Lies We Tell Ourselves #2: “Better Programs!”

We have great programs and they work well for those who participate in them. To name only a few:

  • Orthodox Summer camps
  • Orthodox Christian Fellowship
  • ZOE for Life
  • Orthodox Christian Mission Center
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities
  • FOCUS NorthAmerica

All do good work. The problem is that our programs aren’t reaching the majority of the faithful.

The practical result of this is that not all of the many gifts God has poured out on His People are being used. The pastoral result of this is that laypeople who want to be active in, for example, the philanthropic or educational or evangelical life of the Church don’t think they can do so. Why? Because there isn’t a program they can plug into.

But new programs aren’t really the answer. Not because programs are bad, they’re not, but because the life of the Church can’t be contained by programs. And, more importantly, even the best program can (even if unintentionally) stifle the creativity of the individual.

So programs are good but not enough

So what else might we need?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #1: “We’re Growing!”

Over the next few days, I’ll post my slides and notes from the talk I gave recently in Grand Rapids for the Alance of Orthodox Christians:  “10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves.” Here’s the first thing we get wrong about ourselves.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

We’ve heard this a lot over the years that Orthodoxy is the fastest growing religion in America.   The numbers tell a different story. We’re shrinking. We aren’t shrinking any faster than the Catholic Church or the Mainline Protestant communities but we are shrinking.

We can add to these numbers the fact that some 60% of those baptized as infants will leave the Church by the time they’re 25. Of the young people who stay, only about 1 in 4 will attend Liturgy on a weekly basis.

And while exact numbers are hard to come by, converts—those who become Orthodox as adults—tend to leave the Church at the same rate as young adults.

10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves

  On Tuesday night, I gave a talk in Grand Rapids, MI titled “10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves.” The talk was sponsored by the Alliance of Orthodox Christians Speaker Series, a non-profit lay Orthodox ministry. The video will be up soon. For now though, here are the 10 lies we as Orthodox Christians tell ourselves.   In Christ,   +Fr Gregory  
  1. “We’re the FASTEST growing religion in America!
  2. “We just need better PROGRAMS!”
  3. “The most loving thing I can do is tell the truth.”
  4. “It’s all about culture.”
  5. “God loves you and wants you to be happy!”
  6. “The Orthodox understanding of salvation is therapeutic, not legalistic.”
  7. “But we’re called to live a life of ‘interiorized monasticism!”
  8. “Well, all I really need to do is be obedient to my priest!
  9. “But my priest is my spiritual father!”
  10. “A personal relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t ORTHODOX it’s a PROTESTANT idea!”

How Easy To Be Merciful

November 4 (OS October 22), 2018: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 6. Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Abercius, bishop and wonderworker of Hierapolis (167). 7 Holy Youths (“7 Sleepers”) of Ephesus: Maximilian, Jamblichus, Martinian, Dionysius, Antoninus, Constantine (Hexakustodianos), and John (250). Martyrs Alexander the bishop, Heraclius, Anna, Elizabeth, Theodota and Glyceria, at Adrianopolis (2nd-3r dc.).

Epistle: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

For mercy to be merciful, it must be effective.

Speaking to the wealth Christians in his community, the Apostle James makes this very point when he takes them to task for not caring for the needs of their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ. Good intentions and good words need to be followed up with effective action:

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:15-17, NJKV).

This, however, isn’t simply a matter practicality or utility. Rather the need for mercy to be effective is rooted in the actions of God.

St Paul tells us that God doesn’t simply overlook our sins; He overcomes the power of sin and death in our lives (see, Romans 8:2) and as we hear this morning makes us “alive together with Christ.”

Mercy, in other words, is a matter of prudence. The merciful heart is first aware of the need and then acts to provide the good thing that is lacking.

Look at the rich man in the Gospel. He is aware of Lazarus’ need. And how could he not?  Lazarus “laid at his gate.”

The rich man is not condemned because he failed to lift Lazarus out of poverty. He is not condemned because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home and give him a seat at this table.

No, the rich man is condemned because he failed to give Lazarus “the crumbs which fell” from his table. He is condemned because he failed to show even the mercy of the dogs who “came to lick” Lazarus’ sores.

To say that our mercy must be effective doesn’t obligate us to great things. We are only called to do what he can, however little that might be.

Again, the rich man is not condemned for failing to lift Lazarus into the middle class. No, he is condemned for not easing, even if only temporarily, the sting of poverty.

What about us? How merciful is our mercy?

Relative not simply to the New Testament era but even within the lifetime of our grandparents and parents, we live in an unimaginably wealth age. Even within my lifetime, we have become so much wealthier.

When I an infant, I slept not in a crib but a dresser drawer. In the first year or so of their marriage, my parents didn’t own a refrigerator. They used a literal “icebox.” When I began elementary school my great-grandmother still cooked on a wood burning stove.

And now? Now all but the poorest of the human family now are richer than the rich man in the Gospel.

Prosperous as we are, what then are we to do?

Given all that, in principle, we could do, all the needs we could, in theory at least, meet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Our prosperity and the freedom it provides can paralyze us.

But the standard we hear in the Gospel is not that we must do great things but only that we do the small things we can do.

Our mercy, in other words, must not only be effective but humble. What might an effective but humble mercy look like?

Social scientists tell us that the most effective way for churches to help the poor is not so much by giving money or things. Rather, as communities rooted in the shared moral vision of the Gospel, churches have the unique ability to help not only the poor but all those on the margin of society. Churches do this by making room for them in their midst.

