Tuesday, November 27, 2012

After the Campaigns: Back to the Real Work of the Orthodox Christian Political Witness

            Since politics has received no small amount of attention in recent months, I thought that it would be good to remind ourselves that the primary political action of Orthodox Christians is not found in voting, carrying signs, spouting slogans, or putting bumper stickers on our cars.  Instead, our most fundamental political witness is to participate in the Divine Liturgy. No, that does not mean that the Christian life boils down simply to showing up at church, for to participate fully in the worship of God means that we live out our communion with the Holy Trinity every day of the week in all aspects of our lives.  The calling of the Christian life is to sanctify the world by offering every bit of the creation—including ourselves—to the Lord for fulfillment and transformation, for the holiness and peace of a Kingdom that radically transcends the broken and imperfect kingdoms of this world.     
            Granted, that may sound so mystical that it is hard to connect with something as practical as American politics. But perhaps that is precisely the point.  Christians are to be salt and light wherever they find themselves, not just another interest group worshiping at the altar of worldly glory and power.   How sad, then, that what passes for a spiritually informed political agenda often amounts to little more than politics as usual in our corrupt world.   Contrary to the hopes of religiously inspired voters of whatever ideological stripe, we will look in vain for substantive conversation about moral issues in the recently completed campaigns.
For example, discourse about society’s responsibility to unborn children and their distressed mothers was replaced by ham-fisted comments about rape, contraception, and an alleged “war against women.”  The glory of the union of man and woman, which alone brings forth new life as an image of the Holy Trinity from generation to generation, was obscured by our societal obsession about the rights of individuals to do as they please.  Economic theories—largely driven by the self-interest of various partisan groups-- took precedence over serious consideration of the common good in debates about poverty, health care, and environmental stewardship.   In other words, we endured well over a year’s worth of unedifying and interminable arguments that barely scratched the surface of an Orthodox vision of God’s purposes for the collective life of human beings.
            Well, big surprise.  Despite what politicians and their chaplains on the right and left proclaim, American elections are about little more than the competing interests of partisan groups for power.    Some of their spokespersons have been remarkably effective at times in convincing various segments of the Christian population that their agendas are virtually synonymous with the Kingdom of God.  But it doesn’t take much discernment to see that they all fall well short of such a high designation.  For example, women in difficult circumstances do not choose to have abortions in isolation from a whole set of social, economic, and moral circumstances which politicians seem to have no real interest in addressing seriously.  It’s much easier to cast a vote and denounce the opposition than to get to the heart of why our culture has formed so many people in such poor ways both morally and spiritually.      
Those who cheered for abortion rights as though they were applauding job creation displayed an appalling lack of moral sensitivity, even as they excluded the most vulnerable human beings from legal protection in the name of individual liberty.  How strange that those who support government regulation to protect the weak in so many other areas of social concern change their tune so radically on this issue.  Their sudden burst of libertarianism functions to obliterate any compassion for life in the womb, recognition of the legitimate stake of husbands and fathers in the fate of their offspring, and acknowledgement that the moral tragedy of abortion simply cannot fit within the happy narrative of freedom.     
When it comes to marriage and sexuality, mainstream American culture has lost virtually any sense of a sexual ethic more profound than the consent of individuals to do as they please with a nod toward public health.  In this context, chastity becomes a nonsensical notion even as the public square refuses to acknowledge that the union of man and woman holds a uniquely privileged place in all known human civilization.  In a society that is blind to the marital nature of intercourse, it would be shocking to have a substantive moral consensus about the meaning of marriage. In the absence of such convictions, we quickly revert to the default position of American politics:  individual liberty. If marriage is nothing more than a freely chosen romantic union of two individuals, no wonder that the obvious intersections of marriage, sex, and parenthood are so hard for many to see.      
That may be the politics of the world in which we live, but it’s not the social order of God’s reign.     We will not be salt and light in our darkened world by pretending that the spokespersons of the corrupt ways of living and thinking that got us into these messes will somehow magically become our saviors.  Instead, the primary political witness of Orthodox Christians is to become living icons of our Lord’s salvation on even the most difficult matters involving sex, money, and power.  Our witness—yes, how we live each day-- must stand in stark contrast to the ways of the world as a sign of the blessed life for which human beings are created.  Holiness in our parishes, our families, and all our relationships is our politics and the basis of how we offer the world, and ourselves, to God.  Now that the distractions of the campaign are behind us, let’s get busy with the real challenges of the Christian life.         

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Dangers of an Overemphasis on Athletics: Martha Irvine's "To Parents, Youth Sports an 'Athletic Arms Race'"

This article describes an overemphasis on athletics in our culture that impedes the spiritual, intellectual, and psychological growth of young people.  It provides a wake-up call that many parents need to hear.

To parents, youth sports an 'athletic arms race'

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MARTHA IRVINE | November 22, 2012 12:02 AM EST | AP

Shawn Worthy admits he's a competitive guy – and a competitive parent, sometimes.
Yet even he was floored when a couple of moms he met at a pro junior golf tournament told him that their teen daughters would be entered in 30 such events this past summer.
"Why are these young ladies out on the golf course playing competitively four or five days a week?" Worthy asked himself.
His own 16-year-old daughter, Soleil, holds down a job while participating in a few tournaments each summer. She and the other young women are good, Worthy says, maybe talented enough to play in college.
But 30 tournaments?
"If you're a future Olympian, I get it. But for these kids who will never reach that level, that's what I don't get," says Worthy, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver with an interest in sports psychology.
"What does it say about our culture that we go to this extreme?" he asks. "And that we push our kids to this extreme?"
It's not just golf. Many parents, coaches and researchers see a steady upping of the ante in youth sports, with kids whose families can afford the time and cost involved playing more, practicing more and specializing in one sport at younger ages.
Parents are driven by a desire to help their children stand out and the fear that, if they don't, their kids will be left behind. To keep pace, they're often traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles a year for games and tournaments. Some parents send their children to personal trainers, or to the growing number of "elite" training facilities that have opened in recent years.
Often, the goal is to simply land a spot on the local high school team, an accomplishment once taken for granted. Or, a young person may try to get on the roster in the growing private club team system – an even more exclusive route that some top teenage athletes are choosing, especially when high schools cut coaches and opportunities.
"It's an athletic arms race," says Scott VanderStoep, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who studies youth sports.
And it starts early.
"It sort of spreads throughout the community and then it reduces down in age," VanderStoep says. "If it's OK for 14-year-olds, then it's OK for a 12-year-old, or a 10-year-old."
How can this obsession with playing sports exist in a country where the Centers for Disease Control say more than a third of young Americans are overweight or obese? The juxtaposition seems unlikely, but a longstanding survey from the National Sporting Goods Association found that youth participation in most team sports has steadily dropped in the last decade.
The number of 12- to 17-year-olds who played baseball in any kind of setting has, for instance, dropped 36 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the survey. Basketball participation has dropped nearly 20 percent. Swimming and tackle football each dropped about 10 percent, volleyball participation 2 percent and soccer 1.4 percent.
Nonetheless, it would be oversimplifying to say the United States has become a nation of couch potatoes. Experts who track youth sports say many young people simply don't have the chance to play, or resources to do so.
Some schools in cash-strapped districts have cut back on sports and physical education. And even in some wealthier districts, high school populations have grown, leaving more kids to vie for fewer spots on teams.
These dwindling opportunities have only fed the hyper-competitive atmosphere, says VanderStoep, who admits that, as a dad of two daughters who play volleyball, even he feels beholden to the system.
For his daughters, that has meant weight-lifting camps and tournaments, required practices and schedules packed with games that could be any night of the week – and have made it more difficult for his youngest daughter to find the time to play other sports.
"You feel obligated to do it. You want to give your kids the opportunity," he says. "And if they don't show up, they lose opportunities to play."
Corinne Henson, a mom in suburban Chicago, knows about those hard choices. Her sons, 11-year-old Tyler and 14-year-old Dylan, play year-round baseball on different traveling teams and also manage to squeeze in basketball and football for their local park district.
The boys do it because they love it – live for it, really.
"I wouldn't give up sports for anything," Dylan says as he sits on the couch in his living room waiting for football practice to start.
"Me either," his younger brother quickly adds.
But there are sacrifices, especially for their parents. Time spent on sports has meant giving up their longtime campsite in Indiana where they'd kept a travel trailer. They simply have no time to go there. "Our vacations are baseball trips," Henson says.
