Saturday, February 28, 2009
The Star of Hope, to quote from their mission statement, is "a Christ-centered community dedicated to meeting the needs of homeless men, women and their children. Positive life changes are encouraged through structured programs which focus on spiritual growth, education, employment, life management and recovery from substance abuse." The mission began in 1907 and is one of the longest continually-operating outreaches to the homeless in the Houston area. Today it is a huge operation, consisting of four different facilities. The mission is heavily dependent on volunteers, who donate food, money, clothing and other items, in addition to providing help with preparing and serving meals to the residents. Volunteers from all Christian traditions, as well as many other faiths and even secular organizations, participate.
Today, I took a group of 6 people to Star of Hope's Women and Family Emergency Shelter to help prepare and serve lunch. I had actually been to Star of Hope twice before. The first time was about two years ago, with a group from another local parish; that time we served lunch at the men's facility in a different part of downtown. The second time I went was in November, when I also took a group from St. Joseph's to the same shelter we went to this time. On that visit, however, they had more volunteers and didn't need our whole group to help with lunch. So, a couple of fellow parishioners and I ended up cleaning and organizing the pantry. Needless to say, my experience really wasn't interesting enought to write about.
Today, however, was a different story. While we were serving lunch, I had a great many thoughts about the people we served and about homelessness in general. I thought I might share them with you today. I pray that this might be helpful to you and thought-provoking.
We arrived at the Women and Family Shelter at about 11:30. After signing in, we were escorted to the kitchen, where we were each given a hairnet, a plastic apron, and surgical gloves. Then we went to the serving line, where we each took up a position. The first of us in line would pull out a tray and put a styrofoam bowl on it. The next would fill the bowl with soup. The third would place a ham and cheese sandwich on the tray, while the next would add some salad. My job was to place an empty cup on the tray (the residents were to fill it with one of several possible beverages that were to be found in the dining hall). I also would add a small carton of milk and a piece of apple -- but only for kids. Then the last member of our team would hand the tray to the next person in line. Having our assignments, we eagerly awaited the residents' arrival.
The residents started lining up at high noon. In they came: black, white, and Hispanic; some old, some young; some single women, some women with children, and even a few single men with children. Their faces were lined with years of dealing with extra stress that I can only imagine. But what I found amazing was the one thing they all had in common: an ear-to-ear grin. All of them said "thank you," and the gratitude that they were feeling was evident by more than their words.
And then it hit me: these dearr people had little more than the shirt on their backs, and yet they radiated contentment. They were thankful just to have a roof over their heads and a hot, nutritious meal. I couldn't help but contrast this with my own attitude. Too often, I find myself bothered because my kids wake me up too early, because my wife is too busy, because I'm not contributing enough to my 401K, because I'm tired of my wardrobe, or because I'm about to have to go without cheese and chocolate for seven weeks. The gratitude of these beautiful creations of God, the residents of the shelter, taught me a valuable lesson--a lesson that St. Paul succintly summarized to his disciple Timothy: "Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:8).
As resident after resident gratefully accepted her tray, I looked intently at each and wondered, "Now, how did she get in this position? Was she abused as a child? Was she abused by her husband (or both)? Did she fall victim to substance abuse? Did she make a series of really bad decisions? Or is she just an average middle-class person who lost her job and couldn't keep up her house payment or pay her rent?" Of course, I didn't find out the story behind a single one of them; our job was not to study them, much less to interrogate them. Our job was simply to show the love of Christ to them by serving them, just as "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45).
And as I continued to place cups on each tray, I realized that, as the old saying goes, "there but for the grace of God go I." Why was I born to two parents who were committed to me and to each other, who loved me and supported me in all I did, while these dear children of God presumably were not? Why have I always had a roof over my head and a steady income? Why have I been spared from the ravages of substance abuse? Is it because I am somehow smarter, wiser, more moral, or superior in some other way to the residents? I seriously doubt it. Did God, as the Calvinists would say, foreordain that I would have a comfortable life, while he chose these to suffer? As St. Paul would say, "God forbid!" So why then, have my life and the lives of those whom I was providing with cups been so different? Why was I serving them, and not vice-versa? Why weren't THEY living in the suburbs and I in the shelter?
I'm not sure if I'll ever have an answer. I'm not sure there even IS an answer. All I know is that (at least for now) I have been spared the tragedy of homelessness. God has blessed me super-abundantly, and because of this, I must share with those whom our Lord called "the least of these." For as he said, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matt. 25:40).
I drove to the shelter hoping to be a blessing to others. I pray that I was. But most importantly, I went away blessed myself. For I was granted the highest privilege of all: in each person, I beheld the face of Jesus.
Friday, February 27, 2009
In spite of my selectivity, I still find that many of the books I read are just so-so, at least for me. This is why I am always so delighted to find a really wonderful book. Recently, I have found four such books, and I wanted to plug them for you. I wholeheartedly recommend each of these to you, and I believe that you will be blessed by reading them.
1. Way of the Ascetics, by Tito Colliander. Colliander was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a devout Orthodox family. When the Russian revolution broke out, his family fled to Finland (Tito was a young boy a the time). Colliander grew up in a Swedish-speaking region of Finland, and he made his living as a writer, with several novels published. Way of the Ascetics was his only major work on spirituality, and IMHO, he hit a home run in his first at bat!
In Way, Colliander gives a concise but powerful summary of the teachings of the great ascetical Fathers of the Church, from St. Anthony all the way down to the great nineteenth century Fathers. The chapters are short and the prose muscular. In fact, Way is the best brief summary of Orthodox spirituality that I have yet read.
