Friday, July 30, 2010

A Spiritual Wake-Up Call

Dear Parish Faithful,

On Sunday, August 1, the two-week Dormition Fast in honor of the Theotokos and her "paschal" falling asleep in the Lord will begin. This fast is always prescribed for August 1-14. Situated in the dog days of summer, it is a wonderful "wake-up call" to the spiritual vigilance that we actually need on a daily basis. Spiritual torpor/listlessness, a translation of a technical term from our spiritual vocabulary - akedia - can reduce us to "going through the motions" with no real zeal and effort behind the practices of our life in the Church. A fast is always God's way of calling us back to the "mind of the Church," that protects us from over-exposure to the "mind of the world" (which is quite indifferent - if not hostile - to God and the soul). In fact, the degree of reluctance that one may exhibit in "getting into" the spirit and practice of the Dormition Fast may just be the best indicator possible for how deeply one has succumbed to the spirit of the world. If you are caught off guard, then you are losing the "battle of the calendars."

If the Church can be likened to a spiritual hospital, in which the Divine Physician of our souls and bodies - Christ - works to heal our spiritual illnesses; then the Dormition Fast is the perfect "medicine" to assist in that process. So, perhaps we can collectively exclaim "thank God!" for another opportunity to work together with God and honor the Theotokos in an over-all effort to renew our lives in the Church.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Alone in Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up into the hills by himself to pray." (MATT. 14:23)

According to St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus walked upon the sea and subdued the wind that was threatening to capsize the boat of the disciples (MATT. 14:22-33), after he had fed the multitude of five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread (MATT. 14:13-21). Therefore, these "mighty acts" of the Lord are linked together both chronologically and geographically according to the evangelist. But what may link these events together on a much deeper level is the evangelist's "note" that in between the feeding of the multitudes and the walking upon the sea, Jesus first withdrew in order to pray "by himself." In fact, it appears that Jesus spent a great deal of time in this instance alone and in prayer, for "when evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves..." (14:23-24). Jesus is sustained and strengthened by prayer. The Lord prayed (and fasted) in the desert before He began His earthly ministry; He prayed during His ministry, as recorded here; and He prayed with particular intensity in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prepared to complete and fulfill His earthly ministry by voluntarily ascending the Cross. Prayer was essential to Christ.

Perhaps we need to understand this as a "great mystery," for the Lord who prayed we believe to be the eternal Son of God incarnate! In His Person are united the divine and human natures "without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation." His sinless human nature is "deified" in the Incarnation. And that same human nature was transformed "from glory to glory" during the unfolding of His life and totally "perfected" and eternally glorified - through suffering! - in the resurrection and ascension following the crucifixion. Often, we understand the practice of prayer as our "communication" with God in order to discern God's will for our lives. (We also thank God in our prayer, intercede for others, or express our distress as lamentation before God in the form of prayer).

However, communication must be seen as an inadequate term for describing Christ's experience when praying to His heavenly Father. There are no indications that Christ did not know the will of God at all times. On the contrary, His every word and deed were in direct fulfillment of the will of God: "I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me." (JN. 6:38) This is so because the Lord's "natural" human will was in full union with the will of His heavenly Father. Jesus did not waver, vacillate, or "guess" when fulfilling the will of God (as we do so painfully often). In the theological language of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the human will of Christ always followed and never resisted or opposed His divine will; both wills -the human and divine - being united in His one Person of the Son of God incarnate. Of course, Christ also thanked His heavenly Father in His prayer, interceded for others, and expressed His distress or lamentation, as in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross. Ultimately, though, we must speak of His prayer as communion with God. In a recent letter, Fr. John Breck wrote the following to me in relation to this subject of Jesus praying:

What occurred in Jesus' times of intense, more focused prayer (we can imagine that he was constantly at prayer to some degree) can't be discerned or described. His prayer was unique. Yet because our prayer in the Spirit is really "God praying to God," the same can be said with regard to Jesus' prayer: the Second Person, if you will, prays to the First Person of the Holy Trinity, a mystery we can only share in and experience insofar as we invite and allow the Spirit to pray within us. Prayer, accordingly, is essentially Trinitarian.

