Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Storm before the Calm

WhatamIgoingtobuyformydad? WhenamIgoing-tofindtimetoruntheselasterrands? Icannotstandthe-trafficanylonger! Ohno!DidIgetsomethingformy-sisteryet? RunaroundRunaroundRunaround. Rush
RushRushRush. Does this seem familiar? This is the storm before the calm.

But, it can be fought, and conquered! Tuesday through Friday nights we will celebrate the Vespers and Canon of Compline of the Prefeast of the Nativity. Don’t get caught in the whirlwind of the details of shopping, cooking and planning. So often, we create the storm around Christmas by our own frenetic pace. Be still! Be at peace! B R E A T H E! Take a moment. Take 45 moments. Enter into the feast calmly with us…

Enter into the vesperal light of the quiet Church and pray with us as we anticipate the Nativity of our Lord.

O come, all you faithful,
Begin the celebration:
Sing with the magi and
the shepherds:
Salvation comes from the Virgin's womb,
Recalling the
faithful to life!

(Stichera from Lord I Call, December 20)

Schedule of Services this Week
Tuesday-Friday 5:30pm Vespers and the Canon of Compline
Saturday 5:30pm Vigil of the Nativity (Compline/Matins)
Sunday 9:10 (hours) 9:30 Liturgy of the Nativity

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Letter to the Editor, published in the Post and Courier 12/14

Christian principles

Hopefully, the Dec. 3 article about the execution of Shawn Humphries appeared on Page 7B of The Post and Courier (as opposed to a more prominent place) because we are ashamed to publish it as news. But, to quote an ancient saint, "Fie on the outrage!"

How many times a year do we read about citizens incensed that the Ten Commandments are not posted here or there or are removed from public view, and yet we consent, at least by our silence, to state-sanctioned murder? We do a fine job of "cleaning the outside of the vessel," as did the Pharisees, but we are morally bankrupt inside. On what Christian grounds do we defend capital punishment? And in South Carolina!

"An eye for an eye" is no Christian principle. Jesus himself made this clear: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well." (Matthew 5:38-44)

Jesus also said something about murder: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:21)

Who stands uncondemned? Let him inject the first needle.

If we so fervently desire the "monuments" of Christianity - or at least of so-called "Judeo-Christian values" - to be displayed in public, perhaps we ought first to demonstrate that we are truly Christian people, as St. James, the brother of the Jesus, urges in his epistle: "Be doers of the word and not hearers only." (James 1:22)

Otherwise, we may find ourselves more than doubly damned. Lord, have mercy.

The Rev. John Parker
Holy Ascension
Orthodox Church
816 High Battery Circle
Mount Pleasant

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What shall we offer Him?

What shall we offer Him?

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ,
Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man?
Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks,
The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star;
The wisemen gifts; the shepherds, their wonder;
The earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger.
And we offer Thee a virgin mother.
O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!
(Lord I Call, Vespers of the Nativity)

As online stores warn us of the final days after which “Christmas delivery” is not possible and local marketers tempt us to buy from them “the perfect gift for the person who has everything” (something that will wind up in a drawer or a closet and then at a yard sale as just some thing), we pause as we prepare for the Nativity of our Lord.

Rampant capitalism urges us in a relentless tide to buy, buy, buy, and to give gifts, to splurge. “You deserve it”. But the simple hymn listed above, from the Vespers of the Nativity, beckons us to something much different, far deeper, and of infinitely more value: The question, “What shall we offer Thee, O Christ?” Everything made gives thanks in some way, and humanity offers the Virgin Mother of God for this miracle. But what thanks do I myself give?

The Icon of the Nativity shows an ox and an ass peering into the manger. These animals do not appear in the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke. Rather, they are found in Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” Do we recognize our Master as the dumb animals do? Will we be found on Christmas Day, peering into the manger, giving thanks to the King of Glory, receiving Him in the Eucharist as we give Him the only thing we can: ourselves?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

40 Days of Simplicity

By Father John Parker

With Rick Warren’s visit to Charleston still fresh in the minds of the multitudes that his appearance attracted, Orthodox Christians around the planet have begun, once again, a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for the Nativity of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. “Little Lent” or the “Nativity Fast” as it is variously called has been an annual Christian season for over 1500 years, and has been practiced in its present form for the past 900 years. The recent frenzies of “40 days” of this, that, and the other are perhaps well-intended (if not ingeniously marketed) efforts to (re)create a spiritual discipline which has not only been assumed, but has been a part of Christianity from the first days. Forty day cycles and spiritual efforts are no novelty to Orthodox Christians. Rather, they have always been a regular, and needed, spiritual discipline in the life of the Church.

A wise Christian once said, “he who does not know how to fast does not know what it is to feast.” And the practical life of the Church, in her calendar, reflects this verity. Easter, “Pascha” as we call it, is the chief celebration of the Christian year, at which we celebrate Jesus Christ’s holy Resurrection, His “trampling down death by death”. No one knows feasting better than Orthodox Christians on the night of Pascha. In the middle of the night after the celebration of Holy Communion, the tables are set as we feast on the delicious contents of baskets fat with meats, cheeses, cakes, and other delights from around the world. (Since our calendars are sometimes different, come and see this year—we celebrate the Sunday after Western Easter in 2006.)

At least since the early 300s AD, if not certainly before that, Christians have celebrated a season of fasting to prepare for this Feast of Feasts. Increasingly lengthy prayer services, long periods including whole days of strict fasting, and more focused almsgiving and service to the “least of these” are the marks of such a repentant season. By our prayer and fasting, we begin to see ourselves for who we truly are: selfish, angry, short-tempered, self-promoting, judgmental sinners. The spiritual discipline of fasting joined to prayer cleanses the soul. A fourth century monk described it this way, “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food, so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak.”

We also learn, by our reading of the Scriptures and singing of special hymns precisely who God is: the Almighty, all-merciful, all-loving Creator of everyone and everything who welcomes home and forgives all those who turn back to Him from their wicked, sinful ways. The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to life for us, as we return to see ourselves as the “prodigal” and God as the benevolent Father.

For us Orthodox Christians, the preparation for Christmas—the Nativity of our Lord as it is more commonly called—is a mirror of the preparation for Pascha. Hence the name “little Lent”. So on November 15 every year, we begin together to forego meat, dairy, wine (alcohol), and oil, as a common fasting discipline which teaches us slowly, but surely, that our stomachs have begun to govern us. Pride and gluttony, along with self-satisfaction have taken us over. By our voluntary hunger and the rumbling of our stomachs, we begin to see our tempers flare and our sinfulness rear its ugly head. When we see our true selves in this way, we can reconvene our surrender to Christ. By such surrender, we begin anew to see our neighbor with God’s eyes, to serve with God’s hands, to hear with God’s ears. And thus we can also reconvene our plea for Grace. When our stomach rumbles, we make our prayer something like this, “Lord, I thank you that today I have the blessing to choose to be hungry. Help me in my bounty to serve those who are hungry today not by choice of their own…” This is the true meaning of the 40 day fast.

The Nativity Fast, like Great Lent, is not “40 days of individuality” where Johnny chooses to give up beer (which he doesn’t drink anyway) and Suzie gives up chocolate. No, inherent in the Fast is the understanding that no one is saved alone. One can only be saved in community. The Orthodox Church has been living ‘40 days of community’ for nearly two millennia.

During this season, we might even ask the question in contemporary terms, “40 days, what’s the purpose?” The purpose is Communion with God, and love of neighbor, epitomized in holiness—the Christian perfection to which our Lord Himself has called us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

God has taught us, through the prophet Isaiah, not only what the true meaning of fasting is, but has revealed Himself to us as the very fulfillment of it:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:6ff).

And so, on December 25, we will once again celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the One who has loosed the chains, who has offered His very self as the Bread of life, and who offers life to those dead in sin. Our fasting, having come to an end, turns into feasting, as the light overcomes the darkness since the True light, Jesus Christ, has come into the world.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thanksgiving 2005

By Fr. John Parker
Appeared in the Moultrie News on 16 November 2005

If your household is like mine when I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was an occasion of significant liturgy—a sacred family ritual repeated annually. At least from the time of my early teens, I remember arising on that Thursday every November as if it were a Sunday. Already my parents would have been working for a few hours preparing and stuffing the turkey which would begin to cook while we were off at church. Because of the inherent Christian themes of the holiday, without question we would attend the church service where we would sing those hymns which have become so famous around this celebration: “Come, ye thankful people, come…” The priest would wear his stole with the wheat and wine motif, evidence of our thanks for the harvest, with overt theological reference to the bread and wine of communion.

After church we would race home to check the turkey, whose pleasant, basted aroma had already filled the house in our absence. My mother would prepare the rest of the ritual meal, which remains nearly unchanged to this day: candied sweet potatoes served with marshmallows; green bean casserole topped with crispy, Durkee fried onions; curried fruit, cranberry sauce, and pitted black olives. There were only three times a year that we used my great-grandmother’s fine china: Christmas, Easter, and today. My younger brother and I were even given the privilege of drinking our milk or soda from the beautiful antique crystal glasses, whose rims were encircled in real gold. (They never went in the dishwasher!)

Equally a part of all this ritual was the watching of football, the removing of the electric carving knife—still in its original 1968 box, the sampling of the hot turkey put out to cool, and the pilfering of olives one by one before dinner (between my father and me). This, of course, was always followed by the rhetorical question, “Okay, who has eaten all the olives?”

Once the meal was served, we were seated. My father always said grace, beginning with his oft repeated words, “We thank Thee, Heavenly Father for all the many blessings…” Thereafter we would gorge ourselves, as if there weren’t going to be 10 pounds of turkey-and-fixins left over for tomorrow. Following supper, we would make room for two or three varieties of pie, topped with ice cream. The inevitable statement would finally be made: “I’ll never eat again.”

More and more in these United States, we know what it is to feast. Whether it be a Thanksgiving meal as I have described above (which is probably ‘average’) or a regular meal at a restaurant (where one plate could serve two or three), indulgence is on the rise. It is seen in our meals, in our house and car purchases, in our discretionary spending—feasting on ‘prosperity’. Indeed, even flat-screen and plasma televisions are becoming the norm, along with paying upwards of $100 a month for varying cable or satellite tv service.

But do we know truly what it is to feast? There is a teaching which says that one cannot know what it is to feast unless he or she knows what it is to fast—to lack, to be in need, especially voluntarily. If the plate is always more than full, if the cup always ‘runneth over’, if there is never a need, do we actually feast? Or has our feasting, once rooted in true thankfulness, morphed ever so subtly into gluttony in all facets of life?

Fasting—self-denial in general—is an all-but-forgotten practice in our society today. We are told by clever marketers that we “deserve” all kinds of things: a bigger house, a newer car, a fuller plate, a more lavish vacation. And to assist us in obtaining all that we “deserve”, sly money-lenders will give us all the credit we want in order to buy things now. I even noticed that one can use a ‘pay-pass’ at McDonald’s, originally designed to help streamline traffic on heavily traveled toll roads. One doesn’t even have to wait the short amount of time we once had to for a fast food burger.

Fasting and self-denial are not ends in and of themselves. The purpose of fasting is not to diet or to drop a few pounds, even though with fasting comes a certain weight loss. The goal of self-denial is not to pat oneself on the back and say, “hey, I went 40 days without eating meat.” Believe it or not, though, there is much that we truly can go without! Rather, the aims of these disciplines are these: to soften the heart, to open our eyes to see true need, to teach our tongue to speak words that build up and don’t tear down, to teach us that we control our stomachs and bodies—rather than our stomachs and bodies governing us.

If we are truly thankful, especially at this sacred time on our secular calendar, then let us show such gratitude not in word only, but also in deed. Yes, let us gather together in families and neighborhoods, enjoying one another’s company and thanking God, from whom all blessings flow. But let us not forget to fast in all sincerity—to deny ourselves for some length time, to break the bonds of instant gratification, in order to have our eyes and ears and hearts and wallets open to those in need—those who have no full choice regarding hunger, clothing, shelter, and basic human needs. And the occasions of such self-denial, let our prayer be, “O Lord, I thank you today that I am hungry by choice. Grant me through your abundant grace to go into my community and to share freely all that You have freely given me, that I may know truly what it is to feast, at the never ending Heavenly Banquet in your Kingdom. Amen.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Building Holy Ascension

November 15, 2005

Will you help us build?
See the renderings at www.ocacharleston.org/building.html

Christ is in our midst! God grant us a blessed fast. This week’s newsletter is a summary of Sunday’s all-parish meeting. Please contact Fr. John Parker or Chuck Bates if you have questions, concerns, ideas, suggestions, or corrections. In order to keep it as brief as possible, it is written in a rather staccato fashion. Please forgive me!

Building Status: building permits expected end of November, 1st week in December. Mike Colarusso to be our contractor. To sign not-to-exceed contract of $950,000. We expect construction to be less with value-engineering and gifts-in-kind at construction. Bank willing to loan us $500,000. Present building fund: $197,000.

Goal: We are seeking to raise an additional $300,000 by the Nativity of our Lord, December 25. Our efforts coincide with our 40 day fast beginning today.

The Plan: Chuck Bates and others have proposed to have each ‘giving unit’ (as the bank calls a family or single individual. I don’t like the term, but we’ll use it for sake of ease.) who is of a willing heart (see Exodus 35) take responsibility for raising an additional $10,000. This is not a contract or requirement; it is a mutual request of all of us. Some may raise more, some less. Some will participate, some will not. We are asking for willing hearts. By Christmas, we hope that, with everyone taking responsibility for a piece, we can finish with the full amount needed to build. We are not asking one another to give this money from our own pockets, although some may choose to do so. Rather, we are asking the whole parish to dig deep, think hard, and participate together to this end. Several ideas will be attached to this report.

Some Notable Moments: At the request of one parishioner, we passed around papers to all who would make an educated guess at what each could raise by 12/25. With sixteen of eighteen or twenty ‘units’ reporting, $84,200 was ‘offered’. A number of parishioners and friends were unable to join us Sunday. We are confident that we all will be pleasantly surprised by the end results. Let’s remember the end of the Exodus 35 story: so many were generous of heart and interested in helping that Moses had to ask the people to stop because they had too much to complete the tabernacle! Imagine!

These questions were raised: If finances are a struggle at this level, is this the building to build? We believe, after much prayer and many, many months of diligent labor that this is the building to build. Many hours have been spent by numbers of parishioners to choose this design over others. For practical as well as architectural reasons, it is neither wise nor possible to build the parish hall first, and then the church later. We would have to redesign the present plans to do so, which would likely cost at least $20,000. In the end, we would have a parish hall not much bigger than our present storefront, and thus would have paid a lot of money out and be no further along than we are today.

Is now the time? We believe that the time is now for many reasons. For much of this year, we have averaged 40 on Sundays, with attendance as high as 61 at Pascha. 57 attended this past Sunday. Statistically, we cannot grow beyond this in this size space. One option is to move, but we chose I’On because this is where the church will ultimately be. And presently, we are spending $1700/month in rent. This would be better spent in a mortgage of our own. Additionally, the cost of construction will not decrease, and the price of money will likely not decrease either. Two years from now, the struggle would be the same, proportionately to today. But we need the space today!

A Time to remember our past and think about the future: Many, many of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were called to the same holy task: those who are generous and willing of heart, draw near to build the temples of God in this country. It was not easy then—dollars were hard to come by and materials were expensive. Our relatives toiled long hours in mines and mills. They made thousands of dollars by selling hand-made comestibles. They dedicated immeasurable amounts of their free time to lay brick, pour concrete, paint walls, install tile, paint icons, etc. They gave large sums of what little they had to the glory of God. The legacy of their labors of love are sprinkled about the northeast and in other parts of the USA. Many of us visit, worship, and serve in these churches still when we return to our hometowns.

We are now the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. We have come to a ‘new’ land—the South (new to Orthodoxy, not us!). We have before us the same holy task that faced our forebears: to build the most beautiful Orthodox possible, to the glory of God, in which to worship Him, and by which to help introduce our neighbors to the fullness of the Christian Gospel. It is not easy, like it was not easy then. For a number of us, dollars are sparse and materials are costly.

We have put forth and incredible effort which has produced much fruit thus far. Already our small parish has raised over a quarter of a million dollars, of which over $196,000 remains in our bank account (the other has been spent on costs like architectural and engineering work, rent, etc.). There remains before us still a significant amount of work, especially as we prepare to take the step of faith to build.

I ask us all to take this fast more seriously and soberly than ever. We prepare ourselves to welcome the King of Kings into the world. We anticipate the moment of “God with us”—the coming of Emmanuael, Jesus Christ our Lord. On Sunday, we heard the lawyer in the Gospel ask, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The central, communal way in which we love the Lord our God is by worshipping Him in the most beautiful place we can offer. The second is by serving Him through in the ‘least of these’—the poor, the suffering, the needy, the hopeless. The former we strive for in our building efforts and in our prayerful devotion in our present space. The latter is to be the fruit of the true fast. Let us not aim for one and neglect the other, but strive to Love God and Neighbor together!

God be bountiful to us and bless us, and let the light of His countenance shine upon us, and be merciful unto us!

Your servant in Christ,

Fr. John+

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Nativity Fast

The Nativity Fast begins on Tuesday, November 15, continuing for the 40 days which are completed with the Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day, December 25. “Little lent” is a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as we reorient our lives once again to “the Orient from on High”, Jesus Christ. Prayer without fasting is incomplete. Fasting without prayer is dieting. Prayer and fasting without almsgiving is spiritual selfishness. Below are some very helpful sayings from the Desert Fathers which will help us to see the true nature and purpose of fasting:

Amma Syncletica said, “Just as bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures, so prayer and fasting drive away evil thoughts” (#4).

Abba Poemen heard of someone who had gone all week without eating and lost his temper. The old man said, “He could do without food for six days, but could not do without anger” (#203).

Abba John the Dwarf said, “If a king wants to take possession of a city he begins by cutting off water and food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, submit to him. So it is with sinful passions. If a person goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak and surrender” (#3).

“It is better to eat meat and drink wine, and not eat the flesh of one’s neighbors through slander” (Hyperechius, 2).

One day St. Epiphanius…sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, “Come, let us see one another before we depart from this life.” When the old man came, they rejoice together in each other’s company. During their meal, they were brought a fowl. Epiphanius took it and gave it to Hilarion to eat. The old man said to him, “Forgive me, but since I received the habit, I have not eaten meat.” Then the bishop answered, “Since I took the habit, I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me, and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone.” The old man replied, “Forgive me, your way of life is better than mine” (#4).

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Death, Halloween, and Christianity

Ancient Christianity Confronts Death and Halloween
By Fr. John Parker

I remember well walking the streets of our cozy steel-mill suburb of Pittsburgh with our two and four year-old sons in a wagon, flanked by our neighbors and their children as we went off trick-or-treating. Without leaving even the first block I thought, “Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore!” Whole front yards had been dug up and were re-made to look like cemeteries with carved headstones. Adults lay in the homemade graves with chainsaws, jumping up and revving their power tools, scaring children to death. Others would hide in bushes with plastic (thank God) machetes, wearing ripped clothing and dripping with fake blood. When the children would approach, they’d stumble out. Of course other houses had the standard cobwebs, skulls and goblins. Any number of them had those yard decorations which look like a half-buried man trying to free himself from the crypt. Halloween there was all of this---not to mention the costumes of folks going house to house.

Lest we pridefully suggest that this doesn’t happen here—take a look around in your neighborhood. Such ‘decoration’ is on the rise even in the beautiful low country. One doesn’t even have to go outside. Just read the mail. How about the front page of a local costume store advertisement: “Angel of Darkness”, modeled by a teenage-looking girl, boasting a scant miniskirt—all black—with a mesh-like, low cut, v-neck top, complete with shimmering red lipstick and a 4 inch crucifix. All of this and more will be seen here in our town—children of all ages parading the streets, many dressed in the most gruesome, ‘realistic’ costumes.

Contrast this to the average contemporary funeral. Many adults won’t even let their children even go to the viewing of a deceased parent, grandparent, or friend. Others won’t let their children go to a burial. “I don’t know how they would handle death,” they explain. Or, more often, “they are too young to face death.” Today, strangely enough, most embalmed corpses look more alive than they did in the last months and years of their lives—an ironic contrast to the zombies and un-dead we’ll see on Halloween.

What is the lesson we learn from our society? It is okay to play dead. It is acceptable and fun to masquerade in gruesome costumes, to scare even the smallest child—or to subject one’s small child to such fright. And it is normal to pretend that real death doesn’t exist.

But from the most ancient times, this is not the Christian view. Death was never a ‘market niche’, as Halloween and funeral choices have become today. Halloween is the second most lucrative shopping ‘season’ of the year, while funeral options now range from putting one’s favorite sports team on a custom casket to having one’s dead relative or pet turned into a diamond. (How far we’ve come—from, “the ring was my grandmother’s” to “the ring is my grandmother”.)

Death was never entertainment. Consider a show advertised on primetime television on 10/13 showing a young woman referring to another woman’s attempted suicide by drowning in a tub “the most romantic” idea she’d heard of recently. The woman was attempting to be ‘one’ with her dead boyfriend. What does this teach the viewer about death? About life?

In the ‘old days’, two things were sure: death and taxes. Today, some evade taxes, and most attempt to evade death. Americans spend billions of dollars each year attempting to make the dead look living and the living look dead in late October.

Not a market niche. Not entertainment. No, death was, and is, a sad reality. Everyone who is born is guaranteed to die. Death is to be hated. According to St. Paul, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Death is the ultimate enemy of man.

So, for 2000 years, the holiest Christians have taught us always to keep our death before us—to remember that we are going to die. An ancient Christian evening prayer says, “O Master who loves mankind, will not this couch [bed] be my grave?” Some monks throughout the centuries have even slept in coffins. But let it be understood that this wasn’t a game or a fettish. These prayers and actions were to remind a Christian that we have this life only (and in an unknown-to-us amount) to love and serve both God and our neighbor—to live life well, and in so doing, to prepare for our judgment. Do we live like this?

Halloween, in its present day state, links death with fear and fear with death. It is an evening, now prepared for as a ‘season’, which scars the mind, the memory, and the soul by its adrenaline-rush ‘thrills’ of haunted maize mazes, skeletons in the yard, and increasing gore. Whatever its connection is or was to ancient pagan rituals or baptized Christian fetes (the eve of Western Christianity’s All Saints Day, hence “All Hallow’s Even”—Halloween), this is no more. The simplicity of walking through the neighborhood dressed as Peter Pan and Tinkerbell to collect candy in an old pillowcase is rapidly being supplanted by horror, pranks, and in numerous places even a gruesome eve of Halloween often called “Mischief Night”. That evening is filled with violence, arson, looting, and crime.

Many funerals now, instead of being the committal of a family member into the hands of God, are now further displays of decadence and individuality, if not attempted ‘immortality’. Thousands and thousands of dollars are buried in the ground in high-end caskets, trimmed in the finest metals, sealed almost hermetically in lead or stainless vaults. So much for “dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return”.

Christians are called to remember death, not to fear it or commercialize it. In fact, Jesus Christ conquered death by his own death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians hymn this joyous truth every year, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” We all die, but that death does not have to be permanent. This is the Gospel. It is precisely this remembrance of death which leads Orthodox Christian to pray so frequently in their services, “for a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, and peaceful, and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ”.

More and more, our society is replacing reality with ‘virtual reality’, death with faux life, truth with lies. Perhaps, once again, we can recapture a night and even an industry devoted to imitating and commercializing death to a remembrance of this inevitable end to each of our lives, and in so doing, to live the virtuous life, loving God and neighbor.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 843-881-5010.

Monday, October 10, 2005


Buried in Sunday’s Epistle reading from 2 Cor. 6 are two simple words, ways in which Christians are to commend themselves: “by purity”. Has purity been lost today? How do the following demonstrate or reject purity? Today’s fashion. Today’s movies. Today’s television. Today’s music.

Purity is a divine trait, a characteristic of holiness, to which every human being is called, especially Christians. We accept as willing servants of Christ to lay down our will and our sinful desires to be in communion with God.

Purity is a state of the heart. Purity is the deep desire to know nothing but God. To serve no one but Him. The pure inner state of heart is to be reflected outwardly in our dress, in our words, in our deeds—in every facet of our lives as a witness to the Purity of God.

To whom do the saints in the Icons point? To themselves? No icon of the Mother of God, or of any other saint, indicates, “look at me!” How much more are we who are living called not to point or draw attention to our selves, but rather to point to Christ? So, how do we dress? Do we call attention to ourselves? Are our clothes tight and revealing? Subtly or overtly seductive? On the other end of the spectrum, are they sloppy and torn? By our piercings and hairstyles are we trying to gain an image for ourselves? (These questions are for men and women alike!) Purity does not attract attention to itself. Consider even the words of the Prophet Isaiah, speaking of the coming Messiah, Jesus: “he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Jesus didn’t come as some macho, super-buff sports star. He came as one we might (and do!) miss, if we weren’t looking for Him. The Mother of God was not a super-model, bone thin, in low-cut clothes, attracting attention to herself. Rather, she was humble, simple, unassuming and submitted to the Divine will in purity, chastity, and holiness. Should we be any different?

Garbage in, garbage out. Who are our models? Our Lord? His mother? The saints? More often than not, not these, but rather some stellar athlete, a diva, a supermodel or a Hollywood actor. When we fill our lives—our minds, our eyes and ears, our souls with secular media which promotes porneia (unchastity), adultery, gluttony, sloth, selfishness, lust, and pride, how can we expect to be made pure in an instant at the Chalice or at confession?

Purity is not a rejection of the body, or of sex, or of being in shape or of music or tv or movies in general. These all can be good. Rather, purity is the body, sex—life—rightly understood. It is the self—indeed the whole life—offered first in total innocence to God, and then, in measured ways to others. Measured both in quantity and type.

Where has purity gone? God grant is to recognize our rejection of it, and to turn and live in manners holy and pleasing to Him.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Put out into the deep

“Put out into the deep…” (Luke 5:4b)

In Sunday’s Gospel, we heard of those who “pressed upon” Jesus to “hear the word of God.” We learned of the fisherman, who despite having done things their way, put down their nets “At [Jesus’] word,” and finally how, “having brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”

In the midst of this passage (Luke 5:1-11), Jesus tells Peter, “put out into the deep…” Jesus had taught the multitudes in the shallows; now he was going to demonstrate his power and authority to the few in ‘the deep’.

Now, as a rule, the saints counsel against the measuring of progress in the spiritual life—as such can lead to pride which, in turn, leads to deeper sin. Nevertheless, it is important for us to take spiritual inventory of our lives from time to time in order to grow. One might consider this ‘pruning’ as is necessary for trees to produce fruit. This sort of inventory is often a part of the preparation for confession, wherein we look back over the last days or weeks to take special note of our sin—in order to confess it and be made whole and clean. At a more basic level—the level of spiritual growth—we might simply look at our spiritual disciplines to ask questions and to set goals, just like in other areas of our life. Am I in the shallows? Was I in the deep and have drifted into the shallows by neglect, apathy, or sin? How can I, as St. Peter was instructed, put out into the deep?

How can I deepen my prayer life? How can I help my spouse to grow in Christ? How can I teach my children to love God more? Growth is the question. Someone once said, if we are not growing, we are dying…and there is a certain truth to that even with regard to our faith. Better though, is to see the Love and Blessings of God as a bottomless treasure chest. The deeper we dig, the more spectacular the jewels. Every time we think we have experienced the fullest amount of love from God, there is always another layer of depth. And always another after that. To return to the Gospel passage, there may be no fish, or few, in the shallows, but when the disciples put out into the deep, their catch strained their nets and nearly sank their boats. The pure marvel of it all is that despite our sinfulness, God continually invites us to that place. Which of us has tried life our own way and succeeded? Like these fisherman-disciples we have toiled ‘all night’ and caught nothing. Hearing Jesus’ call, let us, at His word, put out into the deep.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


In the Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, Sunday Sept. 18, 2005


Orthodox style of worship steeped in tradition

EDITOR'S NOTE: While Michael Gartland is away on an international reporting fellowship, Faith & Values will feature occasional columns from Lowcountry writers.

From the outside, one hardly would know it is a church: an unassuming storefront in a local neighborhood. Once inside, however, things are different. Incense hangs in the air. To one side, there is a tall stand filled with lighted beeswax candles that flicker in front of holy images of Jesus, biblical figures and saints.

From aged to infant, most folks stand, attentively facing deep inside the room. After some period of silence, a man in golden vestments lifts his hands and prays an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit. He raises a large book and sings, "Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages!" The choir chants robustly, "Amen!"

Shortly, after a sung litany of prayers (to which the gathered fervently chant, "Lord, have mercy!"), all begin to sing Psalm 104 a cappella.

Throughout the service, this sort of interaction continues. It is solemn, yet not stuffy. It is majestic ... ancient ... awe-inspiring. It calms; it does not excite the emotions. This is the worship of the ancient, undivided church, which St. Paul likely would recognize. It is a service that a fourth-, 12th- or 18th-century Christian would know, served in every Orthodox Church on Earth on Sundays and holy days.

The difference between the liturgy here in Mount Pleasant and in Greece, Serbia or Russia is basically the language in which one prays and the type of chant by which the faithful sing the hymns. It's universal across time and geography.

Coffee and the comfort of chairs are saved for afterward. The posture of prayer, especially on Sundays, always has been to stand. In fact, from ancient times, it has been forbidden to kneel on Sundays because we celebrate every Sunday as a little "Pascha" (Easter) and stand in eager anticipation of the second coming of Christ. (Although those who must sit, ought to. As one saint says, it is better to pray sitting down than to stand and think about your feet.)

The ancient prayers don't change from week to week, but rather stand as timeless requests to God. Rather than binding us by some rote series of words, we are actually freed up to pray truly, fully ... because we know what is coming every week. The prayers change us.
But it isn't just about having the same service. It is about believing the same exact things about Jesus Christ and our lives related to him. The universality of our prayers, hymns and services, as well as our beliefs concerning "faith and values," morals and the like testify to this common faith, universal across time and geography.

How? Why candles and incense? Why chanting? Why not a big-screen TV and a band? Skits and movie clips? Why not varying opinions and practices on the use of vestments or the singing of services? Why no coffee during the service?

We would answer with a single word -- a word that many now eschew, one that ruffles feathers. A word that many today reject outright -- but a word that describes something that everyone has. Everyone. Not a Christian on the planet operates outside of its definition. Not one. The word: tradition.

Everyone has a tradition and worships, prays and studies from within it. There is no such thing as nontraditional -- only the question: What is the font of your tradition?

What I have described above is the most ancient and unchanged Christian tradition on Earth: Orthodoxy. Many others come from later traditions (16th century and after), all of which arose in contrast to what they didn't believe here or there.

Tradition, in the biblical sense, is "from zee Greek": paradosis, to hand down, to hand over.
According to the Scriptures, tradition can be good (that which we should believe and teach) and bad ("traditions of men" that distort the Gospel). Since the beginning, the difference has been determined by a universal comparison to the rule of faith: Does it match the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), what Christians have always believed? Or, rather, is this a tradition of men, a reaction against something they couldn't or wouldn't believe? In fact, this is the main difference between the Orthodox tradition and all other traditions: The Orthodox tradition has handed down -- by the grace of God -- the fullness of the Christian Gospel, unchanged by the tide of popular opinion. Others have handed this down in larger or smaller parts but tainted by all sorts of additions and deletions.

When Jesus was alive, he charged his disciples to "go into all the world" and baptize and teach others what he commanded. Each Christian's task, especially the bishops (the ones in charge), was to teach only what they were taught. I compare the process to a FedEx delivery. A certain message (the Christian Gospel) was placed in an envelope (the tradition) and given to the FedEx workers (the disciples). Their task was to deliver it (the tradition) to the next generation. There was even a way to trace the package: the bishop. From the earliest days, he has been the guardian of the faith. If anything changed, the traced teaching was compared to the original, and if found false, it then was rebuked. And the heretic was cast out. Thus, the Orthodox Christian tradition was both handed down and guarded -- what St. Paul urges in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."

How does architecture demonstrate this point?

Picture two buildings: the first a massive structure, several stories high, situated on the plot of land in the most convenient way. Inside, one passes through a set of doors into the main room that contains hundreds of chairs, even in the balconies. If a service weren't going on, it might be confused for the auditorium at the local high school or the IMAX Theatre. It is designed to fit scores of people and to offer a message using modern media. The architecture tells such a story.
The second is cruciform and faces East. One enters the West end, from "the world." In the central dome, an imposing image of Jesus gazes down, blessing with one hand and holding that which tells the life of Christ in prophecy, parable and event.

Moving eastward, one ascends a few steps as toward heaven. The priest faces the people only to speak to them. Otherwise, he prays with them, facing East, the direction from which we expect our Savior to return. The architecture tells such a story.

Both are traditional. One is ancient, as old as the oldest Christian Church. Its task is to teach by its shape and adornment -- "the very stones cry out!' The other is a convenient container for services, inspired by the entertainment industry. The question remains: whose tradition?
But just like with worship, the Christian's purpose is not about having the same buildings across time and geography, it is about making people, places, even time, holy, bringing everything that we say, do and even build into the presence of God for his purposes.

Tradition! The Christian Church has never been about innovation. Its very task is tradition -- to hand on what it has received.

But we must be careful to pass on the original tradition! The next generation's task is to receive it, as is, and then to pass it on in the same way. No, it is not the teachings, the prayers, the services or even the architecture that we are to modify. Rather, it is we who are to change, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Father John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, in the I'On community in Mount Pleasant. He can be reached at 810-9350 or by e-mail at frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Universal Exaltation of the Holy and Life Giving Cross

When Adam and Eve had fallen prey to the serpent and broken communion with God by choosing their way over God’s (Genesis 3:1ff), in the end, God expelled the Two from the Garden, in part to take from them the Tree of Life, “lest [Adam] put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” (Gen. 3:22). This was excommunication by Adam and Eve’s own choosing, but was also a mercy by God’s grace. Imagine being full of sin and immortal. Endless suffering. (See the difficult but poignant film “The Green Mile” for an example of this.)

In the Garden, Adam and Eve were free to eat from every tree—presumably including the Tree of Life—with the exception only of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having crossed the only barrier, which was there for their own protection, they now “see”, and as a result, die. We follow daily in their path.

But through the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord, the true Tree of Life is once again offered to us—the Cross. The Divine irony is that by partaking of it, we too, must die, but by partaking in it, we find the only true Life. In fact, if we choose not to partake of it, death is all the more final. This Tree—the Cross—is offered to us both to cleanse of our sins, to cure our ‘sight’, and to offer us life everlasting with God, again.

