Executive committee of the Cathedral’s Capital Campaign which has raised over 10 million dollars for a Chapel, Parking Facility and Platia. She has recently completed 3 years as the President of the Women’s Board of the Patriarch Athenagoras Institute at the Graduate Theological School in Berkeley, CA. The Women’s Board has an annual commitment to raise a minimum of $30,000 for the Institute which is the only Orthodox Graduate Program in the US with representatives from the multiple Orthodox jurisdictions in the US as faculty, members of the Board of Trustees as well as MA level students. The Institute is also the home for an Orthodox Christian Fellowship group for students.
Ms. Haikalis has spent over 45 years in health care settings, primarily hospitals and outpatient/Home Health, including mental health and developmental disabilities. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a Masters in Social Work from New York University. As a health care administrator, she has developed linkages to community organizations such as the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Visiting Nurses/Hospice, and Regional Centers for the Developmentally Disabled, etc. At Mount Zion Medical Center in San Francisco, she was the administrator responsible for the first hospital based Skilled Nursing Facility in the City in the 1980’s and for over 5 years coordinated all the HIV/AIDS programs in the hospital including an outpatient clinic and an inpatient unit. She also directed the department of Patient and Family Services at Mount Zion and later at California Pacific Medical Center. Her hospital experience has included many years of working with The Joint Commission on meeting standards for a variety of different departments/programs.
From 1994 until 2002, Ms. Haikalis was the Director of Client Services and Treatment Support at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a major AIDS service provider in the country. The program routinely provided services to over 2000 HIV+ clients each year. She presented papers at the International AIDS Conferences in Durbin, South Africa in 2000 and in Barcelona in 2002 on the impact of permanent housing on treatment adherence for patients with advanced HIV disease.
From 2002 to 2010, Ms. Haikalis was a social work consultant working with the HIV/AIDS Centers of Excellence in San Francisco, other HIV programs in the City and in Marin County HIV/AIDS programs. The San Francisco Bay Area programs provide a full spectrum of services needed by people with HIV/AIDS and her work was focused on improving access to health care, treatment adherence, case management, HIPPA compliance and chart documentation. Ms. Haikalis, as a licensed clinical Social Worker, also maintains a private practice focusing on clients who have difficulty negotiating the current health care system, including helping clients with SSDI and SSI applications.
Ms. Haikalis has served as the National President of the Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care and was founding President of the Social Work Health Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting education, training and research on issues that social workers can have an impact on in the US health care system.
Since 1965, Ms. Haikalis has been working closely with patients impacted by the health care system. Ms. Haikalis has participated as a member of the original Joint Commission Public Advisory Group and served as chair for four years. Helping people effectively use the health care system has been a professional lifetime goal. After retiring from full-time employment, Ms. Haikalis and her husband moved to Rossmoor and enjoy spending time with their two grandchildren (who live in Berkeley), singing in their Greek Orthodox Church Choir and traveling!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jairus and the Bleeding Woman: Homily for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

          Luke 8:41-56
          Sometimes we think that everyone has to approach God in exactly the same way.  After all, we are Orthodox Christians.  The Divine Liturgy and other services are set; they don’t change and are celebrated in by the Orthodox around the world.  Our beliefs were defined through ancient councils.  Our spiritual practices have been passed down over the centuries by countless generations.  The Holy Spirit has preserved our church in a unity that is unique among Christians.  But that unity doesn’t mean complete uniformity in the sense that we all must or should do exactly the same thing.  We are all distinct, free persons; and it’s as such that we will find God’s blessing and salvation in our lives.
            We read in today’s gospel passage about two very different people who approached Jesus Christ in different ways.   One was Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue.  He was an upstanding man in the Jewish community.  His position indicates that he had a good reputation and was thought to be a righteous man.  The other person was very different.  She was a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, and had spent all her money on treatments that did not work.  Not only was she now poor, she was also considered unclean because of the flow of blood.  She was isolated:  anyone who had physical contact with her would also become unclean.  She could not even enter the Temple or have a normal social life.  She had been treated for twelve years as though we she was cut off from God and everyone else. 