In the adult Sunday School class that I teach at St. Joseph's, we will be studying this gem during Lent. I plan to publish daily (or near-daily) excerpts from the book, along with a few of my own comments. I guarantee that you will enjoy and profit from them. (If not, I'll refund all the money that you have spent on reading this blog!)
2. The Mountain of Silence, by Kyricos Markides. Markides, a sociology professor at the University of Maine, grew up in Cyprus as part of a devout Orthodox family. After moving to the United States to pursue his university studies, however, he gradually lost interest in the Church and its teachings. While a graduate student, Markides began to explore Transcendental Meditation and other types of non-Christian Eastern mysticism.
While at Mt. Athos, Markides met a young elder named Father Maximos. Fr. Maximos introduced him to the Athonite spiritual tradition, and Markides’ life was changed. Soon afterward, Fr. Maximos was sent to Cyprus, to renew a dying monastery there. Over the next few years, Markides visited Fr. Maximos several times, sitting at his feet and learning the essentials of Orthodox spirituality. He returned wholeheartedly to the Church and became a new man.
The Mountain of Silence is the story of Markides’ visits with Fr. Maximos (now a bishop in the Church of Cyprus), and what he learned from them. The majority of the book is a recounting of Fr. Maximos taught Markides, in a question-and-answer form. Also included are vivid descriptions of Cypus and Mt. Athos, and just enough historical background to provide some context. Like Way of the Ascetics, The Mountain of Silence provides an excellent and very readable summary of the spiritual teaching of the ascetical Church Fathers. It is probably the easiest-to-read book on the subject that I am aware of.
The only downside to the book is Markides’ incessant comparisons of Orthodox monastic teachings and practices to those of Buddhism and Hinduism. However, these only take up a small amount of total space, and they are easily skipped over (unless you find them interesting, in which case they may be helpful for you).
The Mountain of Silence is a book I can see myself reading over and over again.
Tomorrow, I’ll review the other two books.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
1. A Word From the Holy Fathers, by Dn. Matthew Steenberg. Dn. Matthew is a patristics scholar who teaches at Oxford University. He is also a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church in England. Each week, Dn. Matthew reads a brief excerpt from the writings of one of the Fathers and then comments on it, with an emphasis on life application. Both the patristic readings and Dn. Matthew’s comments on them are powerful. And, he has a beautiful British accent to boot! The intro and concluding music are also terrific.
2. Steve the Builder, by Steve Robinson. Most of you know Steve Robinson as the author of the delightful Pithless Thoughts blog and as the host of the Our Life in Christ podcast, the most popular Orthodox podcast ever. Steve’s co-host Bill Gould has become increasingly busy with his job in the last few months, and due in part to this, Our Life in Christ is on temporary hiatus (except for re-releasing old programs). So, Steve has begun his own podcast, and it is fantastic. Each week, Steve reflects on the practical side of being an Orthodox Christian working in a secular environment. He gives practical tips for how to live out the Orthodox faith in your day-to-day life. The most recent episode, which deals with the homeless, is extremely powerful.
3. At the Intersection of East and West, by Dn. Michael Hyatt. Dn. Michael converted to Orthodoxy about 25 years ago, and he has served as an Orthodox deacon for many years. But he is also the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the largest evangelical Christian publishing company in the world (and also the publisher of the Orthodox Study Bible). Being in these two roles gives him a unique and well-informed perspective on how to communicate the Orthodox faith to evangelicals. The podcasts are recordings of Dn. Michael’s inquirers class at the parish where he serves (St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee). The podcasts are primarily aimed at people who are not yet Orthodox but want to learn more about the Ancient Faith. Nevertheless, they would be helpful for all Orthdox Christians as well. I especially enjoyed the series on marriage and the one on the seven Ecumenical Councils.
4. Musing on Mission, by Fr. Gabriel Rochelle. Fr. Gabriel is a former Lutheran pastor who later converted to Orthodoxy. He has a fascinating background, having worked in the past as a theology professor, a parish priest, and even a baker. A couple of years ago, Fr. Gabriel and his wife left their home and parish to move to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to start an Orthodox mission. In each podcast, he shares one facet of the great enterprise of starting a mission from scratch. But his reflections are more than just about staring a mission; they are practical guidelines for living the Orthodox faith in the workaday world. As a former church planter myself, I especially enjoy this podcast.
5. Spread the Word, by Fr. Constantine Nasr and Dn. Ezra Ham. The hosts of this podcast are the pastor and deacon at St. Elijah Antiocian Orthodox Church, one of the largest and most outeach-focused Antiochian Orthodox parishes in the United States. Each week, they talk about things their parish has done to share the Gospel of Christ with their community. All Christians and all parishes are responsible to take the Gospel to the unbelieving world (Matt. 28:18-20); Fr. Constantine and Dn. Ezra give us practical strategies for doing so. This podcast is especially helpful for pastors and other church leaders.
So there they are. If you only have time to listen to a couple of them, then make the first two a priority, because they’re both powerful and short.
And before I leave the subject of podcasts, I hope you won’t mind if I give my own podcast, Thy Word, one more plug. Thy Word is a live recording of my adult Sunday School class at St. Joseph’s, and it features verse-by-verse Bible study from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Occasionally, it will feature homilies that I have preached and/or talks that I give outside of St. Joseph’s (such as the talk I recently gave at the Festival of Icons at St. Jonah of Manchuria Orthodox Church).
If you would like to listen to Thy Word, you have two options: 1. My unprofessional, homemade version, with no real intro or conclusion, which you can access by clicking on the link at the top left corner of the home page of this blog (or click here, if you prefer). 2. (Better) The more professional version, with a snappy intro and conclusion, which you can find at the Icon New Media Network (or click here). If you do listen to Thy Word, please leave a comment and let me know what you think about it. Thank you.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
As many of you know, the parish where I serve as assistant priest is not large enough to support two full-time priests. Because of this, I work a “secular” job (I put the word “secular” in quotes because technically, no job is truly secular. Whatever your line of work, it is a means of service to God. But I have yet to come up with a suitable alternative to the term, so I continue to use it, albeit with quotes).
In my “secular” job, I spend about 75% of my time sitting at my desk, working at my computer. This would drive many people crazy, but I count it as a blessing, not the least because I am able to listen to podcasts nearly all day long. I discovered the outstanding podcast lineup at Ancient Faith Radio (AFR) just over a year ago, and listening to their excellent variety of programs has helped me a great deal in my striving toward theosis.
(In case you’re wondering: Yes, I do also listen to several of the podcasts produced by the Orthodox Christian Network. But nearly all of my favorites are on AFR.)
Last May, I wrote a post in which I listed my ten favorite podcasts on AFR. I still listen to all the podcasts on that list, with the exception of Simply Orthodox, which is no longer active (although all the episodes are still available for download). In my list, I ranked “Search the Scriptures” as my favorite podcast. I still love it dearly and listen to it every week (and you should too). But last November, a podcast debuted which quickly became my new favorite.
The podcast is called “The Coffee Cup Commentaries,” by Fr. Lawrence Farley. If you have been reading this blog for very long, you know that Fr. Farley is the author of a series of commentaries on the New Testament that I absolutely love. His commentary on
The podcast’s whimsical name comes from its informal nature. Each program is designed to reflect a casual conversation about the Scriptures that you might have with your priest over a cup of coffee (or tea, if you prefer--or any other beverage).
If Search the Scriptures is “Orthodox Bible study for busy people” (as its introduction says), then “The Coffee Cup Commentaries” is Orthodox study for VERY busy people. Fr. Farley’s comments are short, sweet and to the point. He obviously has a great depth of knowledge of the Scriptures, but he speaks primarily as a pastor rather than a scholar. Fr. Farley occasionally delves into the Greek text, but only when it is absolutely necessary. His emphasis is always on how to apply the Scriptures to our lives. He properly treats the Bible not as a mere repository of head knowledge, but as a guidebook for how to live the Christian life. And, he has wonderful, dry sense of humor that makes each study a lot of fun.
Best of all, the Coffee Cup Commentaries comes out daily, excepting weekends. And each program is only 10-15 minutes long, so it doesn’t take forever to get through one. Perhaps the reason that Fr. Farley’s Bible studies “click” so well with me is that his teaching style is almost exactly like my own. If you have enjoyed my devotional reflections on
So if you are Orthodox, you love the Scriptures (and if you don’t, we need to talk!) and want to increase your understanding of them, you really should listen to The Coffee Cup Commentaries. As is true with all AFR podcasts, you can listen to the podcasts while you are at the computer, you can download them individually as MP3 files, or you can subscribe via iTunes or some other podcast catcher. I suggest that you start from the first episode and work your way through Fr. Farley’s series on Philippians (my favorite epistle!). Don’t delay; start listening today! Your spiritual life will be enriched if you do.
By the way, there are a few other excellent new AFR podcasts that I would like to recommend. I’ll do this tomorrow.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
When I was in high school and college, I saw a very large number of movies in the theater. After I got married and began having kids, however, the number of movies that Jennifer and I went to gradually declined to about an average of about 3 or 4 a year. We began to instead watch movies at home on VHS and later DVD (we've only had cable or satellite a total of about 3 of our 19 years of marriage--we find it to be a big waste of money). For years, we probably watched an average of about 25 movies a year at home, not to mention miniseries, documentaries, and TV shows on DVD.
In the last couple of years, however, I have only watched a handful of movies--even at home. I just don't seem to have the time any more! Between my "secular" job, my church responsibilites, my blog, my podcast, reading the Bible and other Christian books, plus trying to spend time with my wife and kids, movies (at home or in the theater) have almost completely been squeezed out. And you know what? I find that I hardly miss them at all. I'm sure I'm missing out on some really good ones, but at the same time, 90% or more of what comes out these days is pure garbage.
Occasionally, though, I still DO go out to the movies, and every great once in a while, I see a movie that I think is so good, that I want to tell others about it. One such movie is The Tale of Despereaux, which I saw with my whole family several weeks ago. Now you may think, "Well, that's just a kid's movie!" Not so fast. It is actually much more, containing something for all ages. Despereaux is a wonderful tale of forgiveness and mercy triumphing over judgment.
Rather than write my own review, I will reprint for you an excellent one, written by Rebecca Cusey in WORLD magazine. Enjoy the review, and if you haven't seen the movie, go enjoy it too. And if you have seen it, post a comment and tell me what you thought. Even if you haven't seen it, your comments are encouraged.
The Tale of Despereaux is a sweet little fairy tale about a brave mouse and the distraught kingdom that needs him. Sincere and kind, but provocative enough to engross adults, the film breaks the mold of normal family entertainment. Gone are the wisecracking sidekicks, evil villains, and adult jokes. Instead, we see a story about wounded people hurting others, then finding redemption and reconciliation. The animated movie (rated G) is an adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's popular children's book.
The courageous little mouse Despereaux is born into a kingdom that has lost itself to sadness and fear after a great tragedy. There is no sunshine and no laughter. Worst of all, the country's production of warm, nourishing soup has been halted. The beautiful Princess Pea (voiced by Emma Watson) in the castle longs for joy again. Her heartbroken maid, Mig (voiced by Tracey Ullman), yearns to be loved as the princess is loved. The sadness of the kingdom trickles down to the tidy suburb of Mouseville, where little Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) cannot learn to cower or scamper like the other mice. He's just too brave. Instead, he finds himself drawn to knightly tales in the castle library. His inability to conform to the timid ways of Mouseville eventually leads to his departure from Mouseville and the beginning of his quest for adventure.
Down in the sewers of Ratworld, good-hearted rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) languishes far from the sun he loves. He regrets the accident that brought darkness to the kingdom, an accident he caused. When his attempts at righting his error are met with violent rejection, Roscuro lashes out in vengeance, tempting the maid to bitterness and putting the princess in peril. Despereaux, however, with his big heart and chivalrous code of ethics, never stops trying to save the princess. The little mouse with the big ears and even bigger heart never despairs and never gives up.
At this point, the movie takes an unusual turn. Instead of Roscuro and the maid getting what they deserve, the suffocating web of cruelty that has bound each character is unraveled by a more powerful act of forgiveness. Instead of a villain who is beaten by the hero, we see angry and hurt people turn away from the darkness within them. It is a film about redemption.
In the context of the film, the transgressions being forgiven are grave. This is no cheap grace, no easy reconciliation. The characters, especially Roscuro, are redeemed from real, serious, crimes. Forgiveness does not come easily, but it does come. And it releases the victim as well as the perpetrator.
The film, despite its dreamlike animation, has some intense scenes. The pacing is slow and gentle, without the frenetic laugh-a-minute pace in many kids' flicks. Although there are no wisecracks or explosions, no car chases or superheroes, it is a tale that is likely to stick with kids after the excitement of other movies has faded away.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Friday, February 20, 2009
Those of you who know me well know that I was raised a nominal Episopalian, and that in college I became a Southern Baptist, remaining such until Jennifer and I began the process of converting to Orthodoxy in 2001. In high school, my best friend was a devout Southern Baptist who attended a large church called Sagemont Baptist Church (which, along with thousands of other Baptist churches, later dropped "Baptist" from their name in order to appeal to a wider audience). I often would go to Sagemont with him, particularly to revivals and youth events.
When Jennifer and I returned to the Houston area after serving for five years as missionaries in Eastern Europe, we ended up buying a home that was only about a mile or so from Sagemont. Since we last attended there in 1998, the church has continued to grow, both in numbers and in wealth. Now they are in a massive building campaign. Part of that campaign includes the erection of a cross that is 170 feet high (they originally wanted it to be 200 feet, high, but the FAA made them reduce the height). I pass by the cross an average of two or three times a week.
As you might imagine, the cross has caused a wide variety of reaction, with some being opposed to the cross and others being in favor of it. Here is an excerpt from a story about the cross that appeared in the February 12 edition of the South Belt Leader, our small, weekly hometown newsletter. The writer's name is James Bolen.
Last week, Sagemont Church constructed a massive cross on its property near Beltway 8.
In the works since 2007, the completed structure stands 170 feet tall with a span of 60 feet at the horizontal beam. It is made of painted steel and weighs 90 tons and took three days to erect.
The purpose of the cross is to positively inspire passing drivers, according the Sagemont Church' senior pastor, Dr. John D. Morgan.
"We hope everyone who drives by will be reminded how much God loves them," he said.
Like all other Sagemont projects, the cross was being built debt-free. Morgan noted that the cross has not borrowed money since 1975, allowing Sagemont to do other things with money that many churches spend on interest each year.
This past year, the church spent approximately $1.5 million on local and global mission efforts. The church also gave a large sum to aid the community after Hurricane Ike, just as it did after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Morgan declined to put a monetary price tage on the structure, but humbly said, "It cost God his son and Jesus his life."
Due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the cross will be lit at night, allowing it to be seen for several miles in any direction.
The base of the structure features a 2,500 square-foot platform designed to accommodate weddings, Bible study classes, and other special events throughout the year. The platform hovers over a small lake that includes an area for baptisms. The bank of the lake features an amphitheater designed to seat approximately 250 people. Two walkways connect the amphitheater to the platform...
...The cross structure is complete, but final details on the project will be finished over the next few weeks. Upon completion, the cross area will be open to the public at all times for people to come pray, picnic, or just look.
Now, if the cross just had two more bars on it...
So, what are YOUR thoughts about this cross? Your comments are not only appreciated, they are actively sought.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Shell gameSay what you will about one New York thief: At least he was thorough. Walter U. Tessier returned a $10.99 lobster to an Amsterdam, N.Y., Price Chopper supermarket saying the crustacean was bad. But while Tessier went browsing for a bag of king crab legs to exchange for the lobster, store employees became suspicious of the rejected seafood. Apparently, Tessier ate most of the lobster and reassembled the crustacean to appear whole before returning it to the store. When confronted, Tessier fled on foot but was arrested later at his home and charged with petty larceny.
Built not to last
Even with an "unarticulated recyclable-box" design as described by United Nations architects, a 175,000-square-foot complex will cost the UN roughly $150 million to build—only to be demolished in 2013. The expensive temporary structure to be built on the UN's midtown Manhattan property will allow the international organization to renovate its aging headquarters. When renovations to the UN's headquarters on the East River are complete, the structure will be razed and replaced with a lawn. According to a 2006 internal report, the United States government contributes about one-fifth of the United Nations budget.
Booked over a book
Police arrested a 39-year-old woman Jan. 22 after she failed to return a library book she checked out from the Jesup, Iowa, Public Library in April 2008. The woman, Shelly Koontz of Independence, Iowa, was charged with fifth-degree theft. Court records indicate both library officials and law enforcement attempted to contact Koontz to ask her to return the book and pay the library fine. Koontz spent two hours in jail before posting $250 bond.
For one hotel patron, finishing a beer took priority over seeking treatment for a knife wound. Police in Edmonton, Alberta, responded to an emergency call at the York Hotel around 9 p.m. on Jan. 17 only to find the stab victim sitting at his table polishing off a brew. "He's got a minor poke to his chest, but he's not giving us any details," said Staff Sgt. Regan James. "You can imagine the level of his concern was not that high."
Life in the fast lane
Hummer owners might want to tap the brakes: A year-long study produced by a risk-analysis firm found drivers of Hummers were 463 percent more likely to be ticketed for speeding than the average driver. Officials with San Francisco--based ISO Quality Planning said the research may not indicate that traffic cops are more likely to single out drivers of gas-guzzling SUVs for speeding tickets, but that particular cars affect how a driver drives. Joining Hummer atop the list for most ticketed vehicles: two highly powered Mercedes Benz vehicles. Drivers of Buicks and minivans received the fewest tickets.
A student forever
If knowledge is power, a 67-year-old Kalamazoo, Mich., man might be one of the most powerful men around. After earning 27 college degrees—two associates degrees, one bachelor's degree, 20 master's degrees, three specialist's degrees, and one doctorate—Michael Nicholson says he's not close to quitting. Nicholson, who says he's retired, is working on two more master's degrees from Grand Valley State University. Prior to his 16-year career as a substitute teacher, Nicholson used tuition discounts he earned at Western Michigan University while working as a parking-meter attendant for just over a decade. "I find that the intellectual stimulation and the acquaintances that I have at the intellectual level make it really worthwhile," Nicholson told the Kalamazoo Gazette, noting he'll keep pursuing degrees so long as he can make it to class.
Unlike some taxpayers, one Queens, N.Y., property owner probably won't need to reach too far into his pocket to foot this bill. Victor Serby, who owns property in Queens but lives in Woodmere, N.Y., received a bill from New York City's finance department in the amount of 23 cents. City officials say the tiny charge was one of 10,000 bills the city mistakenly sent out trying to collect amounts less than $5. According to city records, the finance department will book a minus-62 percent return on investment considering the 60-cent capital cost of postage, paper, and processing per bill mailed. And, though the Long Island patent attorney paid his back taxes all at once, the city's installment plan could have allowed him to mail in a 12-cent payment in January and the remaining 11 cents in April.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
I like this excerpt from an Armenian Orthodox bishop, particularly for its definition of Grace from the Orthodox perspective. As an evangelical Protestant, I was always taught that grace means God's unearned favor toward us--nothing more. It is thus synonomous with mercy and compassion. But as the Orthodox Church teaches, it is much more than that -- it is nothing less than God's power bestowed upon us, a power that transforms us day by day and that give us the ability to live the Christian life. Enjoy.
The ultimate destiny of humanity and creation is deification (theosis). The human being is the representative of the cosmos, a 'microcosm.' Men and women are superior to the cosmos. The latter receives grace through them who are called by God to a supreme vocation: deification, to become by grace that which God is by His nature.
Grace is the transforming and deifying presence of God revealed and poured out by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit transforms us and makes us God-like. Deification is liberation from death. It is re-creation, 'being in Christ,' communion with God. The Holy Spirit leads humanity to Christ and through Him to the Father. Humanity is called also to transform the whole creation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The deification of the cosmos is the restoration of the original order.
His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, The Challenge to be a Church in a Changing World Pages 77-78, The Armenian Prelacy, New York 1997
Monday, February 16, 2009
One of the paradoxes of human existence is that there is nowhere God is not. Even though we naturally assume that He is more concerned with certain parts of our lives than with others, God is not nearly as restrictive as we are. One of the closest analogies I have come across is that God is fascinated with us - who we are and what we do. No detail of our lives is too small for His infinite interest.
We cannot brush against God without being changed. In the case of the woman who was healed when she touched Jesus surreptitiously in the crowd, the changed her life. So it is with us. Every meeting with God, no matter how casual or seemingly insignificant, involves both judgment and transformation.
Father Meletios Webber
Steps of Transformation
Page 147, Conciliar Press, California 2003
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Here is an excerpt from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware's excellent book The Inner Kingdom. Enjoy!
This quest for the inward kingdom is one of the master themes found throughout the writings of the Fathers. 'The greatest of all lessons,' says St. Clement of Alexandria, 'is to know oneself; for if someone knows himself, he will know God; and if he knows God, he will become like God.' St. Basil the Great writes: 'When the intellect is no longer dissipated among external things or dispersed across the world through the senses, it returns to itself; and by means of itself it ascends to the thought of God.' 'He who knows himself knows everything,' says St Isaac the Syrian; and elsewhere he writes:
"Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend."
Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware; The Orthodox Way pages 70-71 St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, New York 1st Paperback Edition 1979 (Revised since this edition in 1995).
Friday, February 13, 2009
First, learn to think properly of yourself. Three years after Mac Davis sang “Oh Lord, It’s hard to be Humble,” U2 released a song in which they sang “When I was three, I thought the world revolved around me—I was wrong.” Now none of us would admit to thinking the world revolves around us, but many of us often act like we think this. We tend to look on others and say, “I’m better than that person,” and we come away thinking we’re pretty hot stuff. But we’re really not. We need to remember St. Paul’s words that each of us should not “think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). Remember also that even though God loves us very much, we have all failed him many, many times. We need to think of ourselves as St. Paul did, as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 3:15). Rather than bragging to God (or to ourselves) about our goodness, like the Pharisee, we, like the Publican, need to cry out “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is the beginning of humility
"When I was three, I thought the world
Granted, these weren’t terrible trials, but they certainly felt trying at the time. And they certainly taught me humility. All of us need lessons in humility, and because of this, God will send them to us, often in the form of trials. And when the trials come, we should ask ourselves, “What is God trying to teach me from this?” and then thank him for the trial (difficult though this may be). Listen to the words of St. Dorotheos of Gaza: “There are certain kinds of trees that never bear any fruit as long as their branches stay up straight. But if stones are hung on their branches to bend them down, they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul: when it is humbled, it begins to bear fruit. And the more fruit it bears, the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints: the nearer they get to God, the more they see themselves as sinners.”
Finally, to develop humility, we must submit to others. The more we develop this habit, the more humble we will become. St. Paul told the Ephesians to “submit to one another out in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21). Doing what other ask or tell us, without complaining or arguing, breaks down our pride. Listen to the words of Tito Colliander, from his wonderful book Way of the Ascetics: “Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a [monastery] could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbor” (44). Submitting to other persons helps us learn to submit to God.
(Left): Tito Colliander, author of Way of the Ascetics, a brief and excellent summary of the teachings of the great ascetical Fathers of the Orthodox Church.
We also can learn humility is to submit to the teachings of the Church. And perhaps the most powerful tool that the Church gives us for learning humility is fasting. As Colliander says “since the time of the apostles, [the Church] has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in the city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.”
You see, when our body tells us: “You need a hamburger,” but we tell it back, “No, today is Friday,” that is a great exercise in humility. We can say “I don’t care what the Church says; I have to have a hamburger!” or we can say, “I will submit my will to the teaching of the Church.” And when we do submit, it breaks down our bride and builds humility. And saying no to food also helps us to say no to sin. If we can’t deny ourselves the right to eat meat or dairy, then how will we deny ourselves the “right” to slander, gossip, judge, lie, or commit some other sin? And this is one of the major purposes of Lent: to help us gain humility.
So as we move through the Lenten season this year, let us work diligently toward gaining the humility of the publican and let us put to death the pride of the Pharisee that is in each of us. Oh Lord, it is indeed hard to be humble. But it is truly a matter of life or death.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
‘Cause I get better looking each day!
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man!
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
But I’m doing the best that I can!
(Mac Davis, "Hard to Be Humble, 1980)
This is the chorus from one of the most popular country songs of 1980. And although it was certainly written tongue-in-cheek, it nevertheless expresses the attitude that many people have today. In today’s world, narcissism is at an all-time-high. In our culture, and in many other cultures around the world, humility is not seen as a virtue, but as a weakness. We are told that we have to stick up for ourselves. We have to look out for #1. We have the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and in whatever way we want. Each of us is the most important person in the universe. And most of us are really not all that bad; in fact, we’re pretty darn good people—it is other people that are the problem!
This kind of thinking is typified by the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading. St. Luke tells us that the Pharisee stood (not doubt in a place where others could see him and say, “Oh, what a good and pious man he is! Just look at him praying!”) and prayed “with himself”—in other words, he wasn’t really even speaking to God at all! His prayer is more of a pep-talk for himself. And when he does address God, he isn’t really even praying at all! Instead, he is giving God a lesson on just how great he is. He says “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast three times a week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” It’s not hard to imagine this Pharisee, if we could transport him to the present, singing “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way” and meaning it.
But let us not be too quick to point our fingers at the Pharisee and say, “Oh, I’m not like that Pharisee; I’m much more humble than THAT!” For if we do, then we have fallen right into the same trap of pride into which the Pharisee himself fell. If we are totally honest, we must admit that we do fall into this trap…and far too often. We exalt ourselves, telling ourselves, God, and others, that we are better than most other people. But what we need instead is humility. We need the humility of the publican, who “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”
This morning I’m going to discuss the importance of humility and how we can achieve it.
The Importance of Humility
Humility is of utmost importance to the Christian life. This is true first of all because humility is how God operates. Jesus himself set the example for us, as we see in St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians: “[Jesus], being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men, and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death on the cross” (2:6-8). By coming to earth, living as a servant, and even allowing mere men to put him to death, Jesus showed extreme humility. He set an example that he wants us to follow.
Humility is important for another reason: it is necessary for salvation. For as St. Peter writes in his first Epistle: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (5:5). And without grace, we know that no one can be saved. You might say, “But doesn’t salvation come through faith?” It certainly does, but who can have faith without humility? And of course, faith is not just intellectual assent. It includes walking with Jesus day by day. And without humility, no one can resist the snares of the enemy. Listen to this saying of St. Anthony the Great: “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’” Notice that only the publican went away justified.
St. Theodora of Egypt also speaks of the great importance of humility: “There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them. ‘What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ They replied, ‘We do not sleep?’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’”
Next time, we'll look the second half of the homily which deals with how to develop humility.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
More quotations of St. John Chysostom on the Holy Scriptures. Again, I am thankful to my bishop BASIL for compiling and sending these.
On the lack of attention paid when listening to the reading of Scriptures in church, when in fact it is not the clergy but God who addresses them. "They think that when they enter in here [the church], that they enter into our presence [the clergy], they think that they hear from us. They do not lay to heart, they do not consider that they are entering the presence of God, that it is He who addresses them. For when the Reader standing up says "Thus says the Lord", and the Deacon stands and imposes silence on all, he does not say this as doing honor to the Reader but to honor Him who speaks to all through him [the Reader]. If they knew that it was God who through His prophet speaks these things, they would cast away all their pride. For if rulers are addressing them, they do not allow their minds to wander, much else would they when God is speaking. We are ministers, beloved. We speak not our own things, but the things of God. Letters coming from heaven are read every day.… These letters are sent from God; therefore let us enter with becoming reverence into the churches and let us hearken with fear to the things here said." (Hom. IX On Thessalonians.)
On the importance of instructing children in the Holy Scriptures. "Do you wish your son to be obedient? From the very first, "Bring him up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord." Never deem it an unnecessary thing that he should be a diligent hearer of the divine Scriptures. For there the first thing he hears will be this: 'Honor thy father and thy mother'. So then, this is for you. Never say, 'This is the business of monks'. Am I making a monk of him? No, there is no need he should become a monk. Why be so afraid of a thing so replete with so much advantage? Make him a Christian. For it is of all things necessary for laymen to be acquainted with the lessons derived from this source, but especially for children. For theirs is an age full of folly and to this folly are added the bad examples derived from the heathen tales, where they are made acquainted with those heroes so admired amongst them…[A child] requires therefore the remedies against these things. How is it not absurd to send children out to trades and to school, and to do all you can for these objectives, and yet, not to "Bring them up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord?" And for this reason truly we are the first to reap the fruits, because we bring up our children to be insolent and profligate, disobedient and mere vulgar fellows. Let us not then do this; no, let us listen to this blessed Apostle's admonitions "Let us bring them up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord". Let us give them a pattern. Let us make them from the earliest age apply themselves to the reading of the Scriptures…..Study not to make him an orator, but train him up to be a [Christian] philosopher. In the want of the one there will be no harm whatever; in the absence of the other, all the rhetoric in the world will be of no advantage. Tempers are wanted, not talking; character, not cleverness; deeds not word. These gain a man the kingdom. These confer what are benefits indeed. Whet not his tongue but cleanse his soul. I do not say this to prevent you teaching him these things, but to prevent your attending to them exclusively. Do not imagine that the monk alone stands in need of these lessons from Scripture. Of all others, the children just about to enter into the world especially need them." (Hom. XXI Ephesians) [Fr. James' note: How many of us Orthodox Christians actually make a regular, conscious effort to teach the Scriptures to our children? Or do we just leave it up to the Church? The primary responsibility for teaching a child the Scriptures lies with the parent(s).]
The Scriptures were written for a purpose and it is a great evil to be ignorant of them. "From this it is that countless evils have arisen - from ignorance of the Scriptures; from this it is that the plague of heresies has broken out; from this it is that there are negligent lives; from this there are labors without advantage. For as men deprived of this daylight would not walk aright, so they that look not to the gleaming of the Holy Scriptures must be frequently and constantly sinning, in that they are walking in the worst darkness." (Intro. Hom. On Romans)
On the importance of attentiveness when listening to the readings. "If a man should come here with earnestness - even though he does not read the Scriptures at home - and if he pays attention to what is said here, within the space of even one year he will be able to obtain a considerable acquaintance with them. For we do not read these Scriptures today, and tomorrow others that are quite different, but always the same section and consecutively. However, in spite of this, many have such an apathetic attitude that after such reading they do not even know the names of the books. And they are not ashamed, nor do they shudder with dread, because they have come so carelessly to the hearing of the word of God. On the other hand, if a musician, or a dancer, or anyone else connected with the theater should summon them to the city, they all hurry eagerly, and thank the one who invited them, and spend an entire half-day with their attention fixed on the performer exclusively. Yet when God addresses us through the prophets and apostles, we yawn, we are bored, we become drowsy. (Hom. 58 On John)
Ignorance of the Scriptures by Christians is a disgrace. "Is it not strange that those who sit in the marketplace tell the names, and races, and cities and talents of charioteers and dancers, even accurately state the good and bad qualities of horses, while those who assemble in this place [the church] understand nothing of what is taking place here and even are ignorant of the number of the [sacred] Books?" (Hom. 32 On John) [Fr. James' note: I would add that it is also disgraceful that most evangelical Christians know their Bibles inside and out, but most of us Orthodox do not.]
Christians who are ignorant of their faith are responsible for the pagans' unbelief and the blasphemies which they say about Christ. "It is ridiculous if he who professes to be a Christian is unable to utter a word in defense of his own faith…It is this that prevents the pagans from quickly realizing the absurdity of their error. Inasmuch as, relying on falsehood, they make every effort to obscure the baseness of their teachings, while we who are the guardians of truth cannot even open our mouth, what will prevent them from despising the great weakness of our doctrine? Will they not get the idea that our teaching is deceitful and foolish? Will they not blaspheme Christ as a dissembler and deceiver who makes us of the stupidity of the majority to advance his deceit? And we are responsible for this blasphemy if we are not willing to be on the alert to speak in defense of righteousness, but rate such matters as superfluous, and concern ourselves about the things of earth. To be sure, and admirer of a dancer or of a charioteer or of a contender against wild beasts runs every risk and makes every effort so as not to come off worsted in disputes concerning his favorite. Moreover, these men string together long commendations, building up a defense against those who find fault with them, casting countless jibes at their opponents. But, when arguments are proposed about Christianity they all bow their heads, and rub them and yawn, and when laugh at, withdraw. Now are you not deserving of unmitigated anger if Christ appears less honored among you than a dancer? For while, you have thought up countless defenses of their deeds - even though all of these are somewhat base - you do not even exert yourself to give any thought and care to the wondrous deeds of Christ." (Hom 17 on John)
To those who say that there is no harm in worldly pursuits while neglecting the spiritual life. "Now I say this for there are some, much less responsive than this audience here, who do not become ashamed at my words, but even speak at length in defense of their behavior. And if you ask, 'Who is Amos, or Abias, or what is the number of the Prophets or of the Apostles?' they cannot even open their mouth. But with regard to horses and charioteers, they can compose a discourse more cleverly than sophists or rhetors. Furthermore, after all this they say: "What harm, now?" and "What loss?" Indeed, it is for this reason that I am groaning, namely because you do not know that the thing is harmful, and have no perception of the evil. God has given you a limited period of life to serve Him, and if you squander it vainly and fruitlessly, and to no purpose, do you still seek to learn what the loss is? If you completely squander your days entirely on Satan's pomps, do you consider that you are not doing anything wrong? Though you ought to spend your entire life in prayers and supplications, while actually you waste your life, fruitlessly and for your damnation, in shouting and tumult and base words and quarreling and unlawful pleasure and deeds of sorcery - even after all this do you ask 'What loss is there?' You are not aware that time must be expended more sparingly than anything else, If you spend gold, you will be able to replenish your supply, but if you lose time you will repair the loss with great difficulty for a small amount has been dispensed to us in the present life. Therefore, if we do not use it as we ought, what shall we say when we depart to the next life?" (Hom. 58 On John)
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Evangelical Protestants often accuse the Orthodox Church of "not believing the Bible," "not teaching the Bible," or, at the very least, not placing enough emphasis on the Bible. To put to rest any such criticisms, I thought I would share with you some quotes from St. John Chrysostom (perhaps the greatest Bible teacher that ever lived) about the importance of studying the Scriptures and applying them to one's life. I am grateful to my Bishop BASIL (Many years, Master!) who compiled these and sent them to me. Chrysostom's opinions of the Scriptures are also those of the Orthodox Church as a whole. Enjoy!
