Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

As we prayed the Royal Hours this morning at Sts Constantine and Helen, I was struck by the simple but profound nature of this service. Ancient hymnody combined with the Word of the Ancients blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit are indeed overwhelming. In the midst of the driving rain (here in Southern Illinois near St. Louis) and increasing traffic due to drivers driving the last minute shopping, it was truly a blessing for our small group to pray and meditate as we look to Nativity.

I couldn't help but make some comparison to the hectic nature of preparations in my "former life," what with choosing music and working with choirs and soloists and preparing multiple service. None of that any more: Holy Mother Church blesses us with what is given, both in Royal Hours, and later this afternoon in Vesperal Divine Liturgy. Literally, we will be joined by other Orthodox throughout the world praying the same prayers, singing the same hymns, celebrating the same Divine Liturgy. Simple. Profound. And, at least to my mind and in light of my own experience in over three decades, much less hectic.

This morning, as we stopped by Starbucks for coffee prior to Royal Hours (a little strange, since most of the time when we head to Church we are fasting in preparation for Divine Liturgy! :) ) we shared a bit of what was in store for these days with the folks waiting on us. Actually, we tied up the line as they asked more questions, interested that the hymnody that we used was so ancient -- further interested in that we use no instruments!

The joy of the day, the heart of these days is in Christ our God and His Nativity, not in all the other "stuff" that comes crashing down so hard in the days following Thanksgiving in the U. S.

By the way, I do recommend heartily "Christmas in General" over at Glory to God for All Things. Father Stephen offers a true blessing for consideration!

So, to all who might read these humble thoughts of one lately come: may yours be a truly blessed Christmas, for Christ is Born! Glorify Him.


Monday, November 2, 2009

It was truly a blessing ....

to be at All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Raleigh this weekend!

Without prior planning, we arrived during Orthros, to learn that Bishop ANTOUN would be present for the Heirarchical Divine Liturgy, as well as for the groundbreaking for their new temple! The place was packed, and in addition to all that was happening, His Grace tonsured a new reader for All Saints!

Last year, we attended this parish primarily because its Liturgy is all in English, and we have been taking our daughter and her family with us. At that time, after meeting some of the folk and telling them a bit of our story, we found that Father Nicholas had also been a Lutheran pastor in the LCMS ... having left a decade and a half or more ago. Neat connections, and I found also that he has close ties to Father Gordon Walker. We were present about a year ago, when Father Philip, assigned to the parish but also a military chaplain was about to be deployed to Afghanistan ... and we were there this past spring when he actually was finally deployed, there for his last Sunday at All Saints for a time. He is presently a Command Chaplain over there ... and was recently on leave (we missed him, though).

In any case, we had a great Sunday with our family away from home, and look forward to hearing reports of the construction of their new temple. We look forward to seeing it next spring, and to being in it next fall.

Glory to God for all things!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"orthodox" or "Orthodox"

Over the years, I've come to learn that one can call oneself by a name, but in all actuality not really be what they say they are.

Of course, sinful humans find that happening all the time for themselves, thus we pray "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner."

That doesn't mean that we get a pass, though.

In my former life it was just as apparent as it is now. I'd visit a parishioner, one whose name was "on the books," so to speak. They were "Lutheran." And they would loudly proclaim it. But, they had no clue what a Lutheran was or was supposed to be. Often I'd hear, "I'm a Lutheran, even though I don't go to church, because my Uncle was .... (change the family relationship, it doesn't matter) an elder, (or it could be pastor, or teacher, or whatever). That is to say, in all reality, they were "lutheran" but not "Lutheran."

That can be said for many who claim to be "Christian." They are "christian" but not "Christian." Over my six plus decades, I've met all kinds of people who tell me they are "Christian." "I'm a Christian because I am not Jewish." "I'm a Christian because all Americans are Christians." The list goes on, and you get the point.

However, the fact remains: calling oneself something doesn't really mean that one IS what one says one is.

And that is serious business.