The toughest compromise came in July when their town, Oak Forest, Ill., had a fundraiser for Dylan's best friend, who was seriously injured when he was hit by a hit-and-run driver. Dylan, a catcher who is captain of his traveling baseball team, had four tournament games that day. He decided he had to be at the tournament, and showed up at the fundraiser as it was wrapping up.
His friend understood. "I would have done the same thing," he told Dylan. The traveling team won the tournament, likely because Dylan stayed, his mom says.
"But it's so hard, as a parent."
There is, however, one rule in the Henson house that does not bend: "Homework first," says mom, who's a teacher.
And that's a perspective that Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, an international youth football and cheerleading program, hears less and less.
He used to worry about overzealous coaches. But in more recent years, he's watched as parents have clamored to find ways to improve their children's athletic prowess. He says his advice to them – "don't hire a speed coach, hire a tutor" – is often met with disgust.
"It's not what they want to hear," he says.
Bill Jaworski, a dad who's also a youth baseball coach in New Jersey, says he is often "shocked and chagrined" at how easily some parents lose perspective about their kids' sports.
"These are people you see at the pub, or on the train, or out on the street. They're just normal folks – and then you get them to the game and they turn into these rabid freakazoids," says Jaworski, a philosophy professor at Fordham University.
He remembers learning baseball at the local park with friends or in the back yard. Today, he's seeing kids as young as age 7 learning the skills at elite training facilities, some that focus on specific sports and others on overall fitness.
Billy Hirschfield, now 16, was 11 when his dad first took him to an establishment called NX+Level, in Waukesha, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.
The atmosphere at NX+Level, can be intense.
Pro athletes train there. Signs on the gym walls say things like, "You can only be a winner if you are willing to walk over the edge."
But it was exactly the kind of atmosphere Billy craved back then, says his dad Ronnie Hirschfield. "He was a chunky kid, and he didn't like that," dad says.
Today, his son is a high school junior and varsity football player being recruited by major college football teams.
Now a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive tackle and end, he's so big and muscular – and so dedicated to his training – that his friends call him "the freak."
"I never in a million years thought it would be like that," says his dad, who figures he spends $8,000 to $10,000 a year on sports, including training and travel to tournaments.
But, he adds, "Why wouldn't you spend that on your son to make him a better person? And if he ends up walking away with a scholarship, it was the best investment I could have ever made."
Brad Arnett, the owner of NX+Level, knows there are those who question whether kids should train in his facility. But he makes it clear that they have to want to be there, as Billy did.
"We don't bring them in and work them until they puke," Arnett says. "There is a means to an end."
He says training in a club like his helps kids develop more strength and agility – and also avoid injury because they're in better shape.
But others think the training should be done in a different type of setting, with less emphasis on competitiveness.
"Things are going down a dangerous path," says David Finch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who recently left his job as a school psychologist in Chicago to open his gym in Middleton, Wis., outside Madison.
If parents bring younger kids in, he often suggests learning a few overall fitness techniques and working on them at home.
He says the focus should be on fun and developing long-term healthy habits.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who'd disagree with that. But with competition all around, parents don't just worry about a child's athletic career or getting into a good college. Many worry about getting them into a decent elementary school.
Sports can be seen as a way to set a kid apart from the pack.
"You try and build the perfect kid," says Adam Naylor, a clinical assistant professor of sports psychology at Boston University who works with parents and athletes, some as young as age 12.
And that, he adds, can lead to "overtraining, overuse and an over-committed kid, which has fallout."
As psychologist Wendy Grolnick sees it, that's just parents doing what they're wired to do – responding to a very primal instinct to protect their children and ensure their survival."Parents love their kids and they don't want them to miss out," says Grolnick, a professor at Clark University who wrote the book "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Children: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child."
"There's just so much competition in the air," she says. "Very nice people are feeling this way."


Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Rich Young Ruler and the Nativity Fast: Homily for the 13th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

St. Luke 18: 18-27
Epistle to the Galatians 3:23-4:5
                In order for me to remember to do much of anything, I usually have to write it down on a list.  If it’s not on the list, it usually doesn’t get done, and some tasks remain on the list for a very long time before I finally get around to them.  Maybe some of you are like that also. 
            The rich young ruler who asked Jesus Christ what he had to do in order to find eternal life also apparently thought in terms of lists.  So when the Lord told him to keep the commandments of the Old Testament, the man said that he had checked them all off, that he had kept them his entire life.  
              This is where the story gets really interesting, for the Lord then gives him a commandment that had never been on the man’s list and that he couldn’t imagine following:  Sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.  This fellow was rich and powerful and loved his possessions, so he became very sad and apparently walked away.  The Lord knew how hard it was for people who have it all in this life to enter the kingdom of heaven, for they are tempted strongly to love their possessions and status more than God and neighbor.  Still, as the Lord said His stunned disciples, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
            What did Christ mean by speaking in this way?  He certainly wasn’t simply adding another law to a list of requirements to be checked off.  Instead, he challenged this man to stop thinking about his relationship with God as a matter of law, a set of behaviors, which he could master.  Someone who responds to the Old Testament laws by saying, “Oh, I’ve always followed them since I was a child” has a very shallow understanding of what God requires of us.  That would be like someone saying, “Oh, I’ve always been a perfectly faithful Christian since childhood.”
            The problem is that it’s not quite that simple.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ showed us the true meaning of God’s requirements.  He said that we are guilty of murder if we are angry with others, if we hate and insult them.  He taught that we are guilty of adultery if we lust in our hearts.  And if we do not love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we have broken the greatest of the commandments.
            If we have any spiritual insight at all, we will see that none of us has mastered God’s requirements, none of us may stand before the Lord bragging that we have it all down.  The truth is that we have all fallen short and need God’s mercy and healing in our lives.  
            Christ jolted this man out of his delusion, of his false self-confidence, by giving him a commandment that He knew he could not keep:  giving away all his beloved money, possessions, and power.  Perhaps for the first time, this fellow was challenged to see that eternal life is not a matter of checking off a list, not something that we can accomplish by our own ability.  If we can’t give up that which we love most in this life for God, then we obviously have not fulfilled all that the Lord expects of us.
            And since Christ came to unite our fallen humanity with divinity and to conquer sin and death, it’s pretty clear that even the most law-abiding person still needs the mercy, grace, and love of our Lord in order to inherit eternal life.  By our own power, it’s not possible to share in the life of heaven, but with Jesus Christ, all things are possible.
            As we continue to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, we do well to remember that this great feast is not about the birth of a mere teacher, law-giver, or example.  Were our Lord simply another prophet with a strict teaching, we would not rejoice at His coming.  Instead, we would—like the rich young ruler—become sad and dejected, for the last thing we need is another law to fail to obey and make us feel guilty.
The eternal Son of God was not born at Christmas to add to the burden of the law or to give us the impression that all will be well if we obey a new set of teachings.  To the contrary, He became a human being to do what a mere law never could, to bring us into His holiness, to make us partakers of the divine nature, to heal and fulfill our fallen, corrupt humanity, to make it possible for us mortals to put on immortality.
            The Lord’s shocking statement about giving everything away challenged the rich young ruler to stop thinking of his life before God in legalistic terms.  Likewise, we should use the prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines of   the Nativity Fast, of Advent, to be shocked out of our conventional and shallow assumptions about what it means to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  For Christ was not born to bring us self-indulgence, popularity, or whatever else the world calls success. Neither did He come to make us strict legalists who think that holiness can be reduced to a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.”  And He certainly did not put on flesh in order to make His followers the self-righteous judges of others. 
            The eternal Son of God became one of us for completely different reasons.  Out of unfathomable love, He wanted to make possible for us what is impossible by our own power.   We may take pride in what we accomplish, but which of us can claim credit for our Lord’s birth?  There is no earthly prestige in a Virgin Mother giving birth in a cave to a baby who whose cradle was a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  The rich young rulers of the world cannot understand a Messiah whose human life begins in such lowly circumstances and ended on a cross.  Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are not simple human accomplishments or rewards, but truly miraculous manifestations of God’s eternal life in our world of sin, death, and corruption. 
            St. Paul reminded the Galatians that the Old Testament law was preparatory to the coming of the Savior.  All who put on Christ in baptism are God’s sons and daughters who inherit the promise made to Abraham to bless those with faith in the Lord.  We are slaves neither to a law nor to the ways of the world, but beloved children of our Heavenly Father Who wants nothing more than to bring us into the glory of His eternal life.
            A religion that simply provides more laws to obey, or a culture that piles on burdensome expectations, could never do that.  They simply make things worse by giving people more opportunities to judge themselves and others.  For it’s when we are ashamed of not measuring up that we are most likely to shift our attention to putting down other people in order to make ourselves feel better.
            The God-Man Jesus Christ operates in a completely different way, of course, making it possible for everyone, no matter their struggles or failures or social standing, to find true peace through faith, humility, and growth in holiness--In other words, through  our ongoing acceptance of His mercy and healing in our lives.    
            We prepare to receive Christ at Christmas by opening our hearts and souls to His salvation—not by mastering laws—but by true repentance.  Both in our private prayers and in the sacrament of Confession which we should all take during Advent, we repent by honestly confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s mercy, even as we resolve to make a new beginning in the Christian life.  Yes, we must cooperate with our Lord’s mercy and grace by doing what we can to live faithfully.  But even the best life does not somehow earn heaven.  In fact, the more we grow in holiness, the more we will begin to see clearly the gravity of our sins and how far we are from the full stature of Christ.  The closer we grow to Him, the less we will think of salvation as a reward for good behavior according to a check list.     
            So let this Advent be marked by humility, repentance, and spiritual disciplines for us all, not because we have broken a law, but because we have room to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our hearts and souls are not worthy of Him.  We do not serve Him in every poor and suffering person.  We do not seek first His kingdom and righteousness.   We are not perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect.  But unlike the rich young ruler, we must not give up and walk away in despair. Instead, we should say, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” For what is impossible with men is possible with the incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ.  He is not a law, but a Person.    
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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Following the Theotokos into the Peace of Christ: Homily on the First Sunday of Advent in the Orthodox Church

Luke 12: 16-21
Ephesians 2:14-22
         If we look around the world today, we see so much violence, hatred, and suffering.  Nations and peoples insist on their own way and often refuse to forgive past wrongs or to work together toward a peaceful future.  And the same is all too true of us in how we look at our own society, as well as our families, friendships, and other daily interactions with people.
            In this season of Advent, of the Nativity Fast that prepares us to welcome Christ at Christmas, we all need to hear the good news proclaimed by St. Paul that the Savior is our peace.  St. Paul stressed to the Ephesians that the fundamental social divide of his time—between Jew and Gentile—had been overcome in Jesus Christ.  As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in His own Person, bringing us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity by His cross and resurrection.  No longer does it matter what our ethnic heritage is, our nationality or culture, for all who put on Christ become fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.  With our Savior as the chief cornerstone and the apostles and prophets as the foundation, we grow together into a holy temple of the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus Christ is truly the salvation of the entire creation.
            That is a very different understanding of peace and reconciliation from what we hear from the competing interests of the world.  Throughout history, powerful individuals, groups, and nations have beaten down their rivals and then called it peace.  Of course, that approach eventually leads to disaster as the fall of the great empires of the world has shown.  Brutality and vengeance inevitably lead to more of the same.  And even those who are successful in dominating others during their lifetimes cannot avoid the ultimate meaning and purpose of our existence as those created in God’s image and likeness.  Like the rich fool in today’s gospel lesson, it is possible to trust in passing glory and comfort, but ultimately to lose one’s own soul.  Those who worship themselves and the illusions of well-being that they have created succeed only in diminishing their humanity and shutting themselves out of the heavenly peace for which they were created.  It is possible to have everything in this life, but to be desperately poor before God.
            This coming Wednesday, we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.  The Virgin Mary was not wealthy or powerful by any worldly standard, and the account of her elderly parents taking her to the Temple where she prepared to become the living temple of the Lord surely did not strike fear in the hearts of emperors or of rich, influential people.  Her life was not focused on laying up treasures for herself or indulging in passing pleasures.  Instead, she chose the one thing needful :  hearing and obeying the word of God.  Indeed, she accepted personally into her own life in a totally unique way the Incarnate Word of God Jesus Christ.  And through her pure obedience, the Savior has come to us all.  
            The Theotokos is certainly entirely different from the rich fool.  His life revolved around his wealth; and when he had acquired enough, he was ready to eat, drink, and be merry.  The problem is that God did not create us for a life dominated by worldly ambition or unrestrained self-indulgence; instead, He wants us to become ever more like Him.  But if we refuse to do that and try to find peace in trying to control others and in satisfying every self-centered inclination, we become less than human.  We will become slaves to our desires and pleasures, which soon become addictions, and which will soon make us miserable and separate us even from those we love most in this life.
            Of course, money, food, drink, comfort, wealth, relationships, and other blessings have their place in this life, but they are not to become what life is about.  If we make them false gods, we will destroy ourselves and lose them also because only God is God.  No part of creation finds peace or fulfillment unless it is offered to Him for blessing in accordance with His purposes for it.  And that includes you and me.  There is no path to the richness of the Kingdom apart from obedience.  At the end of the day, our choice is clear and stark:  either to serve ourselves or our Lord.  The rich fool made one choice, while the Theotokos made another.
            We follow the Virgin Mary’s example not only when fast, pray, and give generously to the needy in the weeks lead up to Christmas, but also when we are on guard for even the most subtle temptations to place the world before God.  For example, even those who devote their lives to the service of others for relatively little money and social standing can make a false god out of their work.  We can do the same thing even with our families or our devotion to worthwhile projects or activities of any kind.  Especially dangerous is the common temptation to use God for worldly power, as if Christ were somehow useful to us in getting ahead in the world or bringing peace on our terms in any area of life.  Many people in our society need to be careful today not to imagine God in their own image. 
            If we want to enter into the temple with the Theotokos, if we wish to follow her example in becoming a living temple of the Lord, we must be very careful not to confuse even the best things of this life with the Lord Himself.  The problem is not with our many blessings, but with us.  We do not yet have the spiritual strength to discern perfectly how to offer the world to God, how to play our role in sanctifying every dimension of who we are and what we do.  
            That is precisely why we need fasting periods like Advent. If you are like me, “eat, drink, and be merry” is not good advice for how to stay focused on welcoming Jesus Christ more fully into your life.  Just taking it easy usually does not clarify our spiritual vision or increase our strength to turn away from habitual sins that have become second nature to us.  No, we need to wake up.  We need to enter into the temple of God’s holiness in a new way in the coming weeks by giving less time and energy to our usual distractions and more to the things of God.   We need to participate more fully in the peace of the Kingdom by taking active steps to fight our passions and reject ways of acting, speaking, and thinking that simply lead us further into the darkness.   We need to do our best to mend our broken relationships with others, asking for and granting forgiveness to those with whom we have become estranged.
            Unfortunately, our world and society are filled with people who embrace the darkness in one way or the other.  Too often, you and I are among them.  But instead of following the rich fool into eternal despair, let’s come to our sense and follow the Mother of God into eternal joy.  We will do that in the coming weeks by rejecting the lies that we have let take root in our souls about what is most important in life.  Turning away from worldly obsessions and divisions, let us turn to Christ as we prepare to receive Him at Christmas.  The peace that He brought to the world is available to us and to all peoples and nations, if we will only receive Him as His mother did in purity and obedience.  Now is the time to follow the Theotokos into the temple as we get ready to become living temples of the Lord when the incarnate Son of God becomes one of us at His Nativity.  For He alone is our peace, our hope, and our joy.  It’s time to get ready for Him.    