Whatever is human, apart from sin, is assumed by the Word of God who became man. The Lord was not a "ghost" as the frightened and amazed disciples first thought when they beheld Jesus coming to them across the water. To be human is to be in union with God - that is our "natural" state. And if prayer creates and sustains our relationship with God, then to be fully human is to pray. Since Christ was fully human, He prayed. "In the beginning," it was perfectly natural for human beings made "in the image and likeness of God" to nourish their bodies with food and drink. And it was natural for those human beings to nourish their souls through prayer. As the Last Adam, Christ perfectly exemplifies this natural state of humanity. The mysterious relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ is somehow revealed precisely here in the Lord's practice of prayer as communion with God.

I wrote recently about being too busy not to pray. We must find the time regardless of the "cost," because the only thing we cannot afford not to do is to pray. Each person must "be alone" in prayer with some kind of regularity, as the Lord was alone in prayer as recorded in the Gospels. We must make the time. Jesus would withdraw from the affairs of the world, at least temporarily, in order to strengthen - perhaps even "energize" - His human nature through the communion of prayer. Regardless of our ability or inability to fully explain Christ's prayer life as it presents itself before us in the Gospels, we know one thing for certain: we need to pray in order to be fully human.

Fr. Steven

Monday, July 19, 2010

Crucial Thinking

Dear Parish Faithful,

Following another excellent Bible Study last Wednesday, I received this further reflection from Johnothon Sauer on one of the many topics we discussed. I had made the point earlier in the day, that the Bible Study leads one to "think" about the crucial areas of life - like God - and here is a good example of some of that "thinking" stimulated by the commitment to study the Scriptures within the communal setting of the parish Bible Study.

Fr. Steven

As a final thought about the discussion tonight:

The words "eternal life" in the text always lead me back to John 17:3, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." Eternal life isn't about getting to heaven, though it will certainly be a part of it. Instead, eternal life is more than's knowing God. And "knowing God" is not academic, book knowledge, but rather is real, experiential, relationship-based knowledge. It's not the way we know a politician or our favorite baseball player. Rather, it's how we know our friends and our family. I've been married to Terrie for over 20 years now, and the reason I know her as well as I do is because I have experienced life with her. It's not because I've read her autobiography, read her writings, or read the writings of those who know her, though early in our relationship hearing the stories about her from her and her friends and family certainly helped. And even after 20 years, do I really know her completely? No, I don't. I still learn more about her every day that we're together. But at this point in our relationship, the readings and writings wouldn't do much. The way I continue to learn about her and grow in our relationship is from experiencing life with her. Do I do things that drive her crazy? Yes. Does she remind me of those things? Every once in a while, and then I apologize for them. Sadly, some of these things are such a part of my personality that I continue to drive her crazy. It doesn't mean I'm not trying to "get better", but at times things just happen.

And so it is with God. If we really want to know Him, we need to have a real, experiential, intimate relationship with Him. It's not enough to just read His words or read about Him (though that certainly helps). It's not enough to spend a couple hours with Him on Sunday morning, or a couple hours with Him on Wednesday night. If we really want to know God, then we need to experience life with Him, and that's the offer we have from Him at the end of Romans 6: "...the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." All we need to do is make the choice to build the relationship with Him. Will we, at times, turn away from Him and do things that harm that relationship, that "drive Him crazy"? Yes...that's sin. Will He remind us of those things? Yes. Will we apologize? Yes...that's confession. And sadly, some of the things we do that harm the relationship have become such a part of our personality that we continue to do them, despite the fact that we are trying to change...which is why we continue to confess the same things over and over again.

In Christ,


Fragments for Friday: Too Busy Not to Pray?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Looking through a catalogue recently from a Christian Publishing Company (Varsity Press, I believe), I came across a rather intriguing title, Too Busy Not to Pray. I say intriguing, because this is a theme that I think about often and one that I have raised with others before. Read that title again carefully, because it does not say Too Busy to Pray, but precisely Too Busy Not to Pray. Either title could serve as an invitation to a book that assumedly addresses the contemporary Christian's struggle to maintain a regular prayer life amidst his/her busy schedules. However, the title as it stands captures the urgency of the issue much more effectively. I would express that urgency in the following manner: If we are indeed "too busy," then the only way that we can prevent our lives from spinning out of control; or of losing a God-directed orientation; or of reducing prayer to moments of danger and stress; is for the "busy person" to be ever-vigilant about praying with regularity to guard against such spiritual catastrophes from occurring.

We always need to pray with regularity - "pray without ceasing" (I THESS. 5:17) - but it strikes me that the busier we are then to pray is even more urgent, if it can be put that way . The busy person cannot afford not to pray. Or, the busier one is, the more one needs the nourishment of prayer. Otherwise, the spiritual dangers are immense, just a few of which are outlined above. The "business" of our lives make us too busy to ... do what? We are certainly not "too busy" to socialize, to seek entertainment, pleasure and diversion - all necessary to one degree or another because of the pressures of work and other responsibilities. And these diversions are layered onto lives that already feel the strain of "multi-tasking" the multiple activities that keep our children educated, developing, healthily-preoccupied, etc. (A social commentator recently wrote that mothers have been reduced to the roles of domestic caretakers and chauffeurs. And is this why we still read such nonsense about the very "need" of fathers?). Therefore, most people carefully construct their schedules so that these extra social and diversionary activities are not terribly neglected. We can cast this under the rubrics of "leisure time" or "recreational time." (This all gets a bit sloppy when we go further and speak of "vegging out"). It is the careful, calculated and natural integration of such activities into our lives that leave us with the overwhelming certainty that we are "too busy." And "too busy" leaves us "too tired."

And at that point, we just may be. The question then arises again, now with a certain persistence: to busy to ... do what? Perhaps we have to admit: to pray, to read the Scriptures, to assist a needy neighbor, to visit someone who really needs the visit, or to even place a call to someone that we know is lonely, and so on. We are "too busy" to integrate the life of the Church into our lives beyond Sunday mornings - we are "too busy" for Vespers, Bible Studies, Feast Days, etc. Perhaps, finally, we are "too busy" for God! How often do we postpone our relationship with God for a time when we have more time? If only my life would slow down a bit, then I could turn my attention to God, beyond the perfunctory rushed prayer of my busy, daily life - if I even get to it. Is this dilemma unavoidable and irresolvable? Every Christian who does face - or face-up - to this dilemma must search his/her heart and ask the question: how is it that I am "too busy" to pray? Whatever honest answers we come up with, I am convinced that we are too busy not to pray.


Here is another further fragment for Friday: I just read an Op-Ed article by David Brooks, entitled "The Gospel of Mel Gibson." David Brooks argues that Mel Gibson - following the release of the tapes that contain painfully abusive language that he unleashed on his "ex" - fits the mold of the narcissist. For the moment, that is not my concern at all. What drew my attention was a paragraph toward the end of his article that related the following:

"In their book, "The Narcissism Epidemic," Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an "important person." Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes."

"That doesn't make them narcissists in the Gibson mold," continues Brooks, "but it does suggest that we've entered an era where self-branding is on the ascent and the culture of self-effacement is on the decline."

I would ask further: have we inflated the very notion of "self-esteem?" Or, together with the good intentions of concentrating on "self-esteem" for many young persons suffering from a painfully obvious lack of self-worth or self-respect, have we unleashed a trivialized version of this that leads to unrealistic and unrealizable projections of the "self." I remember some time ago, when an educator wrote an article questioning the pervasive use of "self-esteem" building, entitled "Failing and Feeling Proud of It." Are many young persons setting themselves up for some terrible disappointments when the "real world" begins to impinge upon some of their fantasies based on inflated self-esteem? Whatever happened to such virtues as humility, modesty, self-effacement, self-examination and respect for the wisdom of elders?