The Bible helps us to obtain our salvation. "Now if we are willing to examine the Scriptures in this way, carefully and systematically, we shall be able to obtain our salvation. If we unceasingly are preoccupied with them, we shall learn both correctness of doctrine and an upright way of life. (Hom 53 On John)
Scripture reading sanctifies us. "Moreover, if the Devil does not dare to enter into the house where the Gospel lies, much less will he ever seize upon the soul which contains such thoughts as these, and no evil spirit will approach it, nor will the nature of sin come near. Well, then, sanctify your soul, sanctify your body by having these thoughts always in your heart and on your tongue. For if foul language is defiling and evokes evil spirits, it is evident that spiritual reading sanctifies the reader and attracts the grace of the Spirit." (Hom. 32 On John)
The Scriptures are a treasure and neglect of it causes harm. "It is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom." (Hom. XIX On Acts)
Knowledge of the Bible protects us and ignorance of it results in a multitude of evils. "This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how are we to come off safe?" (Hom. IX On Colossians) [Fr. James' note: This is a powerful saying. What does it tell us about the need to get to know the Scriptures, and know them well?!?]
The Bible is a medicine chest with remedies for grief and all troubles. "Listen, I entreat you, all that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul…get at least the New Testament, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If grief befalls you, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take from there comfort for your trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather do not merely dive into them but take them wholly to yourself, keeping them in your mind." (Hom. IX On Colossians)
The Bible is a treasury with remedies for every ailment. "Great is the profit to be derived from the sacred Scriptures and their assistance is sufficient for every need. Paul was pointing this out when he said, 'Whatever things have been written have been written for our instruction, upon whom the final age of the world has come, that through the patience and the consolation afforded by the Scriptures we may have hope.' (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11) The divine words, indeed, are a treasury containing every sort of remedy, so that, whether one needs to put down senseless pride, or to quench the fire of concupiscence or to trample on the love of riches, or to despise pain, or to cultivate cheerfulness and acquire patience - in them one may find in abundance the means to do so." (Hom. 37 On John.)
Knowledge of the Scriptures allows us to bear difficulties. "For as the rich in money can bear fines and damages, so he that is rich in the doctrines of [Christian] philosophy will bear not poverty only, but all calamities also easily, more easily than that [rich] one." (Hom. IX On Colossians.)
Children must be instructed in the Scriptures, beginning with the learning of psalms and hymns. "But now your children will utter songs and dances of Satan, like cooks, and caterers, and musicians; no one knows any psalm but it seems a thing to be ashamed of even, a mockery and a joke. There is the treasury house of all these evils. For whatsoever soil the plant stands in, such is the fruit it bears; if in a sandy and salty soil, of like nature is its fruit; if in a sweet and rich one, it is again similar. So the matter of instruction is a sort of fountain. Teach him to sing those psalms which are so full of the love of wisdom. When in these you have led him on from childhood, by little and little you will lead him forward even to the higher things" (Hom. IX On Colossians)
Monday, February 9, 2009
Occasionally, I am asked why Orthodox Christians light candles. Lighting a candle serves as a visible sign of a prayer offered to God. Below, I thought I would share a couple of interesting things regarding candles. One is the prayer for the blessing of candles used by the Orthodox Church. The second is a collection of prayers that can be used to accompany the lighting of candles. I pray that they will be spiritually profitable for you.
Here is a prayer for the blessing of candles:
O Lord Jesus Christ, the true light that illumines every man that comes into the world: Do Thou bestow Thy blessing upon these candles, and sanctify them with the light of Thy grace; that as they, kindles with visible fire, do dispel the shadows of night, so may also our hearts, lighted by the invisible flame of the , cast out the darkness of sin; to the end that with the eye of a cleansed soul, we may see that which is well-pleasing to Thee and necessary for our salvation; so that having triumphed over the dark afflictions of this world we may at the last attain to the Light Everlasting: For Thou art our Savior, and to Thee do we ascribe glory, with Thine unoriginate Father, and Thine all holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit: now and ever and forever. Amen.
In the preparation for , prayers are said in greeting the altar, including prayers at lighting candles.
On the left (north side): O Jesus, full of light, in Your light we see light, for You are the true light that enlightens the whole creation. Enlighten us by Your glorious light, O Radiance of the heavenly Father.
On the right (south side): O Pure and Holy One, who dwells in the abodes of light, keep away from us evil passions and hateful thoughts; grant us purity of heart, so that we may do the deeds of righteousness.
From Orthodox Service Books in use in Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Mission Parish, Madison, Wisconsin