Jesus Christ offered himself fully and completely for our sins, dying on the Cross. In so doing, he did not do away with our own suffering and death, but rather, partook of and sanctified the same. By His descent to the dead, He began to free the righteous captives (see the Icon of Pascha); by His Resurrection, Christ has trampled down death by death. Only by sharing in this: “Deny thyself, take up thy cross daily, and follow me” will we truly live.

Come, O people! Let us fall down in worship before the blessed tree!
For by the cross, eternal justice has come to pass.
The Devil deceived Adam by the tree. Now he has been deceived by the cross!
He held the royal creation in bondage.
Now he has been cast down with an amazing fall!
The serpent’s venom is washed by the blood of God!
The curse is destroyed by the righteous sentence
Of the just One, who was condemned unjustly!
The tree has been healed by the Tree!
The passion of the passionless God has destroyed
the passions of the condemned!
Glory to Thy dispensation, O Christ,
Our gracious King and the Lover of man! (Verses on Lord I call)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina and Orthodox Teaching

As the situation in New Orleans and surrounding areas continues to grow in magnitude, we have each surely read a dozen emails (as was the case with the Tsunami) asking “Where is/was God?” Some actually claim that God did this as a punishment to New Orleans, a city of sin. Please understand our teaching:

First of all, whether one or a city of 100,000 dies, God is ‘there’. Not a sparrow falls from the sky falls without his knowledge. In truth, when one or 100,000 perish, it is the same to God: a disaster. Mankind was created to live—in communion with God, not to die. Our Lord is the Great Shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 to save the one; it is surely the case that in a disaster like this, God is in the midst of it. And who knows more about suffering than sinless Jesus Christ who bore all of humanities suffering and shame on the Cross?

Second, God does not ‘send’ hurricanes, plagues, tsunamis, AIDS, or any other natural or unnatural disasters to “punish” people. New Orleans is no more or less ‘sinful’ than Charleston. Why? Because cities aren’t sinful, people are. And if we are to be true to our faith and to the Scriptures, I am more sinful than anyone in any town. This is what we profess at every Divine Liturgy: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15). There is a long line of sinners, and I am at the front of it. But, remember the Gospel, even forespoken by the Prophet Ezekiel thousands of years ago: “For God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live” (precommunion prayers, cf. Ezekiel 18:32).

God was there when the storm was coming. God is there in the grim mess which remains. God did not ‘send’ this storm to punish anyone. What this storm does do is the following: It shows that the whole cosmos, the whole of creation is ‘out of whack’, in need of salvation. Christ’s second coming, according to the Scriptures, is a renewal of the whole creation. But as for now, the whole universe is as St. Paul writes: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22ff). The whole earth, the whole universe needs Jesus Christ. The sins of Adam and Eve on down to your sins and mine contribute to the ‘groaning’ of the universe, where the winds and the waves now destroy. But remember, our Lord created them “good” (see Genesis 1 and 2) and is still Lord over them as He was when He himself walked on water and calmed the storms. This storm also allows us to be the presence of the Living, Saving Jesus Christ whom we proclaim fully in the Orthodox Church. An opportunity to be His compassion for the destitute, His hands and feet for the weary, His home for the homeless, His cloak for the naked, etc. If God is to be seen in this tragedy, it is through us who remain personally unharmed by the storm, but who know the One, True God.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The "Rules" of Orthodoxy

Recently I was asked, “Does Orthodoxy have as many rules as the Catholic Church?” I thought this to be an interesting question, not to mention a quite common one—coming from an outside perspective. At least from a Protestant point of view it looks like we have a faith based on a long list of “don’ts”. Don’t eat meat, dairy, wine, or oil on Wednesdays and Fridays. Don’t marry during the fasting periods. Don’t wear shorts in church. Don’t, don’t, don’t.

But is the Orthodox faith full of ‘rules’? As always, the answer is both yes and no. We do have canons (church ‘laws’) which define certain boundaries. Yet in truth, so many of those were established because Christians had lost their zeal and their faith, falling back into sinful or lazy behavior. So, for example, in the OCA, one cannot be a member of a Church without confession and communion ‘no less than once a year’. In this case, folks had either neglected to confess their sins (“I am not that bad, really.”) or neglected to receive the True Food and Drink which keeps us alive (often “I am not worthy enough.”) These are both distortions of the truth and needed some correction.

In short, though, we are governed by only one ‘rule’, the command which our Lord Himself gave us, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, among others). I believe it was Augustine who said something like, “Love God and do whatever you want.” If we truly love God, then everything we do will be holy. But we must define what “truly” means as well as what “love” means.

But do we have “obligations”? Consider the question by comparison to the [Roman] Catholic Catechism (to return to the original question): “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance [attendance] at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day” (Image/Doubleday 1995, p. 583). Many Catholics believe, as the Catechism implies, that ‘going to church’ is a matter of a check in a box according to certain categories. “Did I go?” “Was it Catholic?” “Was the priest validly ordained?” “Have I satisfied my obligation?” (Sadly, any number of Orthodox view this the same way!)

At the heart of the matter, the Orthodox question is not “did I attend Church Sunday?” Nor is it “Did I receive communion this week?” We do not approach any part of life in this manner, really. Rather, we ask, “Do I love God?” or “Am I in communion with God?” If I love God, I don’t ask “do I have to go to Church this Sunday?” Neither “Can I arrive after the Gospel and still take communion?” Nor “Do I have to stay until the end?”

How ludicrous would it sound if we use as a comparative example a dinner date between a man and a woman. What if the man said, “you go ahead of me and order supper for me. Call me when the waiter puts it on the table, and I’ll come eat with you.”? This happens, then promptly after dessert, the man wipes his lips and walks out the door. End of ‘date’.

From the man’s perspective in this example, dinner is about “me” and its about filling my belly and getting on with the rest of “my” plans. (And for so many, church is viewed the same way!) Scandal! This is surely not a relationship that will last. What about a nice walk in the park before supper? The pleasure of holding hands and chatting over a glass of wine while the meal is cooked? Supping together and then giggling over memories at dessert? Then a movie after? This sort of a date is one involving love, a relationship, a sincere and deep interest in the other. And this, to return to the question about ‘rules’ and the example of communion is how we view all of Christian life.

Sometimes we have to eat and run. Or we can only stay for a short time. But this is the exception, not the ‘rule’. And so, for love of God, we make every effort to begin Sunday quietly, peacefully, prayerfully on Saturday evening at Great Vespers. We arrive Sunday morning, early, expecting to meet God (if I may be so crass) “for a date”. We praise Him, listen to His mighty acts in the readings from the Scriptures. We pray to Him, we offer Him gifts of bread and wine, which He returns to us as His very Body and Blood, by which we receive our strength. We thank Him, and then we show our joy in community together after.

These are the signs of love, not ‘rules’ which ask what minimum amount I can do to ‘satisfy an obligation’, but rather the signs of a fullness of faith which put my own ‘earthly cares’ aside in order to meet the Living God.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Temple of God

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

“You are God’s temple.” “God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” Can you fathom the depths of these statements? Think back to the temple of the Old Testament. First to the ‘moveable temple’, the tabernacle, in Exodus 25ff.; then read 1 Kings 6ff. The temple was constructed of the finest materials. It was adorned with the most beautiful wood carvings. As a matter of fact, the inner sanctuary was entirely overlaid with gold. The furnishings were the finest. There was a place—the Holy Place—where only the priest went, and only once a year. The whole of the space was sanctified, holy. Yet even in this holy space, there was a most holy space. All of it was guarded as the house of God, set apart for holy use, and some was set apart all the more.

This is the case with us now. By the Holy Spirit at baptism, we ourselves are the very temple of God—set apart, made holy. We are crafted of the finest materials. So finely crafted that no one on earth has nor ever will be able to duplicate it ex nihilo (out of nothing), as God did. We are created in God’s image and likeness, to be in communion with Him, and to show His love to those who do not know him.

In this particular passage, St. Paul is exhorting the Corinthians about being the temple most specifically because of their sexual immorality. (See especially 1 Cor. 5 where a man is sleeping with his step-mother.) The whole of Corinth, even among the Christians was riddled with sexual sin. But Paul’s exhortations are not out of some puritanical prudery (‘Gross, sex is bad!’) or simple moralism (‘Sex is wrong.’) Rather, St. Paul urges us to see that our very bodies are the holiest place! Not made with brick, mortar, cedar, carved wood and then gilded like the OT temple, but rather fashioned of skin and bones, life-filled by the very breath of God and created for His holy purpose. Sexual immorality of any sort (that is, sexual activity outside the bounds of 1 man, 1 woman in holy matrimony) is precisely an abandonment of God and His purposes! More specifically, any immorality is, in fact, taking a harlot in place of God.