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Good Samaritan and Advent: Homily for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Gospel According to Luke 10: 25-37           
            I have a warning for you:  Christmas is now only forty-four days away.  And for most of us that means shopping, planning, travel, decorating, parties, and the busiest and most stressful time of the year.  Unfortunately, most of our activities over the next six weeks will have little to do with the true meaning of Christmas:  that the Son of God became a human being in order to bring us into the eternal life and joy of His kingdom.   So it is a blessing that we have the period of Advent, of the Nativity Fast, to prepare to celebrate this unbelievably good and joyful news.  For unless we prepare for Him through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, reconciliation, and repentance, we will not be ready to glorify Him at His birth.
            Our familiar gospel text today reminds us what it means to worship and receive the Christ who is born at Christmas.  One of the Pharisees, a religious lawyer, asked Jesus Christ what he needed to do in order to find eternal life.  He already knew the answer:  to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  But this lawyer wanted to justify himself, he wanted to find a loophole to make it easier to meet God’s requirements.  So he said, “And who is my neighbor?”   Maybe he wanted to hear that only upstanding Jewish men like himself were worthy of his concern.  Maybe he wanted to hear that it was enough to take care of his family members, to love those who loved him. 
            Christ knew what the man was up to, so He told him a story in which a person whom the Jews loved to hate—a Samaritan—was the only one who helped a Jewish man who had been attacked, robbed, and left for dead by the side of the road.  Respectable Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, simply walked past the poor man and did nothing to help him.  But the hated Samaritan was unbelievably generous toward this man, cleaning his wounds, physically taking him to an inn, paying for his lodging, and promising to return to check on him. 
            After hearing this story, even the lawyer saw the point.  The Samaritan turned out to be the only one who was a neighbor to that Jewish man, for he alone showed mercy.  The Savior concluded, “Go and do likewise.”  In other words, anyone who is in need is your neighbor.  Show mercy to anyone who needs your help.  That’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
            As we stand forty-four days before Christmas, we must all acknowledge that we have fallen short of fulfilling the Lord’s command.  Like the Pharisee, we want to define our list of neighbors narrowly so that we can feel as though we have already mastered God’s law.  It’s one thing if our children or parents or good friends need help, but what about someone whom we don’t particularly like or who is very different from us in religion, race, nationality, politics, lifestyle, or in some other way.  All too often, we use such excuses to convince ourselves that it really is a good thing to judge, hate, and ignore other people.  But when we do so, we turn away from the One who was judged, hated, and rejected by the religious leaders of His day, our Lord Jesus Christ.
            For the Fathers of the Church saw the Good Samaritan as image of the Son of God.  Purely out of love, He came to a world that rejected Him, that despised Him to the point that He was hung on a cross by those He came to save.  Like the Samaritan, He was hated by respectable, powerful people.  Yet He still became one of us, binding our wounds, giving life to the dead, and providing His Church as an inn, a hospital, in which we are healed and fulfilled by His boundless mercy and nourished by His own Body and Blood.   
            Also like the Samaritan, Christ made no distinction between different types of people.  The Samaritan knew that the Jewish crime victim probably hated him.  But he cared for him nonetheless. Likewise, our Lord was born, lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven for the salvation of all humanity.  Of the Jews and Romans who crucified Him, Christ said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”   He is born at Christmas for the salvation of the entire world.   And though we cannot fully understand this truth, all mercy, love, and goodness that any human being has ever shown has been the work of Christ.  For He made us all in His image and likeness, and apart from Him no human being has any life or light.
            As we confess in our pre-communion prayers, we ourselves are the chief of sinners.   We must take care of the log in our own eye before worrying about the speck in our brother’s eye.  The more we grow in the Christian life, the more we will see that to judge others self-righteously is really only to judge ourselves and to reject the mercy and love of our Lord.  Instead of wasting time as the self-appointed judges of others, we should stay busy with the way of selfless, humble love and service that Jesus Christ has shown us.  We should care for others as the Samaritan cared for that Jewish man, who probably viewed him as an enemy.   
            You see, our faith calls us to prepare for Christmas in ways very different from what is common in our culture.  It’s not all about presents and purchases and parties and how to stuff ourselves without gaining weight.  Instead, it is about growing in the mercy and compassion of Christ; it is about manifesting the true love for God and neighbor by which participate in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  We should use the Nativity Fast, the weeks of Advent, to prepare as fully as we can to embrace the healing of our broken, corrupt humanity which Christ, the Second Adam, was born to restore.   For the Christian life is not a set of arbitrary rules or exercises.  Instead, it is the path by which sick, weak, battered, and discouraged people enter into the blessing and holiness for which we were created in the image and likeness of God.
            If you have not done so already, give prayerful attention to how you will devote time, energy, and attention to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance, and reconciliation this Advent.  I would be glad to visit with you about how to use these practices in beneficial ways at this point in your spiritual journey.  Consider making an Advent wreath at home, lighting an additional candle each week as you pray and read Scripture. Devote at least a few more minutes a day to prayer and Bible reading.  When you are tempted to speak or act with hatred or judgment toward someone or to fall into despair or fear, say the Jesus Prayer, calling upon the Lord in humility for the calming of your inflamed passions.   Practice some form of fasting or self-denial in order to gain strength in fighting self-centered desires.  When you have the opportunity to help someone in any way, do so.  Bring some nonperishable food items for our Thanksgiving food drive and stay tuned for information on a similar drive for Christmas.  
            Are these small steps?  Of course they are.  They won’t magically change the world into a paradise.  But they will begin to change us by opening our lives bit by bit to the love which is our salvation, the love shown by the Good Samaritan, by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  We will celebrate His birth, His incarnation, in forty-four days.  Now we must prepare to receive Him by showing the same mercy to our neighbors that He has shown us.  And who is our neighbor?  Anyone who is in need.  When it comes to how we treat others, nothing else should matter at all.                   