We can and do proclaim that we are Orthodox, don't we? We are baptized, chrismated, and perhaps we even attend the Divine Liturgy on a fairly regular basis. We may even give some money and serve on this or that committee. All of those things are indeed part of what it is to be Orthodox, to be Christian.

However, the larger question might be phrased this way: Have we indeed denied self, taken up our cross, and our we following Jesus, every moment of every day?

That's a question that makes me nervous, as it probably does you. Truth is, we do NOT always deny self, and we'd just as soon NOT take up that cross ... and more often than not Jesus, and our life in Him, is "fit in" where it can be between work, home, sports, TV, and the list goes on.

Confessing these things doesn't mean that we can merely continue on doing things as we have.

What to do?

Seek God! Pray daily, regularly, in the disciplines of the Church. Speak to your Priest and receive his direction. Make these things a priority -- it may well mean that we don't watch as much TV, and it may mean that the party invitation is sometimes refused, or we say that we have to be late. Get up in the morning, Pray, make the sign of the holy cross, do your prostrations, venerate the Holy Cross and your icons.

Fast! Actually, our Lord didn't make this an option, a nice, quaint religious practice to be used when convenient. Fasting and prayer go together. The fasts and feasts of the Church Year guide us in living in such a way that we go give glory to God for all things ... and that we receive them with His blessing, using them and enjoying them in His blessing. The gifts are NOT the gods (although it is very easy to live that way). Fasting should be done with the direction of a spiritual father, but I dare say that we often don't seek the guidance of our spiritual father because then we reason that we don't have to fast. Fasting is part of taking up one's cross, by the way.

Give Alms! Almsgiving is part of loving one's neighbor as oneself. It is part of taking up the cross. It is part of self denial. It means that when we look at our neighbor or our neighbor in need, we see Crhist and would serve Him. It isn't about the recognition, or the rewards, or the payback (Let's see: if I give $10 then eventually I'll get $100 back!)

To be Orthodox is to be Christian. It is to give glory to God in all things and for all things. It is to seek Him and to live in the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit, as we give not only lip service but life service in the name of Jesus within Holy Mother Church.

In an interview on Ancient Faith Radio, Mother Gabriella of Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI was speaking of her childhood in Romania. She commented on how her family lived the fasts and feasts of the Church Year -- as a matter of course, from the heart. She speaks also of growing up under Father Paisios. In her school years, she sought his direction. He told her to pray the Jesus Prayer during the day when she thought of it, and morning and evening to pray the Our Father and to make 12 prostrations. It was a simple direction, but in her words, not so easy to do, and often she would report to Father that she had failed. But, that didn't mean that she should stop working at it.

Living in Christ isn't an easy thing. We will often fall and fail. And we go to Him for forgiveness and blessing that comes from the Holy Trinity. But failing and falling doesn't mean that we ignore or make excuses. It doesn't mean that we have a pass, that we can just claim the name and let everything else rule in our lives. We pray and live with St. Paul: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

When what we claim with our lips is lived in our lives we will indeed say "Glory to God for all things!"

And, we will be on the path from being "orthodox" to being "Orthodox!"

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Greek Fest -- the curse

My last post was indeed a truthful one, putting the best construction on Greek Fests (and the various other celebrations and offerings of various Orthodox). It seemed to be that this past weekend, and for that I am heartily thankful.

However, the curse of such events lies in just what was posted in the comments. All too often, the Greek Fest, or Evening in Athens, or whatever it might be called becomes the source of income to operate/continue the given community. That is to say, a proper stewardship has given way to something else.

The monetary support for the local community -- paying the bills, paying the priest, etc -- is actually to come from the generous proportionate weekly first fruits giving of the members of that community. This was underscored at a recent Stewardship seminar given in our Metropolis -- and that seminar indicated strongly and correctly that proper Stewardship isn't merely giving a few bucks in the tray every so often.

It is truly a sad commentary when any parish or community relies on the "world out there" to support it through services paid for at the Greek Fest or whatever else it might be. When this happens, it is, more often than not, because the parishioners are NOT giving first fruits -- tithing is ten percent -- but letting everything else in their lives come first. And this is truly a curse!

