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

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).