            Jairus sought out the Lord and asked Him to heal his daughter, who was dying.  But the woman—whose name we do not know—could not bring herself to do even that.  She knew her place: a poor, isolated, unclean woman not worthy of the attention of the Messiah.  She couldn’t ask Him to lay hands on her for healing, for that would make Him unclean also.   She was surely embarrassed to discuss her medical condition with Him in the midst of a large crowd.  All that she could find the courage to do was to reach out anonymously and touch the hem of His clothing.  She had enough faith, enough hope, and enough courage to do that.
            And when she did, she was healed.  She had not made Him unclean; instead, He had made her well.  But she was scared to death when Jesus Christ asked, “Who touched me?”  She knelt down before the Lord in humility, and trembling with fear, confessed to Him-- and to the rest of the crowd—that she was the one.   Yes, she said out loud why she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately.  And then the Lord said, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well.  Go in peace.”   
            This story shows the tremendous mercy of our Lord.  This woman had not said a word to Christ and had not even identified herself to Him.  She didn’t ask Him to make a decision to help her.  She was probably too afraid and humble to do those things. But she did what she could, reaching out to Christ in faith.  The Son of God knew who had touched Him, of course, but asked who it was in order to give her an opportunity to confess her faith, to make clear to herself and to those in the crowd that our Lord’s healing mercy extended even to her, that His mercy overcomes all the uncleanness and misery of those who come to Him in humble repentance.   
            At different times in our lives, we will all identify this woman.  Perhaps we have a long-term struggle, a weakness or cross that we have borne for years.  Perhaps we wrestle with some deep embarrassment or humiliation in our lives that we are afraid to acknowledge even to God, let alone other people.  Maybe we have done or suffered something that makes us feel unclean or unworthy in our relationship.  Maybe we can’t find the words to express our pain even to God in prayer, much less to others.  We may feel cut off from the Lord and separated from family and friends.
            If that’s the case, we should follow this woman’s example of touching the hem of His garment, of reaching out to Christ for mercy, healing, strength, and forgiveness as best we can.  He will not embarrass us or send us away.  Instead, He will respond graciously, as He always did to humble, sincere people who came to Him with faith, love, and repentance.   We won’t make Him unclean; instead, He will make us His beloved sons and daughters.
            Jairus approached Jesus Christ differently, openly asking  Him to heal his dying daughter.  But his faith is then put to a very hard test.  For the girl dies, but the Lord says that she is only sleeping.  Everyone ridicules the Savior for this.  But Jairus somehow believed the astonishing word of the Lord:  “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” 
            Can you imagine how hard it must have been for Jairus and his wife to hear this news and to believe in the Lord’s promise?  Their daughter had just died and the mourning had begun.  It was time to start getting ready for the funeral, and here was Christ saying that the girl would soon be alive again.  Their faith was put to the test, but they did believe.  And the Lord did as He said:  He gave them back their daughter alive and healthy.
            This healing was not as simple as Jairus had hoped.  He was probably used to getting what he wanted.  Surely if anyone deserved the help of the Messiah, it was an upstanding leader of the synagogue.  But just as Abraham’s faith was tested by the command to sacrifice Isaac, his faith is tested when—to all appearances—his daughter is dead and gone.  It is one thing to heal the sick, but quite another to believe that someone can raise the dead.  But probably with a great deal of fear and all kinds of doubts going through his head, Jairus believes.   He trusts as best he can.  And through his faith, the Lord works a great miracle.
            People are different.  We have distinct personalities, occupations, interests, and spiritual strengths and weaknesses.  But we can all have faith.  When we open the wounds and sorrows of our lives to Christ as best we can, He will hear us.  And He will respond in the way that is best for our salvation, for our growth in holiness.  No two people have exactly the same journey to the Kingdom.  No two people pray, fast, give alms,  forgive, and serve in precisely the same way.  Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood were very different people who approached Christ differently.  But the one constant factor is the mercy of our Lord, which extends to all who call upon Him from their hearts with humble trust.
            If you are prepared to receive Communion today, I urge you to approach the chalice with “the fear of God and faith and love.”  For we do not simply touch the hem of Christ’s clothing in the Eucharist or ask him to heal our sick child.  We do far more, for we eat His flesh and drink His blood.  We commune in the most intimate way possible with the One Who has conquered sin and death.  And we do so praying that Jesus Christ will heal the deepest wounds of our souls and make us participants in the eternal life of the Kingdom.  We receive Communion by name, as unique individuals whose only hope is in our Lord.   Jairus and the woman came to Him in faith as best they could.  We should do the same.         

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sometimes It's Best to Stay at Home: Homily for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel According to St. Luke 8:27-39

           It’s usually more exciting to go off on a trip than it is to stay at home.  Travel gives us at least a bit of adventure, a change of scenery, that gets us out of our usual routine.  Sometimes if we stay in the same place too long, we get restless and long for something new.
            That’s how the man in today’s gospel lesson felt.  Jesus Christ had cast many demons out of him and had delivered him from a terrible existence.  The wretched man had been naked, living in a cemetery, with no family or friends.  Everyone was afraid of him, for even chains and shackles couldn’t control him when the demons took over.  After the Lord set him free, the man understandably wanted to leave town, to follow the One who had delivered him.  But Christ didn’t want him to do that.  Instead, he was to return to his own house and tell what great things God had done him.  So that’s what he did, he proclaimed throughout the whole city how the Lord had blessed him, had given him his life back.
            We can’t blame this poor fellow for wanting to move on.  He was certainly known in the country of the Gadarenes as that crazy man whom everybody feared.  That’s apparent from people’s reaction to the sight of him when he is finally clothed and in his right mind.  The people were afraid.  They even asked the Lord to depart because of it.  Perhaps this was some kind of trick.  Maybe he would become violent again at any moment.  The man knew that this was how people viewed him and was probably ashamed, as any of us would be in his situation.  So he wanted to put his hometown behind him and not look back.  He wanted simply to be with Jesus Christ, who was probably the only person who had shown him compassion and friendship in many years.
            But that wasn’t Christ’s plan.  He knew that the Gadarenes didn’t understand the Gospel.  He knew that they were so disturbed by the amazing changes in the man’s life that they couldn’t hear the word of the Lord.  So it was time for the Lord to leave, but the man who had been possessed by demons was to stay.  For eventually, people would see that the positive changes in this man were permanent.  Over time, they would get to know him and accept him.  And his new life would be living proof of Christ’s salvation.  He would be living evidence that God’s blessing and healing have come even to demon-possessed Gentiles of whom everyone was terrified.  He would be a living sign that the mercy of Christ extends to all and can heal even the worst wounds and diseases of our souls.
            Some are called to be itinerate evangelists, to travel from here to there proclaiming the Gospel; some are called to be physicians, nurses, teachers, or development workers in far-away lands.  But most of us are not.  Most of us are called, like the man in today’s lesson, to stay right where we are, among those who know us best—for good or for bad—to work out our salvation together with them.   Our challenge is to accept with humility the family, the church community, the job, the school, the friends, the neighborhood, the blessings and the challenges, that God in His providence has allowed us to face.  No, He is never the author of evil, but He calls us to put up with one another’s weaknesses with patience, perseverance, and forgiveness.  If we think that the grass is always greener somewhere else, we will never learn that we are members of a Body, that we are not isolated individuals, but members of one another in Christ.  Whether in church, family, work, school, or friendships, it’s by bearing with one another that we work through our difficulties and learn to stop thinking simply in terms of our own desires and agendas, but in terms of what is best for others with whom we share a common life.
            Staying put is often good, not only for our communities and relationships, but for ourselves.  The man who had been demon-possessed could have left his town and put that sad part of his life behind him.  It would be easier for him to forget his painful past by moving on.  But perhaps we kid ourselves when we think that it’s best to put the dark moments of our lives completely out of mind.  For they are reminders that we do not save ourselves, that we are always dependent upon the Lord’s mercy and blessing in our lives.  We are never self-sufficient as Christians, and our journey is not one of perfect success.  No, we should not obsess on our weaknesses, failures, and pains.  We should be grateful and joyful about God’s blessings in our lives.  But we should also acknowledge what our past sins reveal about us:  our weakness, our spiritual sickness, and the fact that we can easily fall back into the pit of our own corruption.  When we remember who we were, and where we are tempted to return, we are reminded to stay focused, to be on guard, and to be all the more thankful that the Lord has raised us up from our low estate.  It was true for the Gadarene demoniac, and it’s true for all of us who have put on the new life in Christ.  When we remember what it was like to wallow in the mire of our passions like pigs in mud, we will glorify with humility the One who set us free.