This is the case not simply with sexual sin, but with all sin. If we are the Temple of God, then we must ask not just the question “Who is entering my body?” but “What is entering my body?” Gluttony or eating unhealthily is making food my God. TV, music, movies and other entertainment which draw us away from God defile this temple as well. Our call is to holiness and communion with God, and all that leads us away from such holiness and communion not only ‘destroys’ this temple, our body, but also jeopardizes our salvation precisely by our choosing another god than the Holy Trinity.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Christian Worldview

A world-view is simply that: the way we look at the world, the way we organize our lives. Very often, a worldview takes the form of a wheel: a hub at the center with different spokes shooting off, but rooted in that hub. The secular worldview, which is predominant in our American culture, puts ‘me’ at the center. Out of the hub called ‘me’ shoot out ‘my family’, ‘my work’, ‘my friends’, ‘my hobbies’, and often ‘my church’, among others. Each one of these spokes is actually a compartment, segregated from all the rest. I may work during the day but never spend any time with my colleagues outside of work. My family occupies the time between 5pm and 9am, my hobbies are shaved out of that time, and ‘church’ is a Sunday only event, an hour or two given to God more often than not ‘because it is the right thing to do’.

The Christian worldview has as its center God, the Most-Holy undivided Trinity. The Christian life, then, is focused primarily on the worship of God, giving thanks to Him for all our blessings, asking Him to meet our needs, and serving Him in the world. If this is true, the Christian worldview is less like a wheel with a hub and more like a spiral moving towards the center. Whereas our society has metamorphed us from ‘human beings’ into ‘human doings’, the Christian view is to re-become—as Father Schmemann taught—Homo Adorans: worshippers of God. Our family, our life, our work, our hobbies are all wrapped in together, forming a relatively inseparable mass which moves either towards God (when we offer ‘ourselves, each other, and all our life unto Christ our God’) or away from Him (when we choose our own way).

This life, while most difficult (especially today) is actually the only true life that there is, since it is how God created us. Any other way pits family, friends, hobbies, church, and every other ‘compartment’ against the other, vying for our time, money, and devotion. In the Orthodox Christian worldview all is offered together to God in Thanksgiving for His blessing, so that our whole life and existence can be taken up into His life for His purpose.

Do not be fooled: the pursuit of self, whether it be seeking money, possessions, career or even family at all costs, is a dead end. Only when we place God as the absolute center of our lives can we expect to find the True Life, who is Jesus Christ Himself. When we adopt this worldview, then our money, our possessions, our spouses and children—indeed our whole life—takes focus in its proper way.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Apologia for Orthodoxy

“Apologetics” is a technical term that describes the means by which we share our faith with those who do not have faith or have a misunderstanding of our faith. Apologetics as a theological category is not new, but has been taken to new heights and extremes, particularly by Protestants—who, with good intentions, have made an effort to have cut-and-dry methods to approach just about every objection to the Christian faith as they understand it. This leads, for example, to an actual website which lists sects, cults and other religious groups to show what they believe and thereby how to counteract their false doctrines. (Parenthetically, this site lists the Orthodox Church as unorthodox! ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.’)

Indeed, we do need to know what people do and don’t believe to know how to address their questions and concerns. We also need to know our own faith well enough to articulate it to them, as well as (often) at least a bit about their faith to draw parallels, make comparisons, and to correct when necessary. This is a lively part of our faith as Christians, and is certainly approaching officially with the opening of our bookstore.

Among the first considerations, we must keep in mind that everyone who is sent to us, is sent to us by God for our mutual salvation. Each interaction is for the working out of salvation. We must remember that we each have been shown great mercy and patience by God, and in turn, we are to be humble, patient, and full of the love of God. Even if someone shouts at us, our response, like our Lord’s is one of self-offering, not a return blow.

Along with this critical piece is this one: any question someone asks us is an opportunity for us to facilitate a drawing closer to Jesus Christ or a repelling from Him. Our response will be the catalyst one way or the other. We must be in a constant state of prayer, asking God to give us the grace to speak in love and concern. Ultimately, God will defend His Gospel and His Church. Our task is faithfulness in the moment to treat the one in front of us as our neighbor, and by biblical extension, both as ourself and our Lord.

…To be continued…

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Freely given, freely give

Monday’s daily Gospel lesson concludes with the following words, “And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay” (Mt. 9:36ff). The last verse can be translated a few different ways: “Freely you have been given, freely give.” And “You have received as a gift, give as a gift”. The word comes from the same one we use in church “antidoron”—the bread in the basket at the side, the bread “instead of the gifts”.

This verse always strikes me, as it is a constant reminder that everything we have is a gift from God. Every penny, every car, every house, every child, parent, and relative. Every possession, every breath that we breathe. It is all given to us. Given.

I remember once as a teenager threatening to run away from home: “I’ll just take what is mine and go!” “And what is yours?” asked my dad. “My surfboard and my clothing!” I don’t think my father was theologizing at the time, but his response is to the point, “Those are gifts from us!”

Even if I had earned my own money to buy the surfboard, who took me to work before I could drive? Who helped me with my education so that I could do the work I did? My parents! If this is so for teenagers and their parents, how much more so is it true with reference to our relationship to our Lord and Creator? I may have worked 80 hour weeks to buy the beach house, but who gave me the skills to work? The means to get there? Who gives me the breath to breathe in order to go enjoy the beach house? Freely you have been given, freely give.
When we begin to see life through these eyes, then giving is not so difficult! I can then even make a sort of game out of it: I am like the trustee of a great treasure, and God is allowing me to distribute these gifts wisely! What do we have that was not given to us by God? Nothing!
How, then, does this affect the way we give to the church? To the building fund? To the hungry man on the street? To our needy neighbor? To our children? To our parents? “Freely you have received, freely give.” God grant us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only (James 1:22)!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Dealing with the cards we are dealt

One great phrase (of the many) which Fr. Alexander Schmemann has left us in his legacy is that our Christian lives are our opportunity to "deal with the cards we are dealt". Will we offer them in doxology for conversion to our Lord for His blessing and sanctification or will we instead take our lives' circumstances and situations as opportunity to wish we had some other lot in life?

It is noteworthy that when one is preparing for monastic tonsure, one is asked whether or not he or she is entering the monastery because he or she despises marriage. If this is the case, tonsure is denied. One enters the monastery solely to spend a life of repentance in community with other sinners.

It is this life of "peace and repentance" to which we are all called, monastic or married. Is this not what we all pray for in our litanies? "That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord...." "Lord, have mercy."

For the monk, this is worked out in the monastery.
For the married, it is worked out in the household.
(An excellent resourse is "Marriage as a path to Holiness" by Drs. David and Mary Ford at St. Tikhon's Press--presently being reprinted)

In the monastery, I assume (not being a monk!), ones brother or sister monastics pray for each other and see their sins in the mirror of the faces of the other monks.

The same is true in marriage: Are not our sins laid bare by our interactions with spouse and children? This is not, to be sure, the opportunity to say, "you lead me to sin!" but rather the time to say, "Lord, have mercy upon me a sinner for my ____________ (impatience, arrogance, ignorance, anger, malice, jealousy..."

Someone I know in another communion once said to me that he desired to be a priest, but that somehow (because of ecclesiological 'preferences' there) he 'couldn't' [ignoring, for a moment, the ecclesiological arguments for the sake of the point]. I said, well, if the Lord is calling you to be a priest, then first act like one. By this I did not mean, 'buy yourself some vestments and play church'. What I did mean was this: wake up, tend to your family, go to church, stand in the sanctuary with the parish phone directory, and pray for everyone by name. What is a priest if not an intercessor?

The same is true for all of us! Do we wish to be priests? We are so-called in the New Testament...Pray! Do we wish to be monks? Pray! Whether or not we live in a monastery cell or a 4 bedroom townhouse, the call is the same!

Are we good students of the Gospel? Let us devote ourselves to the Scriptures! Are we good teachers of the Gospel? Do we stand with our children, teaching them to pray? What is holier than this vocation?

They say 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence'. In reality, the grass on the other side of the fence is just grass on the other side of the fence. Peter Jon Gillquist, well-known Orthodox musician, sings, "Anyone who says the grass is always greener on the other side hasn't been there yet!" God grant us the grace to know this not simply in our minds, but in our hearts, and to give thanks for the cards we are dealt, and to play them as the best stewards we can be!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Abba Sisoes the Great, July 6

Today, we commemorate Abba Sisoes the Great, monk of the 4th century desert. Here is a wise word from Abba Sisoes:

Abba Sisoes expressed himself freely one day, saying, 'Have confidence: for thirty years I have not prayed to God about my faults, but I have made this prayer to him: "Lord Jesus, save me from my tongue," and until now every day, I fall because of it, and commit sin.'

#5, p. 213, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward, Cistercian, 1984.


What is the most difficult aspect of the Orthodox Christian Life?

To what are we devoted?

Many, many people desire to re-create the “life of the early church”, as if one could archeologically dig up the past and recreate it in the present. As Orthodox, we have actually received the gift and life of the Church, and so for us, some artificial recreation, as if a museum, is not necessary—we simply need to grab hold of the gift and offer ourselves to partake of it fully. Consider this famous passage from Acts 2:42ff:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

To what does the Church devote herself? That is, in what ways does the Christian live his life in community? In studying, knowing, living the “Apostles’ teaching and fellowship”; in eating together—liturgically (Eucharist) and socially (like our potlucks?); in praying together. These were their devotions—not compartments, but their whole lives! They held “all things in common”; they sold their possessions to be able to give to all who had need. Daily, they prayed together, broke bread together, were friendly with all.

The Faith we have received both teaches us these things and offers us the venue to put them all into full action. One result of living in the fullness of the Christian life, is contagion. Notice that the Lord “added to their number day by day…” In the verses preceding, 3000 souls were baptized in response to life like this. What a marvelous treasury we have at our disposal! How truly transformational is the pure life in Christ! This is evangelism—the living of the Gospel.

As we continue to plan and prepare for the building of a literal Church, let us urge one another on to the life of the Body of Christ as we can read in these wonderful passages. O Lord, teach me to love You and my neighbor: fully, really, totally, indiscriminately, constantly!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What do you need in a blog?

My friends,

We have too much information in our lives...I don't want to create anything here that is just 'one more thing' to read or ponder.

What is needed in terms of an(other) Orthodox blog, if anything? Can this be of service to any of us?

Please advise your servant in Christ,

Priest John+

Trust in the Lord and Remember

One of the most difficult tasks for us short-minded human beings is trusting in God for what we cannot yet see. The funny thing is that God constantly provides—and if we looked back to just yesterday we would see such miracles; nevertheless, we often fail to trust him for today or tomorrow. Sadly, this is not new!

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. They had been enslaved in Egypt, apparently, they were fed well, but life was miserable. Pharaoh treated them brutally. Having recognized the power of God, Pharaoh released God’s people from slavery, but while they were heading towards the Red Sea, Pharaoh changed his mind—realizing that all his labor force was now gone. The chase began. The Egyptians chased the Israelites and made them nervous (understatement). Moses’ consistent reply to God’s people was, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today.” (Ex 14:13). Hands up, waters part, Israel crosses, Egyptians die. DELIVERANCE! This was no small accomplishment. Think for a moment: when was the last time that the Charleston Harbor dried up so that one could walk straight over to the Aquarium? And not just one person but thousands? And chased by an Army? This was a miracle!

Now what was the first major event following this deliverance? “In the desert, the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron…”If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assemble to death.” (Ex. 16:2ff.)

God had hardly brought them there to starve! He was leading them to the Promised Land. We know the rest of the story and would like to shout out to them in retrospect, “Remember what God has already done for you! He won’t leave you! To the contrary, stay focused on being obedient to Him and God will provide for all of your needs!” Sadly, we, like the Israelites are blessed today, and curse God for apparently abandoning us tomorrow. Then tomorrow we are blessed by God and curse Him the next day again!

Remember, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Remember, Jesus has promised, “Lo, I am with you always…”. Remember, your heavenly Father knows your needs (cf. Mt. 6:25ff). Remember, God calls us to faithfulness, to obedience, not to success—especially by the world’s definition. SO, whether we are talking about simply facing one more day at the office or building a parish church, let us look back on our own lives—individually and corporately—to see the miracles of God: God in ACTION, and remember Him today in faith, trusting fully in Him into tomorrow!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Know Whose You Are

St. Paul was unashamed of the Gospel. He knew the cost of conversion. He knew the pressures of society. All of this was the case when he wrote to the following to the Church in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Our society is no different today than it was in the first century. Surely technology has changed and made the world a different place, but people are people—each of us is still tempted by the same temptations as were the Christians 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, and 2000 years ago. This is especially true regarding sexual sin. The acceptance (not!) of extramarital affairs, premarital relationships, idolatry, etc. was certainly different then, but the temptations to be a part of these sinful, illicit actions was no different.

St. Paul makes clear (elsewhere) that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We would surely be outraged if someone defaced our beautiful Orthodox Church or smashed or burned a sacred Icon, or somehow desecrated some holy space or object. My friends, are we equally outraged if we ourselves desecrate the very holy temple of God, our own bodies?

Society is a very poor teacher. We are no longer part of (if we ever were!) a Christian society. No show on prime time will teach us godliness. No movie in the theater will teach us holiness. No mainstream DJ will teach us chastity. To the contrary, each of these will teach you that your body is your own, that pleasure is your due, that you “deserve” whatever you want. This is not Christianity, this is hedonism, and it is dangerous—spiritually, emotionally, physically—as much in small doses as it is in large quantities. The challenges of life in the United States have been described by Christians on the other side of the planet as “almost insurmountable”.

So, know who you are. Know whose you are. Your baptism sets you apart as holy. The reception of the Holy Gifts at the Eucharist make you a living part of the Body of Christ. Therefore, as St. Paul said to Timothy, “aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” And “Fight the good fight of the faith.”

Friday, July 01, 2005

Learning to love confession

Even the thought of confession strikes fear into the hearts of many. “I have to say what to whom???!!!” Such a response is completely normal and frankly totally human. No one wants to tell his darkest deeds to anyone. It is difficult; it may open old wounds; it is embarrassing. Again such perceptions are perfectly valid and often accurate.

Allow me though, to help shed some much needed, and often misunderstood light on this important sacrament. First off, in the Orthodox tradition, one does not confess to the priest. The priest is a witness. Consider some of the words used at confession (from the simplified Pocket Prayerbook for Orthodox Christians): “My brother, inasmuch as thou hast come to God, and to me, be not ashamed; for thou speakest not unto me, but unto God, before whom thou standest.” To emphasize this, the priest and penitent stand side by side, facing the Icon of Christ and the Cross or Gospel together. In short, one confesses to Jesus in the presence of the priest.

Second, as crass as it may sound, there really is no new sin under the sun. One way or another, the priest has heard even the worst sins before. Frankly, just about anything anyone could confess is found within the pages of the Holy Scriptures anyway. So, don’t expect to hear: “You did what?!” The priest may ask you to clarify something you have said; he may clarify for you that such-and-such is actually not a sin; and he will likely give you spiritual direction to help you with particular sins, but an attitude of shock or shame on the priest’s behalf is not part of confession!

Third, the priest is listening to the penitent with Jesus’ ears, not to condemn, but to facilitate healing. In our pre-communion prayers, we recite, “O Lover of Men, Thou hast said through thy prophets, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’” Here we quote Ezekiel 18:32. The whole chapter (18) is well worth reading (read it!). But the point is, God desires LIFE, not DEATH, wholeness, not brokenness. This is the heart of confession.

Finally confession is sacred—confidential. The priest is under strict discipline to guard your confession. His wife doesn’t hear about it. He doesn’t publish it in the newsletter. He doesn’t use it as a sermon illustration. Once confessed, the sin is washed away. The only way it might “come back” is if one commits it again, or if the priest asks “how are you doing with such-and-such?” having recognized it with you as a sinful pattern in your life.

So, fear not! Seek reconciliation, wholeness and health. How often? During each of the four fasts (June, August, November, March) is an excellent rule, and more often if needed. Try that for a start…and never be afraid to ask me about these things! God bless you!

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Vesting prayers for daily life

At the beginning of every Divine Liturgy, the priest prays special prayers while vesting, offering each vestment to God and bringing to mind some specific action or function of the priest related to the liturgy. Why not have similar prayers for daily life? May I recommend the following as a starter—an opportunity to recall God’s presence in every detail of our lives: (Many of these prayers have been taken, in whole or part, from the Scriptures and/or the purple Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, readily available at our bookstore on I'On Square.)

Placing the Cross over our head: “Restore to me, O Lord, the joy of Thy Salvation, fence me about with the power of Thy honorable and live-giving Cross, and preserve me from every evil. Amen.”

On donning the shirt, sweater, dress, or coat: “Lead me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness because of my enemies; make Thy way straight before me. Let all who take refuge in Thee rejoice, let them ever sing for joy; and do Thou defend them, that those who love Thy name may exult in Thee. For Thou dost bless the righteous, O Lord; Thou dost cover him with favor as with a shield. Amen.”

On pulling on the pants or skirt and/or on buckling the belt: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Gird my loins, O my God, and protect me from all evil men and women, devils, passions, and all other unlawful things. Amen.”

On putting on the shoes: “O Lord, may I not fall away into sloth, but take courage, and being roused to action, be found ready and enter the joy and the divine bride-chamber of Thy Glory, where the voice of those that feast is never silent. Amen.”

On placing the prayer rope about the wrist or the book of prayers in the pocket: “Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers and all the saints, O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, have mercy on me and save me. Amen.”

On placing a card of particular Bible verses or a small copy of the Scriptures in pocket: “I rejoice at Thy word like one who finds great spoil. I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love Thy law. Seven times a day I praise Thee for Thy righteous ordinances. Great peace have those who love Thy law; nothing can make them stumble. I hope for Thy salvation, O Lord, and I do Thy commandments.”

On placing wallet in pocket or purse: “All things come of Thee, O Lord: teach me to be a good steward thereof. Amen.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Finding True Life

The writer of Ecclesiastes (found after the Psalms and Proverbs in the OT), according to his own words, “[has] seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). He built houses, vineyards, gardens and parks; he sought wealth and wisdom; he bought slaves, built pools, owned flocks and herds, had personal singers—and many concubines “man’s delight”—every possible thing in order to satisfy his desires, only to find that “all was vanity and a striving after wind”. The Hebrew is “hebel”, and means “breath”, “vapor” and also “meaninglessness”, “emptiness”, “futility”, “uselessness”—that is fleeting, quick, over and done with, useless, gone.

Times have not changed in the (literally) thousands of years since this book was written…neither have human inclinations. Everyone is “searching for answers” to use a much quoted phrase from the great film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” We each are seeking to fill a void found deep within each of us. Some turn to alcohol and drugs, some to sexual investigations, many of us simply try to fill this “God-shaped void” (as one writer has described it) with “stuff”—possessions: cars, houses, job, money. We all try to fill it with something, and this something is usually NOT God. We figure that either we will find the answer to “life” by diverting ourselves to death or by simply filling every moment of time and space with things and activities. The trouble is, THERE IS NO LIFE TO BE FOUND IN THESE THINGS! Possessions and activities ARE NOT LIFE. As a matter of fact, although certainly not evil in and of themselves, “things”, “stuff”, “possessions” can easily distract us from what real life truly is—when they are used to replace true life, instead of being used as the tools that they are.

What IS true life, then? What IS the purpose of life? Among the “preacher’s” last words in Ecclesiastes are these: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” Jesus puts it this way, “But seek first [the] kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt. 6:33). [The ‘all these things’ are our needs, which God surely knows.] SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD. As Christians, our task—as Fr. Schmemann has so beautifully put it—is to “transform the smallest, seemingly most insignificant detail of the routine drudgery of everyday existence in this fallen world into paradise.” We must ask ourselves at every turn, at the beginning of every action, every event, “Does this draw me closer to God or by doing this do I push myself away from Him?” Besides the words, “Forgive me, Lord!” or “Have mercy upon me, O Lord!” this is the beginning of seeking first the Kingdom of God. God help each one of us to meet Him each morning when we wake, each evening as we lay our heads on our pillows, and at every moment in between so that we may truly seek first HIS KINGDOM and HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Daily Readings and Daily Wisdom

From "St. Photios Orthodox Christian Fellowship" daily list. To join, email me: frjohn@ocacharleston.org

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 Apostles Fast

Cyrus and John the Unmercenary Healers

Kellia: Deuteronomy 24:10-18

Epistle: Romans 4:4-12

Gospel: St. Matthew 7:15-21

“The Christian should first learn what humility is in order to be able to humble himself afterwards, in every moment of his life, before people and the demons. In this way he will grow spiritually, and his heart will be filled with the Grace and fragrance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God, and the Holy Angels and all the Saints will make their home in his heart. In short, his heart will become a spiritual Paradise. And if you have the Lord of Sabaoth, you will be happy wherever you are. Unfortunately, people today are educated in the spirit of self-love, pride, vainglory, dissoluteness, love of money, etc., and their heart becomes a hell, full of sins and unclean spirits. Thus, the proud man tortures himself and tortures others, too. Humble-mindedness is a Christian virtue which you should try to have every moment of your life.” - Elder Dionysius (Ignat) of Mount Athos


1 Peter 4:8-11--"Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."

Commentary from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom:
“If you receive your neighbor as though he were Christ, you will not complain or feel embarrassed but rather rejoice in your service. But if you do not receive him as if he were Christ, you will not receive Christ either, because He said, “Whoever receives you receives me.” If you do not show hospitality in this way, you will have no reward.” (From the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture XI.)

Some thoughts...
When we reflect on the above passage from 1 Peter and the commentary from St. John Chrysostom, we cannot be but moved at the great joy and responsibility we have at treating one another with love, gratitude, and hospitality. This one-anothering, as I have learned to call it, is one of the fundamental building blocks of the Christian life. We are to follow our Lord on the narrow path of self-emptying which is demonstrated, lived out, in our serving the other. Who is the ‘other’? Most often we think of the ‘other’ as someone unrelated to us by blood or marriage. My literal neighbor, the guy at work, the lady I pass on the sidewalk each day. Bishop Kallistos Ware would teach that the other is whoever is in front of me at this moment: my spouse, my daughter, my co-worker, my fiancĂ©, the stranger at the market. We must ‘one-another’ beginning with the one whom God has place in my path right now. God give us the strength to receive each other as if receiving angels unawares—or as if Christ Himself were standing before us!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Everyone that God places before us is for our salvation

Consider for a moment the fact that God knows everything. Consider that God is, as we pray, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Consider for a moment that everything that occurs to each of us is an opportunity to put our faith into action, to put our ‘theological’ money where our mouth is. God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, an often with His mysterious sense of humor, shapes our lives, and constantly calls us to Himself. If this is true, then it is also true that everything that occurs in our individual (and corporate!) lives is for our salvation. Everyone we meet, everyone whose path we cross is to help us, aid us, give us an opportunity for living fully as a Christian. This is as true on the street as it is in the office, as it is at the beach, as it is in the doorway of church at any given service. This includes our parents, our children, our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies!

Indeed, this is a tall order, but this is Christian life! The woman we walk past on the sidewalk, the homeless man on the corner, the doctor I work for—these are all ‘in my path’ for my salvation—that is, for me to reflect to them the love of Christ, the existence of God, the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This changes everything—or should begin to change everything. Is my contact with the stranger on the street a gentle smile or a condemning, judging look? Is my honking of the horn to warn the one near me of danger or to say, “get out of my way!” Do I offer a bite to eat to the homeless fellow thinking, “get a job!” or thinking, “how can I help this child of God further?”

We are called by God to have entered, through baptism, into the Kingdom of Heaven now. This is not yet fully realized, but it begins, as we sing so often “today”. Why? Because today is all that we have! None of us is guaranteed our next breath. Indeed none of us determines whether or not our heart beats one more time. With this in mind, it is easy to see how everyone and everything in our daily path is for our salvation—an opportunity to demonstrate our love of God by serving one another, or to prove my own abandonment of God by following my own selfish will.

With this in mind, we can begin to see with new eyes. We can begin to act with new hands, walk with new feet, listen with new ears. Indeed we can even begin to spend with holy money. God grant us the grace to do so, humbly, regularly, and intentionally!

Three important questions

Tolstoy once posed the following three questions: 1)When is the most important moment in life? 2) What is the most important task in life? 3)Who is the most important person in the world? How would you answer? Tolstoy’s answers to these questions have much to teach us about being the presence of Christ to others.

When is the most important moment? THE PRESENT MOMENT--NOW. What is the most important task? THE ONE YOU ARE DOING NOW. Who is the most important person? THE ONE IN FRONT OF YOU NOW.

How does this inform our Christian lives? Well, consider the following thoughts: Would the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36ff.) have experienced the love of Christ if he had been talking on a cell phone while she was adoring him? What would the thief on the cross next to Jesus have experienced if Jesus had been thinking about other things at the moment the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”?

The past is gone. We can repent from and be forgiven for sins of the past; We can learn from the past, but the past is the past. Likewise, the future is the future—it is yet to come. Besides praying about the future, there is little that we can do to direct it. Jesus himself said, “which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life” (Mt. 6:27)? The most important thing to do, then, is to greet the present moment and cooperate with God’s grace to transform it into God’s image.

The task I am doing now is the one God is presently working on. It is what he has given me! Concentrate! By God’s grace and to the best of my ability, I am called to “lay aside all earthly cares”. Talk about difficult! I can assure you, though, that the sound-bytes of TV, the quick changing scenes and the short blips of commercials do not help train us to concentrate. Au contraire!

The person whom God has sent you this moment is a gift. If someone calls you on the phone, do you also type an email while chatting or listening? If you are eating with someone, do you answer the phone during the meal? Society today wants us to multi-task. But the Epistle to the Romans calls us to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Part of this non-conformity to the world is being present in this moment with this person—and given the task or the person you full self. This demonstrates God’s personal care for every individual and helps to sanctify every moment.

The devil whispers in our ears, “Ah, yesterday you…” leading to regret and sorrow. He say to us, “tomorrow you will….(or won’t be able to ….)” leading to worry and despair. But God gives us the present moment. And he calls us to use the present moment to show HIM to the world.

How do you answer the three questions? Ask yourself, and pray “Lord, have mercy on me, direct my steps, and help me honor You in this moment!”

Adapted from a talk given by Bishop KALLISTOS of Dioklea