Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stick With The Program

Dear Parish Faithful,

Tomorrow, August 1, we begin the two-week Dormition Fast that will culminate with the Vesperal Liturgy for the Feast on Thursday evening, August 14.  As these are fixed dates on an annual basis, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. A fast in the middle of the summer - if only for two weeks - is always a challenge, for often our life in the Church is not a real priority as we readily turn elsewhere for "personal fulfillment."

Be that as it may, my pastoral advice would be to "stick with the program."  It is good for both the soul and body.  If approached in a good spirit, the fast can refresh our spirits and remind us of the real priorities of an Orthodox Christian.  And those would be the living God and the "things of God" as mediated to us through the Church. As the Scripture teaches:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.  Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  (HEB. 12:12-14)

This particular fast is in honor of the Virgin Mary and Theotokos.  We commemorate and even celebrate her "falling asleep" in the Lord as we learn through her what is meant by a "good death."  Seeing that death is our inevitable fate, that may be a good lesson at any given time in our lives. If we take seriously the universal Motherhood of the Theotokos, these two weeks help us focus on the unique role of the Virgin Mary as the ultimate Intercessor for the salvation of our souls and bodies.  There is an endless amount of good literature about the Theotokos that is readily available.  Doing some reading in that literature during the fast can also be a timely activity.

Over the years, this Vesperal Liturgy has been well-attended as the meaning of this Feast has probably grown for us as a parish family.  So make a point of marking that date - August 14 - and "reserving" it for the Vesperal Liturgy.  And before we reach the Feast of the Dormition we come to the Transfiguration on August 6.  This Feast will also be celebrated with a Vesperal Liturgy on Tuesday evening, August 5, at 6:00 p.m., at which we will also bless our fruit baskets. These Feasts will allow us the opportunity as a parish to recover a bit from a summer of poor non-Sunday attendance.

However, think through these things, for this is a matter of choice and not compulsion.  You are free to embrace or ignore the Dormition Fast.

For my part, I will again offer my pastoral counsel:  "Stick with the program" - it will not let you down.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Love of Money

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"The love of money is the root of all evils." (I TIM. 6:10)

"Money (That's What I Want)" - The Beatles and various other artists

In all of his epistles, the Apostle Paul proves to be an admirable pastor.  His epistles are filled with theological insights, moral/ethical teaching, exhortations, and even chastisements that are meant to be practical and applicable to the life-situations within the local churches that he was instrumental in establishing throughout the Graeco-Roman world of the first Christian century.  Thus, we could say that the Apostle was a pastoral theologian. His theological insights were meant to impact the lives of these earliest of Christians, so that Christ would be alive in each and every one of them. He was guiding his newly-formed Christian communities in the new way of life that was now being shaped by the Gospel. Each and every one of his epistles is filled with remarkable pastoral direction and guidance.

Be that as it may, there are three epistles that are now specifically called "the Pastoral Epistles" - I & II TIM. & TITUS.  These epistles are addressed to specific individuals - Sts. Timothy and Titus - who were appointed by St. Paul to guide, establish and organize the Christian presence in both Ephesus and Crete into vibrant and Christ-centered communities, or "parishes" as we would call them today.  In other words, Sts. Timothy and Titus are to be worthy pastors who can lead others in fulfilling the precepts of the Gospel. There were two main concerns of the Apostle Paul in the pastoral training of both Sts.Timothy and Titus: the teaching of sound doctrine and the organization of a responsible leadership in the churches under their supervision to ensure their continuity with the Gospel as St. Paul received it and handed it down.

Yet, there are many other issues covered in these epistles by St. Paul in his desire to prepare his co-laborers in the area of pastoral guidance. In one of many well-known passages in these pastoral epistles the Apostle Paul addresses the thorny question of money and its proper use and potential abuse.  The issue of money has at least two sides to it, so the Apostle's pastoral comments and insights are both positive and negative.  In fact, I believe that it is his initial negative assessment of money that is the most well-known aspect of his over-all treatment of the subject. That passage reads as follows:

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.  (I TIM. 6:6-10)

We should point out that the famous phrase "for the love of money is the root of all evils" is not a specifically Christian insight.  This was a commonplace teaching within the moral/ethical norms of Greek philosophy.  Be that as it may, we should further notice that St. Paul is placing his negative assessment of money within the context of the potential godliness that comes with contentment. If only we could learn to be content with what we have!  Clothing and food should suffice!  In a complicated and capitalist society driven by the need for money just to survive - let alone the persistent drive to accumulate as much money as possible as the key to "happiness" - that will certainly sound na├»ve and unrealistic. We have a seemingly endless number of bills to pay; and unexpected expenses are all but inevitable.  And, we have "appearances" to maintain.  For many it is a real struggle just to keep up - and many do not. However, if we make the necessary adjustments, we can easily understand what the Apostle Paul means by "contentment." It is an interior attitude that a person aiming toward "godliness" can assume in any and all cultural and social environments. Contentment is the sign of the person who can say: "enough is a feast."  But it is discontent that is fueled by an inordinate love of money.  And discontent will manifest itself in a tangled web of bad consequences that result from the craving for money that will pierce the heart "with many pangs."  St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on this passage, expands on the horrific consequences of the love of money to a universal dimension:

What evils are caused by wealth!  What fraudulent practices, what robberies!  What miseries, enmities, contentions, battles!  Does it not stretch forth its hand even to the dead, even to fathers and brothers?  Do not they who are possessed by this passion violate the laws of nature and the commandments of God?  Is it not this that renders our courts of justice necessary?  Take away therefore the love of money, and you put an end to war, to battle, to enmity, to strife and contention.  (Commentary on I TIM. 17)

Hardly a rhetorical exaggeration!  (On a more personal level, how many families do you know of that were torn apart because of enmity over money matters?) We can, of course, politely wave off the Apostle's warning by assuring ourselves and others that we do not love money. We may explain that denial by arguing that since we live and move and have our being in a society in which money is so essential, we have to live and act accordingly.  But we are free of the love of money, we may again assure ourselves and others. This is fine if we can honestly say that we experience the contentment that St. Paul refers to.  Or, a bit more bluntly, this would be fine if we are certain that our hearts are more inclined toward the Gospel than to our personal portfolios.

Perhaps less well-known in I TIM. is the Apostle Paul's further pastoral comments on the positive use of money that should characterize members of the Christian community - especially those who are blessed with some measure of prosperity or wealth:

As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.  (I TIM. 6:17-19)

It is no little accomplishment for the rich to be humble rather than proud or "haughty."  For according to St. Augustine:

Praise to the rich if they remain humble.  Praise the rich for being poor.  The one who writes to Timothy wants them to be like that, when he says, "Order the rich of this world not to be haughty in mind."  I know what I am saying:  give them these orders.  The riches they have are whispering persuasively to them to be proud; the riches they have make it very hard for them to be humble.  (Sermons, 14.2)

With this teaching, it is made clear that wealth in and of itself is not a sinful or evil thing.  Such a position would distort both the teaching of Christ and that of the apostles.  It seems as if there were wealthy members of the church in Ephesus. St. Paul was providing them with a Christian philosophy about money and its beneficial use. The wealthy need to remain humble and are not to scorn or look down on those who have less or perhaps next to nothing. In fact, they are responsible for their care and well-being as brothers and sisters within the Christian family. Liberality and generosity are expected of the Christian blessed with any semblance of wealth.  Care for the poor and destitute is essential for the true follower of Christ.  However, there is no room in the Apostle's exhortation for "conspicuous consumption."  A contemporary Christian cannot take refuge in any particular political or social philosophy in order to avoid being "rich in good deeds."  It does not matter if a Christian is a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian.  Or, for that matter, a capitalist or a socialist.  To cling to one's wealth is not to "take hold of the life which is life indeed."  In fact, it could lead to spiritual death.

If we read the New Testament in its entirety with care, I believe that will see that it takes a basically neutral stance toward the "thorny issue of money."  Wealth is neither praised or condemned.  It is one's attitude and use of money that is either praised or condemned.  However, the New Testament with its utterly realistic and unbiased understanding of human nature is thoroughly sensitive to temptation and the abuse of a commodity such as money.  The teaching of Christ is filled with stinging rebukes toward those who succumb to such temptations that lead to abuse. And it was Judas who "sold out" Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Generosity, combined with compassion toward those is need is blessed; while the passion of avarice combined with indifference toward those in need is blameworthy.  If this over-all Christian philosophy of money was more readily practiced today, we would not be experiencing the tilt toward a society torn between the "haves" and "have-nots."  The moral and spiritual well-being of any society is determined by how that society cares for its dispossessed fellow citizens. Especially if it still wants to be called a Christian society. The insight that "the love of money is the root of all evils" may be at its most acute today - though sinful tendencies seem to hold a steady grip on the human heart throughout the centuries.  Christians, therefore, need to be as vigilant as possible when faced with such temptations. And our use of money is a good place to begin in our quest to be vigilant.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Getting to Know Our (Church) Fathers in the Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

Last Sunday, we commemorated "The Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils."  If that already sounds a bit esoteric, it  may mean that you will need to do some research into the Church's history and theological teaching.  Just who are these "Fathers;" or perhaps we can ask more generally, just who are the Fathers of the Church? 

Since we are probably aware of some of the basic biographical facts of our country's Founding Fathers - say, Washington, Jefferson and Adams (and I am sure that everyone can supply their first names) - I would submit that we need to know those Church Fathers that so profoundly teach us about God and the entire mystery of our salvation.  (I will avoid mentioning our familiarity for the moment with the lives of movie stars and athletes). If the Church Fathers are admittedly not "household names" in America, as are the Founding Fathers; then I would further submit that they need to be household names in homes inhabited by Orthodox Christians (with perhaps their icons adorning our walls)!  If we know the basics about Washington, Jefferson and Adams; then we should also know the basics about the Three Hierarchs, for example - Sts. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.  Just who are they?  When did they live?  What are their major contributions to the life of the Church? While the founding fathers were deists - believers in a rather remote "Deity" - the Church Fathers taught us about the Holy Trinity, Whom we worship every time we step into the Church for a service, beginning with the Liturgy.

In the homily last Sunday, I attempted to place the commemoration of the Fathers in the context of the pastoral admonitions found in I TIM. concerning the teaching of sound doctrine.  As an example, the Apostle Paul encouraged Timothy in the following manner: "If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed" (I TIM. 4:6). 

The fact is that false teaching has plagued the Church from the beginning, and the Apostle Paul realized how pernicious, confusing and discouraging this can be for the internal life of the believing community.  This is why St. Paul further taught:  "Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith"  (I TIM. 6:20-21).

This work of "guarding the deposit" (of the Faith) against false teaching became one of the great legacies of the Church Fathers in subsequent centuries.  The Fathers poured all of their intellectual and spiritual powers into "rightly defining the word of Truth" when confronted with false teaching.  Our Nicene Creed was formulated in response to the Arian heresy that refused to recognize the full divinity of the Son of God. In a more peaceful manner, they would offer brilliant and illuminating commentaries on the Holy Scriptures. And we study their interpretation of the Scriptures to this day. Therefore, it is through the centuries that the Church has developed what we call today a "Patristic legacy."

With this term in  mind, I closed the homily last Sunday by posing a hypothetical scenario. Imagine a friend, neighbor or acquaintance asking you the following questions:  "Knowing you as an Orthodox Christian, and reading a bit about your Church, I came across the claim that the Orthodox Church is very committed to what is called the "patristic legacy."  Could you explain the meaning of that term to me?  I came to the conclusion that is has something to do with the so-called Church Fathers.  Just who are these Church Fathers?  Could you possibly tell me something about the more prominent ones?"  Here is your great opportunity to shine! To witness to the riches of Orthodoxy! Would you be able to enlighten your interlocutor?  (Please remember what I said last Sunday:  you are not allowed to refer this person to me by giving him/her my phone number or email address). Or, would you limp away knowing that this was a missed opportunity?  (For the moment let's not explore the plausibility of such a conversation).  We should never underestimate the potential impact of being capable of something meaningful about our Faith when asked to do so.
The reason why I specifically chose the term "patristic legacy" for my homily last Sunday is because I had just started a new and fascinating book by a great patristic scholar, Augustine Casiday (who is an Orthodox Christian), entitled, Remembering the Days of Old - Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage (SVS Press).   So far, so good! This book  promises to be an excellent study from start to finish.  At the very outset of the book, Augustine Casiday begins with some basic definitions of his over-riding theme:

This book is an essay about the patristic heritage and its importance for contemporary Orthodox theology. ,,, Before we can consider the patristic heritage in a sustained way, we need to define both "patristic" and "heritage." ... "Patristic" indicates that any given thing comes from or belongs to the "fathers" of the Church.  (The English word patristic comes indirectly from the Latin word pater which, like the Greek pater, means "father.")   "Heritage" refers to that which is passed from one generation to the next, often within a family.  From these two definitions, two important questions arise. The first is, what do we mean when we describe certain people as "fathers"?  And the second:  what is it that we are "inheriting" from them?

 (Remembering the Days of Old, p. 25)

The remainder of the body of his book is Augustine Casiday's own answers to those two fundamental questions.  However, the small excerpt above is at least a start.  So, if you haven't yet had that dialogue with a friend, neighbor or acquaintance, perhaps these brief definitions will help you offer an intelligent and accurate response once you get past the initial shock of being asked such a series of questions in the first place.  However, I will leave it to your initiative, interest level and commitment - however modest - to the Church's patristic legacy, (to begin?) that exciting and stimulating discovery of the lives and works of the more prominent of the Church Fathers.   Perhaps you may want to begin with the Three Hierarchs mentioned above.  Here is a good way to spend some summer leisure time!  Explore their lives.  When did they live?  Where are they from?  What were their roles in advancing our knowledge of the Faith?  This kind of use of your time and energy will reward you thirty, sixty and hundred-fold, I am certain.  St. John Chrysostom's life alone will blow you away!

To turn to Augustine Casiday one more time, here is what I believe is a very helpful perspective on what it means for us to "follow the Fathers" and to establish a relationship with them:

When we talk about people from the past as "fathers" (or sometimes, albeit rarely, as "mothers"), we are claiming a special kind of relationship to them.  We are claiming  them as parents and, at the same time, we are claiming to be their children.  We can even say that we are affiliating ourselves to them, in the strongest, etymological sense of the word:  we are making ourselves their children.  This use of family language is not casual.
Our dependence as children upon the Fathers of the Church is both a positive and persistent factor. It is not something that we outgrow as we mature.  Instead, it is, if you like, a structural component of relating to them as their children.  Even when an infant matures into childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood, the relationship remains.  It doesn't remain the same; it matures, but the fact that children relate to their parents is constant, even as the character of the relationship flourishes and ripens.  For this reason, we can talk about continuing to be sons and daughters of our Fathers, even into adulthood, growing into maturity without losing our relationship to them

 (Remembering the Days of Old, p. 26, 30)

Knowing about the Fathers (and Mothers!) of the Church should not be left to the "experts." It should not be an issue of intellectual curiosity.  I think that it is our responsibility to study their lives and teaching at some level of commitment.  Recall this exhortation:  "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their faith" (HEB. 13:7).

Friday, July 4, 2014

Applying the 'Hard Sayings' of Jesus

Dear Parish Faithful,

Recently, I was reading and studying  what has come to be called "the Sermon on the Plain" found in LK. 6.  In this passage, we come to the very heart of Christ's teaching, to the words that penetrate both the mind and heart, and which have drawn countless people to Christ from the time they were first uttered and throughout the centuries up to our own day.  (Yet, are these words that we as Orthodox Christians neglect?)  I am referring to the "hard sayings" of our Lord that both elevate and perplex us; that simultaneously attract and frighten us; that reveal to us a "better way" of living, but which remain as a postponed ideal:

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well.  Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?   Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons the most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.   (LK. 6:27-37)

I always feel challenged to make some sense out of this teaching that seems to be humanly impossible to put into practice. I thought I would share a few points that I tried to formulate in short accessible summaries:

Christ is not offering a blueprint for some form of utopia or "social engineering."  He is addressing the human heart of each and every person, challenging each person to a new way of life worthy of the Kingdom of God.  It is about making a choice to "risk" following His path.

We fail to put this teaching of Christ into practice for fear of the consequences to our well-being and security.  We fear our enemies and what they can do to us.  We have thus developed defensive strategies to protect ourselves from our enemies, usually based upon our experience of human sin and common sense.

To "love" our enemies is not to develop strong emotional attachments to them.  "Love" in this context is an action verb about how we react to and treat others.  By refusing to retaliate and do harm to others, we help to break the vicious circle of endless retribution and hatred.

To have our cheek slapped is to be insulted, abused, of offended by our "enemy."  We also have a way of manufacturing "enemies" with our mind.

There is nothing particularly "Christian" about loving those who love us.  That is exactly how all human beings live, including atheists!  It is part of our biological heritage.  Christian living is transcending the biology, so to speak.

There is not one word that Jesus taught that He did not put into practice.  Christ harmed no one and loved  His enemies by dying for them and forgiving them on the Cross.  What Christ taught is humanly possible, and this is the great witness of the saints, who put aside their fears and anxieties by putting the teaching of Christ into practice after Him.

Therefore, this teaching of the Lord is the imitation of God Himself, Who is merciful even to great sinners.

It is never going to be easy to be a disciple of Christ!