It might come also because various programs, be they building or otherwise, however well intended, are entered without truly counting the cost, or with a lack of patience that results in suddenly being saddled with a debt that is almost unmanageable.

God does provide! And He has provided richly and abundantly in every parish. The complaining and negative talk that often crop up are the result of lack of faith, and lack of living commitment.

We must not hold the various festivals primarily to support the necessary and essential expense of the parish -- so that they become absolutely necessary for survival. They can do all that I previously mentioned, with their income perhaps supporting a special project or outreach or ministry.

God calls us to welcome the stranger into our midst: He does not call us to get that stranger to do what we are called to do!

So that which can be a blessing -- a Greek Fest -- can also become a curse when it becomes a god, something the consumes and drives us to the point that we put aside that which is needful as we work out our salvation, seeking to be joined in the communion of the blessed and Holy Trinity!

Have the events -- but in their proper place and perspective!

Glory to God for all things!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Greek Fest -- a blessing

Traditional in many Greek Orthodox churches is the Greek Fest, which usually takes place once or twice a year. Now, this is a major undertaking, to be sure, and at times it generates a bit of complaining about the amount of work, who WAS there working, and who WASN'T there, etc. etc.

But all in all, I think it can be a great blessing, and opportunity to meet the community in which the Community lives.

It is amazing to see how so many people can work so well together for two and one half or three days cooking, cleaning, baking, making salads, serving people, all the time with (for the most part) a smile on the face! And, for all the work, it is FUN to work together, a bit sad when it ends, but a bit glad, too!

It is a great opportunity to share with the larger community the cultural heritage of the Greek (or Russian, or Serbian, or ... ) forefathers -- people for whom Church and life in the State were NOT so far separate. The music, with its intricate melodies rings in one's ears long after it has ceased, and the dance is unique and wonderful. After all, the Hellenic Culture is part of the American foundation!

It is a great time to just meet and talk with people about anything at all, but it is also a marvelous time to speak the truth in love, answering questions about the Ancient Faith, sharing the living heritage of the Faith. Some are more than a little taken aback to hear that the Divine Liturgy lives through history and is not subject to the whims of a priest or a committee ... and that it is held in common across jurisdictional lines. Others are very thoughtful when I suggest that my children's children will stand in this line and this teaching and this faith long after I leave this earth.

So, in spite of all the work, the sore feet, the sweat and toil, the Greek Fest is a blessing. As one lately come to the faith, I truly appreciate that part of my community's life!

Oh ... the food is marvelous!


Thursday, August 13, 2009

An ever present resource

I'm continually awed by the immense treasure in the services of Holy Orthodoxy. In Orthros and in Vespers, we not only pray, but are instructed in the faith. The readings underscore and emphasize the resurrectional nature of our life in Christ our God, and the hymnody literally teaches the faith throughout the year. Daily we are joined with those who have gone before, recalling their lives and knowing that we are in their prayers. And these services are crowned by and serve the Divine Liturgy, which is at the heart of our life in Christ, our theosis!

Sadly, these bounteous gifts are often ignored or taken for granted. It is true that our life here and now is busy and that there are many, many distractions. Still, we can make the Spirit driven choice to pattern our lives around Christ. When we cannot make it to the Temple for services, we can pray the readings and services in our homes and in the privacy of our icon corners.

Praying the faith and living the faith go hand in hand, and the prayers and services given us by Holy Mother Church keep us in the faith -- and allow us to pass on to our children and their children the faith passed on through ages through the Apostles, Holy Fathers, Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons as they have been handed the 'deposit of truth!"

Thanks be God for His great blessings!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Thoughts on the Sunday Church School

In the last few weeks, my priest approached me and asked that I become involved with the Church School on Sunday mornings. As One Lately Come, I was humbled that he would do such a thing, to be sure! I do it with his blessing.

Sunday Schools, or Sunday Church Schools are, from what I can see, a re relatively "new" in Orthodoxy, although one dear friend told me of her childhood in Greece, where the children gathered in mid to late afternoon every Sunday for catechesis. As she said, this is the way it was. No one really questioned it. Children were involved in Orthros and Divine Liturgy (as parents guided them) in the morning, and in the afternoon they were instructed.

In many Orthodox communities, Church School overlaps Divine Liturgy: the children receive the Holy Mysteries, and then they go to their classes. Of course, this means that they and their teachers miss the closing prayers of the Liturgy -- and in some cases the time for instruction varies greatly, depending on what is happening that Sunday.

It seems to me than an "ideal" would be a distinct time period for Church School -- something that does take place in many Orthodox communities. Orthros at 8, Church School at 9, Divine Liturgy at 10. In other places the Church School follow Orthros and Divine Liturgy and has a set period.

It will be interesting to see how we grow in this area.

Some observations:

In one sense, a family that regularly participates in Vespers, Orthros, and Divine Liturgy will pray much of what is commonly taught in "Sunday Schools." The lessons, psalms, prayers and hymnody convey all that is needful.

Church Schools do not replace prayer, fasting and catechesis in the home. Icon corners, prayer books and discipline are a blessing, never merely an option in this society of ours. It is troubling to see many families ignoring the fasts of the year, not using the prayers of the church in the home.

Children of every age are to be brought to and participate in the liturgical services of the church. They learn from early on that this is part of our life in Christ, and that it most certainly is not something just for adults. The practice of coming in at any point in the Divine Liturgy must be discouraged, for it teaches children that this isn't for them or that it is no important. Children should learn the acts of piety from parents at an early age -- making the sign of the Holy Cross, venerating icons, bowing one's head, standing at appropriate points in the service. As soon as possible the "toys" that are often brought should be eliminated.

The Church school should teach the faith, reinforcing that which is practiced in the Divine Liturgy and that which is practiced in the home.

The ongoing catechesis of the whole community is important -- the idea here is not that we "pass another test" or that we get points for another course. What is prayed is what is practiced, and what is practiced is what is prayed. One of our teachers said recently that one of the children in her care wondered at one part of the ceremony of the Divine Liturgy -- but she was not able at that point to explain it to him. That is the connection, isn't it? We receive what Holy Mother has given, and we practice as she has taught us, and we continually grow in greater understanding throughout our lives together in Christ

I'm looking forward to seeing more of Christ's blessings in our endeavor!

Glory to God for all things!

Monday, May 18, 2009

"The mob was wrong ...."

OK. What's that mean and what in the world is it doing here?

Exactly what I and others thought at the excellent seminar on Stewardship given by representatives of the Stewardship Committee of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in St. Louis recently.

Now, in my former life, I've been to lots of "stewardship" workshops ... and, as I remember, almost all of them -- maybe all of them -- ended up with one bottom line: $money$. In fact, I remember doodling at some of them $teward$ship. Bucks. Get in your wallet. And they always left a bad taste in my mouth: if I used any of that which was given, I modified it greatly, for a steward is never just a wallet.

However, this seminar, given by three Orthodox layment was over the top ... that is, it was excellent, far exceeding anything I've ever experienced.

It was about Salvation. It was centered in the Holy Trinity. It exuded the love of Christ. It talked seriously about issues that do confront every community. It encouraged healthy servant leadership.

I'm going to guess that most folks, when they think of stewardship, think first, foremost, and only about money (or they have in the past). NOBODY volunteers, it seems, for the "stewardship committee" for EVERYONE it seems, thinks only in terms of bucks. And so, because it is centered on bucks, stewardship is passed over, done in the easiest way possible with a letter or the annual quest for the "pledge" and then forgotten. It is often done in this (wrong) way in the most impersonal fashion .... right?

But being a steward of God's gifts isn't just about money at all! It is about every moment of life, life given by the Lover of Mankind. It is about service, sacrifice -- it is about salvation, yours and mine. And, it is very, very personal.

The mob was wrong.

Now, what does that mean?

Think about the mobster movies: the thug is about to get rid of someone, and the line is more often than not, "This isn't personal -- it's business"

Our life together in Christ is not centered in dollars, budgets, mere body counts: it isn't "just business" (although one gets that impression sometimes) but it is very personal. Think of Christ our God, for whom your salvation is never "business." It is always very personal. And our life together in our community needs always be personal as does our love for all those around.

In an impersonal world, those in whom Christ lives are very personal, and they see in each person around them, the image of Christ, the potential for life in Christ now and to the ages of ages.

Yes, the mob was wrong.

(Oh, the money stuff was mentioned, but in a refreshing way,... maybe we'll talk about that another time)


Friday, April 10, 2009

Blessings taken for granted?

As we received the blessing of the Presanctified Liturgy Wednesday past, I was filled with thanksgiving at the abundance of grace received.

As we read and chanted the psalms and lessons of that eveing service, I reflected on the fact that this is the way that Scripture is most to be received --- in praying it! Throughout Great Lent, in the readings and lessons, the hymnody of the Church and in our priest's homilies, the marvelous grace of God has shined abundantly through. Everything finds its meaning and center in Christ, in His incarnation, life on this earth, truly Man, and in His death and resurrection. Over and over these themes are interwoven, and the whole of salvation history is repeated.

Fully understanding the busy nature of peoples' lives, and pondering my own work schedule which doesn't allow the attendance that I'd like, it still saddens me to see so many just not taking time to participate in these rich mysteries, these opportunties to be joined in Christ, literally.

Once again, I was overwhelmed as I saw the whole of history rehearsed in the light of God's great love for mankind -- and I thought of the blessing for parents who bring their children regularly, for over time they will grow in living the life that is theirs in Christ our God. They will learn through repetition the marvelous narrative of Holy Scripture in the context of Holy Mother Church, and they will be blessed to pray and live their salvation now, as well as for all eternity.

Now, we prepare to enter Holy Week with its many blessings and opportunities to walk with Jesus, to experience His grace and mercy. We have the opportunity to join with one another in the Temple nearly "around the clock!" Priests will faithfully serve at all hours, whatever the number present.

I urge you to join me in being present as much as you can ... during the day and every evening as we again ponder the Mystery of love beyond all telling. And I hope that I will indeed "see" you as we join on Saturday evening for the reading of Acts ... and then Orthros and the glorious cry, "Christ is Risen!"

Let's not take these blessings for granted. Turn off the TV. Say "no" to anything not essential. Get the family in the car ... go to Church! Marvel at the Mystery, receivng the Light and Truth!

Rich blessings in Christ our God, in the name of the Father, the Son + and the Holy Spirit!


Friday, March 27, 2009

Living the Faith

One of the great joys of Orthodoxy for me lies in the fact that God is here with us. Orthodoxy speaks of a living faith now -- and is not focussed only on some distant place or time. It is meant to be lived daily at home, at work, at Church, well -- in every moment.

Fr Stephen Freeman (Glory to God for All Things), speaking of this very topic, came up with a short list of very practical, down-to-earth "things" one can do. It is a sort of "devotional action list" that deals with all of life. I think it is a very worthwhile list, and so, here it is:

1. Recognize that though “God is everywhere present and filling all things,” you often go through the world as if He were not particularly present at all and that things are just empty things. When you see this, make it a matter of confession.

2. Always approach the Church and the sacraments (where we have an even more specific promise of His presence) with awe. Never treat the building or things that have been set aside as holy as though they were common or empty. Do not divide your life into two - now He’s here, now He’s not. Syrian Christians traditionally believed that the Shekinah presence of God left the Temple and took up abode in the cross - every cross - and thus had extraordinary devotion to each and every cross. We should never be indifferent to the icon corner in our home. Cross yourself whenever you pass it or come into its presence.

3. Make careful preparation for communion. Always read the pre-communion prayers if you are going to receive communion (and perhaps even if you are not); pray Akathists that particularly focus on Christ and His presence, such as the Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus. The traditional Western hymn, written by St. Patrick, known as his “breastplate” is also a very fine hymn to know. Find it and keep it with you and learn it.