            Another reason for staying home was the impact that this man’s example would have on his friends and neighbors.  For there is no more powerful evidence of the truth of the Gospel, there is no stronger witness of Christ’s salvation, than a life transformed.  That poor man was so overwhelmed by evil that he had lost his identity as a person.  When the Lord asked him his name, the man replied, “Legion,” because he was filled with so many demons.  And, as we’ve seen, he acted like someone controlled by the forces of evil.  But after Christ delivered him, the man returned to a normal human life, clothed and in his right mind.  
            If he had left town, no one whom he met would have known about his past unless he mentioned it.  And even if he told them about it, the story would not be nearly as significant for them as it would be for the people in his hometown.  It’s one thing to hear about someone’s transformation.  It’s another to see it with your own eyes.  And it was only by staying home that this man was able to become a uniquely powerful icon of what Jesus Christ can do to heal and fulfill even the most miserable human being.
            Well, we haven’t been running around demon-possessed, naked, and out of our minds in cemeteries.  But we have all at times give into our temptations and allowed our passions to overtake us.  Though we may have repented and found God’s forgiveness, we can still be ashamed to see certain people or to be in situations that remind us of our failings.   Out of pride, we don’t want to be reminded of how we acted and how we may be tempted to act again. Granted, we shouldn’t put ourselves in situations of great temptation when we can avoid it.  But we also shouldn’t hide our light under a bushel; we should not allow pride to keep us from showing others to what the Lord has done for us.  Like the Gadarene demoniac, we should return to our house, our home, our neighborhood, our classroom, our workplace, our friendships, and become a living example of what Jesus Christ can do in the lives of sinners.
            Of course, some may be skeptical of us.  Some may even be afraid and ask us to leave, as they did to Christ Himself.  But with perseverance, humility, and love, we should focus on living with joy and gratitude the new life that the Lord has given us.  Others will see and take notice, and that’s how we will proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God even as we stay at home, giving thanks for the great things that Christ has done for us.  And then others will know that the Lord’s mercy, blessing, and healing are for you people just like you and me, right where we are.    

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Parable of the Sower: An Orthodox Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

           Mark Twain is supposed to have said that "it’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand."  In other words, we have more than enough already to stay busy with in the Christian life—we don’t need to go looking for new challenges. 
            Christ Himself reminded the Apostles that He had already taught them all that they should need:  “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.” And though we find it hard to believe, that statement now applies to all of us who have entered into the fullness of the Orthodox Church.  We share, with all the other members of the Body, the great responsibility of being faithful to what the Lord has revealed.  Today’s gospel text reminds us all of the importance of being responsible for what we have received, for growing in the faith and bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God.
             Jesus Christ spoke of the word of God like seed cast upon the ground.  Some seeds never even begin to grow because they fall along the wayside and are eaten by birds.  And some who hear the good news of Christ do likewise, for they never even believe.  Some seeds just begin to grow, but the sprouts die as soon as they spring up because they landed on rocks and couldn’t grow roots or receive nourishment.  And some who believe at first fall away quickly, for they never seriously opened themselves to the strength received through regular prayer, worship, fasting, repentance, communion, and all the other means of support for the Christian life as taught by the Church—including the good deeds toward our neighbors that St. Paul wrote of in today’s epistle.  
            Then there are seeds that grow into plants that do take root; they seem to be healthy, but are eventually choked by thorns and weeds.  And some who make a good beginning in the Christian life find themselves so distracted by their worries, riches, pleasures, and passions that they allow their faith to be destroyed.  A gardener who is too distracted by other activities to look out for weeds will probably not be very successful.  Likewise, a Christian who is inattentive to the dangers posed by anger, greed, pride, lust, spiritual laziness, or other passions will not last very long. But some seeds fall on good ground, grow nicely, and yield a large crop.  And some Christians not only hear the word of the Lord, but keep it in their hearts and lives, and bear fruit with patience.
            Now in case all this gardening imagery becomes a bit too much, let’s be crystal clear:  As Orthodox Christians, we have received the fullness of God’s truth, the mystery of the Kingdom of God.  We have put on Christ in baptism, been sealed by the Holy Spirit in chrismation, and nourished by the Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Christ Himself forgives us when we repent in confession.   In His Body, the Church, we are taught the whole, complete faith of the apostles.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the Saints, who inspire us by their examples and help us by their prayers.   In every Divine Liturgy, we join them and the entire heavenly host in the worship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  There is no question what we have received in Jesus Christ:  our salvation, our fulfillment, as partakers in the divine nature.
            There is a question, however, about how we will respond to what we have been given.  Will we take our faith for granted and decide that there are more important matters than prayer, repentance, and serving others in the name of Christ?  Will we allow our spiritual life to become sick and weak, and ultimately die, because we are too lazy or distracted to fight our passions and accept the healing and strength which the Lord gives us through His Church?   Will we rest content with bearing no fruit at all for the Kingdom?  If so, we betray and reject Christ and shut ourselves out of His life. 
            St. Paul warned in his letter to St. Titus against letting foolish disputes, pointless arguments, or anything else distract us from good works, from meeting the urgent needs of others, from bearing fruit in the Christian life.  We don’t have to be experts in the New Testament to know that St. Paul was always writing churches to remind them to focus on Jesus Christ, to turn away from all the nonsense that tempts us from faithfulness to Him, that threatens to waste our time and energy on anything that separates us from the Lord, from loving relationships with our brothers and sisters, and from the building up of His Church.
            The question which we all face, no matter what particular set of challenges we face in life, is whether we will grow into the full stature of Christ.  Namely, will we build into our daily schedules opportunities to find the strength of the Lord through prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and service toward those around us?  Will we repent through confession on a regular basis and whenever we are aware of grave sin in our lives?  Barring extraordinary circumstances, will we attend Liturgy on Sundays and Feast Days?  Will we do all that we can to direct our attention away from anything that inflames our passions and toward  that which helps us grow in holiness?  Will we become so busy with good works that we have no time or energy for foolish arguments or other pointless distractions?   If so, then we will be like the seed that landed on good soil, got proper nutrition, and produced a bumper crop.  And we will know already the joy of the kingdom of heaven.
            That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the will of the Lord for each and every one of us.  Young or old, male or female, priest or layperson, it does not matter.   We have all received the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and we all have the ability to respond to our Lord’s great mercy with repentance, love, and faithfulness in our daily lives, regardless of the circumstances we face.  And, yes, that really is true for each and every one of us, no matter what sins we have committed and no matter what our problems may be.   Remember St. Mary of Egypt, a wicked prostitute who later became an example of righteousness.  Recall St. Peter, who denied Christ before His crucifixion, and then became the most senior bishop of the early church, a powerful evangelist, and a great martyr.  Bring to mind King David, St. Paul, and countless others who turned away from evil to embrace the mercy of the Lord and find new life in Him.
            Maybe we feel this morning like we have done our best to kill the seed that Christ has planted in our souls.  Perhaps we have had a spiritual draught or can’t even see a sprout because of all the weeds in our lives; maybe we feel pretty far from bearing fruit, building up the church, or serving our neighbors.  If that’s the case, we should remember that the mystery of the Kingdom of God is all about mercy toward sinners like you and me.  In Christ Jesus, there is always hope, there is always the promise of a new life with the blessing and peace of the Kingdom.  No matter how far we have to grow in the Christian life, He is with us, ready to heal our sicknesses, to strengthen us in our weakness, to calm our passions, to enable us to serve Him in our neighbors and in His Body, the church.  
            So in repentance and humility, it’s time for us all to become responsible for the great gift of salvation, the mystery of the Kingdom, that is ours in Jesus Christ.  Instead of taking the Lord for granted, it’s time for us to root out everything in our lives that tempts us from responding to Him with a good heart, keeping His word, and bearing fruit with patience.     
            And then we will be like the seed that fell on good ground and flourished, becoming a blessing to the world and a sign of God’s salvation, of the great mystery of His redemptive love that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.                                         

High School Football and Orthodox Christian Asceticism

            Where I live in West Texas, there is no shortage of asceticism, especially during the terribly hot month of August.  That’s when high school football players and band members spend several hours each day practicing in the blazing sun.  Members of the tennis team, cheerleaders, and other athletes do the same.  They want to become better at what they do, so they accept a good measure of discomfort without much complaint as their seasons begin.  The same is true of fans who drive hours in the wide open spaces out here to cheer on their teams as they sit in temperatures near the 100 degree mark even as the sun goes down.
            It’s interesting that our society more readily accepts discipline and sacrifice for sports than for religion.  Even a moderate form of Orthodox fasting, for example, seems shockingly difficult to many people.  (“No meat or dairy?  You’ve got to be kidding!”) The length of our services, the practice of standing for at least much of them, and the other spiritual disciplines of Orthodoxy seem to ask more  than many are willing to give.  How ironic, then, that fans joyfully embrace driving a few hours each way to a game and sitting in the elements on uncomfortable bleachers for hours.  They’ll gladly sweat in August and freeze in December, if their teams make it that far in the play offs.   And athletes, band members, and others sacrifice much more time, energy, and comfort on a regular basis in their practice sessions.
            There’s nothing wrong, of course, with people reorienting their schedules, and overcoming their laziness, in order to excel in athletics, music, or other activities.  The benefits of such self-control may strengthen us physically, morally, and even spiritually. Any honest endeavor that gives us practice in putting aside self-centered inclinations for the pursuit of a higher good is probably good for us.  Nonetheless, it is easy for such endeavors simply to serve human glory and to be exercises in wedding ourselves even more closely to pride, the praise of others, and the perverse joy of building ourselves up by putting others down.  It’s chilling to think of how alluring we find it to identify ourselves with a group—whether a team, a race, or a political party—that demonstrates its superiority by crushing an opponent.  Competition isn’t evil in and of itself, but our passions so easily get the better of us.  Too often, the passing thrill of winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
            As St. Paul wrote, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  I do not box as one beating aimlessly, but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:25-27) Orthodox Christians do not deny themselves in order to clobber other people, hear the applause of the crowds, and proclaim that we’re number one.  We do, however, struggle to achieve victory over ourselves, especially our obsessions with getting our own way, satisfying whatever self-centered inclinations we have at the moment, and  treating other people and creation itself as though they existed simply to serve us.  If we do not cooperate with the Lord by doing what we can to turn away from such habitual sins, we will not have the spiritual strength to love and serve God and neighbor.  Instead, we will remain in the default position of corrupt humanity by worshiping only ourselves.
            Athletes typically do not sweat and toil under the authority of coaches merely because they enjoy physical exertion or being told what to do.  Instead, they devote themselves to achieving a goal that may be reached only by accepting a certain kind of discipline.  If they work so hard for what is here today and gone tomorrow, all the more should Orthodox Christians accept another kind of discipline that enables us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1) as we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14)  Yes, it requires dedication and self-denial to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Church on a regular basis.  Prayer, forgiveness, fasting, and generosity to the needy, for example, do not come easily to us.  But if we will undertake them as best we can with a humble prayer for the Lord’s mercy, we will find new strength for the journey. That won’t be because we have accomplished something by our own power, but because we will have opened our lives to the One who enables us to run without becoming weary and to walk without growing faint.  (Isa. 40:31)

            So the next time you see athletes denying themselves in order to achieve excellence, consider whether you take the practice of the Christian life as seriously as they take their sport.  Let their example be a reminder that people are usually willing to struggle and sacrifice for what they love most in life.  For us, shouldn’t that be Jesus Christ?  And if we are not willing to take up our cross and follow Him by taking intentional steps to reorient our lives toward His Kingdom, we need to ask just what game we are playing and what team we are on. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Christ's Compassion and Integrity: Orthodox Homily on the Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain

2 Corinthians 9:6-11
Luke 7:11-16

            No one likes a hypocrite, someone who says one thing and does another.  As Christians, we must be very careful not to condemn ourselves and scandalize others by not living out what we teach to be true.   Instead, we must be people of integrity who live out our beliefs every day in what we say and do.
            Jesus Christ is certainly the perfect example of a life lived with integrity, for He is a human being who is also divine.  He Himself is the perfect integration of the image of God with God Himself.  And He does not ask us, or anyone else, to do anything that He has not already done.
            When we read the account of the Lord’s raising of the son of the widow of Nain, we are probably reminded of St. James’ teaching:  “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”  And that is precisely what Christ does:  He has compassion upon a widow who mourns the death of her only son.  He comforts her, saying “Do not weep,” and then touches the coffin, bringing the young man back from the dead.