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lazarus and the Rich Man: Homily for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

St. Luke 16: 19-31
            I bet that every one of us can name some famous people who seem to be famous mostly because they are famous.  Some people make the news simply by being who they are for reasons that are beyond us.  For whatever reason, the names of celebrities are always well known.
            But it’s not the same for the humble and poor, for people who live on the streets or in shacks and who do not know where their next meal will come from.  Hundreds of millions of children in the developing world today do not have safe drinking water, adequate shelter, or health services.  Many of them end up like the poor man in today’s gospel lesson, begging desperately outside the home of a wealthy person, only to be ignored and to die without any human comfort.  The names of those who live such lives are rarely known or recorded.  The names, like the people, are usually thought to be unimportant and rarely make the news.
            How completely shocking it is, then, that our gospel text gives us the name of the poor beggar Lazarus, but leaves out the name of the rich man.  This detail shows us that God’s kingdom is not like worldly kingdoms, not like human society as we know it.  For the kind of wealth that makes people famous in this life counts for nothing in the next.  And the kind of humility, the kind of complete trust in God that the poorest of the poor are in the best position to have, counts for little in today’s world; yet, it is only by that kind of humble trust that anyone will enter the kingdom of God.
            No, the point is not that the rich will be damned and the poor will be blessed.  Instead, it is that there are strong and deep temptations associated with wealth, possessions, and success in this world. For if we love ourselves, our riches, and our status more than God and neighbor, no matter how much or little we have, we will shut ourselves out of the kingdom.  The name Lazarus means “One who has been helped,” and those whose miserable life circumstances do not encourage them to trust in money, power, or success are in a good position to learn that their help is in the Lord, in His mercy and love.
            The rich man never learned that lesson, however.  He wore only outrageously expensive clothes and had a great feast every day.  He must have known about the poor beggar Lazarus.  He probably stepped over or around him every time he went in or out of his house.   Here was a desperately poor man, lying on the ground, whose only comfort was the stray dogs who would lick his open sores.  All that Lazarus wanted were the crumbs that fell from the man’s table, you might say his garbage. But the rich man was so greedy and thoughtless that he apparently denied him even that.   Our Lord is quite clear about the consequences of such a life.  This man showed no mercy; he demonstrated no love for his wretched neighbor. Consequently, he cut himself off from the mercy and love of God.
            Quite different from this selfish man were the saints we commemorated on Thursday, the Holy Unmercenary Healers Cosmas and Damian.  They used the money they inherited from their parents to provide medical care without charge to the sick and needy.  Imagine that:  doctors who refused payment.  God worked many miracles through them, for they became channels of the Lord’s mercy and love to those with whom the Lord identified Himself:  the sick, the weak, the stranger, “the least of these my brethren.” 
            St. Paul’s famous words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were lived out by these great saints.  We remember them precisely because of their love.  The Lord said that the greatest commandments are to love God all our heart, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.  And what greater sign of love is there than patiently and selflessly to ease the pain of others, to lighten their burdens, to heal their bodies, and restore them to health.  No, these men did not take credit for their work or think that they healed by their own power.   Instead, their lives were transformed by the healing energies of the Holy Spirit; they became channels of God’s mercy to suffering, desperate people.
            Saints Cosmas and Damian were completely different from the rich man who disregarded Lazarus.  They would have provided him their best care free of charge and done everything possible to nurse him back to health.  Their selfless love for Lazarus would have been an icon of the Kingdom of God in which those who wait humbly upon the Lord will not be disappointed.
            But we have to go beyond merely praising the memory of Sts. Cosmas and Damian.  We must venerate them not only with our words, but also with our deeds; namely, by following in their footsteps for the Lazaruses of our world and or our lives.  No, we are not all called to become physicians; we are not all called to give everything away to the poor.  But we are all called to live out the selfless love that Jesus Christ has brought to the world, the love that is patient and kind and free of envy; that rejoices in the truth and endures all things for the salvation of the world.  That kind of love never fails, for it has conquered death through our Lord’s crucifixion and glorious resurrection.
            Such love is not a feeling, an emotion, or a sentiment.  It is a commitment, a sacrifice, an offering of ourselves to God in the service of the living icons of Christ whom we encounter every day, namely every human being with whom we come in contact.  Unlike the rich man in the parable, we are not to be so fixated on ourselves that we ignore the needs of others.  None of us is rich and famous in the world, but we all have the opportunity, at the very least, to share the crumbs that fall from our tables with those who are hungry for them.
            As we prepare for the Nativity or Advent fast, we should plan on giving the money that we save by eating a humble diet to those who do not have the basic necessities of life.  That’s what we do as a parish through the “Food for Hungry People” collection during Lent.  Stay tuned for details on a food drive for Thanksgiving and for our plans to help a needy family at Christmas.   Think also of the crumbs, the small bits of time and energy, that we are all able to give:   to the sick and lonely who need visitors or at least a note or a phone call; to neglected children who need tutors and mentors; to pregnant women in difficult situations who need our support to help them welcome their babies; and to the countless other people in our own neighborhoods who need God’s blessing in their lives in a tangible, practical way.
            The hard truth is that, if we are not sharing our lives and blessings with others in some way, we will become just like the rich man who was too caught up with his own pleasure to worry about poor Lazarus.  We know where that path leads.  The good news is that Saints Cosmas and Damien have shown us a better way, the way of our Lord, which is open to us in every generation, in every walk of life, no matter how rich or poor we are.  For the money and power of the world will fade away; they do not last.  Only one thing lasts, and that is the selfless love of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ Who has conquered sin and death.  And we all have gifts and abilities that may become channels of His blessing and mercy to a world of people like Lazarus, whether their wounds are physical or spiritual or emotional. 
            Of course, we do not have to save the world; Christ has already done that.  We just have to be faithful:  to trust, believe, and follow our Savior in how we treat others.  He turned no one away empty-handed and neither should we.  If we claim His mercy and love for ourselves, we must show them to all who bear His image and likeness.  Let us be Christians not merely in name, but also in how we live, even when it is inconvenient.  Then we will become living icons of the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to a world of sin and death, and the Lazaruses of the world will know that they too are the children of God.  And together with them, we will all share in the mercy of a Lord Who raises the dead, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and makes even the most miserable people His blessed sons and daughters.        