4. Lay to heart Psalms of presence, such as Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High,” and any others that strike you. Repeat them frequently through the day.

5. Throughout the day - search for God. He is everywhere present, and yet our searching helps us to be more properly aware. In searching, expect to find Him. He delights in sharing His presence.

6. More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

Fr. Stephen is well worth reading in many areas. Read "Glory to God for All Things".

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Forgiveness Sunday, 2009

"Forgiveness" and those words related to it are often, in the "Christian" world, "throw aways." It is great to talk about forgiving and forgiveness – as long as it doesn't get too personal. "I forgive you" is often shortened to an "It is OK" kind of thing that really doesn't deal with the fact that "it" is NOT OK at all. How often are grudges carried on and on and on, or hurts not admitted, all the time being "kept" deep within?

It is also very easy to "forgive" but to harbor thoughts of revenge, or being justified in one's own sin. Again, we really don't want to get up close and personal – so forgiveness becomes a "too" of sorts to not look into one's self, only looking at the other guy.

Forgiveness, the act of forgiving is at the heart of being in Christ. In fact, not to forgive results in not being forgiven. That's not in some "tit for tat" kind of thinking – Christ our God is the lover of mankind all the time – how can anyone receive forgiveness if one is not willing to repent of the sin of not forgiving?

One of my Greek brothers points to the "Our Father" in the New Testament, pointing out that the text says, "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors." Indeed, the willingness to forgive, to let go of the past, to not let it rule our present, is born only of the Spirit, a part of metania, repentance, being transformed, turned around.

As we prepare to enter Great and Holy Lent, then, we, realizing the depth of our sin ("voluntary and involuntary, known and unknown) we literally confess and ask forgiveness of our brothers and sisters for even the things we might have been aware of as we end the forgiveness Vespers. Beginning with the priest and any other clergy all those present at Vespers, ask and give forgiveness to all present, one by one. That is to say, "forgiveness" moves from something we talk about to something that is practiced.

And it is strangely emotional to take the hand of another and ask forgiveness for any sin – to hear and give the word of forgiveness, and too embrace and share the kiss of peace. The depth of the sin in our lives is driven home as you realize that it includes the inadvertent snubs, the misspoken word, the action that may have caused unrealized hurt. The love that is ours in Christ is "driven home" on this day as, in that moment at least, we don't take one another for granted, but see that we are joined in Christ.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
(from the Prayer of St. Ephraim)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Publican and the Pharisee

The Publican and the Pharisee

The Fly and the Bee

Fr. Achilles Karathanos, Feb. 8th, 2009

Good Morning!

Today we celebrate what has become known as the "Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee." This is the first Sunday of the Lenten Triodion. We are beginning the liturgical and spiritual preparation for Great Lent, and ultimately, the Feast of all Feasts—Holy Pascha. These next three weeks serve both as a spiritual orientation towards aligning our hearts aright and for transitioning into the Great Fast. In fact, this is a fast-free week, followed by a week of regular fasting on Wednesday and Friday, then Meat-fare, then Cheese-Fare, after which we commence the Great Fast on Clean Monday, March 2.

The first three Sundays of the Triodian—The Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment, provide us with a mental and spiritual "warming up" to Great and Holy Lent, so that we can "hit the road running."

The lesson of today's Gospel can be summed up in six words: "Judge not, and be not judged." These words are simple and easy enough to say, but to truly live them is another matter.

To help us uncover the spiritual power of message of the Publican and the Pharisee, I want to first share with you a metaphor I've encountered in the teachings of Elder Paisios, of blessed memory, of Mt. Athos. Elder Paisios truly is a holy monk of our times who recently reposed in 1996. The Elder stated that there exist two kinds of people: the bees and the flies. The flies are those people who are attracted to a four letter-word: DIRT. Though they may be in a beautiful garden of flowers, full of beautiful fragrances, flies zip straight to the mound of dirt on the ground. They are very happy and comfortable there amidst foul smells. Similarly, this category of people is always looking to latch onto something negative—to find something worth complaining about, and loves to wallow about in negativity.

The bee, on the other hand, is always looking for something beautiful and sweet to sit on. Elder Paisios said that if bees could talk and we asked a bee where to find the garbage, it would respond:

"I don't know. I can only tell you where to find flowers, sweets, honey, and sugar." It only knows the good things in life and is ignorant of all evil.

This is the kind of thinking that calls the cup half-full. The bees are full of positive thinking, and out of love for others they attempt to cover up evil in order to protect their fellow men. They follow the Christian precept St. Peter the Apostle tells us about. He instructs us: "Above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins." (I Pet. 3:8).

One time elder Paisios was counseling someone in his usual seat in the Church. They got up and left, and unknowingly the man had dropped a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. As they exited, Elder Paisios asked the next visitor to step into the Church to wait for him while he saw the first man off. As Fr. Paisios entered the Church, the man immediately questioned him:

Do you smoke?

No. . . the Elder answered, why are you asking?

(in an accusatory tone) I saw a pack of cigarettes in the chapel—that's why!

After this man left, a boy came to visit the Elder for the first time. Inspired by humility, the Elder feigned he was someone else and said, "Fr. Paisios is not here. He went to Karyes to buy cigarettes."

The child answered innocently, "It does not matter, Father. I will wait for him to come back."

You see, brothers and sisters, the way of thinking of the first man was like a fly. Seeing a pack of cigarettes, he was immediately attracted to the dirt of suspicious and judgmental thoughts. In contrast, the child's response even to something apparently negative was bathed in innocence and purity. It never occurred to him that the elder was off to buy cigarettes for himself—and if he was, so what!—he trusted that he was a monk blessed by God. He was like a bee seeking the nectar of God's blessing through the elder, and he would not allow a little dirt to distract him.

What about us? Are we on the path of the fly or the bee?

Today's gospel message, I believe, will help each of us answer that question for ourselves.

We see the two men coming to the Temple to make a prayer offering. The first man, the Pharisee, by all appearances is a bee. He comes and thanks God that he is not like other immoral men such as extortionists, the unjust, and adulterers. In fact, we see that the Pharisee truly does practice the good and Godly deeds of fasting and tithing. The Saint and desert Father, Abba Dorotheos, tells us that up until this point the Pharisee was indeed behaving like a bee. Perhaps he was a slightly self-righteous bee, yet at least He was thanking God for his virtues. Unfortunately, though, he looked about himself, saw the tax collector, and was immediately attracted to the filth of judging his brother. It was good for him to thank God that he was not a usurer or an extortionist. But the moment he said he was glad he was not "like this tax collector," he usurped God's role, judged his brother and transformed himself into a fly. He exalted himself over another particular person, and so was made low in God's sight.

The tax collectors in general were infamous and despised because they collaborated with the Romans and really had to extort money from fellow Jews in order to make a living. For this reason, the tax-collector in this parable really considered himself to be a fly. He stood afar off, so as not to approach too close the holy place of the temple. "He would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God be merciful unto me a sinner."

God be merciful unto me a sinner.

These are the heartfelt words that took him not just to the honey, but to the source of honey—the living God. The tax-collector, the publican--the sinner-- did not allow his past sinful thoughts and actions to dissuade him from seeking out his God and Savior. He approached God in repentance. It was precisely because he acknowledged his lowliness and sinfulness that he was exalted in the sight of God.

Again, I ask: What about us? Are we flies or bees? It's really too simplistic to say that we are strictly one or the other. All of us have some tendencies to be attracted to filth. In our minds and our hearts we are tempted to judge others; we are short in patience; short tempered; we become frustrated and angry with others. There is no one who lives without sin.