            The Lord’s great act of compassion for this woman is a sign of our salvation.  For we weep and mourn not only for loved ones whom we see no more, but also for the broken, disintegrated state of life that the sins of humanity—and our own sins—have brought to us and to our world.  Death, destruction, hatred, fear, and decay in all their forms are the consequences of our refusal to live faithfully as those created in the image of God.  We have worshipped ourselves, our possessions and our pride, and found despair and emptiness as a result, as well as slavery to our own self-centered desires.  So we weep with the widow of Nain for losing loved ones and for losing ourselves.
            The good news of the Gospel, however, is the compassion of God.  Rather than simply observing human suffering and letting us bear the consequences of our actions, the Father sent the Son to enter into our suffering, into our distorted and disintegrated world, in order to set us right, to stop us from weeping, and even to raise us from the dead into the glory of the heavenly kingdom.  The Son touched the coffin of the dead man and he arose.  Christ’s compassion for us is so profound that He also entered a coffin, a tomb, and even descended to Hades, the shadowy place of the dead because—out of love for humankind—He could not simply stand by and allow us to bear the full consequences of our actions. 
             You see, our faith is not fundamentally about justice or punishment or wrath for sinners.  It is instead about the infinite and holy love of Christ Who will stop at nothing to bring the one lost sheep back into the fold, Who is not embarrassed to welcome home the prodigal son, and Who will even submit to death on a cross in order to destroy death by His glorious resurrection.
            And, yes, we have our part to play in response to His love.  If we seek to follow Jesus Christ, if we are members of His Body the Church, and are nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, then His compassion must become evident in our lives.  If we are partakers the divine nature in Him, then His life must become ours such that, as St. Paul teaches, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  If we receive Christ’s compassion, we must extend compassion to others, suffering with them in love, sharing their pain as best we can and going out of our way to show them the mercy and care that we have found in our Lord.
            But we need to be clear:  Extending Christ’s compassion to others is not the same thing as being a wimp or making sure that everyone likes us.  It took discipline, strength, and courage for the Lord to show compassion throughout His entirely earthly ministry, especially His journey to the cross.  And every time that He healed the sick or raised the dead, He surely knew that the Pharisees and perhaps the Romans were watching, noticing Him as a threat to their power.  And they certainly did not like Him or His ministry.  
            If we are to live the Christian life with integrity, we too must have the courage to show compassion to those who suffer, who mourn, and whose lives are filled with pain and disorder.  Perhaps they brought some of these conditions upon themselves.  Maybe they didn’t always do the right thing and are reaping the consequences of their own bad choices.  In some cases, they may actually believe that what they are doing is good.  Well, so what?  Isn’t that the story of us all?  Christ did not come to show mercy upon those who deserved it, for mercy is something that, by definition, we can’t deserve.  The widow of Nain and her dead son did not deserve the compassion of the Lord, but He showed love to them anyway.  The relevance for our lives should be obvious.  If we have integrity as Christians, we will respond to others with the same compassion that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. 
            This is not a calling for cowards afraid of their own shadow, for it requires discipline, self-control, and a strength of character beyond our own power.  Unfortunately, it’s become second nature for us to try to judge others as though we were God, as though it were our place to separate the sheep from the goats.  Nothing gets in the way of mercy more than self-righteous judgment, for it so easily inflames our passions and gives us perverse pleasure in naming the faults of others.  This prideful attitude quickly takes root in our hearts, weakening marriages and families, destroying friendships, giving us every excuse not to care for those who don’t measure up to our standards, and making it impossible for us to live the Christian life with integrity.
            Well, Jesus Christ certainly has integrity.  Not only are God and humanity integrated in His own Person, He lived out the kind of life that He taught in the same fallen world that we experience every day.  He came to bring us into His eternal life out of compassion.  He suffered with us to the point of death.  The One who was the highest became the lowest for our sakes. 
            If we want His compassion, let us be compassionate to those who suffer even as a result of their own bad choices and habits.  That doesn’t mean that we should give everyone exactly what they want, let them run our lives, or refuse to speak and act according to the truth, but it does mean that we sorrow with them in their pain and discern prayerfully how to do the fitting thing that best manifests Christ’s love in our relationship with them.
            By the power of the Holy Spirit, each of us may become a better living icon of our Lord’s compassion.  In order to do that, we must open our lives more fully to the presence of God, mindfully rejecting the lies that we tell ourselves about who is not worthy of our time, attention, and assistance.  The greater focus we place on prayer, the more seriously we take our fasting, the more conscientious we are in confessing and repenting of our sins on a regular basis, the more aware we will become of the great mercy that the Lord has shown us and of where we need to grow in sharing His compassion with others.
             Then we will grow in integrity as Christians, treating others as the Lord has treated us, and living out what we say we believe.   And our lives will become signs of Christ’s salvation, living evidence of His victory over sin and death and of the power of His unfathomable love.  And that same holy compassion that raised the son of the widow of Nain will raise us, and others, into the blessed eternal life of the Kingdom.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Be All That You Can Be: Character Development in Eastern Orthodox Christianity

            I was asked recently if it is still possible to raise children with character in our culture.  The person who asked wondered because many societal institutions—including many churches—seem to excuse all kinds of behavior because it is much easier and more popular just to pat people on the back than to call them to be all that they can be.  Okay, that sounds too much like those old Army recruiting ads.  Nonetheless, the point is clear:  if raising everyone’s self-esteem by watering down substantive visions of the good life is our preferred mode of operation, then heaven help us if we want our kids to worship anything other than their own self-centered desires. 
            That’s not to look down upon our children; it’s to tell the truth about ourselves.  Self-centered indulgence in money, material possessions, whatever kind of sexual pleasure we desire, and getting our own way at home, church, the office, and in politics, have become our false gods.  We worship at their altars whenever we replace the high standards taught by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount with whatever is convenient or easy or popular.  These matters cut much deeper than American political divisions or where we like to place ourselves in the culture wars.  The way of Christ remains the way of the cross as an indictment of all human schemes to usher in a kingdom that suits us or to make God and neighbor in our own image. 
            As someone has said, Orthodox Christianity is the right religion for the wrong people.  In other words, we are all sinners who stand in constant need of the mercy of Jesus Christ.  Nonetheless, we have the benefit of a Church that tells it like it is.  No matter how much we want to spend our money simply on ourselves and to disregard the needy, what we do to the least of these, we do to our Savior.  No matter how much we want a certain politician or political philosophy to triumph, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and we must love our enemies, even those who vote what we believe to be the wrong way.  No matter how inclined we may feel toward romantic fulfillment outside of the bonds of faithful, monogamous marriage between a man and woman, that is the only kind of intimate union known in the Body of Christ as a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  No matter how hard we may find it to love people whose culture, belief, or way of life is different from ours, they all bear the image and likeness of God and we must bless them and pray for them, not curse and hate them.
            My experience is that mainstream American culture will have a hard time making sense of pious, sincere, and humble Orthodox Christians who do not fit into their stereotypes of the right or the left, of the traditionalists or the progressives.  That is because the Church does not form us to live according to worldly categories, but according to those of a Kingdom that is not of this world and in which the first shall be last and the last first.  The cross—which is foolishness in the eyes of the world—is at the heart of the character that we seek to embody:  selfless, forgiving, faithful love that will literally die before abandoning the Lord and those who bear His image and likeness.

            Anyone who knows me will know that I fall well short of such a vision of human existence.  The truth is that we all do.  But one of the great glories of Orthodox Christianity is that we still speak the truth, we do not shy away from proclaiming what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  Forgive the examples, but we expect physicians to be held accountable to high standards because people’s lives are at stake.  Military training is serious business because warfare is literally a matter of life and death.  Airline pilots have to know what they are doing for the same reason. 
           Orthodox Christians know that who we become through the thousand small details of each day is also a matter of life and death, for it is through our words, deeds, and thoughts that we grow in the new life that Christ has brought to the world and turn away from the soul-destroying corruption of sin.  The Church sets us on a trajectory for the fulfillment of our calling to become ever more like God as we grow in holiness, faith, hope, and love.  This kind of character transcends morality and civic virtue to become an icon of our salvation, a sign that human beings may participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.

So, yes, it is possible to raise children with character in our culture.  It is possible for everyone to become more fully who we were created to be in God’s image and likeness.  The theology, worship, and other spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Church point the way and provide all the resources that we need.  The only question is whether we will use them to be all that we can be to the glory of God.