Orthodox Thoughts on the 2012 Election

Orthodox Thoughts on the 2012 Election

V. Rev. Paul Jannakos
As Orthodox Christians we bear witness to Christ in all dimensions of life. This includes participation in civic life, where as citizens of this country we elect into office those who aspire towards the work of public service on both the local and federal levels.
We do not deny that the democratic electoral process is a wonderful gift given to us as citizens of the United States. We thereby vote for those whom we feel would best govern our lands according to the values and principles we esteem as believers.
As we approach the upcoming Election Day, it is beneficial to be reminded about several key issues regarding the Orthodox Church and its role in the social and political life of its faithful.
1) The starting point of our political involvement as Orthodox believers is a paradoxical one, which is that in relationship to the gospel of Christ, we have no absolute political “affiliation.” The true home of every Orthodox Christian is the Kingdom of Heaven, which in this age, stands over and above every earthly state. That the Kingdom of Christ is the only Kingdom that truly “reigns,” even in this fallen age, is why we pledge to it the totality of our lives. For as long as we live in this age, we are sojourners while on this earth and the only city (“polis”) that we can thus claim as our truest home is the Jerusalem from above – the “Heavenly Jerusalem.” “But the Jerusalem that is from above is free, and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26). The lives – and deaths – of all the Holy Martyrs testify to this fundamental teaching regarding the true nature of Christian citizenship.
2) In light of this, we should also refrain from permitting our worldview to be shaped or compromised by any social or political ideology, be it “conservatism,” or “capitalism,” or “liberalism,” or “libertarianism,” or “progressivism,” or “socialism,” or “feminism,” or “pluralism,” or “egalitarianism,” or “or any other “ism” whatsoever. Instead, the core beliefs, values, and morals that govern how we envision the “way things should be” in this world are shaped uniquely by the life and witness and teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church, which according to St. Paul is the “pillar and foundation of truth.” (1 Timonty 3:15). Again, St. Paul writes, “See to it, brethren, that no one takes you captive through philosophy or empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Colossians, 2:8).
3) Even so, this does not infer nor does it suggest that we as Orthodox Christians must completely divorce ourselves from participation in the civic life of the countries in which we live. We are in the world, yes, but we are not “of” the world. This means that we no longer belong to the world (i.e. the “society of men”), nor do we adhere to its fallen values and ideals. [For] I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:14,15).
Yet as long as we each are living in our own country and place, we do whatever we can in order to bear witness to the saving truth of the gospel. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Understood from this perspective, as Orthodox believers we are entitled to participate as fully as we possibly can in the social and political life of our country, especially when it comes to the work of the Church’s philanthropy. Members of the Body of Christ are likewise commanded to show our respect and give honor to those in political office, (See 1 Peter 2:17), and to pray for them during the Divine Liturgy – whether we agree with their political policies or not.
4) Here in America, the idea of separation between Church and State as envisioned in the Constitution does not mean that those of us who profess faith are to be excluded from political discourse simply because our societal sentiments are explicitly religious – as some currently assert. Separation of Church and state simply means that there will be no official “state church” that functions as a spiritual and moral guide of its people, as is the case in many European countries. (E.g., as the Anglican Church is in England).
As such, we are responsible for bearing witness to the truth of Christ in the public sphere, no matter how unpopular such a truth may be. We must not be silent in the face of injustice. We must never be afraid to speak against any disruption or violation of the public good. The Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in North America recently expressed the same by saying, “We call for responsibility by individuals, institutions and governments to ensure the welfare of every citizen. We must safeguard the sacrament of marriage in accordance with God’s will for the sacred union between man and woman and the sanctity of family as the fundamental nucleus of a healthy society. In this regard, we emphasize regular family worship, particularly at Sunday liturgy. We must strive to eliminate the violence proliferated against innocents of every kind, particularly of women and the unborn. Likewise, we must resist the wastefulness and greed that dominate our consumer society, confessing that our spiritual citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3.20) in order that our witness be characterized by the compassion and mercy as well as the generosity and philanthropy that distinguishes our God who loves humankind.”
In short, it is our duty to work towards the “leavening” of our American culture by promoting all that is holy, true, righteous, noble, beautiful, and life-giving. Orthodox Christians have engaged in this kind of positive witness in whatever lands they have dwelt for almost 2000 years, which is the legacy of St. Constantine and Helen, St. Vladimir of Russia, St. Sava of Serbia, St. Kosmos Aetolos of Greece, and St. Herman of Alaska, just to name a few.
5) Finally, as Orthodox Christians we should resist the fanaticism that some display in their politicking, whether it is on the “right” of the “left.” The Orthodox Church deplores those who use extremist language in order to advance any type of hateful, racist, or xenophobic ideologies. St. Paul writes, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer one another.” (Colossians 4:6). As American citizens we have the right to free speech, but this should never give us the leeway to vilify or slander ones neighbor simply because he or she may stand for a differing political view. Dialogue between political parties concerning social issues, mores and laws should remain open, forthright, and considerate.
As Orthodox believers we strive to do what we pray: to work for the peace and reconciliation of all human beings, beginning with our own families and in our own homes.
May God bless our nation with His peace and righteousness.