A final fragment: I read last week that former president Bill Clinton was preparing to perform a wedding ceremony somewhere on the east coast over the weekend. The article claimed that he was "authorized" to do so. No further comment.

Fr. Steven

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Remarkable Weekend!

Dear Parish Faithful,

By any and all accounts, we just concluded a remarkably full weekend in the life of our parish. On Saturday morning, we received twelve persons into the Church through Baptism and Chrismation. And on Sunday, we honored our eldest parish members with what we could term an Appreciation Day. I would like to offer a brief summary and commentary on these events, especially for those who were not able to attend.

SATURDAY - Without aiming for dramatic or exaggerated effect, it is still possible to say that the reception of twelve new members into the Church on one day, remains "historic" for our parish - at least in the twenty-one years that I have served here as the parish priest. Or, if not historic, than certainly unprecedented. In addition, we can further describe this event as joyous and charismatic. It was impossible not to rejoice as each person - from an eighteen-month old child to some adults - were baptized and chrismated into the Church, or received into the Church through Chrismation. As the parish priest, it is a particular source of joy for me personally and as the liturgical celebrant. For those present, it was also difficult not to sense or feel the presence of the Spirit of God, especially as one person after another was anointed with the words: "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" and the resounding "amen!" to follow. If Baptism is a "personal Pascha," then Chrismation is a "personal Pentecost." This is what I mean by a "charismatic event." This is the age-old experience of the Church from the initial great charismatic event of Pentecost.

As Tertullian (+c. 220) once said: "Christians are not born, they are made." And a person is "made" a Christian through Holy Baptism. This new birth from above through "water and the Spirit," is simultaneously the putting on of Christ in the sacramental actualization of Christ's death and resurrection: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life." (ROM. 6:3-4) Perhaps Baptism has been "watered down" through the centuries, being reduced in the minds of many to a social, family or ethnic rite; but the true meaning of Baptism remains despite this reductionism, and the objective reality of each and every baptism is the repeated revelation of the Mystery as described by the Apostle Paul. For some, this was the culmination of a long and providential journey.

Again, our newly-baptized members are: Christina and Justin Haynes; Hannah, Lucas and Abigail Cooney; Melissa and Bradley Mason; and Elizabeth Atkins.

Our newly-chrismated members are: Chuck and Jennifer Haynes; and Craig and Jessica Cooney.

As a parish, we must now fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul that we heard yesterday in church during the Liturgy: "Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." (ROM. 15:7) Each and every baptized and chrismated person is welcomed by Christ, with "open arms" we could add. As we have been welcomed from either the beginning of our life's journey - or later - we apply the identical "courtesy" to the new members of the Body of Christ. Our role is to make all of our new members feel "at home" in the local body of Christ. This is all to the "glory of God" and not to ourselves.

Many years to all!

SUNDAY - Yesterday, we honored all of those members of the parish who have not only been in our parish for many years, but who have been granted "many years" by God. The life-span envisioned in the Bible is "three score and ten years," and for the strong another ten; but our "elder" parishioners have all gone well beyond that! The six members thus honored were: Catherine Bitsoff, Vasilka Bitsoff, Tatiana Kovalenko, Marie Sim, Sophie Tyirin, and Nick Tarpoff - though Marie Sim, regrettably, was not able to attend. Although our parish "matriarchs" and "patriarch" were quite aware of the planned celebration, we were still able to surprise them in ways that they found quite moving. Each person had his/her short biography read aloud in the church by one of our young adults, all of whom were prepared and did an excellent job. We learned a bit of each person's history, their contributions to the parish, their hobbies, and some of the wisdom that they have accumulated in their long lives. This was all very enjoyable. (I hope to gather these biographies together in an appropriate format that would allow everyone to read them in the near future). Following this, each person was presented with an icon from the parish, and then blessed with holy water as we sang "O Lord Save Thy People." This presentation is what proved to be a surprise to our distinguished members.

In a few introductory comments I reminded everyone of their faithful witness as parishioners over the years, going back to the origins of the parish. How Catherine, Vasilka and Nick were initially a part of the Holy Spirit parish of the Bulgarian Diocese, and how that parish merged with us to give us our present Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit parish. The former Holy Spirit church also made some huge financial contributions to the emerging Christ the Savior that were very beneficial for the over-all life of the parish. On a deeper note, we should not forget that while in our parish, Katherine, Vasilka and Sophie lost their husbands. I was here to bury Nick and Naum Bitsoff. And beyond that, Vasilka lost her daughter Gloria, and Sophie her daughter, Cindy. Catherine lost a granddaughter to a car accident some years back also. "Accepting" these losses as they did, all of these mothers and grandmother remained faithful in the process, and that is an important witness in itself.

The church hall was nicely decorated, and our honored members had a beautifully prepared table with special table settings (and real silverware!), that allowed them to share their meal together as a group. All in all, another joyous event that concluded a rather remarkable weekend in the life of our parish. And for this we glorify God!

Fr. Steven

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Thoughts on Moving

Dear Parish Faithful,

As I mentioned yesterday following the Liturgy, presvytera Deborah and I successfully completed our move to Norwood on Saturday. Or rather, as I further said, we managed to move all of our belongings into the space of the four walls of our new home. In other words, it is going to be some time before our new house actually becomes our new home. We woke up on Sunday morning to the wonderful experience of walking to church for the first time in nearly thirty years. (When at seminary, we had an apartment about a ten minute walk from the chapel). It is a four and-a-half block walk that takes about ten minutes long. (More ambitiously, presvytera Deborah plans on walking to her work at XU, at least in tolerable weather). In one last repetition from yesterday, I cannot resist saying that I find the process of moving to be a thoroughly unenjoyable experience! After twenty one years in our former home - the only one we had known since coming to Cincinnati in 1989 - I almost forgot just how unenjoyable. If you saw me laboring over some heavy boxes and/or directing our movers, an involuntary question may have arisen within your mind: "What is wrong with this picture?" In the final analysis, I would simply say that somehow it is "not me."

We had our "moment" pulling out of the driveway of our old home for the last time Saturday evening. It was something like leaving - if not abandoning - an old friend that served us well as the place where we essentially raised our three children. Of course, there are also all the memories. When you further consider the aging process, those were possibly the "best years of our lives." I do not believe that this is mere sentimentality. The space we occupy and call our home becomes part of each of us in the process of the movement of time. That space becomes mysteriously integrated into our personal histories. Each home has its own "personality," because it reflects the personalities of its inhabitants. Our home is truly our "comfort zone." At the end of the Wizard of Oz, all Dorothy wanted to do was to "go home!" However, as with all things in our past, all of that is now irretrievable. That is why moving has been called "a little death." Or, as a slight variation of that states, as told to me yesterday in its French form by one of our parishioners: a part of you dies with every move. The move enhances your awareness of the fact - if only unconsciously - that a particular phase of your life is now gone. Perhaps that is the source of sadness when moving.

No reason to get too philosophical or dramatic, though. We simply moved within the confines of the same city - Finneytown to Norwood. No traumatic move to another city and parish. This was not a move we had to make, but one we chose to make. Presvytera and I are looking forward to being close to the church and our work. We have always wanted that experience of being physically close to the parish. Perhaps this move will create an even closer connection to the parish for me as the parish priest, as the actual space between my two "homes" is so significantly tightened, and as each home becomes the extension of the other. And I pray that God will further bless my ministry here at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit. After all, I am not that old! I can still legitimately pray for "many (more) years" of pastoral service. Now, there is work to be done and the future to be anticipated. For the Christian, the "future" is always open to new possibilities, even as Christians are realistic in their assessment of the world around them. Together, we must proclaim the Gospel in an Orthodox manner as the fullness of Christian faith and life here in the greater Cincinnati area. And we always "press on forward" with the Kingdom of God as our ultimate goal and longed-for "home."

Presvytera Deborah and I thank you for your prayers and support. Hopefully we will "settled in" in the not-too-distant future.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven