The Pastor is a man of God, called and separated for a specific ministry, that is, the preaching and teaching of the whole counsel of God, especially the gospel; always maintaining a relationship of prayer on behalf of the saints. His role is one of teaching, motivating and persuading people to be discipled for Christ his Master and to lead others to the Saviour.
Dear Parishioners and Friends of St. John’s,
This is a first in a series of short essays I would like to share with you.First of all, I would like to express the gratefulness I feel for being a priest in this parish. In 25 years of being a priest – in many different types of Orthodox parishes – this parish (St. John Chrysostom Albanian Orthodox Church) has been the warmest, friendliest, and most open of all I have served. From the Albanians who founded this church years ago, to the Albanians who came decades later, to the many active parishioners from Georgia, Cypress, Egypt, China, Serbia, other countries, and, of course, America, it is a wonderful mix of Orthodox Christians, doing our services in the language of the country, which is the Orthodox Tradition.
As a priest – and spiritual father of the parish – it is important that I reach out to everyone, despite background, in whatever way I can. At the same time, I must also follow the Orthodox traditions and canons. Sometimes there is a conflict between what a parishioner may want and the Orthodox way. It is incumbent upon the priest, then, to sit down and explain the historical points of our church and try to come to an understanding of the present situation. If the priest is not willing to listen to the needs or desires of his parishioners, there is something clearly wrong. We – the clergy and the people – need to work together to continue to act and believe in a way that is in accordance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the Divine Liturgy, when the priest exhorts that “Christ is in our midst”, this is not simply a form in the service; it is a heartfelt feeling, and the greetings between priest and parishioner (and parishioner to parishioner) is a very real and important part of this time together. It demonstrates that despite differences, backgrounds, ethnicity, age, or whatever, we are all Christians, recognizing each other in the love of Christ.
I will write more as we go along. The next thing to reflect on is baptism and communion. In the mean time, I welcome any and all to come to me withwhatever issue you may have. I am totally open to all of you and, as your priest, I love you. Please do not forget that God loves you unconditionally. This is the basis of our faith.
The unworthy servant of Christ,
Today, as we continue our series, I would like to reflect on the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the first step toward living a Christian life in the Orthodox Church. It is a joy, for the parents, the sponsors, and indeed, the entire community. Most of our Baptisms, now, are infant Baptisms, which I want to focus on here.
On the 40th day after giving birth, the mother comes to the church with her child. The Churching is actually for the mother as she returns to the community; however, prayers are said not only for the mother, but also for the child, as we “Church” the mother.
At some point after that, the parents contact the priest to meet with him and talk about the Baptism which is to come. After this, it is important for the parents and the sponsors (godmother, godfather) to meet again with the priest. We discuss the Baptism, its importance, and what will take place at the service. After this, we decide on an appropriate day and time for the child to become a member of our Orthodox community.
Fr. Georges Florovsky, the former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, referred to this sacrament as an “inaugurated Baptism”. In other words, this sacrament simply starts the process of becoming an Orthodox Christian. While there is a tradition in some Orthodox communities that the child is brought to church three Sundays after Baptism, the reality is that the child needs to be brought to church every Sunday after Baptism. The reason for this is to allow the child to be accustomed to a different environment: to smell the incense, to hear the music, to see the icons, to receive communion.
At St. John’s, we have a great Sunday school program that starts in pre-school. When the child is old enough for this, he or she should be ready to begin the learning process of our faith and continue until high school. We not only have Sunday school for the children, we also have several activities throughout the year that bring kids (and parents) together to enjoy more fellowship.
It is important that when a child is born, the parents contact the priest, so we can begin this process.
In the next reflection, I will focus on the Eucharist (communion) and all that means to us as Orthodox Christians.
I look forward to serving you always, in any way I can.
Your brother in Christ,
WHAT IS THE SPIRITUAL LIFE?
What is the spiritual life? Many professionals in the field of religion, and many practitioners of various religions, often speak or write of the “spiritual life”. I’m not sure what this even means. From our very first story in the Scriptures, we were made in the image and likeness of God. Later, God presents his divinity in the form of a human being, in the form of Jesus who, as we say, is both divine and human, fully, without separation. Did Jesus have a “spiritual life”, the implication of which is that he also must have had a “non-spiritual life”? Is that possible? Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) writes,
A thought that has been repeatedly thrust at us in the form of quotation from the Gospel or from literature, which somehow clicks in a situation and acquires deep meaning, is no longer a quotation from Shakespeare or from the Scriptures; it is truth that has been put into words which are so significant and so powerful.
Metropolitan Anthony’s point is clear: truth is truth. I would add to this thought that life is life. There is no, or should be no, separation between the “spiritual life” and the “non-spiritual life”. Most of us are not monks or hermits; we are human beings living in a very complex world, one that entails our families, work, friends, hobbies, social obligations, church, and other aspects of our day to day existence. It is easy to compartmentalize all of these aspects of our lives, as if to separate them like slices of a pie.
I often hear people say, “I’m not religious, but I AM spiritual”. Interesting. To me, it sounds like saying, “I don’t have a physical body, but I AM a human being”. It’s not that it’s not necessarily true; it just makes no sense to me.
Life is life. Perhaps our task is to find ways to integrate the various aspects of our lives, to seek wholeness rather than separation. For example, when I am driving down the street and someone – perhaps unintentionally – slows me down, I can get angry, lose my sense of what I am actually doing. I’ve got to make it to my next appointment, and I can’t lose a minute of “my” time. Could it be that that extra minute actually provides a little more time to think about my next appointment, and, rather than spending a minute getting angry, I use that time to simply breathe, to consider what I am doing and why? Maybe I should thank the person ahead of me for slowing me down!
Life is life. There is no “spiritual life” and “non-spiritual life”. Jesus is our greatest example, whether it is at a wedding, with the woman at the well, going off to the desert to have some silence and solitude, his “spiritual life” is simply his life. Ah, but how do we do this; how do we altar our approach to changing our perspective on this issue? When I was living in the Himalaya, my lama would repeat to me, “slowly, slowly, step by step”. Each of us must decide how to do this. Perhaps prayer, some silence, and reflection would be the first slow steps I would take, and I would use Jesus as my example.
I sat on one of the large rocks of the jetty – before I began to fish – and watched the morning unfold over the dark gray waters of the Atlantic. The cooler than normal temperature reminded me that summer was on the wane. With the last days of August slipping into September, cooler winds and soon, color-changing leaves, I thought about an obscure date on the Orthodox calendar. September first marks the beginning of our New Year, a date which gets lost among our feast days and fast periods, our activities in the church, our way of considering time. In this country, we are much more American than Orthodox. Our lives are lined by significant days throughout our calendar: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, (secular) Christmas. Most do not even know when the Feast of the Transfiguration occurs, and this is one of our most important feast days.
I was wearing a light windbreaker, feeling the breeze, watching the sky move from ebony to a very pale lightness. As the light ascended, I could see some seagulls, and in the distance, there were dolphins bobbing in the water, two by two, as if in some synchronized swimming event. Does a new year really begin? I considered this.
What does 1 September mean? Calendars change; they are a way to mark the year. Prior to the Julian calendar, there were only 10 months in the year (the Calendar of Romulus). This was changed in 44 B.C. The Church has always recognized September first as the beginning of the church liturgical cycle, with the first major feast day as the Birth of the Theotokos and the last major feast day as the death of the Theotokos.
Is this important? Calendars are calendars; they are constructed to provide an order of the year. They change, for example, having a “leap day” every four years. Most of us here in America will continue to recognize January first as New Year’s Day; however, recognizing that the Church year begins on September first allows us to pause and reflect on where we stand in relation to the Divine. It allows us to yet again consider the changes that lie ahead of us as we begin again to follow the Church year and to consider how the order of feasts and fasts affect us.
I stood up, made the sign of the cross, and began to bait my hook. It was a beautiful, isolated moment as I reveled in the solitude of the morning. I cast my line into the water and simply breathed. Alas, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I caught no fish!
The Present Participle And The Church
This may seem like a rather heady reflection; however, it is quite simple and will give more force to our understanding of the New Testament and the Church, so hang with me for this one. Few languages utilize the present participle the way it is used in Greek. It is often considered a “verbal adjective” as it gives action to the noun. For example, in English, we may use the noun “the shepherd”, while the Greek may use “the shepherding one” or “the-herding-the-sheep one.” One can see the difference between the two languages, as one provides an explicit action.
Let’s take another example. A king is one who takes care of his people. In English, we may simply use the noun “the king”, with some subtle implication that he is the one who takes care of the people. In the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) the prophets rose up to criticize the king because he was not taking care of his people. Instead of “the king”, the rendering of the participle could read, “the-taking-care-of-the-people one”; otherwise, he is not the king, but simple a man in fancy clothes, living sumptuously at the expense of his subjects.
The English word “church” is derived from the Greek word “ecclesia” which means “the assembly.” It is as the assembly that we are, indeed, the church. This is why the Orthodox Church gathers together for one Liturgy (and only one on any given day) and all eat and drink from one chalice. Again, using the present participle, we see this as the assembling one, or as the coming-to-the-assembly-to-worship one. It is wonderful to live across town and write a check to our favorite parish, but this does not make us a church member; it makes us a-check-writing-friend one. Obviously, there are exceptions, especially for
those who simply cannot assemble due to their age or infirmity. We pray for them at our gathering, and the assembly goes out to them, typically by the priest who takes the sacrament to those who cannot make it to church. The others know that they are members when they assemble with the brothers and sisters who gather to worship.
I recently saw a cartoon of Jesus is speaking with a young traveler.
The traveler: Facebook?
Jesus: No, I literally want you to follow me.
The traveler: Oh, Twitter?
Jesus: Okay, I’m gonna start over again, and you can tell me where I lose you.
There is, if we follow my thinking here about the present participle in Greek, no such thing as a Christian. There is, however, a-following-Christ-and-all-he-stands-for one.
As we move forward toward God, may we all make sure our language has the same force or power of the present participle in New Testament Greek!
In Christ’s Love,
The Eucharist and the Road Less Traveled
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Eucharist and this poem by Robert Frost fuse to make a vital step toward making a decision, for the Eucharist – the body and blood of Christ and all it is and all it stands for – the Eucharist is, indeed, the “road less traveled.” The word “eucharist” means thanksgiving, but a very specific kind of thanksgiving; a thanksgiving for the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. Indeed, long before the four Gospels were written, St. Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth and penned these words of Christ: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Paul follows this quote with an ominous statement, saying that whoever partakes of this in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of Christ.
What does this mean? What, exactly, is “an unworthy manner?” Perhaps it is as simple as discernment; that is, recognizing that the reality and the symbolism that lie behind the Eucharist is powerful and life-giving, but also dangerous. Rightly or wrongly, many of the Orthodox practices and traditions (confession before communion, the prayer before communion, even the rise of the iconostasis or icon screen) evolved to protect this very idea. Being baptized into the faith, and receiving the Eucharist was, and is, the road less traveled, and few will really travel down that road, and it is road less traveled because discernment is absolutely necessary.
Most of us, as Orthodox, tend to take this very lightly. There is little or no preparation prior to the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist. Witness the number of people who stroll into the Divine Liturgy long after the service has begun, or those who almost run into the church to get in line as if they were at McDonald’s and were ready to “grab a bite.” It is not a problem to arrive late for this most holy time; things happen: unexpected traffic, a flat tire, trying to get the kids ready. But rushing into church at the time of the readings and then jumping in line to receive communion are signs not of preparation and discernment, but of the “right” of an individual to take whatever he or she thinks is deserved.
Our call, as Christians, is to prepare for and discern this awesome sacrament. Only by doing this are we taking the road less traveled.
In Christ’s Love,
I Don’t Want To Go To Church Today
I awake. It’s four-thirty in the morning, and I can hear the rain outside. I rise, go down stairs, get a glass of water, and stare out the window. After awhile, I go back to bed to the sound of the drizzle. After dozing off, I’m awakened by my wife. Time to get up and get ready for church. I don’t want to go to church today. “It’s not your choice”, she says, “You’re the priest.”
I get dressed, a bit grudgingly, and head out. I am the first one there, and I go about preparing for the Divine Liturgy. It’s a big day: we are celebrating the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross; it’s the first day of Sunday school; the Charity and Benevolence Committee is putting on our first ever distribution of food, clothing, and toiletries outside the doors of our parish (after the liturgy) for the area homeless.
As people come into the church, my spirit lifts. Yes, just like everyone else, there are some Sundays when I don’t want to come to church. Yet, the magic slowly begins to happen. The special hymns of the Feast are sung, prayers are said, the procession of the Cross takes place. After the liturgy, the Charity and Benevolence Committee, along with many volunteers from the parish, spring into action. This is one of the most important functions of people who claim to follow the teachings of Christ, to give freely to others, not expecting anything in return. This is one of the most important teachings of Jesus to his followers, and, perhaps, one the most difficult to exemplify. It is easy to love those who love us, easy to give to someone knowing they will give back. This, however, is not the sign of the cross.
I have worked with the homeless for many years, at one point, directing a homeless shelter. While some homeless or poor people are grateful for assistance, others do not seem appreciative at all. Still, there are those who are simply mean. It doesn’t matter. The teachings of Jesus are quite clear: a follower of Christ just gives. Furthermore, in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those
who abuse you…Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The sight and the realization of what is happening at our parish makes me very happy. I recall what the philosopher William Barclay once wrote: “There are two great days in a person’s life: the day he is born, and the day he realizes why”.
The latter statement came to me years ago, but somehow keeps coming back to me, over and over. I’m glad I went to church today.
Happines: A Reflection
Many of us have heard a rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. It is, indeed, a fun song; however, it doesn’t really hold any meaning. We hear it all the time, “Don’t worry”, but it doesn’t stop us from worrying. The larger question has to do with happiness. Jesus tells us, in Matthew 6:25, “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life span?” What Jesus offers is very different; he offers happiness. This happiness is not the happiness of the American Dream. It is the not happiness that comes with a bigger house, a newer car, a child getting into Harvard or Yale. The happiness that Jesus speaks of is not conditional on our exterior situation.
Consider the “Beatitudes” of the 5th chapter of Matthew. The word we translate into English is “blessed”; however, as it is written, the word “blessed” comes from the Greek word “macarios” which means happy. The first should read, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I recall a time when I was living in the Himalaya. It was after a great period of struggle, and one day I was walking from a village called Changspa to a larger village called Leh. I was living on a dollar and a half a day. I had a sleeping bag, some clothes, and some personal items. That was it. The day was in late October, and winter was setting in. The small puddles on the road side were frozen and were not thawing. The sun shone brightly. At one point, I stopped at one of the puddles, touched it with my boot (it was frozen solid) and looked around me at the beautiful mountains surrounding me. They were all rock, as we were above the tree line. It was gorgeous, and though I had almost nothing, I realized how happy I was, for the first time in years.
My spiritual father for almost twenty years – Fr. Laurence of New Skete – once said in a sermon,
“…our happiness comes from entering into whatever we have to do, whether it is watching
The kids, cleaning the stove, mowing the lawn. Being happy means entering
wholeheartedly into everything – no matter what type of challenge it presents, no matter
what the possible difficulties involved – entering into it in body, soul, mind, and spirit.”
Furthermore, he said, “As a matter of fact, happiness is dynamic, a reality that must continuously be struggled for, but which, once we attain it, cannot be diminished by external circumstances of life. Happiness is never dependent on these, which is why it’s a reality that each of us can achieve.”
I often hear people say that the most important things are health and family; however, we all realize that health can deteriorate, that family members can pass away. The happiness we are reflecting on comes from neither the big things nor the little things. True happiness comes from within, and it is something only the light of Christ within us can provide.
As we approach the Nativity Fast, perhaps happiness is what we should focus on.
Love is a Hallmark Card?
I have always found it odd that, in the English language, I use the same word to tell my spouse the way I feel about her with the same word I use to describe how I feel toward an anchovy pizza: love. In the French language, it’s even worse. The infinitive “aimer” means both to like and to love, and so it must be read or heard in context. In the ancient Greek, there were ways to describe different types of love (from brotherly love, to passionate love, to divine love). What are we to make of this?
To begin with, I would suggest that love is not a feeling. It is not something that as an individual we simply have an emotion about. Consider a teen-ager, who one day tells his girlfriend that, “I love you so much and, last night, I was thinking about you”. The response would be to act. She might say, “Then why didn’t you pick up the phone and call me”?
Jesus, in his profound wisdom, demands love. Really? Could he demand me to be happy when I’m depressed? Could he demand me to be sad when I’m happy? Feelings simply do not work that way. So if love is not a feeling, what is it?
In the scriptures, love is always an attitude and an action. It is an attitude because it calls us to a different frame of mind, a way of being in the world. Jesus never demands us to “like” someone; that is a feeling. He demands us to refabricate our minds, to think in terms of “agape”, a divine love, to consider people as children of God, whether we like them or not. It is an action because it demands that we reach out to them in a tangible way.
It’s always “nice” to pray for someone. That simply doesn’t cut it. True prayer calls us to reach out, to touch them, to listen to them, to be with them. For the teen-ager who says, “Oh yeah, I thought about you yesterday”, it is nowhere near the power of making the phone call or taking time to visit.
Hallmark cards are nice. You can buy them with an already inscribed pithy saying or short lovely poem, sign it and send it off. How much more meaningful would it be to actually write something from your heart?
In sermons, I have referred to the old protestant song “And They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. As Orthodox Christians, perhaps we should be singing, “And They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Attitude And Our Actions”.
Christmas - 2018
For two days and nights it snowed. The first morning at New Skete Monastery, I looked out my window and saw an inch or two of the white powder lying on the ground before I headed to the chapel for Matins. A light snow gently falling, the mountain was covered in silence. Then the monks began to sing the morning service, and there was beauty there and everywhere. The presence of that moment was a reflection of the Divine, and I was content to stand and listen – and sing when I knew the parts – a part of this time without time.
We all need this, especially “out in the world” where our lives are consumed in busy-ness, in activity, moving from one event to the next. Sometimes we might stop and ask, “Where is God in all this; where is the Divine?”
It is the season. It is the holiday season. It is Christmas; but not yet. The world is already celebrating, having parties, shopping, gathering, moving about through the early winter days and evenings. As Orthodox Christians, we attempt to strike a balance. It is not Great Lent; however, the days leading up to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ are not simply party times. We have a limited fast. We do not perform weddings. We do not go all out for the “American Christmas”. Fr. Thomas Hopko even wrote a book about this period in the lives of Orthodox Christians called “The Winter Pascha”. We seek Balance.
After Matins, I had breakfast with the monks and then returned to my room down the hall from the dining area. I looked out the window again. Beyond the large pine tree on the right lay the cemetery, peacefully still as the light snow kept falling on the crosses that marked the graves of former monks and friends of the monastery. It led me to think of my own mortality – how short a time I am travelling through this life – and yet, I found myself at peace through these thoughts. In the services, the monks and nuns would sing to the Lord, and they would sing for those people laid to rest in this cemetery and in cemeteries throughout the world, and those still present who were making their way through this life; sometimes running, sometimes walking, sometimes stumbling. It was a comfort to know that, every day, these monks and nuns were keeping us all in their prayers.
The snow fell throughout the night and was still falling on the second day of Matins. By then, it must have reached 7 or 8 inches. There was never a storm, never really heavy snowfall. It merely persisted, quietly, steadily, and continued through the second day, a silent continuous dropping of snow. Other than the services (Matins in the morning, Vespers in the evening), I stayed at the desk in my room, reading, writing, thinking, looking out the window from my chair. Occasionally, I met with my friend and spiritual guide, the Pryor of the monastery, and we would talk for hours.
On my last evening, after Vespers – by then, we had 11 or 12 inches of snow – I went to him for confession. At the end of confession, I knelt before the icon, and he placed his stole over my head, saying the prayer of forgiveness: “…This same Jesus Christ, who accepted the repentance of Peter and the tears of the woman caught in sin, this same Jesus Christ absolves you of all sin, now and forever.”
We embraced, and I walked away healed.
After Matins, the next day, I drove down the mountain, heading back to Philadelphia, reflecting on this time. I could not have asked for more, as I approach the great Feast of the Nativity.
The Rules of the Church
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes”.
What ARE the rules of the Church? Are they black and white and to be adhered to strictly? Are they to be ignored as ancient ideas from centuries ago? Are they simply whatever the priest says they are?
Fr. John Erickson, former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (and a former professor), has written a wonderfully provocative book entitled “The Challenge of Our Past”. It is a collection of essays dealing with some of the more sticky problems of the Orthodox Church apropos of what is referred to as “Canon Law”. It is written in a way that is accessible to most laymen.
Canon law and rules of the Church are things we, as Orthodox Christians, deal with all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. Is it a rule that we use one translation of the scriptures? Is it a rule that no female can go into the altar area? Is it a rule that one must go to Confession before receiving Communion? Is it a rule that parents must bring their infant to church three Sundays in a row after Baptism? Is it a rule that one is excommunicated if he or she has missed three Sundays in a row?
There are so many things to consider! What are we to do? First of all, I think it’s important to understand a bit of history about the Church and where we stand as far as our parish is concerned. The priest often hears, “But this is ALWAYS the way things have been done.” Well, one priest does this, and the next priest doesn’t want to interrupt the “tradition”, even if it’s not exactly right. There is some wisdom in this, but also, perhaps, a hesitancy to correct in that the next priest doesn’t want to make waves. Or, the next priest changes something and pays the price.
In the first essay of Fr. Erickson’s book (and yes, I have a copy to lend if anyone would like to read it), he writes specifically about what the word “canon” means and how it was understood in the early Church. In the Orthodox Church today, we seem to look at it as another institution, like the Elks Club, with rules and regulations. For example, if one is baptized, the one has special benefits, like having a Church wedding, receiving (automatically) communion, having a memorial service for a loved one, or for oneself, etc. The canons are rules! However, as Fr. Erickson writes,
Hence, “canon” meant “rule”, not in the sense of regulation or habitual practice, but rather in the sense of straightedge, a “ruler”: an absolute standard for straightness or measurement. By extension, it meant a standard for determining the correctness of an action or belief…. the “canon” or “rule” of faith – i.e. the Creed…
In other words, “canon” is not meant to be juridical as in the law (the Greek word is “nomos”) but as a guide having to do with the salvation of the Christian person.
The fact of the matter is that Orthodox Christians must learn about their faith, and not simply accept whatever they are told by current or past priests. Orthodox Christians must also be cautious about what they merely “feel” is right, what works out for them. We are all in this together, clergy and laity, and we must all work together to learn and grow in our faith, and to learn where we are going with it.
Finally, there is a story I’ve told before, about a bishop who comes to Alaska in the 18th century to visit his new flock. After the Divine Liturgy, the bishop asks if there are any questions. Slowly, questions come. “Are there three gods or one?” “Was Jesus divine, or merely human?” The questions kept coming. Finally, the bishop turned to the parish priest and asked, “Don’t your parishioners know anything?” The priest responded, “Yes, they know the answers to all of these questions. They just want to make sure that you know the answers, if they are going to follow you.”
We must all come together to learn and grow in our faith. The clergy are not “over” the laity, and the laity not “over” the clergy. We are all under the aegis of Christ, His acceptance and love.
Your comments are welcomed on our Discussion page here