Yet, what do we
do with our sin? Do we become so used to having a negative mind-set, that we wallow in it and really make negative thinking the primary characteristic of our personality? Do we thrive on the dirt of others so much that we are beginning to feel like, and maybe even look like, flies? Whether the tendency for us to judge others is limited or has become the central dung heap of our lives, it doesn't matter. Whether we carry on our back one ounce or one ton of the sin of judging others, it will be metered to our account at the Dread and Final Judgment. There is only one solution—to tend to the plank of sin in our own eye, and to beat our breasts in contrition and to cry out, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

Repentance that comes from the depth of our soul is transformative. When we truly face our own sin—our own tendencies toward negative thinking and judging others--we will find that the plank in our eye might fetch a few hundred dollars at the lumber yard. We won't be so quick to bring attention to, or even notice, the speck of dust in our neighbor's eye. And we will cry out from the place of desperate need: Lord be merciful to me a sinner. This is the type of repentance that gives us wings to fly and leads us to the honey of Grace.

There is one source of sweet Grace that never wanes. His Name is Jesus

Christ. Today, Jesus instructs us: "Come unto Me and be transformed! If you act like a fly; even if you feel and think like a fly—come to Me and I will refashion you. I will give you stripes and an instinct for things only good and sweet."
Our Lord Jesus is our very font of metamorphosis in this life! The love of our Lord Jesus Christ not only has conquered the power of death in the world to come, it empowers us to transform our very way of thinking and manner of existing in this life. But He is gentle and forces nothing on us—our mode of flight is absolutely ours to choose.

If, like the Pharisee, we find that we are content to look about us and deem ourselves a little bit more noble, a little bit more wise-- in essence, a little bit better than those around us--we will remain stuck in the mud on the path of truly becoming transformed and Godly people.

If, however, we are willing to acknowledge our failings, overlook the faults of others, and approach Christ with a heart of contrition and mind of repentance, He will renew us and transform us. He will give us the wings and the vision of the honey bee! We, as God's children, will be content only with Goodness itself.

As we enter into this Lenten season of conditioning ourselves to be Christ-bearers, let us fly constantly to the source of True and everlasting Sweetness—Christ Himself. With the Church our hive, and Christ our nourishment, we cannot help but acquire the love that covers a multitude of sins. Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, may Christ Our True God help us to become bees of His Kingdom.


This sermon is published with the permission of my priest, Fr. Achilles. In my opinion, it calls us to think carefully as we prepare for Great and Holy Lent.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Nativity Reflections

One of the true joys of celebrating the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is simply that: celebrating the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil on the 24th and celebrating Orthros and Divine Liturgy on the 25th.

This year I was asked to read and assist in the chant – a blessing for me, to be sure. As I read the lessons (and our priest wanted all the lessons) and joined in the chant, I was transported to the glorious event. Indeed, all the cares were laid aside as we repeated the ancient words again, focused on the singular and blessed event of our Lord's Nativity.

In my years as a Lutheran pastor, my focus was on the liturgical celebrations. But the difference is worth noting: those preparations always included choices, choices of readings, choices of hymns, involvement of soloists and choirs, and sometimes over the years that involved some wrestling with those who weren't so concerned about the historic liturgies.

As one lately come, now some three years, I truly appreciate the lack of the wrestling, the choices – for we join with the Church in repeating that which has been repeated for centuries. The Priest prepares, to be sure, but his preparation isn't tied up in who gets to sing what when. Receiving the Tradition handed down, we are focused on the Nativity. We step away to pray, to receive the Light, the Truth in the fullness of the faith.

What happens in the Temple isn't driven by the "popular Christmas,' but carried along by the Spirit.

Sadly, there are many who let "family traditions" keep them from the Church, who don't take the time to come and see, to receive this Holy Mystery. Gatherings with family, which are to be received with joy, often take the place of the One Thing Needful as the gifts and gatherings are scheduled in such a way as to preclude the gathering together of the saints. It is all too easy to allow the extended festivities of the season displace the fasting and prayer that are the prelude to the Feast.

This is the time to make every attempt to celebrate the Liturgies of this Holy Season. It is the time to pray individually and as families the prayers that have been handed down, to read the appointed readings even at those times that actually being present at the Temple is impossible.

What a joy it has been to participate in the services of the Church, to lay aside all the cares of this life, and to receive the King of all.

Come to think of it, that is repentance.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!