We help not primarily through material means but by inviting and making room for others here in our worship this morning. We help others by changing ourselves and our community by inviting and integrating others into our life together in Christ.

Let’s be clear.

We are not in the inner city. Given our location on a university campus, we are generally not confronted with the effects of generational poverty.

Based on where God has placed us, we are called to be merciful to those who for all their great talents and abilities, are often as lonely and isolated in their own way as was Lazarus in his. Not all poverty is material. Often it is social, moral and spiritual.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our primary task to open our hearts and community to those who don’t know the “kindness” of God. It is our task, our vocation as a community, to help others see that they too are the God’s “workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That this our other Lazarus is a student, professor or staff member at a major research university doesn’t diminish the importance of what God has called us to do.

To do this effectively and humbly, all we must do is what Christ calls us to do. We make at least a little room in our lives for those we meet. What could be easier, simpler than this?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Chaste Affection

October 28 (O.S., October 15) 2018: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Ven. Euthymius the New of Thessalonica, monk of Mt. Athos (889). Martyr Lucian, presbyter of Greater Antioch (312). Martyrs Sarbelus and Bebai (Barbea) of Edessa (2nd c.). St. Sabinus, bishop of Catania (760). Hieromartyr Lucian, presbyter of the Kyiv Caves (1243).

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: Luke 8:5-15

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Jesus frequently describes the Kingdom of God has hidden or overlooked.

Though the Kingdom of God is among us (Luke 17:21), it is also a treasure buried in a field. It is “a pearl of great price” the value of which is unknown by its owner (Matthew 13:44-46).

As for the members of the Kingdom, though “many are called,” they are few in number (Matthew 22:14). A subject of the Kingdom is “a lost sheep” that requires the Shepherd to leave the 99 in order to find. We are likewise, “a lost coin” that causes its owner to extravagantly light all the lamps to sweep the house (Luke 15:3-10).

We overlook the Kingdom of God because we search for it in the world around us when in fact it “is within,” in the one place we are least likely to look. Our own hearts (Luke 17:20-21).

For the fathers of the Church, the hidden or obscure character of the Kingdom of God was deliberate. God hides the Kingdom. He hides His presence among us and, as we hear in today’s Gospel, His does this not out of malice but to capture our attention. God speaks in a “whisper in the wind” (1 Kings 19:11-13) not to frustrate us but to woo us.

In human words, God speaks to us in words of chaste affection. This divine flirtation is chaste because God respects our limitations. Unlike the old gods, He doesn’t impose Himself on us. God is not Zeus, the human soul is not Leda.  For all that God loves and desires us to draw close to Him, He is not impatient.

But what about us? What about me?

Like everyone else, the great secret I keep is this: I am better able to hear words of condemnation than affection. Scorn bothers me less than love because love calls me to be not just better but my best self.

And again, this is true not only for me but all of us.

We are all of us intimidated by love, by that invitation to become our best selves through sacrifice. And if this is true in our relationships with each other, it is even more so in our relationship with God.

When finally we surrender to God, we become not only our best selves, we find a true and lasting freedom that even death can’t undo. But this lasting freedom means I must give up to the illusory independence this world offers me.

So God woos us. He flirts with us. He slowly and patiently reveals to us not only His great love for us but also are true and lasting dignity.

And what is true for each of us here today, is true for all humanity.

St Justin Martyr tells us that God is seminally present in all cultures. Just as He reveals Himself through the Law to the Jews, He reveals Himself through philosophy to the Greeks.

And just as God was present among those ancient peoples, He is here among contemporary men and women. But His presence is, as always, hidden.

It is our tasks, our vocation, to reveal the hidden presence of God to all we meet. This, not mere correction, is the evangelical mission of the Church. We are called to leave the Liturgy this morning, go out into the world, and find Christ there waiting to greet us hidden in the hearts of those we meet.

To do this we must find the presence of the Kingdom of God in our own hearts. This inward turn is only possible if we cultivate silence in our lives.

First, we must cultivate silence around us. Turn off the tv, the radio. Not only no video or no music but also no books. Just silence.

As silence grows around us, we become able to listen to our own hearts.

What we hear first is that incessant, internal monologue that reminds us–again and again–that we are unworthy of love. What this monologue fails to say is that we are unworthy of love because, whether human or divine, love is always a free gift. We are never worthy of love because love is given freely or not at all.

Slowly we learn to cultivate inner silence, we learn first to ignore and then stop our internal monologue. And when we do, we begin to hear the quiet whisper of God’s chaste affection for us.

It is at this moment that we become able to hear God’s word to us.

It is at this moment that we become able to speak as God speaks to us. First to ourselves, then our brothers and sisters in Christ, then our neighbor, and finally God.

It is in silence that we learn to speak those words of chaste affection that are the sum and only content of our evangelical witness.

It is this word spoken out of silence, that those we meet need to hear from us.

It is this word spoken out of silence, that allows us to love with a chaste affection that respects the weakness of others in a manner that doesn’t break “the bruised reed,” that doesn’t “quench the smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20).

It is this word spoken out of silence that “binds up and heals” the wounds of those we meet (Psalm 147:3).

And it is this, our word spoken out of silence, that allows others to find Christ in their hearts.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! All those we meet need from us words and deeds of chaste affection. Without these words, these deeds, they cannot find the presence of Christ in their own hearts.

And us? Me?

If I fail to speak in a chaste and affection manner? Then their condemnation is on my head.

Why? Because these words and deeds of chaste affection that are the fruit of silence are not only for the salvation of the world. They are for our salvation as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory